04 Jan The Okefenokee
Stephen Foster State Park, Fargo
Stephen Foster State Park is on the west side of the Okefenokee Swamp. The park is located on a spit of higher land that extends back into the swamp, called the pocket. Canoe access to the actual swamp is via a very short canal that leads out into Billy’s Lake. If you go East, you can explore on Billy’s Island, Minnie’s Lake, or Big Water. If you go West, you reach an area they call “River Narrows”, which is exactly what happens.
Places to paddle:
Billy’s used to be the site of a lumber town that housed the workers who clear cut the swamp in the early 1900s. At one time, there was a population of 600 people on Billy’s Island. Now it is quiet there, only a small cemetery remains, a reminder that a family homesteaded the island at one time.
Minnies Lake and Big Water
Just before you get to Billy’s Island, there is a turnoff to the north. Paddling the winding channel to Minnies Lake, it is easy to imagine the swamp as it once must have been. The cypress here have had over sixty years for the saplings to reach from the water to the sky. The breeze and bird calls the only sounds besides the drips from your paddle. The bright yellow of the water plants, and the blues and yellows of the wildflowers, reflect in the black water of the swamp.
This area is a clear channel bounded on both sides by water lily pads and cypress trees that grow close together and diffuse the light from the sky above, so you feel like you are paddling up the nave of a cathedral. This is one of the prettiest places I have ever paddled.
Almost stepping on a pygmy rattler getting out of my canoe at the platform on Minnies Lake makes me aware that the Okefenokee is still a wilderness.
If you go West on Billy’s Lake you reach an area they call “River Narrows”, which is exactly what happens. One minute you are paddling on a fairly narrow lake, and the next you are paddling a narrow stream, that winds and twists through the cypress trees. This is what I enjoy – out of the hot sun, into the shade, and something different to see around each bend of the stream. River Narrows comes out at the Suwannee Sill which is an earthen dike that retains the swamp’s water and helps prevent flooding of the land to the west of the swamp. There is a spillway here that is the actual start of the Suwanee river as a stream.
If you go west on Billies Lake when you leave the canal, just before you get to Rivers Narrows there is a turn off to the north. This entrance to the Brown Trail (frequently closed) rapidly takes you into a dense area of the swamp. For most of this trip, it is easier to use a short paddle instead of a double blade. The way is marked so there is no fear of getting lost, but this is junglely. Definitely dinosaur territory. In a couple places we’ve heard gators grunting close on either side to remind us of that fact and once even saw one slapping its tail when we surprised it at a small pond in the trail.
When you reach the sill, it makes a good place to stop and stretch your legs, then you can paddle down the sill to river narrows and back to the park.
George State Parks and Historic Sites – for information on camping and cabin reservations at Stephen Foster State Park. Remember, the state park is within a Federal refuge. A timed gate closes the entrance to the refuge in the evening and does not open until morning. Please check the gate times with the park and plan accordingly.
GORP’s Okefenokee Section – A general reference to the swamp, with maps and information on the east side.
Overnight trips through the swamp require a permit. To make a reservation, call (912) 496-3331.
If you are interested in crossing the swamp in a canoe and need someone to help shuttle your vehicles, call Sheila Carter at Kingfisher and Beyond, Folkston, Ga. (912-496-4834). She is from a local family with a long history in the area. Very knowledgeable and reliable, besides offering reasonable rates. That way your vehicle is safe at the park when you get there. Works out great.
The Okefenokee Album by Francis Harper makes excellent reading for anyone wanting to know more about this mysterious swamp and the people who lived there. In a lot of ways, their culture resembles that of the hill people of North Carolina and West Virginia – small, tightly knit communities, hunting, fishing, and farming to survive.