Paddling through Wildlife Refuges
By Jennifer Anderson, for the National Wildlife Refuge System
Okefenokee Refuge, Georgia
The swamp and overnight shelters at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge are open to all interested paddlers – just not all at once.
“We can guarantee a stretch of trail and overnight platform where you won’t be bothered by anyone,” explained Jim Burkhart, Refuge ranger. The solitude, he said, is part of the wilderness experience at Okefenokee Refuge.
Totaling nearly 650 square miles, the swamp in southern Georgia is one of America’s most well preserved fresh-water areas. Its borders extend beyond even the boundaries of the 350,000-acre national wildlife refuge, the interior of which has been designated a National Wilderness Area. The swamp, with its 120 miles of marked boat trails, is one of a handful of places in the nation designated as a National Recreation Trail.
Native Americans who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years named the swamp Okefenokee, or “land of the trembling earth,” after noticing that stomping on the ground causes nearby trees and bushes to tremble – due to unstable peat deposits covering much of the swamp floor.
After the last of the Native Americans were pushed out of the swamp in the mid-1800s, the Suwannee Canal Company purchased a large portion of the swamp to drain the swamp, cut trees and use the land for agriculture. When those efforts failed, the swamp later was used for wetland logging until 1927. It wasn’t until 1936 that Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the purchase of the swamp, and the national wildlife refuge was established the following year.
Burkhart estimates the marked canoe trails have been in place since the 1970s. Portions of the swamp are reserved for motorboats with no more than 10 horsepower and day-use paddlers. A separate section has been designated for paddlers on overnight wilderness canoe trips.
Groups of up to 20 campers may select from approximately 15 different trail combinations and may spend anywhere from one to four nights in the swamp. Since there is no current to help the boat along, every inch of the journey must be paddled.
The Okefenokee Refuge offers 120 miles of canoe and kayak trails.
“Sometimes vegetation emerges in the trails from lack of use,” Burkhart said. “You just have to push through.” Daily runs average from six to 12 miles, and Burkhart estimated two people in a partially loaded canoe could travel approximately two miles per hour.
Nights are spent on platforms built specifically for overnight canoeing. Each of the seven platforms measures 20 by 28 feet and has a partial roof and composting toilet. Campers need to bring food and plenty of drinking water. Camping stoves are permitted but not campfires. Free-standing tents are recommended to protect campers from the heat, insects, raccoons, rain and other elements.
Only one canoe party may stay in a platform on a given night, and everyone has to move on the next morning, either to complete the journey or reach the next platform. “We’re trying to promote solitude and people taking responsibility for themselves,” Burkhart explained.
Heat, humidity and occasional thunderstorms are perhaps the greatest potential hazards. And while the Refuge Website does mention “alligators glid[ing] through tea-stained water,” Burkhart said alligators have never bothered anyone in his 28 years at the Refuge. He advises paddlers to observe, but not feed or harass, the alligators and avoid getting between an adult and its young.
The canoe trails are most popular from mid-February through May and may be reserved up to two months in advance by calling (912) 496-3331. Reservations are taken between 7 and 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Weekends and holidays are extremely popular, Burkhart said, adding: “Usually everything is taken up within the first five to six calls.” He advises novices and first-time users to explore the swamp for a day before deciding on an overnight trip.
For more information, visit www.fws.gov/okefenokee/canoeing.htm.