Since we were having trouble booking campsites in Florida SP’s we decided to go visit the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. We booked for 3 nights on the East side at Okefenokee Pastimes RV park, 4 nights at Laura S. Walker SP on the north edge, and 3 nights at Stephen C. Foster SP on the west side. There was a quote on one of the sign boards I liked which was “If you reconnect with nature and wilderness you will not only find the meaning of life, but you will experience what it means to be truly alive.”. Here are some fun facts about the Wildlife Refuge:
- The National Refuge was established in 1937 to protect one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the world. It also is a National Natural Landmark and has a designation of a Wetland of International Importance.
- The Okefenokee Swamp is the headwaters for the Suwannee and St. Mary’s Rivers.
- The swamp bottom is sand covered by peat and methane gas causes large clumps to float up to the surface. Eventually plant life will grow on the clumps but they are not solid as they are not anchored. The Native American Indians called this “O-ki-fin-o-ke” or Land of the Trembling Earth.
- The refuge covers 354,000 acres (61 km north/south, 40 km east/west) and is one of only 21 national wildlife refuges that has additional protection under the Clean Air act.
- The swamp has 5 different habitats which include: Upland forests, Scrub-shrub, Forested wetlands, Prairies (marshes), Lakes and open water.
- In the refuge you can find more than 620 different plant species, 230 bird species, 50 mammal species, 40 fish species, 40 amphibian species, and 60 reptile species.
- Cypress trees are very well adapted to living in the swampy environment and have a life span of 400-500 years. Their wood is very is resistant to deterioration and consequently in the 1890’s there were attempts to drain the swamp to harvest the trees and create farmland. Canals were dug and they tried to put in railway tracks. Some early settler families also lived on some of the islands raising livestock, growing corn and sugar cane and tapping the pine trees for sap to make turpentine (they would sell this to get money to buy other supplies). The logging took place up until the great depression but then it was made a NWR in 1937.
- The logging canals now act as the entry points for the 192 kms of boat trails in the refuge.
- The king of this swamp is of course the American Alligator. The mother alligator will guard her nest and no other modern reptile displays this maternal side. This was common behaviour by dinosaurs which makes them seem prehistoric. They estimate there are 12,000 alligators in the Refuge!
Okefenokee Pastimes RV park is right at the eastern entrance to the refuge. It is a small RV park with tightly packed sites but it was very well maintained and they gave us the Passport America discount so it was inexpensive. On our first day we drove the RV into the park and checked out the visitor centre and then took a 90-minute guided boat ride through the swamp. The guide gave us the history of the canal and explained about the prairies and forested wetlands as well as the wildlife. We saw about a dozen alligators but apparently you see many more when the daytime temperatures are higher (as we witnessed on the west side). We also saw several red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures flying overhead, yellow slider turtles, and a pitcher plant which eats insects! There are 5 species of insect eating plants in the United States and 4 of them grow in the swamp. The Pitcher Plant attracts insects with the smell of nectar and then once they are caught inside, they digest them to get additional nitrogen.
Next, we spent some more time in the visitor centre before doing the drive along Swamp Island Drive with the 12 numbered stops to read about the area. We learned about the Longleaf Pine tree restoration project underway. At one time there were 90 million acres of Longleaf Pine forests in the southeast and now there are only 3 million. They are cutting down Loblolly and Pond pines and replacing them with Longleaf to take the Refuge back to it’s natural state. The forest industry preferred the other types of pines as the Longleaf grows much slower. There was a pond along the drive that had fantastic reflections. The pond was originally dug out to get the sand to make Swamp Island Drive so people could get to where the Chesser Island Homestead was located. The swamp settlers were self sufficient and very industrious people. They grew sugar cane and harvested pine resin to make turpentine in order to raise cash. They also hunted, kept livestock, tended beehives, and kept a garden for food. The Chesser family settled in this area in 1858 and the 3rd generation homestead building still standing was built in 1927. After seeing the homestead we walked the boardwalk so we could climb the tower to see the Chesser Prairie, and Seagrove Lake. We had to hurry a bit as they close the gate for the drive at 5 pm and the ranger was already doing his rounds to make sure everyone was out on time. On the way out we got some great shots of a very large alligator who was sunning himself along the ditch beside the road. Earlier in the day we were searching the water for alligators and here we find one right by the road!
There were several trails in the park so the next morning we got out our bikes and ventured out for a 31 km MTB ride. The first part of the trail was a bit wet and continued to get wetter until we hit a wide ditch full of water. Joel made it over with wet feet but Sharon opted to turn around and journey back to the main road. Sharon took the main road while Joel rode the trail to the meet up point at the beginning of Swamp Island Drive. The road isn’t busy this time of year so a nice area for a leisurely bike ride while searching out wildlife. We went back to the Chesser homestead since we were rushed the night before. In this area the homesteaders prided themselves on keeping a nice white sandy yard. Not only did this act as a fire break but also made the 5 venomous snakes of the area visible and kept the bug population down. We rode the Homestead loop trail and the Ridley’s Island Trail before meeting up with our friendly alligator again on the way out. Alligators are creatures of habit, they tend to go to the same spots to sun themselves. We saw some white banded mature longleaf pine trees on the Uplands trail (at least 60 years old) that the red-cockaded woodpeckers depend on. Losing the habitat is the reason this species is endangered. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker will only use live trees, once they create their nest area, sap will drip out of the hole. Any predators will get the sap on their body and leave the tree, a good defense mechanism to protect the young. We checked out some of the trees but didn’t see any of the woodpeckers, only the evidence they were there. We have seen several other woodpeckers (and heard lots) while in the wildlife refuge. Joel knew what trails were dry so we rode a mixture of the Canal Diggers and Longleaf Pine MTB trails and the road to get back to the RV park. A long strenuous day but very enjoyable with perfect temperatures. We finished the day by trying our Ménage a Trois wine tasting, our favourite was Decadence, no we didn’t drink all of them this night 😊
The following morning, we said goodbye to our new RV neighbours Norbert and Christina from Germany as they headed south, and we headed north to Waycross and on to Laura S. Walker SP. We spent 4 nights in this park with a nice campsite overlooking the manmade lake. The park is named after a very influential woman who was an advocate for the area and for conservation from 1861-1955. The park was the first Georgia park to be named after a woman and became Georgia’s 13th SP in 1941. The first afternoon we walked around the campground to get oriented and enjoyed relaxing with our view of the lake.
There were lots of shared trails in the state park so we got out the bikes and went exploring on the Big Creek Trail System and then the Waterfront Trail, 13kms in total but lots of stops along the way. We saw some “cat face” trees that had the scars from the turpentine industry. They would collect sap from the trees for 4-10 years and then harvest them for wood. The next day we were back on the bikes for some more exercise, this time 17 kms. A longer ride since we ventured off the trails and onto the road to check out the golf course associated with the park. On the way back we stopped at the nature centre to check out the turtles. On our last warm sunny day, we traded in the mountain bikes for an Aqua bike ride on the lake. We took the Aqua bike down to the boardwalk across the lake and back in one hour. It was very hot wearing the life jackets with the 88 F weather. Luckily all the motorboats came out on the lake after we were done.
Time to move onto our last stop in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge area, this time Stephen C Foster SP on the west side of the refuge. Along the way we stopped in Homerville at the local law enforcement lunch hangout, Mama’s Country Kitchen, to try some southern fried chicken. The fried chicken was really good, the fried gizzards were interesting, and the eggplant, corn bread and desserts were good, the rest left a lot to be desired. It’s a 27 km drive off the main road to get to the park but certainly worth the trip. We were fortunate to have a winter heat wave, this meant LOTS of alligators out to sun themselves. Originally, we didn’t believe that 12,000 alligators call the refuge home but after seeing all the gators in this area we certainly believe it now! In one small area by the park office where the boat ramp is we counted over 30 little guys hanging out. Of course, big Momma (called Sophie) wasn’t too far away 😊. This area looked like a great place to rent a kayak, but we decided we’d first take the park 90 minute guided boat trip to “get the lay of the land”. The trip was very good with the park naturalist who was very knowledgeable. We saw LOTS of alligators, a barred owl, turtles, cormorants, sand hill cranes, and great egrets. If you see an alligator with its’ mouth open that means it is overheated and is trying to cool down. A group of adult alligators is called a congregation a group of babies is a pod.
The following day we rented a tandem kayak just like the one we have at home except it didn’t have the rudder, so it was harder to steer. It’s quite disconcerting when you paddle by a 7 or 8’ Alligator and then he slips into the water and goes under the tannin coloured water so you don’t know where he is! We paddled along the same route (Billy’s Lake) that the tour boat followed the day before but then we took the Minnie’s Lake channel which was very pretty. There was one narrow section called pinball alley where you felt like a pinball as you turned around all the large cypress trees in the water. We saw similar wildlife as the day before except we also saw some White Ibis birds. However, the peacefulness of gliding quietly along the water gave a very different experience than on the tour boat. We did about 8.5 kms in 3.5 hours of paddling. Sharon commented that “this is always what I thought the swamp would be like”.
That concludes our visit to the Okefenokee in Georgia and we were really glad we did this side trip off the coastline. It was easy to get campsites at all three parks and we had great weather (considering it is January) which allowed us to see lots of wildlife. In addition, with our Georgia SP pass we were able to get 50% off camping which meant it was very inexpensive. From here we head into Florida and we have some very cool weather ahead in the next week.