11/16/2020 – 11/20/2020
We left Savannah eager to continue our journey, heading south on coastal Highway 17 where we weaved over and under I-95 committed to stay off the interstate and keep it slow. Highway 17 is also a road where my great great grandmother and namesake, Blanche Kempner Nussbaum, lost her life when she swerved to miss a goat while on her way to Brunswick to visit relatives. We didn’t have any such incidents but did stop briefly in the small town of Darien to walk the river front, enjoy the shrimp boats, reading the history of the fort and commerce, and learning how the waterfront was destroyed by Sherman on his march to the sea.
Not long after leaving Darien, we drove through the gates to the Laura S. Walker State Park about 10 miles east of Waycross, Georgia where we set up camp on site No. 7. The site was large with a few tall pine trees, slightly exposed to other campers, and a nice view of the lake sitting across the small camp road. The site base was a mix of sandy dirt and grass and we were provided with a picnic table, fire ring, and lantern post, of which we have yet to use for anything at any camp other than to tie off the awning. We fed Toohey and prepared dinner for ourselves before the sunset. We hung close to camp with a only few short walks before calling up bed early in anticipation of tomorrow’s visit to the Okefenokee Swamp Park.
I’ve mentioned in previous travel blogs of the magic that happens when we know someone who lives in an area and they provide great advice on things to do. While staying in Savannah with my dad, I sent my cousins from Waycross an email for advice on the park. One cousin responded with platinum level stuff as he volunteers with the park organization to help them with future growth and plans for improvement. Not only did he provide advice and insight, but he also connected us with the Executive Director of the Okefenokee Swamp Park who actually worked with us to schedule visits. Huge! So a big ole thank you to my cousin and the ED for going out of your way to help us see the best of this place.
The Okefenokee Swamp is home to an amazing amount of natural beauty, it is a National Wildlife Refuge, Wilderness Area providing home to alligators, many varieties of birds, snakes, turtles, foliage and best, silence, solitude, and darkness, which is in short supply these days. The majority of attention in this area of Georgia seems to be given to the Georgia coast but what we found here was uniquely beautiful and truly remarkable, and well worth more attention.
What we learned as the schedules were being set, is that there are three main entrances to the park. The one nearest Waycross is the Okefenokee Swamp Park. The second is in Folkston, operated by Okefenokee Adventures, and the last one is through the Steven Foster State Park, which is not operated by the OSP. We spent time at the first two which are under the same OSP organization and are widely different.
The other thing we learned is the wide range of activities available through these widely different vendors. For example the Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross is well suited for the lite version of the swamp to include a short boat ride through cypress swamps, a train ride, an annual Christmas Light show, fenced sanctuary for alligators who don’t behave, a nature walk, and educational opportunities. The Folkston entrance by contrast is managed as a wildlife area and is one of the main launch sites for daily and multi-night canoe and kayak trips. There are designated paddle routes and overnight accommodations that include wooden platforms for safety. This being more for the naturalist/adventurer who wants to go remote and deep into the swamp. So, there is something for everyone and for us, given a dog sitter, would have been the multi-day paddle through the swamp which just seems amazing.
Okefenokee Swamp Park – www.okeswamp.com
We woke up day one with a slow start, blogging, relaxing, getting stuff done before our scheduled afternoon at the Okefenokee Swamp Park. Our arrival at 12:45 was met with professional staff in the entrance/gift shop who provided us a map of the place with our itinerary for the afternoon activities, which included a boat ride, educational experience, and a train ride.
We headed for the boat docks for our 1PM departure. The boat was a flat bottom skiff with a small tiller style outboard motor, about 20-feet long with several rows of wooded benches. It was just the two of us with a guide on board so extremely COVID friendly. The tour went through narrow channels lined with bushes, cypress, and pine trees. Our knowledgeable guide discussed the recent fires, survival in the swamp, and all kinds of other interesting swamp related facts. He showed us a typical alligator nest and shared stories of male gators fighting for territory. As expected, we didn’t see any alligators due to cool temperatures and shady areas of the trip which was fine. The guide was passionate and interesting, reportedly a minister by training and profession but his soul seemed to be fed by nature. He was smart, factual on the swamp, and did a great job representing this area.
After leaving the boat docks, we walked across the park to the educational building where we entered a small auditorium and were introduced by another staff member to a small 2-year old gator, a corn snake, a tortoise, who just wanted to leave the box, and a turtle. After a short presentation about the critters, we were treated to a short movie on the swamp.
We left there and with about 30 minutes before the train ride, took off down the wooden platforms through the swamp to try to get up and down the observation tower, which we did. This nature walk to us, was one of the better features of this park as it was quiet and allowed us the opportunity to meander and observe in silence the beauty of the place.
We left the tower, hustling over to the train only to find we were the only passengers. The train, named Lady Suwanee, is a loud diesel engine powered train disturbing the quiet natural surrounding of the swamp with the noise of the engine and squeak of the metal and with the exhaust. Our conductor, dressed appropriately in denim overalls, conductor hat, and rounded mirrored aviator sunglasses, was a good ole Southern Georgia boy with a big confident jolly personality, and quite entertaining. He confessed that he didn’t feel well but pleasantly, in southern gentleman style, offered us the best seat beneath the speakers so we could hear his commentary over the loud train engine. We set off on the loop tour stopping first when he spotted a gator sitting in a small pool of water in a slight cut in the bushes. He tried to position our seats on the train car by maneuvering the train back and forth, but finally got out and walked back to the spot to point the gator out. He even tossed a small rock at it which accidentally bounced to its snout making it move for Lysette to take a photo. Once he returned to his seat, the train continued, passing examples of Indian huts made with palm branches and old stills, all supported by the conductor’s commentary. He finally stopped at the entrance to a museum sitting on a small island of sorts, giving us the option to take our time there and walk at our pace back to the park entrance, if we wanted to, as the train ride really didn’t offer much after this point. Having enough of the train ride at that point, we chose to walk.
The museum included several old wooden stuctures providing insight into the swamp lifestyle. It was interesting but we decided that what we really wanted to see was the alligators in captivity so we headed that way. We walked back through the parking lot, through the gift store, and then left into this area. This leads to a short walk along an elevated platform that circles and enclosure for the few alligators, one of which was quite large, and all appearing healthy. I usually don’t like seeing animals enclosed like this but the habitat appeared good and well maintained to alligator standards.
We left the park with a mixed review but acknowledging it is designed for a specific audience. Our favorite things were the boat ride and the nature walk to the observation tower. But if there were children or adults that want the green level introduction to the swamp’s allure without too much risk of death or physical activity then this is the place. In fact, when I was a youngster, I came here with my family and remembered that I thoroughly enjoyed it, being amazed at the large gators, coming home with a coon skin hat, and authentic bull whip.
We drove home for a quick transition to meet up with my cousin for dinner. This cousin, son of my mom’s brother, is the closest in age to me of all four Waycross cousins. We met him at a Mexican restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful evening full of conversation, reminiscing of times spent together, and answering questions he had about the trip. It was great seeing him and getting all caught up and again, a huge thanks for all the helping us make the most of our time here.
Okefenokee Adventures – www.okefenokeeadventures.com
We woke up early the next day for the trip to the Folkston, Georgia entrance to the park complete with a guide through Okefenokee Adventures who is the local outfitter. The weather was ideal with full sun, blue sky, and crisp cool fall temperatures. We made the 35 minute drive to the park passing through the gates and set up Toohey in the Tacoma to protect the assets. We then made our way to the outfitters store to meet our guide. She was a young professional who had a wonderful smile which we’d find later came easily with wildlife sightings. She prepared the boat which included blankets, in case we got cold, offered up a warm cup of coffee which we politely declined, and showed us the way to the large, flat bottomed skiff with tiller style outboard motor.
The exit from the marina was along a canal dug in the late 1800’s by a timber man who wanted to drain the place for easier access to the trees. Fortunately for us he paid little attention to geography as it apparently failed, but leaving a wonderful waterway which has been assumed by nature providing a great access to the swamp. The trip went out a few miles along this until we hucked a left into the Grand Prairie then a bit later, a right into Chesser Prairie. These prairies are full of ever changing swamp topography. It all begins with pressure from methane gases and other disturbances pushing up sheets of peat moss from the swamp floor. Once on the surface, these blow-ups as they are called, provide nutrients, and surface for grasses to establish. The early stages of this when they are mostly hosting grasses is called a battle. These floating islands will eventually provide surface for trees, shrubs, and plants forming what they call a house. When the houses get really large they are referred to as a bay, and so on. This growth is held in check by changing water levels and fire so they don’t over consume the place. It is quite the ecological balance.
What we witnessed on our tour was a wonderful display of these blow ups, battles, homes, and bays in prairies and ponds, all surrounded by tannic acid stained ice tea colored waters filled with lily pads and bladderwort, which is one of the local carnivorous plants found here. The bladderwort produces a really small, delicate purple flower which we saw along the ride. The other carnivorous plant we saw in large amounts sat on battles called pitcher plants. These produce a honey flavored toxin that seduces insects into their throat. Our guide day one said the proteins from decaying insects found in these plants are good for survival and that he actually tasted one once while teaching kids. He also admitted it tasted so bad that he tossed it back up. This made me consider approaching Garmin emergency locator services with a great advertising opportunity for their rescue product. If you are in the wilderness and are about to die of starvation, you can do this, or this, your choice. Personally, I’d pay monthly to push the button.
Our final push once back in the main canal had us following a Kingfisher as it fished along the waterway in front of us. At one point a red tailed hawk swooped down in front of it making the Kingfisher quite mad as it quickly turned chasing the bird of prey. We witnessed a few more gators, jealously passed a group heading out in canoes and kayaks for a few days, and simply enjoyed our limited time here as much as possible.
The wildlife was awesome. Even with the cool temperatures, we saw several alligators which became a learning opportunity for us as we were equipped with a knowledgable guide. Gators, as we learned, don’t get infections. In fact, our guide told us they don’t age on a cellular level at all, which is quite interesting. The condition is called negligible senescence and is found in other vertebrae and organisms to include tortoises, some fish, and even the Aspen tree. This basically means they are more likely to die of predators, starvation and other naturally occurring things, but not old age. The American Alligator also has an amazing immune system that will kill off most infections. All in all an amazing creature that once it gets to a certain size, becomes the A-predator and pretty much the beast of an area. We were lucky to witness several of these both in the boat and along the drive.
Other wildlife included sandhill cranes, egrets, red tailed hawks, possibly a barn owl, kingfishers, turkey vultures, and the American coot.
After the boat ride, we made the drive along the 7 mile round trip drive and then short hike to the Chesser Island Homestead to see how a swamp family lived in the area before roads and cars. We added a few more short hikes around there to include a trip out to and up the observation tower. It was a great morning. The drive passed through large slender pines with a ground cover of sawtooth palms. There was a large 7-foot gator sunning along the road which made for a fun, safe stop and stare.
We made the run back to the home, getting in around 3:30. The rest of the day and evening was spent relaxing, cooking dinner and making plans for next stops.
Our time playing in the Okefenokee Swamp was really cool, interesting and beautiful. It is a place completely counter to a hike in the Utah desert as it is flat, wet, and colorful, and brings about a beauty of its own. It is a place where wild and adventure exist in droves. We plan to return one day for a multi-day excursion into the swamp to camp along platforms and to slowly enjoy the days while basking in the big undisturbed night skies. A bigger trip would tie all this into a run from the swamp down the Suwanee River to the Gulf of Mexico. One day.
Our last day at the Laura S Walker campground was relaxing starting off slowly followed with a leisurely 3-mile walk around the lake using the nature trail and road. It included a foot bridge over the lake along the trail, a bridge and dam along the main road and more trail back into the park. We talked with neighbors, showered, and drove into the Walmart for provisions for the next few days of camping.
Laura S Walker State Park campground has large sites sitting beneath tall pines on a good carpet of grass. Some sites are better maintained than others and while only a few are equipped with sewer hookups, all have water and electricity. The staff was friendly and the facilities were in good condition and well maintained. Its location was only a few miles to the Okefenokee Swamp Park and about 30 miles to the Folkston, GA entrance, making it a great stop for enjoying either or both.
We regret not getting into Waycross to see the true town so for now our unfortunate image will be the east end of Highway 1 and a busy Walmart. Regardless, we enjoyed this stop and will plan a future trip to the swamp, next time with the flexibility to see it from a kayak and camping platform.
We decided to head south into Florida where we moved to the west coast. A future blog will likely be a Florida – south bound episode as we unexpectedly got stuck here finding some really cool and wild travel spots to include the Everglades. As of 12/12 we are enjoying some time in the Florida Keys with reservations at various camps through Christmas. So stay tuned and let us know if you are anywhere near us!