Even this far south, at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in almost-Florida southeast Georgia, the temperature is in the low 30’s. Much better than the sub-freezing Atlanta snowmageddon we passed through to get here but still cold for sitting in an aluminum canoe on a foggy morning at Stephen C. Foster State Park. Maggie is in the bow. My brother Neil and long-time friend Peyton are alongside us. I try to remember how to steer a canoe.
We make our way out a short canal to an open, wide channel of the Suwannee River. I practice paddling and steering from the stern, figuring out how to coordinate with Maggie paddling from the bow. Our route is a simple: follow the Red Trail 9 miles up the Middle Fork of the Suwanee River to Big Water Lake (an interesting term for describing an interior feature of a very large swamp which also has prairies), camp on the platform there Friday night, return on the Red Trail, paddle 2 miles past the state park channel on the Suwannee to camp on land at Mixons Hammock Saturday and return to Stephen C. Foster park on Sunday.
The trail turns north into a narrow channel that follows the Middle Fork of the Suwanee. The cypress trees are close in as we pick our way around brush and debris here and there. Everywhere I look is water, yet vegetation is so dense that it almost seems like land. White herons are everywhere. Some blue herons and snowy egrets, too. We reach the rest stop at Minnies Lake after after two-and-a-half hours. We’re paddling about a mile-and-a-half per hour against some current and occasional headwind. Steady but not fast.
The sun comes out as we leave Minnies Lake. With just over five miles to go, we should be in 4:30-5:00 at the latest. More birds, this time a pileated woodpecker and cormorants. No alligators sited, though. We pass Milepost 22 and soon spot a trail sign that says “Shelter” with an arrow pointing in the direction we are headed. Camp will be soon. I’m ready. My butt is sore and my arms are tired from paddling. Besides we only have about an hour or so of light to make camp and dinner. I’m ready to be in now.
But no shelter comes into view. We keep paddling, looking hard for signs of a man-made structure. Passing Milepost 21, I begin to get that uneasy feeling I had hiking when I thought I might have missed a turnoff to a shelter. In this swamp, there’s no alternative—no land to camp on if we don’t find the shelter. The thought of sleeping in the boats chills me in more ways than one. I paddle with determination. After another 20 or so anxious minutes, the platform comes into view, much to everyone’s relief.
We land and begin making camp. The platform has a vault toilet and a sloped roof over about half of the space. Peyton’s tent is at the far end in the open. Neil’s in the middle under the roof. Maggie and I are on the opposite end in the open. We are using a rental tent and must figure out how to set it up. It’s a free standing REI Half Dome with a fly that works best staked in four directions. I manage to stake the vestibules on each side wedging the stakes between the platform planks. Dinner is fast. A few stories, some discussion about the difference between actual trail miles and map mileage (probably due to the recent relocation of the shelter), hot chocolate and to bed. Sky is partly cloudy but open enough to see Jupiter rising in the east.
A rain shower begins after midnight. One or two more follow. Owls hoot in the wee hours. At first light the platform is wet but no rain is falling. All around I see swamp enveloped in fog, dark waters dissolving into mist and sky. This is one of those epiphany moments when I am both in wonder of the experience and the good fortune in life that brought me here. Yesterday’s long paddle is fully justified in this moment.
Another shower during breakfast but it ends quickly and we are able to pack up dry. We bail the boats using my tent sponge in lieu of the more traditional car wash sponge which we don’t have. We’re on the water by 10:00, expecting rain. Maggie and I are first out and spot an alligator lying in the tall grass on the far side of the channel. Occasional patches of fog hover on the water.
Although we are following yesterday’s route, its reverse is every bit as challenging and interesting. Despite expectations, no rain falls. The current is with us—nice for cruising down an open straight stretch, not as nice when cautiously trying to thread a canoe under brush and around logs. I think I have mastered the basics of paddling and steering a canoe but it’s still awkward at times. Fewer birds are out this morning it seems. We spot a red tailed hawk perched high when it calls out as we approach. It watches us as we pass under and away from it. Woodpeckers drum back and forth.
Lunch is on the platform at Minnies Lake. Across the channel a white heron is methodically hunting in the tall grass. A solo kayaker passes by heading north and returns shortly. He’s the first person we’ve seen in over 24 hours. Peyton loans me his kayak paddle to try out. The technique is different but I quickly understand how it allows for steering without the loss of momentum that comes with the steering movements of a single paddle. I understand that but in a few tight spots I wish I had a single paddle. Back on the Suwannee, I can crank out easily with the kayak paddle. We encounter a flotilla of Boy Scouts, not all of whom fully control their canoes. Signs point toward the Suwannee River Sill and Cravens Hammock.
Not seeing Mixons Hammock among the destinations leaves us a bit uneasy after last night’s extra distance. We know we’re heading in the right direction and keep paddling. We pass a vulture tree—a cluster of trees, actually, with 40 to 50 vultures roosting. Another sign points the route the Sill and Cravens Hammock through a narrow channel. Since it’s the only option we follow it and after a few twists and turns we spot a sign for Mixons Hammock on a cable suspended across the entry to the dock.
No shelter here—just a dock with toilet and a short boardwalk to solid ground. The campsite has a fire ring and some marginal sites. It’s surrounded by skinny trees supporting a moss-draped canopy. The underbrush has a lot of the low palm plant that is so prevalent in this part of the country. Maggie and I fully stake out the tent and rainfly. The tent leaked a bit last night at the head and foot because water got between the ground cloth and tent floor. Dinner is a more leisurely than last night. Peyton gets a fire started but it never gets going strong due to the wet wood. Still the smoke keeps the few mosquitoes at bay. I make pesto tortellini for all. The two day old crescent moon hangs low in the western at the end of twilight. We’re up a bit later tonight but it’s still an early evening
Sunday morning is foggy and wet. Tent didn’t leak but there’s much condensation inside the rainfly and lots of moisture on the exterior. I’m happy that I’m not sleeping in this tent tonight.
Heading out, fog lies low on the water in places. Neil and Peyton are far enough ahead that their wake is not evident---we have glass-smooth water ahead. We pass the vulture tree. Vultures are roosting and flying on both sides of the channel. A few fly overhead. Maggie spots an alligator. This one is mostly submerged—only its eyes, nostrils and a bit of tail are visible above water.
Soon we reach the channel leading back to Stephen C. Foster State Park. We pull in before noon. Neil and I grab a quick shower at the campground. Now it’s time to find some food that someone else will cook while we sit at a table. Then back to Atlanta.