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Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge ...

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Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge - Georgia

Bluff Lake
View from Bluff Lake camping platform, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 04-15-07

Water Lily

Water Lily, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

Introduction

At close to 700 square miles, the Okefenokee Swamp in one of the largest wetlands in the United States. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge manages approximately 630 square miles of the swamp and marsh wetlands, making it the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern United States. Almost 90% percent of the refuge is designated as a National Wilderness Area.

There are 120 miles of boat trails within the refuge but only 70 miles of trail are open to the public for day-use (boats 10 horsepower or less, canoes, and kayaks). Some segments of the boat trails are for overnight wilderness canoeing only.

The refuge contains few hiking trails. Except for a couple of boardwalks, hiking is limited to the pine uplands near the refuge boundary. An entrance fee is required to enter the refuge.

There are 3 main entrances into the refuge. The east side has the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, the west has Stephen C. Foster State Park, and the north has Kingfisher Landing. All three have a boat launch and entrance fees are required at each entrance. Canoeing is popular at all three locations.

In addition to the state and federal entrances, there is also Okefenokee Swamp Park located near Waycross Ga. Okefenokee Swamp Park is a private non-profit organization created in the 1940's to promote tourism in the area.

Nature Perspective

Bladderwort

Bladderwort, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

Various species of carnivorous plants (affectionately referred to as man-eating plants by us kids) are found throughout the Okefenokee. Hooded pitcher plants, sundews, and bladderworts (small yellow or purple flowers that bloom throughout the summer), are commonly encountered when canoeing any of the prairies in the refuge.

The parrot pitcher and trumpet pitcher plants are also residents of the Okefenokee but seem to be less common carnivorous plants.

Water lilies are the dominant floating plant and can be found in abundance in all the water-filled prairies. Spatterdock (yellow water lily) is occasionally observed in some of the deeper-water areas. Golden club blooms in the spring and are frequently found among the water lilies.

Swamp iris (southern blue-flag) are somewhat common within the refuge and also bloom in the spring. The tall stalked pipewort (hat-pins) blooms throughout the summer and are commonly found in the prairies and battery edges.

The huge wetland areas of the Okefenokee offer a refuge for waterfowl and long-legged waders. Because of the enormous size of the wetlands there are plenty of areas for birds to be inconspicuous. While certain species are very common in the refuge, expect some to shy away from the frequently used boating trails.


Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

Sandhill Cranes are commonly sighted in Chesser, Grand, and Chase Prairies, from the day-use boat trails. Many are year long residents, others migrate to the Okefenokee for the winter only. Their bugling call is very haunting, especially when one is paddling alone in the vast wilderness.

Prothonotary Warblers are frequently observed along the wooded waterways (such as the Suwannee Canal) during the spring and summer. Look for a bright yellow songbird, more than likely that will be the Prothonotary Warbler.

Anhingas and Ibis are commonly found throughout the refuge, while Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Wood Storks, are commonly seen in the prairies. Wood Ducks are full time residence and are occasionally spooked when canoeing the less traveled areas.

Barred Owls are frequently heard when camping in the Okefenokee. Like the Prothonotary Warbler, look for them in wooded areas.


Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

White-tailed deer, otters, armadillos, and raccoons, are mammals occasionally encountered in refuge. Otters are more common in the winter time when alligators are dormant. Green anoles and alligators are common reptiles observed in the Okefenokee. During long periods of dry weather, alligators will concentrate in the deep-water areas such as the Suwannee Canal.

Deer flies bite throughout the summer. They are usually not a problem in open water areas. Yellow flies are in abundance from May-June, especially in bushy wooded areas. Like deer flies, these biting flies prefer shady areas and are less troublesome when one is on the open water. Mosquitos are common throughout the warm season, but really only a problem after dark.

Wilderness Experience Perspective

The Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places in the Southeast for a true Wilderness experience. If you like solitude and experiencing nature on her terms, then this is the place for you. Expect to see some nature tours or eco tours near the landing areas.


The refuge offers seven overnight shelters in the interior of the swamp for wilderness canoe camping. Four campsites are wooden platforms (chickees) built above the water and three are on dry ground. All the shelters have a composting toilet. Some may think that diminishes the wilderness experience but personally I am very ok with having a toilet. Camping is only allowed at these sites and only for the person or group who reserved the site. These campsites can be reserved up to two months in advance by phone.

Roundtop camping platform
Roundtop camping platform, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge - Joe Kegley

Otter

Otter, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

Late March thru April are the most popular times for wilderness canoe camping with October probably winning second place. Reserving a route is difficult during these times, especially for a holiday or weekend. Start calling when the park office opens, exactly two months in advance of the day you want to start, and hope you get through. Summer can be miserable because of heat and insects, so it is considered off-season. I have never tried camping here in the winter time but others often do. With the proper gear I am sure it would be comfortable. Fires are not allowed on the wooden platforms for obvious reasons.

The serenade at night during the spring can be amazing when camping on a platform. Various species of frogs croak, insects chirp, and Barred Owls hoot. Then there is always the occasional splash close by to really set your imagination running wild. The nighttime sky can be spectacular, try planning your trip around a full moon for an added bonus.

Note that some of the wilderness canoe routes can be very strenuous, especially when the water level is low because of drought. Expect to be in the open sun most of the time. Also be aware that there are very few places a helicopter can land. Don't expect immediate assistance should you require it. Plan accordingly.

See the refuge web site below for more information on wilderness canoeing.

Canoe

Suwannee Canal Landing, Okefenokee
- Joe Kegley

Photography Perspective

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is filled with endless photograph opportunities. Much of the area is open space so having enough light is usually not a problem. In fact, too much light might be a problem unless it is overcast..

Much of the time one will be shooting from a boat. Lenses with image stabilization are probably a good idea.

While wilderness canoe camping is my preferred method of exploring the Okefenokee, it sometimes doesn't allow time to linger in 'hot spot' areas. Depending on one's route, you may have to cut short a great photo opportunity to make it to your campsite before dark.


Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Canoe/kayak/Jon boat - This is a must have (or rent one). You can't get into the swamp without canoeing, kayaking, or using up to 10 hp Jon boat. If boating on your own is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of local nature tour guides in the area.

  • Insect Repellent - If you camp then insect repellent is a must have, if you are doing a day trip I also suggest you keep some handy.

  • Neoprene hunting boots - These are handy for walking in some of the boggy spots. Watch your step, much or the ground may actually be floating peat and you may sink deeper than your boots.

Location and Points of Interest

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Map (Google interactive map)

left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions


Additional Information

  • http://www.fws.gov/okefenokee/ - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web site for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
  • http://www.okefenokeeadventures.com/ - An outfitting concessionaire located inside the refuge at the eastern Suwannee Canal entrance. They rent canoes for overnight and day trips into the refuge. They also rent small motorized Jon boats. Guided boat tours are also available from the concessionaire.


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