In September, I fractured my leg and severely sprained my ankle playing softball. This lead to surgery, followed by weeks of lack of mobility, and no adventure. At the same time, I switched careers and was just starting my first year as a special education teacher in Chicago. Any time you start a new career, it is stressful, and not having my usual outlet of adventure, my stress was boiling over. Christmas break provided the first opportunity to get outdoors, and an Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure turned out to be the perfect remedy.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia permit reservations
In order to camp in the Okefenokee Swamp, you need to call and make reservations between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. EST from Tuesday through Thursday. You have to be persistent as the phone will be busy more often than not. I finally heard the sound of a southern accent instead of a busy signal, and thanks to getting a human voice, I was able to make my reservation. Reservations can be made two months in advance.
Parts of my itinerary were already booked, so I had to play with the days. I ended up going into the swamp two days later than I initially wanted, but this turned out to be fortuitous. The fee is $15 per night and $10 for the reservation, so my booking set me back $55.00. Not bad for three nights camping and four days of supreme adventure.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure begins at Kingfisher Landing
This was my second Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure. The first trip, I entered the other side of the park at Stephen C. Foster State Park. I rented a canoe for $127.00 for three days. This time I brought my own Wenonah Encounter canoe. I was taking out on Christmas Day, so this was essential because the park and the canoe outfitter is closed that day.
I pulled into Kingfisher Landing. There were five other cars parked there. The landing is a small wooden pier with a step that descends into the water. Disappointingly, there was no pit toilet at Kingfisher Landing. Kind of strange since there are pit toilets in the campsites in the park. Despite the cars, there were no other people at the landing. The cars were from people camping in the swamp. I assumed I would run into them while canoeing, but I assumed wrong.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia Christmas itinerary
My itinerary was to put-in at Kingfisher Landing and paddle to Maul Hammock the first night and then Big Water the second night. Then, I was going to return the same route and camp at Maul Hammock the third night and paddle out on the fourth day. The length between Kingfisher and Maul Hammock was eight miles and between Maul Hammock and Big Water was 12. Therefore, the total trip encompassed 40 miles.
Weather forecast was perfect
Initially, I wanted to enter the park on December 20th, but I would have had to paddle out to the other side of the park and then get a shuttle back. By delaying a couple of days, I was able to secure the itinerary I wanted. The day before I entered the park was one of those absolute miserable days. It was 45 degrees and raining. I am so glad I was not in the park that day. The forecast for my departure was 50 degrees and sunny. Each day the forecast improved by 10 degrees. It was 80 degrees and gorgeous the day I paddled out of the swamp.
Day 1 from Kingfisher Landing to Maul Hammock
I loaded up the canoe and set off at around 9:30 a.m. The first part of the paddle looked more like a river than a swamp. It looked like something I might find in Illinois with pine trees and prairie straddling the banks. The canal became a little wider and opened up into a wetland prairie soon after.
The character of the swamp and the canoe trail frequently changed. One moment it appeared canal or river like, then it would open up into more classic swampland, then it would narrow with thick vegetation on both sides, and then open back up. The canoe trail was easy to follow. There were mile markers every mile, and a few arrow signs when there were two potential paths to choose from.
The arrows were welcome, but I did not feel they were crucial as it seemed the rule of thumb was to follow the least marshy path. The main canal had no lily pads through the center of the trail. Every dead end path, was more marshy with lily pads and other floating plants.
Land of Trembling Earth
Native Americans called the Okefenokee Swamp the “land of trembling earth,” because unstable peat deposits cover much of the swamp floor and tremble when stepped on. These peat deposits created barriers on the canoe trail at a few points. It was necessary to build up speed and hit them head on and push the canoe through. They were like little floating islands.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure night 1 – Maul Hammock
A sign pointed to Maul Hammock, and I turned off the canoe trail into a small lake sized area of the swamp. Maul Hammock is a wooden platform called a chickie. They include a dock, a large platform for tents and hammocks, a table and bench, a roof, and a pit toilet. I set up camp, and enjoyed the scenery, the sunset, and the wildlife. I had not seen one person all day.
There were no clouds in the sky, so the sunset was somewhat mediocre. The highlight was when the sun descended behind a hammock of trees across the swamp. Seeing the magical orange glow light up the Spanish moss was a nice way to end the day.
Surprisingly, I did not see one alligator while paddling. I did get photo bombed by an alligator at Maul Hammock though (see photo below). That changed when night fell. I set up my chair to look out over the swamp, and I turned my headlamp out to examine the swamp. Four pairs of beady eyes returned my beam of light. I saw over 200 alligators on my last trip through the swamp, but so far, only glowing night eyes on this trip. The cold weather from the day before surely was a factor as reptiles tend to hide and are less active during cold snaps.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure – Day 2 – Maul Hammock to Big Water
I was really looking forward to getting to the Big Water chickie. On my previous adventure, I stayed there on the second night as well. I saw my one and only bobcat in the wild that night. Big Water is one of the most remote spots in the swamp and for that matter, in all of the eastern United States. There are not many places in the country, especially in the east, that can only be accessed by a 20 mile canoe adventure.
Related: Okefenokee Swamp bobcat sighting
The first nine miles of the paddle were similar in nature to the second half of the first day. The last three miles though the character changed considerably. Before entering the narrow section, I saw my first alligator of the trip. An eight footer lay on the shore with its mouth open. It did not move an inch as I approached and took several pictures.
The canoe trail narrowed to only a few feet across and went through a thick cypress and hardwood forest. As soon as I entered, the temperature fell a couple of degrees. It was almost like entering an air-conditioned room. I brought a 15 foot Wenonah Encounter and was a little worried it might not make some of the turns, but it worked out fine. It was not the best canoe for this type of environment. I would have rather been in a smaller more maneuverable canoe for this section, but it was only one-seventh of the trip. The rest of the trip, having the encounter was advantageous due to its speed.
Night 2 – Big Water Chickie
Eventually, I successfully navigated the narrow section, and the swamp opened up near the next campsite. Huge bald cypress trees with billowing Spanish moss greeted me as I approached Big Water. I remembered these giants from the last trip, so I knew I was close. I turned a corner and the chickie greeted me.
Last time I was here the water was extremely low. I had to climb up to the chickie and throw my gear up on the platform. This time the water reached up to the platform. The shoreline where I saw the bobcat last time was all swampland now.
I made camp and soon I was enjoying a wonderful evening of stars with huge bald cypresses in the foreground. I brought a little Christmas tree and set it out to add to the magical evening. No bobcats this evening, but the next morning I did see a barred owl from the back porch of the chickie. Last time there were alligators all around the chickie, but this time I only saw one during the day and the same amount of glowing eyes once night fell.
Day 3 – Big Water back to Maul Hammock
I still had not seen a person in the Okefenokee Swamp. This morning was going on three days since I had seen another human. I would not see one on this day either. I paddled back through the narrows and returned to Maul Hammock for night three. I did not realize there was a current, but now that I was paddling upstream, I did note that a slight current flowed towards Big Water. It was slight and did not impact the effort that much.
Paddling in the Okefenokee is a little tough because even if you are with the current, it does not help that much. With a decent current it is easy to paddle 3-5 miles per hour, but in the Okefenokee it was almost exactly two miles per hour. This will vary depending on how fast your craft is and how much weight you carry. I have a very fast canoe, but this advantage was offset with a heavy load for one person. A two person craft with strong paddlers and a light fast boat could probably move twice as fast if motivated.
Okefenokee Swamp Georgia adventure wildlife
I saw much more wildlife on my first trip. This time I mainly saw birds. I saw two barred owls, American egrets, anhingas, a few hawks, sandhill cranes, pied-billed grebes, great blue heron, little blue heron, red-cockaded woodpecker, pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, and many eastern phoebes. Wildlife is surely more plentiful during the warmer months and during spring and fall migration. I saw one swimming mammal, but I could not identify if it was a beaver, otter, or muskrat. I saw less than 10 alligators during the day.
Pulling into Kingfisher Landing and ending the trip
As I neared Kingfisher Landing, I took out my phone and posted an Instagram story saying I spent four days on the Okefenokee without seeing one person. As soon as I sent the story, I heard something behind me, and it turned out to be another paddler also ending their adventure. It was an incredible four days in the Okefenokee when up to the last minute of the adventure, I saw more red-cockaded woodpeckers than I did humans.