Don't get too excited ... this isn't going to be about some delish recipes you can whip up in the swamp ... no ... cooking and eating in the Okefenokee is more about hanging onto your food!
'Cause the swamp is full of thieves!
When you go to Stephen Foster State Park you will see plenty of wildlife before you ever get into a boat and venture into the swamp. The first thing you notice are all the deer wandering around the park grounds.
Some years the deer look rather sickly because of all the people-food they eat. It's against the rules to feed the animals, and most folks abide by that, but some don't. But even if nobody feeds them, they still manage to get hold of things they shouldn't via trash cans and unattended coolers, boats and picnic tables.
The worst offenders by far are the racoons. God had good reasons for putting masks on those little rascals!
I said in another blog that there's not anything to do at night in the park. That's not true. When the sun goes down and the darkness settles in, go grab a flashlight and follow the racoons as they make their nightly rounds to all the garbage cans! So funny! And I don't think there's a can made that they can't figure out how to get into! So one of the first morning chores for the park staff every day is cleaning up after the previous evening's rumaging.
The worst mess is always in the big main parking lot where the park dumpster sits. The staff got really weary of the daily mess and tried to find a solution. They got the bright idea to put a spring on the lid so it would snap shut. It didn't deter the racoons for even one night ... they just brought in the whole crew and had some hold the lid up while the others rumaged. I'm sure they worked in shifts ... while they are thieves, they seem to be a fair-minded bunch!
And don't think being zipped up in a tent or inside a cabin will save you. One morning when we went down to rent a canoe for the day, the rangers were all chuckling about an incident from the previous night. Some kid fell asleep inside his zipped tent with an open, half-eaten candy bar. He woke up with a racoon sitting on his chest enjoying the rest of that bar!
The cabins are a bit more secure, but when you rent them you'll get the lecture about keeping food and garbage sealed up tight and always, always, lock the doors and windows when you are away during the day. Or else you'll come back to a wrecked kitchen and no food!
So when you go down for a visit, you will get the lecture on everything you should and shouldn't do. On our very first trip when we got the lecture for the first time, it was all pretty much common sense. But it alarmed me when they mentioned the hawks. Some folks have had the unhappy experience of having hawks swoop down and snatch their food right off the grill! AIR ATTACKS! YIKES!
So I was relieved when we got to our cabin and discovered that the grill and the concrete picnic table in the back yard were sitting under a nice tall tree. The hawks wouldn't even see us! What a relief!
So we unpacked the car and got all settled in. Bill fired up the grill and headed out with a plate of chicken. I busied myself in the kitchen with the rest of the meal. Soon I had my part done and stepped out the back door to see how he was coming along ... and could not believe the sight I saw ... no hawks ... RACOONS!
There had to be at least twenty ... probably more! They were all over the picnic table, all over the ground, hanging above him in the tree. There were a couple at his feet, practically climbing his leg, sniffing at the plate in his hand. And a few more inching closer and closer to the grill, trying to reach up for the chicken. He was kicking and shooing them away as best he could, but he was outnumbered and losing the battle! So I jumped into the fray and between the two of us we managed to save our dinner!
Lesson learned! Grilling outside in the Okefenokee is a 2-man job at minimum. One person to cook and somebody else to stand guard! And sometimes you might need several guards!
But there's lots more more to eating in the Okefenokee than just learning how to protect your food. Eating in the swamp is fraught with dangers you'd never even suspect ...
One year, along with another couple who are long-time friends of ours, we got the brilliant idea to do one of the 3-day, 2-night treks across the swamp. That was so much fun!
You pack up tents, sleeping gear and 3 days worth of food in your canoes and off you go! They give you a map of the route you'll take and you just follow the markers along the trails. Our trip was about 45 miles, divided up into 3 days.
At the end of each day, you've arrived at that night's camping spot. It might be an island out in the swamp, or, if it's in one of the open prairies, it might be a wooden platform constructed just for that purpose. The next morning you have to be up, packed and on your way by 9 or 10 am, because another group will show up there later that day doing the same thing.
It wasn't quite as strenuous as I expected, and you will sleep well at the end of the day! My favorite night was the night we spent on the platform under a clear moonless sky, 50 or more miles away from any city lights ... just beautiful!
The only problem I had was with the food situation.
Honestly, sometimes I think there's something wrong with me psychologically. We had planned well. We had more than enough food. There was no danger of getting lost and starving in the wilderness ... still ... it was all I could think about!
Oh,no! I thought. Look around! Nobody, nothing for MILES! What if we get lost out here? What if we run out of food? I'm trapped here in this boat! If I need something, I can't just go somewhere and get it! What if I STARVE???
Now don't misunderstand ... it wasn't like I was having some kind of episode where I was panicking and freaking out. On the outside I was just my normal happy self. I was laughing and having fun with my friends. Giving Bill a hard time about running my end of the canoe up onto the backs of alligators. But those thoughts kept cycling through my brain ... I had to do something ...
So I started eating trail mix. Everytime we slowed down a bit or took a break, I ate trail mix. After a while I got really good at it, and even while I was paddling, I was eating trail mix. The only time I didn't eat trail mix was when we got out of the boat and camped at the end of the day. But the next morning we'd pack up, get back into the boats, and I'd start munching on trail mix again.
Nobody else noticed. We all munched on snacks when out canoing. So my secret was safe. The real shocker came after the trip was over and we were all back home ... oops!
I'm surely the only person on the planet who can paddle a canoe loaded with camping gear 45 miles over 3 days through a swamp wilderness under the hot Georgia sun and GAIN 5 LBS!! And it wasn't muscle! Sometimes I think there's just no hope for me ...
So, on that happy note, we'll end this blog ... but first ... I opened the blog by telling you I didn't have any recipes, but I actually do have one. And it's a special one, exclusive to the Okefenokee ...
The swamp is a great fishing spot! You'll catch the usual: catfish, bass and bream. And something called a mudfish. The mudfish is considered a trash fish and most people just throw it back. But some brave souls will eat it and claim that's it's not so bad.
Over time, the locals, through trial and error, have come up with a recipe for mudfish that is actually quite tasty. If you're feeling adventurous, why not give it a try? It tastes best when the fish are freshly caught ...
Freshly caught mudfish, 1-2 fish per serving
Seasonings of choice
Clean and dress the freshly caught fish.
Some people like the fish whole, but some prefer it deboned and filleted ... so whatever you and your guests prefer is the way to go!
Wash the fish and pat dry.
Lay the fish out on a clean wooden board, with an inch or two of space between the pieces.
Season the fish well with melted butter, salt and pepper and any other favorite seasonings.
Place the board with the fish into a preheated hot oven, about 425°.
Bake for 10-15 minutes. Cooking time will be determined by the thickness and number of fish.
When done, remove from oven and allow to stand for just 1-3 minutes.
Before serving, toss the fish into the garbage. Serve the board with homemade hushpuppies and coleslaw.