Bill and I have many good memories of the swamp. And there's still one more tale I haven't told ... it happened on one of the very early trips, probably only the third or fourth trip down ...
We always preferred fall trips ... less crowds, fewer bugs, and much cooler. When you go in the fall, the weather can be iffy. Georgia can stay warm a long time after Labor Day. Cooler nights are great for sleeping. Early mornings in the boat will find you wrapped up in long pants, sweat shirts and jackets or hoodies. Even if the days stay cool, a day out on the water paddling a canoe will soon have you peeling off layers you needed in the cooler morning hours. But if it cools again because the wind picked up, or if clouds have moved in, you'll be putting all those clothes back on.
We had trouble finding an available cabin that year and ended up going in mid November. Our first day out it was fairly cool, but not cold. The sky was gray and overcast and it was evident that we'd be getting rain later, but it wasn't expected until the evening.
So we got up early, bundled up in layers and headed down to the boat basin with all our stuff. A fair size cooler, drawing paraphernalia, snacks, and Bill's camera bag. This was pre-digital days ... he had a nice 35mm Pentax, rolls of fresh film, and rolls ready to be developed when we got back home. Add to that the paddles and the life vests and the canoe was always stuffed whenever we went out. All the stuff stayed in the middle, with me on the front end and Bill at the back. Always, always keep drinks and food within everybody's reach ... the most important thing when packing up the boat ... got to keep those prioities straight ... food first!
We went in the direction of Billy's Island, but went past that trail and kept bearing south, ending up at the Suwannee River Sill area. My engineer hubby can explain the sill better than me ... but basically the canal was dug over three years in the late 1800's in a failed attempt to drain the swamp. Later the dam was built to help control the water levels during wet and dry times, and I think they were also trying to control the fires. The swamp gets dry and goes through times of wild fires. But it's not a bad thing ... regular fires keep the swamp from choking up with too much vegetation. The fires actually protect the swamp and keep it alive. So next time you hear about fires in the Okefenokee, don't worry. But that year might not be the best time for a visit. Wait a season or two, and it'll be more beautiful than ever!
I told you in the November 4th blog about hiking down the sill to the dam, but this day we were in the canoe and approaching it from the water. It is so beautiful there. Every time I go there I think of the absurdity of trying to drain that place ... crazy! I used to wonder from where did the flat-earthers originate ... perhaps they are descendants of the swamp-drainers. Since the first idea flopped, maybe they're just trying again with something new, but equally absurd. I would suggest that they just stop breeding! But that wouldn't be polite ... even if it would solve the problem ... so I won't say it out loud ... back to my story ...
Like I said earlier, it was a gray, overcast day and on the coolish side. We were bundled up in long pants and sweat shirts and hoodies over other shirts, heavy socks and hiking shoes. Bill had boots on. And gloves to keep our hands warm while paddling. We kept waiting for it to warm up, but it never did.
By lunch time it was very evident that it wasn't going to warm up, but it wasn't bitter cold and we were bundled up and cozy, so it really didn't matter. There weren't many alligators out since it was so cool and sunless. And not many birds. Everybody had gone off to wherever they all go when it's time to hunker down. And not too many other boats out either ... the swamp was quiet. But still beautiful and relaxing.
An hour or so after lunch the wind began to pick up and it became evident that the rain would be coming sooner than expected. We were a good hour or more away from the park and it always takes more time and effort to paddle back against the current. On normal outings, we would stay out until the very last minute, and we didn't have to be off the water until 6 or 7 pm. But we'd have to cut this trip short or get rained on ... not fun! So we turned the canoe back towards home and a warm cabin.
We made it to Billy's lake ... so far so good. No rain and only about 30-40 minutes from the park. The wind picked up some more.
They call this area a "lake", but it's shaped like a channel or a river, long and a few hundred feet across. Usually when out for a leisurely site-seeing trip, we'd be closer to shore. But we were on a mission ... a dry warm cabin and a hot dinner were waiting ... so we were paddling right down the middle. And paddling steady so we could make good headway against the current and the wind, which was getting stronger by the minute.
No rain, but we were still getting wet. As the wind got stronger, it was whipping up the waves and water was blowing into us. Paddling got harder and harder ... if we let up even a little we would go backwards! We needed to get out of the wind. Maybe if we hugged the shore a little closer, we could get some shelter from the wind ... so we made a best guesstimate as to which side to head towards and pointed the canoe in that diredtion ...
It was a bad idea. Before the wind had been hitting us head on, now with the canoe turned even just slightly, the wind was blasting into the side. But just hang on a few minutes and we'll be closer to shore and then it'll be easier ... but it was too late. Choppy water and a rocking canoe ... the wind got up under the front end of the canoe and lifted it and me up, up, up ... I didn't quite comprehend what was happening ... from the back end, Bill saw the front end of the boat going straight up into the air. He bailed out, which was really smart, or else he would've ended up under the upturned canoe. Seconds after he bailed, the canoe rolled and I was no longer in the canoe or in the air ... I was in the swamp!
One thing the park staff will tell you when you go out in a boat, is not to hang your hand over the side and make splashing noises. It can draw curious alligators to your boat, thinking it's an injured fish. It's the same reason the fishermen aren't supposed to hang stringers of fish over the side. Keep hands and fish inside the boat!
Bill and I are both good swimmers, but it's quite cumbersome when you're fully dressed with shoes and 2-3 layers of clothing. Not easy, but not impossible. When I came to the surface my brain lit up: Don't splash! Don't splash! Don't splash! We hadn't seen a gator for hours on this cold day, but it was all I could think about now! We've got to get out of the water! Now! ... don't splash, don't splash, don't splash ... So I was treading water and trying to keep my arms and hands from breaking the surface.
I looked around for Bill. He was a good distance from me. My paddle was gone, but he still had his, and one of the life vests and our cooler (the old kind with the swivel-lid). He had those heavy boots on and was using the cooler to stay afloat. His cameras, the case and all the gear and film were gone. He was headed towards the canoe which was upside down, but still afloat. He was trying to save the canoe, but the canoe probably saved him by giving him something bigger than a cooler to hang on to!
He reached the canoe and says that he tossed me the one life vest we had. I honestly don't remember that, but it must've been. I only remember trying to swim as quietly as I could, dog-paddle style. I just knew we had to get out of the water! NOW!
So we surveyed the situation ... we weren't really so far from shore. Bill looked one direction and saw a spot where he thought he might be able to get the canoe uprighted. It seemed far away to me, because I looked in another direction and saw a spot much closer. Well, hubby, you go where you need to, I'm going over here!
So I began my safe, slow, splashless dog-paddle journey over to my chosen spot ... Gonna' get out of the water soon! Don't splash, don't splash, don't splash ...
Bill began his journey, too ... hanging onto the cooler and our one paddle, pushing an upside-down 16-foot canoe, and kicking those booted feet ... LOUDLY!
"STOP SPLASHING!!!" A logical request in my mind where I was envisioning hordes of hungry alligators on their way that very minute to check us out ... literally.
"Well, how the heck am I supposed to get to the shore?" he retorted. I just made that up. It's been 35 years and I don't remember his actual words, but that was his message.
So we had a little back and forth where I was explaining to him that he was going to get attacked by a hungry gator and he was explaining to me the laws of physics involved in moving large, heavy inanimate objects through water against wind and current while fully dressed in flannel, denim and boots. I could see his point, but it seemed to me that still, wet and alive was better than lots of motion while being eaten ... an engineer and an artist ... yeesh!
In the middle of this I was still gently dog-paddling. One hand went down and brushed against a slimy, moss-covered log. It was startling ... I thought the water was deeper than that! My brain immediately reassured me that it indeed was only a slimy, moss-covered log. But it was too late ... I had already heeded the message from my heart ... RUN!!! I hightailed it back over to my noisy husband. "I'm going with you!" Engineer-1, artist-0.
We made it to shore safely enough. We only saw a small gator or two who would pop up just long enough to see what was going on. Then they'd slip back under the water, totally uninterested. Once on land, Bill got the canoe uprighted. One paddle, one life vest and a cooler. It is possible to steer a large canoe with just one paddle, but it's not easy in perfect conditions, much less in this wind and against the current. We just stood there wet and shivering hoping somebody would show up soon. There weren't many folks out on the water on this blustery day, but we weren't too terribly far from the park entrance ... the odds were good that we'd see someone soon ...
And we didn't have to wait long until we saw a boat coming. Still a long way off, but headed our way! And, thank you, Lord, it's a john boat with a motor! We're saved!! They were still too far away to hear us or even see us maybe, but we started yelling and waving and jumping around to get their attention.
They got closer and finally noticed us. They waved back – "Hi, friendly people!" – but didn't show any signs they were turning our way. No, no! we're not saying "Hi!" We need you to come here! We stepped it up a notch, yelling and motioning them over. At last they got the message and turned our way.
When they got to us we were so happy! And we were so excited and thanking them and telling them we had overturned and please give us a tow home and thanking them again and again. They just quietly smiled. A man and his wife. Finally the man spoke ... in German! Bill's got German blood in him, but he can't speak it! We honestly thought that even with a language barrier our situation was kind of obvious, but apparently not. After much gesturing and pointing towards home, Bill grabbed the rope on the end of the canoe and tied it to the back of their boat. Then he and I got into their boat and sat down ... finally they understood!
And tow us home, they did! The park staff got a kick out of our wild tale. We found out the next day that some of them had gone out to the spot where we had turned over and tried to find the camera. I always thought that was a little odd ... what were the chances it could ever be found? And what good would it be if you did? But I'll never know, because they never found it. Luckily, it was all insured.
So we have seen the swamp up close and personal. I have been in the Okefenokee, and the Okefenokee is in me ... it's been a long time ... gotta' go back sometime soon ... maybe next year ....
A very special thank you to
Rick W. Griffin
for permission to share his video!
For more Okefenokee videos by Mr. Griffin:
Mr. Griffin’s YouTube Channel:
Okefenokee Swamp Park