If you've never been to the swamp, then the first visit or two is probably best spent at one of the visitor centers. And your first boat ride should probably be on a tour boat where all the beauty and basics of the swamp will be pointed out and explained to you.
At the visitor centers you will also be able to hike some amazing foot trails out into the swamp. These are partially on land, and partially on raised wooden trails over the water, and some have raised platforms where you can look out over the prairies. Great bird-watching spots!
But after a couple of these trips you'll be itching for a more intimate, up-close and personal encounter with the swamp ... time for some real exploring ... time to rent a boat! Or, of course, take your own boat down with you. It's really the very best way to see and get to know the Okefenokee.
Bill and I never had our own boats. We wouldn't use them often enough for it to be practical. But the boat rentals at the state parks aren't expensive and the boats are pretty good, so we just always went that route. After a few times renting, you will quickly learn what to do and what not to do.
In all the trips we've taken, we only rented a john boat maybe twice. A john boat is low and open, and it's got a motor on the back. Your brain says, Get there faster! Less work! See more! Go farther! But it wasn't much fun. It was like rushing through art gallery with a tour group ... but what if I see something I really like and want to stand in one spot for an hour?
So we opted for the canoes. Much better! Your brain complains about the work, but your heart swells with joy! You can scoot in and out of quiet spots along the shore and sneak up on birds and turtles to get photos. And paddling can be as hard or as easy as you want. Start easy, don't go out too far, and ease into it. And it's quiet even when you're moving, not like a loud, roaring motor! 'Cause half of the swamp experience is enjoying the swamp sounds!
After many trips and many canoe rentals, we learned what we liked ... first, always get the fiberglass, not the aluminum. Even a canoe can get noisy every time you lay down a paddle or bump a cooler around, and the aluminum canoes are the worst! Bumping and banging around and disturbing the peace! The fiberglass canoes are much better, and then we both always made a concerted effort to move slow and set things down gently.
Second, opt for the flat bottom canoe and not the traditional rounded bottom type. The flat bottoms were easier to steer and less likely to flip over. Especially look for the ones with the keel running down the bottom.
Third, rent that canoe early! This is another good reason to go in the fall when the park is less filled with people ... boat availability! We got a little anal about getting down to the office first thing in the morning so we'd get the canoe we preferred. And always rent for the whole day. On very hot days, we'd go out early, come back to the cabin for lunch during the hot part of the day, then go back out later in the afternoon.
Some people need a whole cruise ship with luxury and wine and caviar to have a great vacation ... just give us some paddles, soft drinks, crackers and cans of vienna sausages and throw us into a canoe in the swampy wilderness! Pure heaven!
But one day, I found out about something even better than canoes ...
In the October 21st blog I mentioned another couple who joined us, Bill and Nancy. We went to church together and both our Bill's were into photography. They heard us talk about the swamp for many years until they got curious and joined us once. Then they were hooked, too, and we all went back again and again for many more trips.
Bill and Nancy had their own canoe, and another very special toy ... a 2-person kayak. And Nancy suggested that she and I could go out together in that. I'd never driven one of those ... but, hey, how hard can it be? Let's go!
And go, we did! And I loved it!
I had never been in a kayak before ... and after 5 minutes I was hooked! I didn't think there was any way I could enjoy being in the swamp any more than I already did, but this did it!
And since then I've gone out solo in regular kayaks. They are so light and easy to maneuver, and you can get into places where even the canoe can't go! I call it a swamp bicycle, because, just like you can scoot around places on a bike that you can't go in a car, you can go places in a kayak that you can't go in a bigger boat. It's just barely a step above swimming, but you're not wet, all your snacks are right there in front of the seat, and you can scoot around as quickly or slowly as you like and go about any place you want to go!
But the most fun I ever had in a kayak was whenever I went out with Nancy. We'd find an afternoon when the guys didn't want to go out, and we'd be gone. Giggling and laughing. Driving that thing like the novices we were and just having a ball! It didn't matter, because we kept it upright, and we always got to where we were going, but we sure had fun getting there! Nobody can have fun quite like a couple of females off by themselves. I'll probably get some kick-back on this, but in all my years on the planet I've never seen a group of guys – much less just 2 guys – have as much fun together as a group of women. And it's a shame, because nothing can clear and cleanse heart and mind like an afternoon of laughing and giggling with a good friend!
But Nancy and I had one afternoon that stands out above all the rest ...
We had been out for a while and found ourselves a place to briefly park for a snack break. When the loggers were in the swamp in the early 1900's, they built a rail line so the trains could haul the cut timber out of the swamp. The rails have since been removed, but the pilings they rested on are still there. Depending on the water levels those pilings will either be visible or hidden beneath the surface. So we found some of those and wedged the kayak in so we could stay stationary for a bit.
And, lo, and behold, who came floating by? Our two hubbies in a canoe! Normally, when Nancy and I were out kayaking, they'd be fishing or taking pictures or maybe hiking the sill. But there they were! (And obviously not having as much fun as we were! But then, nobody could have as much fun as us!)
We swapped pleasantries. Then they commented about how far away from the park we were, and, if we needed some help, they would gladly give us a tow home. 'Cause that's how the male brain works. It's under the influence of testosterone and causes them to think they need to help and protect their females. Unfortunately, the female brain is under the influence of estrogen – 'cause God's got a wicked sense of humor! – which means that we were totally incensed at the very idea that we couldn't get back home under our own power! So, you guys just go on your merry way! We'll be along in a bit! No need to fret, we're doing just fine! And we don't need any help! So, bye!
Men that have been married for many years are wise souls ... they didn't argue or press the issue. They just shrugged and paddled away. Smart guys, those two!
However estrogen must be a bit more brain damaging than testosterone, because we didn't recover so quickly. We were miffed! And we sat there for a bit, grumbling and finishing our snacks. The nerve of those guys! Thinking we couldn't make it back under our own power! Good grief!!
You know, you need to be very careful about grumbling and complaining ... the children of Israel grumbled and complained and ended up circling the same mountain for 40 years! Not funny!
Anyway ... in a few minutes our snacks were eaten and it was time to start paddling again. The guys were long gone. But we'd be home soon ourselves and then they'd know that we were strong and capable women! Men! The nerve of them!
We pushed the kayak out of our resting spot and into the open trail. We turned it towards home and started paddling ... and ... nothing.
We tried again. And again ... nothing. We simply were not moving. We were stuck on something.
We started poking around under the kayak with our paddles. There are lots of sunken logs in the swamp. If you get stuck on one, you can generally just push it away with a paddle. But we poked and prodded and felt all around underneath the kayak and didn't find a thing.
Well, let's just try to paddle a little harder ... we started to move ... but it wasn't forward ... it was around!
Like the light breaking over the dawn, we slowly realized what was happening ... we were stuck on one of those dang railway pilings! And it was dead center of the kayak and dead center between us! And just far enough away from either of us and in a spot under the boat that neither of us could reach with a paddle to push away!
So we did what any pride-filled, self-respecting, estrogen-saturated-big-brained strong and capable women would do ... we yelled for the guys!
"Help! Come back! We need you!"
But it was too late. They had been paddling away from us for a good twenty minutes and were way out of ear shot.
Well, pooh! Let's put our brains together and think of something! And think, we did ... and tried everything! We rocked the kayak side to side and back and forth. We kept poking underneath with the paddles, hoping against hope we might be able to reach it. We paddled like crazy! And went round and round and round!
At some point one of us made a passing remark about how much fun it was going to be explaining to the guys what had happened to their strong capable women ... and that really struck us both as very, very funny! And we started laughing ...
I suppose any sane people would've been a lot more worried than we were. I keep saying how alligators aren't aggressive, but they do hunt at night. And two slightly pudgy tourists fattened up on snacks and sodas, sitting 3" off the water in a not too substantial container would probably be a very easy target. But that never crossed our minds!
No, we were out alone in the wet wilderness, rocking and spinning round and around and giggling and laughing and just having a grand old time! I have no idea how long ... maybe 30-45 minutes? I'm just guessing.
We did eventually break free, but I couldn't explain how it happened. It certainly wasn't the result of anything we were doing!
I suspect God looked down at the spectacle that was us and thought, Those two are too stupid to be scared! And then He sent an angel down who gave us a little nudge and just like that we were headed home and back to safety. He's always watching. Always protecting.
And if it was a little reminder from Him to stop complaining so much, I am soooooo very thankful that it was only for about 40 minutes and not 40 YEARS!!!!!