At Folkston, Georgia
Arrived at the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge about 7:15 a.m., planning to hike some of the trails. In the refuge visitor’s center parking lot, which was all but empty, I ran into a woman who, noticing a kayak atop my SUV, asked if I was about to paddle the swamp. I told her that unfortunately my boat was damaged and needed repairs, so I planned to hike instead. I could tell she was disappointed. She wanted to paddle the swamp but worried she might get lost and, therefore, hoped to find others to paddle with. Understandable. The Okefenokee refuge is the largest refuge in the eastern U. S. at 700 square miles, 38 miles long by 25 miles wide. There are many trails to hike, but the Okefenokee Swamp is a watery, marshy and boggy kind of place that probably is best explored by kayak or canoe – which is what I planned to do until I damaged my kayak yesterday. I thought about this as we bought refuge passes and I oriented myself with a map. Ok, I decided, I’ll rent a kayak and paddle. So we exchanged names – she is Eve Capehart of Virginia – and off we went. We paddled Old Town Loon kayaks, stable and sturdy boats that were fine for our purpose, if not as quick and nimble as my own kayaks.
We paddled about 2 1/2 miles into the Swamp, first following the Suwanee Canal, a man-made, unfinished route dug in the late 19th Century in an attempt to drain the swamp for logging and, one day, farming. The Suwanee Canal looks man -made, a straight swath far more boring than anything nature would produce. Whatever its origins, it was lined with cypress trees hung with Spanish moss. Herons and egrets, warblers and woodpeckers were abundant. A red-shouldered hawk perched upon a branch overhanging the canal, just high enough above us that our presence didn’t alarm it. We dawdled with binoculars and camera as the sun and the temperature rose during a morning that began quite cool but quickly became comfortable.
From the canal we took a right onto the Cedar Hammock Trail, a real trail with twists and turns, which took us into a large, open and marshy section of the swamp. This was the real Okefenokee Swamp as far as I was concerned. Close by a platform campsite and shelter we spotted an alligator 5- or 6-feet long, sunning in the mud. We were told the alligators had only begun to be active again in recent days and were still comparatively lethargic with the cool nights. I shot a photo from about 15 feet away. A half dozen black vultures roosted in nearby trees.
There was no breeze, and almost no noise. Aside from an occasional and unobtrusive sign – “Entering National Wilderness Area” – and the platform campsite, there were no signs of civilization. It might have been 1850, or 1650. We had the place to ourselves, at least for a couple of hours.
As we paddled, Eve told me about stray cat that showed up at her campsite the night before. It seemed to want to be with her, so she fed it, and let it into her tent. It curled up beside her and slept through the night.
Should she take it home with her? she asked. Would the cat be happier, she wondered, living in her condo with plenty of food and water, free from the dangers of the wild? Or would this cat, given a choice, prefer taking its chances in the wilds of a refuge, totally free, but never sure of its next meal, always looking over its shoulder?
I told her that my children one day found a stray on our back porch, that they fed it, played with it, and pleaded with mom and dad to let them keep it as a pet. We kept it, and we came to have the sense that Daisy, as the kids named her, was grateful to have a home.
By now we had paddled back to the Suwanee Canal, and Eve knew that I needed to return to the visitor’s center parking lot to resume my journey from Florida back to Connecticut. She decided that she had a feel for the layout of the swamp now, and, with a map of the refuge trails in hand, she would have no problem navigating by herself. So she headed northwest to explore more of the swamp. I paddled east back to my car.
Eve left the refuge later with her feline friend in her car. She sent me a note saying she was inclined to name her Okee.