125 Gators...126 Gators...127 Alligators in Okefenokee Swamp
When I decided to kayak 10 miles out to a platform campsite in the middle of a Georgia swamp I figured I'd see some gators. I had no idea I'd see well over a hundred!
127 gators. That's how many alligators I'd seen since I set off from the Suwanee Canal entrance of Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia at 10am on April 14. I know because I kept count.
I had expected to see alligators. I had even expected to see a decent number of gators (McCrae and I were guessing 26 or 27 for the over/under for the day). But 127 gators? No, I definitely did not expect that.
"Maybe I'll see some gators!" I had exclaimed to friends who had asked me what I was doing that weekend and I explained my plan to kayak and camp in a Georgia swamp. "Chomp chomp!" I'd laugh, clapping my hands together to my friends' simultaneous dismay and delight. Perhaps I was reckless for going out on my own. Perhaps I wasn't quite taking the danger seriously. But I had the time, the inclination, and the confidence to try.
"My goodness, you're a braver woman than I am!" the woman on the phone had said when I first called to book my permit for Canal Run Shelter. She'd told me that I had to pay for one person at the time of booking the permit, but I could pay for additional people when I got to the wildlife refuge.
"Oh, no, it's just me, so I'll pay it all in full," I'd said and I imagined a dewy Southern woman clutching her pearls when I heard her gasp on the other side of the telephone line. I knew she couldn't see me through the phone, but I just shrugged. Later when I told my friend Britt about my plans she was horrified at first, but then she said, "I guess we should be more worried for the gators than worried about you though," and I laughed, happy for the vote of confidence.
And finally, after a long drive and a night spent at a truck stop I was at the swamp, a little low on sleep but high on adrenaline.
I was packing my gear into the hatches of the rented kayak when I heard a boat full of tourists motor by and the tour operator said, "I certainly would not be paddling out right now," and I naively wondered why. Was the water low? Were the gators mating? What sort of conditions was I going into? But still I pushed off - a little anxious and very excited to embark on such an adventure.
The swamp is like nothing else. Hot. Mysterious. Beautiful. Creepy. It's a place that watches you - deciding if you are predator or prey - but it's also a place that entices you, coaxing you to come just a little farther, just a little deeper into the black water that spreads over soft, peaty land that dissolves beneath your weight.
My route was simple: ten miles along the Suwanee Canal to a shelter platform, and then back the way I came the next day. Easy peasy. The canal itself is very wide and clear of debris and easy to follow. It was built in the 1800s in an attempt to drain the swamp for logging, but the water had just spread and filled the canal - more and more water pouring in from that eerie dark swamp - until the drainage attempt was abandoned. I looked down the wide watery ditch and wondered what it must have been like as it was being built.
"I bet the work must have been hell," I mused as I floated past two sunning gators. "I wonder how many people lost body parts - or worse, their lives." Living logs blinked at me while I kept tally. Nineteen. Twenty. I scanned the water and the banks for more reptiles.
"Unnatural," the tour guide operator said as the boat full of tourists doubled back to return to the parking lot at Suwanee Canal entrance." This canal is man-made so it's not natural. It's not like the real thing so I wouldn't recommend you bother paddling it," he said, pointedly looking at me. "If you want to experience the real swamp then you should bring your own boat and explore one of the other areas. Keep this here for the motorboats. I wouldn't go paddling here."
Tourists in the boat stared down at me as if I were the swamp's main attraction. I smiled and waved while adding to my gator watch tally: thirty-nine.
For the longest time I wondered why the Suwanee logging company would even bother with Okefenokee as I paddled through treeless swamp prairie, choked with a maze-like brush that reached just above my head in the kayak. I wanted to venture off the canal and explore some of the trails, but at the same time I was afraid of navigating those thick mazes on my own with no landmarks on the flat horizon. Eventually though the canal ducked under cypresses heavy with Spanish moss that swayed gently in the hot southern wind.
Forty-eight. I tallied.
I realized with a swirl of panic that it was well within the realm of possibility that I would get to my shelter and find a gator sunning itself on the platform. Horrified, I stopped paddling. What would I do if that happened? Would I fight off the gator and claim my territory? Would I just say, "Nope nope nope," and turn around and paddle the ten miles back to my car? I thought back to gator number fourteen. That was the first gator to eye me up and slide into the water when it realized what I was. It was a decent-sized gator: probably about seven feet, and it slipped into the water and rippled into the center of the canal, a calculating golden eye watching me as the ridge scales on its back and tail wove across the water.
I'd frozen - hands still gripping the paddles but no longer making forward progress. What was I supposed to do? All the other alligators had been content to stay on the shore as I paddled past, but this one was in the water. And it wasn't just in the water but on the surface of the water in the middle of the canal, lazily lolling with the current and with me. I looked at the banks and looked at the gator on the water, nervous to get too close to it. I didn't really think it would attack my boat - gators are ambush killers and usually hunt from the shore, not while swimming in the water - but if I brushed up against that powerful creature it could easily roll my boat. Falling into the dark tannin-stained swamp water full of gators was not on my list of things to do in this lifetime.
I stopped paddling and floated behind the gator, trying to keep fifteen to twenty feet of distance between us. The shore here was uneven and overgrown and with the gator in the center of the canal there was no place where I could comfortably pass and give the reptile a properly wide berth. And so I just followed the gator, watching it as it watched me, floating together, staring at each other with our own alien eyes.
Finally the canal widened again, and I paddled past the gator, taking care to pass on the end that didn't include the snout. I disliked the idea of having my back to the gator so once I was past I didn't stop, but rather hurriedly paddled to put space between us.
Occasionally I followed other less-toothy creatures down the canal. Butterflies bigger than my hand floated over the water. A pair of white ibises led me from tree to tree, dancing together, sometimes swooping down for fish, sometimes turning a red eye in my direction when the bird wasn't scanning for gators. The ibises looked like quite the pair, but I wondered what would happen if one of them were ever to succumb to a pair of hard jaws clamping shut on the delicate white feathers in the water - a stain of red on the wing before it was dragged into the bog.
Sometimes a loud noise made me jump. More than once a woodpecker hammered on a nearby tree. For some reason in that quiet swamp the noise sounded like a jackhammer echoing in the Grand Canyon. Once a snapping turtle brushed against my kayak and in a huff it pushed off against my boat and flipped into the water, leaving me rocking unsteadily on my keel. Twice an alligator belly-flopped into the water - a noise that always made me jump and look around. But usually the swamp was quiet with the occasional trill of a bird or the imperceptible splash of a turtle or gator slipping into the water, leaving only ripples that broke the mirror reflection of an upside-down world of cypress trees and blue spring sky.
Every once in a while I'd see a water lily or what looked like an iris, and sometimes I'd catch a whiff of something - acrid and bog-like, it's the smell I usually associate with Florida after the usual smell of chlorine from hotel pools or plastic at theme parks. This, I thought, was the real smell of Florida: swamp jungle, and of organic matter dissolving into dark water.
It was such a relief when I got to my platform shelter and found it free of gators. It was such a relief to finally - after four hours - get out of the boat and walk tall for a minute and not be surrounded by gators. The shelter was generously spacious and I happily set up camp, laying out the contents of my dry bags on the large heavy picnic table and hanging my hammock and bug net. It was only after I'd set up camp and was looking around when I saw it: gator #127 on the opposite bank. It was a smaller gator - maybe four feet - and it lay perfectly still in a small clear spot in the underbrush. It lay in wait like this for hours while I unpacked and wrote and dozed in the hammock - keeping one sleepy eye on the gator while it kept one eye on me.
Wait, is that gator #128? Yes! There! In the water. I thought I saw eye ridges poking up from the water earlier but it was too far away to tell. But by late evening it was closer - near gator #127 on the opposite bank - and yes, I saw it, eye ridges and nostrils. A gator, not a floating log.
No matter. At that moment I was most worried about a giant spider staring at me across the platform. When I first saw it I thought it was a tarantula, but I told myself not to be silly - tarantulas live in deserts and this was the swamp. But even so, I didn't know what the spider was, and so I wracked my brain to remember the venomous spiders and snakes of Georgia. I know all the dangerous things of North Carolina, but foolish me, I didn't even look up the venomous creepy crawlies of Georgia before I set off into its wilderness.
Ah well, I told myself. At least I had a bug net! And so I fell asleep to the noise of mosquitoes against the fine mesh and the stray scream of an owl.
The morning broke bright and clear but blustery. I could feel the pressure dropping and knew an afternoon summer storm was heading my way. I needed to get moving. I packed up my gear, chewing down the leftovers of my dehydrated dinner for some salt, when I saw a gator in the water advancing towards my platform. It was floating prominently, head raised and back scales rippling, and it was inching towards me. I stepped out to the platform and it stopped, either hesitating or expecting something. Did people who camped here feed that gator breakfast? Or did it think I was breakfast? I decided I didn't want to find out and shooed it away. It retreated for a little while, but eventually it would turn back and start advancing towards me again. I'd step to the edge of the platform and scold it for being a naughty gator and again it would retreat, but I decided that between the gator and the coming storm I shouldn't dawdle. And so, too soon, I was turning away from the beautiful isolation of the deepest swamp.
The paddle back was more onerous than the paddle out the day previously. My shoulders were tight and a blister was blooming on my thumb despite the paddling gloves I wore. The shock of seeing so many gators had worn off slightly, but I still kept tally throughout the day. At times I pushed hard against the wind and the slight current, pulling my kayak paddles with firm strokes. I recognized a few things: the mile markers and trail intersections, the nest of baby gators - fifteen of them huddled on logs and debris along forty yards or so of the canal - as well as the occasional tangle of cypress roots or the long open views of swamp prairie. I listened to The Great Alone on audiobook via a small Bluetooth speaker in my lap; the keening descriptions of wild Alaska complemented the threatening desolation of the Georgia swamp. The skies grew ever darker with clouds so I didn't even stop for lunch; I just munched on trail mix and cursed the existence of low sodium nut mixes while sweat wicked off my skin.
I heard the first roll of thunder less than a mile from the end of the trail. I paddled even harder, racing the storm while my shoulders burned. The visitor's center was in sight when lightning flickered behind me. Glancing back between furious paddle-strokes I saw a line of rain beating against the canal advancing behind me. Pull pull pull I heaved against the paddles and hauled the boat onto the shore just as thunder clapped once more. I rolled onto the thick mud as rain splattered onto my head. I blinked away the water and grinned, so happy to finally be back on terra firma, so happy to be alive, and so happy for another adventure that I'll remember for the rest of my life.
Get there: Okefenokee swamp is on the border of Georgia and Florida.
Distance: You can come out for a day paddle as short as you'd like or spend several days in the park, looping close to 50 miles of paddle trails.
Put ins, Rentals, and Guided Tours: Bring your own kayak or canoe and put in at Suwanee Canal Recreation Area, Kingfisher Landing, or Stephen C Foster State Park. Don't have your boat or don't feel like bringing it? You can rent a boat at Okefenokee Adventures at Suwanee Canal. Okefenokee Adventures also offers guided boat tours on skiffs as well as guided wilderness excursions (including overnight trips).
Difficulty: Moderate. Suwanee Canal is easy to follow, though you might have to paddle against a very slight current or wind. The gators are the toughest thing to deal with, and that's mostly a mental challenge since they aren't particularly interested in humans. Just exercise caution. Other paddle trails in the refuge may be much harder.
Dog friendly? No! No no no no. Dogs are not allowed in the refuge. In fact, gators rather like snacking on dogs. There's regularly some horror story in the news about some little old lady's poodle getting eaten by a gator in Florida. Personally I love my furry buddy way too much to ever let him be gator bait.
Kid friendly? No. Unless you've got a really responsible kid who won't pester the gators. I'd recommend instead the guided boat tour through Okefenokee Adventures, or a short day paddle in a canoe.
Permit required? If you plan to camp at one of the backcountry sites (typically a platform shelter) then yes, a permit is required. Get one by calling the wildlife refuge office. Make sure you check shelter availability first and then call the office to finalize your reservation. Please note the office hours are very restricted. More info here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Okefenokee/visitor_activities/wilderness_canoeing.html
Tips: Gators gators everywhere. Keep your distance from them. DO NOT FEED THE GATORS! This desensitizes them to humans and can create some really bad situations between humans and gators. Generally if a gator slips into the water and you can't give them a wide berth then if you keep a straight line they will submerge underwater (they're hiding from you because you're the bigger threat) and you can paddle over them. (This totally freaked me out the first few times but then I got used to it). Still...keep your distance as much as possible. Absolutely avoid messing with any cute baby gators because momma gator will be close by and she doesn't like her babies messed with. Know the warning signs of a threatened gator: if they open their mouth wide at you and/or make hissing noises then back away very carefully. Mouth gaping and hissing are a gator's way of saying "I'm so not okay with you right now."
Highlights: Gators! The swamp is such a unique and interesting environment and ecosystem. There are unique plants in the swamp and as unnerving as it is to be so close to gators it's also really exciting to see them.
What else can you do in the area? You can camp out at nearby parks (including some private RV parks) or explore the coast. Georgia's Jekyll Island is only 45 minutes away from the swamp.
Refuge website: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/okefenokee/
Trail map: https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/OkeMapSide_2016.pdf and https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/OkeWildMapSide.pdf