Kayaking the Enchanted Okefenokee, Georgia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13198A, Kayak


  • Experience the swamp and the Suwannee River in fall
  • Airport pick-up and van-supported transportation
  • Enjoy on-site cabin accommodations


  • Fantastic food, including alligator
  • All kayaks and kayaking gear


DatesSep 29–Oct 5, 2013
StaffPatrick Nichols

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Created in 1937, Okefenokee Refuge covers more than 600 square miles and contains nearly 354,000 acres of designated Wilderness. A number of freshwater springs feed the Refuge, which in turn give birth to two well-knownws rivers, the Suwannee and the St. Mary's. Though it may appear flat, the Refuge is actually higher than most surrounding land, and its waters -- often thought to be stagnant -- are continually circulating and flowing in various channels. Though pure and clean, the Refuge's waters are stained dark from the tannic acid in decaying vegetation. Species abundance is breathtaking: black bears, otters, sandhill cranes, ospreys, alligators, bald eagles, yellow-fringed orchids and pitcher plants all find home in the Okefenokee.
The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas of non-forested terrain. Prairies cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp. Once forested, these expanses of marsh were created during periods of severe drought when fires burned out vegetation and some of the top layers of peat. The remaining peat deposits, up to 15 feet thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that one can cause trees and surrounding bushes to tremble by stomping the surface. In fact, Okefenokee is a European rendition of the Indian words meaning "land of the trembling earth."


The leaders will make every reasonable effort to meet the goals outlined in the itinerary. Please keep in mind that weather or other conditions beyond our control may cause us to modify the itinerary in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the group.

Day 1: We meet at Steven Foster State Park, Georgia at 4 p.m.  Participants taking the shuttle will be met at 2 p.m. outside Jacksonville Airport's baggage claim.  After greetings and perhaps happy hour, the leader will offer some dry land kayak instruction and  we will go over the week's literary and what to expect.

Day 2: Today we are off to Billy's Island! Our trip will take us into remote areas of the Okefenokee, where we will see cypress forests draped with Spanish moss. We will kayak across open prairies and along the remains of man-made canals. We will visit Billy’s Island, one of the largest historic logging camps and permanent settlements. It is no longer inhabited, but cement foundations and iron machine parts remain and show the extent of the logging that once existed. 

Day 3: Time to head for the edge of the Okefenokee and the beginning of the Suwannee River. Some of the swamp plants and flowers will be blooming and we should see some of the resident sandhill cranes and great blue herons nesting as we paddle around the swamp. The prairies harbor a variety of wading birds: herons, egrets, ibises, cranes, and bitterns. Turtles and alligators sunning on logs or on the river banks can be observed at distances determined by the strength of your nerves or the power of your binoculars.

Day 4: After breakfast we will drive to the west entrance of the Refuge, where we'll find a restored subsistence swamp farm! After we have stretched out, we will board a Carolina Skiff for a 90-minute tour of the East Okefenokee. We will travel along the historic Suwannee Canal through a tangle forest of bay, cypress, pine and shrubs, then out into the open expanse of Chesser Prairie. The guides will share their knowledge of the swamp's cultural and natural history, tell interesting stories, and identify plants and wildlife along the way.  If time allows we will travel to Folkston and see the famous Folkston Funnel. This place has seven railroad tracks converging, all trying to find a way around the trembling earth of the Okefenokee. Tonight we have dinner on our own at a delightful Thai restaurant. 

Day 5: An early start today will put us on the water when the local swamp inhabitants are most visible. We will spend much of the day paddling gently through this water shed, watching birds and taking pictures.

Day 6: With water levels allowing, we will travel down from the sill on to the Suwannee River. This part of the Suwannee is usually loaded with wildlife.  Keep the cameras handy.  We take out at the famous Lem Griffis fish camp. 

Day 7: After a great breakfast and our last stroll around Steven Foster, we say good bye and head for Jacksonville Airport. The van transport to the airport will leave by 9 a.m. for our two-hour drive.  We should arrive by 11 a.m.




Getting There

There is no public transportation to or within the Okefenokee. The nearest airport is Jacksonville, Florida, at least 60 miles southeast. A planned shuttle van will pick everyone up there at 2 p.m. outside baggage claim. Participants who are driving will be sent a map with directions.

Accommodations and Food

The leaders will prepare all meals; however, everyone is expected to help clean up. Meals included in the trip fee begin with dinner on the first day and end with lunch on the last day. Meals served on the trip will honor and reflect local cuisine.
Accommodations will be private cabins within the park. Each cabin has two bedrooms with two double beds in each room and a private bathroom. Couples will of course get their own rooms, and participants coming alone will share rooms. The cabins have all modern amenities, including showers and flush toilets!

Trip Difficulty

This trip is geared for all levels of paddlers. Instruction will be given prior to paddling each day. The leader asks that participants be in good physical condition and be at least 18 years of age. We will paddle between six to eight miles per day. This translates into four to six hours on the water. While paddling in the swamp, breaks are few and far between. This is due to the very limited amount of dry spaces to land a kayak. The leaders will make every effort to take advantage of all opportunities to break.

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list as well as a trip roster will be sent to all participants. Kayaks, paddles, and personal floatation devices (PFDs) will be provided. If you have a fondness for your own paddle or PFD, bring it! A recommended gear list and specific directions to our meeting point at the airport will be sent to all participants.


  • Russel, Franklin, The Okefenokee Swamp, Time-Life Books, 1973.
  • McQueen, Alexander, The History of the Okefenokee Swamp, Jacobs and Co., Clinton, SC, 1926.



Motors -- motor boats and other motorized equipment -- present the greatest threat to the peace, quiet, and solitude of the Okefenokee's Wilderness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Refuge and has the triple responsibility of managing for Refuge values, for wilderness values, and for health of species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sometimes competing management values give way to the convenience of motorized access, and federal managers resort to motorized access even in wilderness areas.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.



It's not Patrick Nichols' 35 years of wilderness experience or his extensive background as an outdoor enthusiast and wilderness educator that distinguish his tours from the ordinary. It is the exquisite attention to detail: from gourmet cuisine to the intricacies of paddling on quiet waters propelled by kayak. He is an ACA instructor, has trained with Red Cross water safety and is a wilderness first responder. His calling is to use the quiet skills of his lifetime to benefit every traveler, to ensure his skills and knowledge are shared by every voyager with an open heart and a curious mind.

Assistant Leader:

Joe Gallelli is a lifelong outdoorsman, active Outings leader, and certified Wilderness First Responder who enjoys sharing has woodcraft skills, native orchid passion, conservation pursuits, wildlife knowledge, and Native American interests with others. He paddles, swims, wades, hikes, backpacks, rambles, and scrambles to be in wildland and wilderness settings. Joe keeps himself fit and is particularly well adapted to camping and paddling in the southeast USA aquatic and marine environments.

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