Wednesday, October 21, 2015


I get nervous when I lose sight of the mountains. Something about the overgrown, flat, expansive terrain of the Deep South (and something about burning through a tank of gas nervously purchased on the Florida-Georgia line in an hour, too) causes me to lose my bearings and bring my guard up. As I traded blazing maples and conifers for Spanish moss and cypress knees en route to Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia in early November, the change was evident.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Just days before, snow fell on a turkey hunting effort and spiced up the sex drive of brown trout in northern Pennsylvania.  Clouds hid the sun for days on end.  The hardwoods covering the walls of the Pine Creek Valley were barren; it seemed winter had moved in before fall was through unpacking.  However, almost 1000 miles and six states south, the crisp nights of the season so treasured were just beginning.

    Southwest Florida, and the promiseof snook and tarpon fishing amongst a mangrove maze, was on the menu for the end of the week, but with kayak in tow, I couldn’t, in good conscience, pass up the rich paddling potential of the famed swamp.

    That night, after a short walk, I laid my head upon firm ground, yards from the swamp, resonating with the cuckoos and whistles of swamp creatures. The distinct drone emitted by spiraling mosquitos hung in the background, held at bay by the screen of my tent, while foraging gray squirrels rustled the palmettos above. Small-framed swamp deer wandered close, but kept their distance.

    As the sun set, the temperature dropped. No rain or dew threatened. So, for the first time since I left home in early September, I forsook the tent’s protective fly and soaked in the night. The moon was bright and full; and I drifted off to sleep watching embers from a dying fire drift across its face.

    With no hills or valleys to hush it, the swamp will wake you well before sunrise to share in the majesty of dawn. For a while I dwindled on the edge of consciousness, watching light return to the scrubby understory, the night creatures and goings-on whisked away with the shadows.

    The restlessness of morning grew to a detectable level. My eyes snapped open, my body filled with a sense of urgency.

    I shouldered my kayak and carried it a short distance to a narrow canal and broke water. It was 6 a.m.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Life was all around. Though the sun had not yet poked the majority of its fiery form above the horizon, birds were awake and plentiful. Egrets drew attention to the lily pad and daisy crops on the water’s edge, and waded carefully around cypress knees, heads bobbing in rhythm. Cormorants idled passively by, stealthy boaters yielding to the wake of my kayak.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    When the canal met bigger water, the scene revealed more of the dark divers. The early-to-rise occupied perches in the canopies of magnificent, moss-covered cypress trees, wings spread and hunched, drying out—the avian equivalent to a morning shower. Taller, more awkward blue herons glided overhead, piercing the scene with their raspy squawking.

    Dipping my paddle into the main body of the waterway, I caught a glimpse of the sun as it emerged from behind a cypress forest, casting a deep yellow hue through the sky.

    It was then, in the growing morning, that my attention turned to the shorelines. The swamp is known for its alligator presence, though none had yet shown themselves.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Following a primitive sign, I left the comfort of big water for a tight course towards Minnie’s Lake.

    It was quickly evident that I was, though only slightly, moving upstream. The passageway narrowed to a diameter of mere feet. Cypress trees and fallen logs served as obstacles, as I navigated the cut deeper into the backcountry.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Nine miles of paddling landed me at what I can only assume to be Minnie’s Lake. The forest opened up, and water expanded to fill the void.

    Unprotected from the dense cypress canopy, I could then feel the full strength of the southern sun.

    As I rounded a corner, into the Lake, a magnificently large alligator—of well over 10 feet in length—nearly induced a heart attack as it charged into the swamp from its sunny spot.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The hidden, cold-blooded inhabitants of the swamp had awoken, and could be spotted dotting the matted fringes. Alligators slid by like submarines, eyes and snout just visible above the surface, surveying the scene. Turtles stumbled about in the grass and popped their heads up in the kayak’s path curiously.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Foreign is a swamp to a northerner. The creatures I encountered before takeout were well-suited to their home—toothed and armored. Such ecological diversity we have in this country. Such beautiful ecological diversity.

For more photos from Okefenokee, click HERE.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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