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Suwannee Canal Recreation Area

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia.

Alligator.

An alligator at the edge of a prairie, Okefenokee Swamp.

Introduction How to Get There Terrain and Ecosystems Trail Description Plants and Animals Stories In-Page Navigation, Arethusa Falls Page
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Suwannee Canal Recreation Area

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp is one of North America's unique wild areas. Straddling the border between Georgia and Florida, it combines temperate and subtropical features, with a dazzling array of plants, birds, and other wildlife. The Suwannee Canal is a failed attempt to drain the swamp for agriculture in the late 19th century. The result is a series of defined waterways where you can paddle through otherwise trackless and nearly impassable swamp. In addition to canoeing and other boating, the recreation area included well marked and well maintained trails in some of the higher ground, and a series of boardwalks and observation towers in the swamp itself. The visitor center was also worth an hour or so to learn about the history and natural history of the area.

I went canoeing there a long time ago when I lived in Georgia, and a couple of times when I was home on leave from the Navy. More recently, but still a long time ago, I brought my wife and children there.

I speak of it in the past tense because I'm afraid it may be destroyed in the fires of 2007, which continue as I write this. It's bound to be rebuilt sooner or later.

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How to Get There

When I lived near Macon, I had to take a tedious series of back roads to get from Interstate 75 to the Suwannee Canals area. It's much easier from I-95.

You want to get to Folkston, Georgia. Take I-95 to Kings Bay, Georgia, then take State Route 40 West toward Kingsland (at which point the road is named the Okefenokee Parkway). In Folkston (where the road has become Kingsland Drive), take State Route 121 South (and it has again become Okefenokee Parkway). Just about ten miles or so south of Folkston, you should see signs for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge East Entrance and Headquarters. The signs will probably also mention the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area.

There is an admission fee to enter the recreation area. There is also a fee to rent canoes, of course. All hiking trails and the boardwalks are free.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

The swamp is technically a bog, thick with pond lilies, cattails, rushes, sphagnum, and other aquatic plants. There is some dry land within the swamp, consisting of islands of various sizes, plus the long, straight tailings from digging the canals. All this high ground is covered with a fairly typical southern forest of slash pine, longleaf pine, and saw palmetto, along with a few hardwoods such as live oak, blackgum, and red maple.

Situated along the Atlantic Flyway, the swamp is visited in season by birds from all over eastern North America. Residents include a fascinating mix of ordinary temperate-zone birds and exotic tropical species. Naturally, most of the wildlife is of the water-loving kind, but there are also fully terrestrial species on the islands.

Where the water is deep, only pond lilies show above the surface, and these areas are thick with underwater vegetation and fish that can tolerate warm, oxygen-poor water. Some of the deeper areas are also flooded forests of bald cypress. Shallow but still watery areas are choked with various grasses, and home to a bewildering array of insects. The dry ground is full of lizards and snakes, and the trees provide nesting sites for birds from hummingbirds to white ibis.

Edge of the canal.

The tailings of the canal are the only places where you'll see deep water and relatively high ground close together.

Steeping in decomposed sphagnum and other vegetation, the water is a dark orange-brown, rather like the color of weak tea, and as acidic as a typical cola. It is not polluted, but dark and ugly for natural reasons.

The name "Okefenokee" derives from a Choctaw phrase meaning "trembling ground." It was called this because even the dry islands in the swamp are sitting on saturated, soft soil consisting largely of decomposed sphagnum, and in many places it does indeed shake when you jump on it.

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Trail Description

The canals that fan out into the swamp provide several advantages for canoeing. First, they are landmarks you can use to find your way back out again, and there are signs at all the major branches and intersections so you know where you're going. Another advantage is that the water is deeper in the canals, so you don't have to slog through the natural vegetation. Also, the piles of tailings, and the trees that grow on them, provide shelter from the wind, so you don't have to fight that as much as you would in the open swamp. Canals and other navigable areas stretch for many, many miles into the swamp, so you could easily take a multi-day camping trip into one of the last true wilderness areas in the East. (Wilderness canoe trips require a special permit which must be requested well in advance of your visit.)

Canal lined with cypress trees.

The broad canal winding out into the swamp.

The boardwalk paths into the marshy areas take you through grasslands rather similar to the Everglades. There are a few wide platforms where you can view the particular features described in the pamphlets - alligator wallows, exotic plants, etc. At the end of the boardwalk is a tower, with comfortable stairs, that gives you a magnificent view over a wide "prairie," where you can watch alligators, birds, and other wildlife.

Boardwalk.

The boardwalk is another way to get deep into the swamp.

Alligator beside a wallow.

You'll still see plenty of alligators from the boardwalk.

Prairie.

Looking out across a prairie from the observation tower.

View from tower.

Looking straight down from the observation tower through the Spanish moss.

The dry-land trails are well maintained and well marked, as good as you might expect in a national park. Most of them also have self-guiding pamphlets to tell you what to watch for along the way.

Except for a multi-day canoe excursion, nothing in the Suwannee Canals area requires much in the way of physical fitness. The average couch potato can enjoy the boardwalk and the trails with no trouble at all. And as long as you can handle a canoe in dead-calm water, you can also handle a short trip out into the canals, which will be well worth your while.



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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you will see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.

Mammals

  • White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). More common than you might think. They are indeed so common that some conservationists are proposing the Okefenokee as an ideal place to reintroduce the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) and/or the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi). These locally extinct predators would control the numbers of deer, and the deer would provide food for the endangered carnivores.
  • Small herd of deer.

    The white-tailed deer in Georgia and Florida tend to be a bit smaller than in other parts of the U.S.

    Two deer.

    In the protection of the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, the deer are rather more bold than in places where they are hunted.

  • Raccoon (Procyon lotor elucus). If you saw a rather large animal in the bushes, it was probably a raccoon. They are far more active in daytime here than in the typical suburb.
  • Bobcat (Lynx rufus floridanus). Common enough, but secretive. Look for them hiding in the bushes along the roadside.
  • Opossum (Didelphis virginiana pigna). Strictly nocturnal, but definitely there even if you never see one alive. (Georgia joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? To prove to the possum that it could be done!)
  • Nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus mexicanus). Not so nocturnal, they start becoming active in late afternoon, and their huge burrows are unmistakable. Frequently seen as roadkill, they are sneeringly called "possum on the halfshell."
  • Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger). Rarely seen in the drier pine forests, you'll never forget a fleeting glimpse of this enormous squirrel.
  • Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus floridanus). More common here than the more familiar red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is also present in the swamp.
  • Black bear (Ursus americanus floridianus). Also more common than you might think, but rather secretive.
  • Feral pig (Sus scrofa). Somewhat secretive, but their wallows and places they've been rooting for food are quite conspicuous.
  • River otter (Lontra canadensis vaga). Cautious of alligators most of the year, they are easier to see in winter.

Birds

  • Woodpeckers. There's even a special trail dedicated just to watching woodpeckers and their nest holes. They include red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), red-bellied woodpecker (M. carolinus), the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis), downy woodpecker (P. pubescens), yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) and probably others.
  • Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). Becoming rather bold, even the young are easy to see in spring.
  • White herons of several species. They're often hard to tell apart, but look for the great egret (Casmerodius albus), the smaller snowy egret (Egretta thula), and the much smaller cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis). You may possibly see the white form of great blue heron (Ardea herodias), but they mainly occur farther south.
  • Several smaller dark herons, including the little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), tricolored heron (E. tricolor), the green heron (Butorides virescens), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), and yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea). If you look carefully among the reeds, you might see an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) or a least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis).
  • Other wading birds, including the wood stork (Mycteria americana), white ibis (Eudocimus albus), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), greater sandhill crane (Grus canadensis tabida), and Florida sandhill crane (G. c. pratensis). The more tropical birds are seen in summer, and the greater sandhill cranes in winter. As populations of whooping cranes (G. americana) become established in Florida, they might begin making stops in Okefenokee along their migration.
  • Gallinules and coots. All are uncommon in Okefenokee, but you might see the common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) and American coot (Fulica americana) swimming in the prairies, or a purple gallinule (Porphyrula martinica) walking across the lily pads.
  • Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus). Rather common in the forests, but more easily heard than seen.
  • Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). This exotic-looking diving bird is surprisingly common in the swamp, with little more than its snake-like head and neck showing as it swims.
  • Loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). You might see their stores of dead mice and insects impaled on twigs and thorns throughout the swamp, a habit which gives them the nickname, "butcherbird."
  • Redwing blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). You'll hear their "conk-a-REE" everywhere, and often see their striking red "epaulets" and glossy black plumage among the reeds.
  • Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). They nest on treetops, and even on signposts out in the swamp!
  • Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). You may think of this as a bird of the mountains, but they are actually quite common in southern wetlands.
  • Vultures. The black vulture (Coragyps aratus) is very common, and the slightly larger turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) somewhat less so. You might mistake these soaring birds for young eagles, but you can tell them apart by the way they hold their wings. All eagles soar with their wings horizontal, while all American vultures hold their wings at an upward angle.

Other Animals

  • American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Face it, this is what you came to see. You won't be disappointed! (And yes, they are real, live alligators! Take my word for it.)
  • Alligator in the grass.

    Alligator making his way thorugh the grass.

    Alligator in deep water.

    Alligator near the edge of the canal.

    Alligator on lawn.

    Alligator on the lawn near the boat basin.

    Alligator in a wallow.

    Alligator in a wallow seen from the boardwalk.



  • Turtles of various kinds. Look for the thin snorkels of Florida soft-shell turtles (Trionyz ferox), which almost never come on land. Others that rarely bask but are always present are the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine serpentina) and the monstrous alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temmincki). You will see others basking, including Florida red-bellied turtles (Chrysemys nelsoni), Florida cooters (Pseudemys floridana floridana), yellow-bellied pond sliders (P. scripta scripta), red-eared pond sliders (P. s. elegans), and many others. On the higher ground, you may see the Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), eastern box turtle (T. c. carolina), and gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus).
  • Lizards, especially skinks. Look for the five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus) and secretive little brown skink (Scincella lateralis), also known as the ground skink, with its nearly-useless legs. Both of these are rather common in the leaf litter along the trails. If you're lucky, you may also see one of three species of glass lizard, the eastern slender glass lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus longicaudus), the island glass lizard (O. compressus), or the eastern glass lizard (O. ventralis). There are also green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) among the brushy areas.
  • Venomous snakes. Watch out for water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti) roosting in the bushes over the canals. Also beware of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus), and canebrake rattlesnakes (C. horridus atricaudatus) on the upland trails. And if you go poking among the leaf litter, watch out for the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). None of these are abundant enough nor aggressive enough that you should choose not to visit Okefenokee, but keep your eyes open.
  • Colorful harmless snakes. There are two that mimic the coral snake, the northern scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea copei) and the scarlet king snake (Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides). Both are much larger than the coral snake, and conveniently differ in color pattern (red touch yellow, kill a fellow, red touch black, venom lack). Other beautifully colored upland snakes include the yellow rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata) and the corn snake (E. guttata guttata), the latter of which also often enters the water.
  • Harmless water snakes. You may see several species of water snake which are sometimes mistaken for young water moccasins, including the banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata fasciata), Florida water snake (N. f. pictiventris), and brown water snake (N. taxispilota).
  • Small inconspicuous upland snakes. Some denizens of the leaf litter are the southern ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus punctatus), the Florida brown snake (Storeria dekayi victa), and the Florida red-bellied snake (S. occipitomaculata obscura).
  • Large harmless snakes. You may be surprised to see a large harmless snake such as the southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), the eastern coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum), and the rare indigo snake (Drymarchon corais couperi), which often climbs in the bushes above the water. There is also the eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platyrhinos), which puts on an aggressive display, but will almost never bite.
  • Frogs. You'll hear far more than you see. Some you are likely to see are the bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) and the green frog (R. clamitans clamitans), also locally called the bronze frog, and the southern leopard frog (R. utricularia). The ones you'll hear most are the southern spring peeper (Hyla crucifer bartramiana), the southern chorus frog (Pseudacris nigrita nigrita), the pig frog (R. grylio), and the southern toad (Bufo terrestris). On upland hikes, you may see the southern toad, along with the green treefrog (Hyla cinerea cinerea), the gray treefrog (H. chrysoscelis), and the pine woods treefrog (H. femoralis). There are more than a dozen other species of toads and frogs throughout the swamp.
  • Bowfin (Amia calva), locally known as "cypress trout." It's nothing like a trout, of course, and probably not very good eating, but it's the only fish that will put up much of a fight in most of the swamp.
  • Bream and sunfish. There are several species, from the ordinary bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) to the Okefenokee pygmy sunfish (Elassoma okefenokee), found only in Okefenokee.
  • Bass. In the deeper lakes are the typical southern trophies, the largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and the black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus).
  • Golden-silk spider (Nephila clavipes). You may have heard legends of giant spiders in the southern swamps. They are true. This spider's legs can span six inches, and the web can span six feet. If you accidentally walk through the web, you hear a loud "twang" as the silk breaks.

Trees

  • Cypress. The more common is the Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens). The larger is the Bald cypress (T. distichum). Together, these are the only trees that live in permanent water in Okefenokee. The bald cypress is called "bald" because, unlike most needle-bearing conifers, it loses its needles in winter.
  • Long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris). This was originally the dominant tree in Okefenokee's uplands, but it has been reduced by logging and by the planting of more commercially important species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is managing the forests to encourage more growth of this original forest.
  • Slash pine (P. elliotii). Distinctly longer needles than the eastern white pine, though not as long as the long-leaf pine.
  • Live oak (Quercus virginiana). A large hardwood that keeps its leaves all year.
  • Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Probably the most common hardwood in the islands.
  • Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Not sure whether to call this a tree or a shrub. Unlike most palms, its "trunk" is horizontal, and mostly below the leaf litter, and even below the soil, much like a rhizome, so all that really shows is the green "crown" of the tree.

Shrubs

  • Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). Marks the edge of the water, pretty much everywhere. Clusters of waxy "bayberries" rom late summer through the winter.
  • Ground oak (Licania michauxii). Common in the understory of pine forests.

Wildflowers

  • Pond lily (Nymphaea odorata). Just about everywhere in the prairies, and blooming from early spring right into fall.
  • Swamp lily (Crinum americanum). Long, thin petals, unusual for a lily.
  • Orchids of various species, including yellow fringed orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and greenfly orchid, (Epidendrum conopseum), the only epiphytic orchid in the U.S.
  • Golden club (Orontium aquaticum). Very common acquatic plant, tiny yellow flowers on a yellow "club," and giant waxy leaves.
  • Swollen bladderwort (Utricularia inflata). Yellow flowers above the water, and "wagon wheel" leaves that double as flotation devices and as traps for the insects it "eats."
  • Iris or southern blue-flag (Iris virginica). Grows in shallow water and very damp soil, but closely related to the flags and irises you may have in your garden.

Other Plants

  • Sphagnum (Sphagnum sp. Note that even most scientists can't agree on defining species of the genus Sphagnum). Visible in wide stretches of wet red and green carpet, in its dead and decayed form it underlies virtually the entire swamp, islands and all.
  • Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Not really moss, and not a parasite, but it does shade the trees it grows on, often damaging their health. You'll be hard-pressed to find a cypress or a pine that is not draped with this gray-green epiphyte.
  • Carnivorous plants, especially various pitcher plants. These include golden trumpet (Sarracenia flava), hooded (S. minor), and parrot pitcher plant (S. psittacina).
  • Southern cattail (Typha latifolia). Very common in water between half a foot and a foot deep.
  • Greenbrier (Smilax walteri). Living barbed wire on the upland areas.
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