Coming into October in the south may, or may not, mean the temperature is cooling off. We never really know when that will happen. It may be a good time to go south for a day trip. October 8-15 is also National Wildlife Refuge Week! What better time to visit a wildlife refuge nearby?
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the nation’s largest network of public lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Only 2 hours and 30 minutes south of Statesboro, established in 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge would make an interesting destination for a day outing. It is home to a 6,000- to 8,000-year-old swamp and the drainage forms the headwaters for the St. Marys and Suwannee rivers. You can imagine the wildlife in the area! Located in Georgia and Florida, the refuge is 401,880 acres. Indians inhabited the swamp for centuries and the name was derived from their meaning “land that trembles when you walk on it.”
Walking around the boardwalk there are distant views into the swamp. Images of ghostly movies and horror stories appear in my imagination! Our visit took place in June. Perfect timing to hear the romance in the air for American alligators! When the weather gets warm in the spring, male and female alligators begin looking for mates. They do this by making low bellowing sounds to announce their presence. This is an eerie, low sound as it echoes through the swamp. I was assured we were safe in our boat tour! Males put on an extra spectacle by slapping the water with their jaws, lifting their tails high and causing skittering droplets through infrasonic vibration; almost like a "water dance."
I love animals and nature, but to be honest the alligator is probably my least favorite animal. No, not because I don’t like the Florida Gators. College bias aside, they should have stayed in the Jurassic period!
There is plenty of other wildlife to appreciate within the refuge — you can see salamanders, frogs, turtles, deer, black bear, fox, even the southern flying squirrel. The alligators do wander the swamp so keep your children close!
There are hundreds of species of birds that visit the swamp throughout the year. During the fall you will have the most chance of seeing White Ibis, Sandhill Crane, Great Blue Heron, Black-Crowned Night Heron, wood ducks and mallards, and listen for the Northern Bobwhite.
There are three entrances to the Okefenokee. I suggest entering at the main gate, 11 miles southwest of Folkston, Georgia off Highway 121/23. You can stop in at the Richard S. Bolt Visitor Center, hike a few trails and take a boat tour. From March 1 through Oct. 31, the refuge closes at 7:30 p.m. The visitor’s center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Camping is available but you must make reservations in advance for permits.
Some other areas you could visit are:
Swamp Island Drive
This 7.5-mile drive offers opportunities for exploring by car, bicycle or on foot. Pick up the Swamp Island Drive brochure to learn about different points along the drive.
Chesser Island Homestead/Boardwalk
Chesser Island was named for the family who first settled this 592-acre island adjacent to the swamp. Visit the Chesser Homestead to see how the early settlers lived. Then take a walk on the Chesser Island Boardwalk to the Owls Roost Tower to get a great view of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Wilderness Canoe Trails
Bring your canoe or rent one from a refuge concession to explore the interior of the swamp on some of the 120 miles of water trails in the refuge.
Upland Discovery Trail
Walk through pines and palmettos to look for woodpeckers, warblers and white-tailed deer. Trees marked with a white band indicate they are now or have been a nesting tree for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. You can explore the refuge by hiking on any of the 9 miles of trails located at the East Entrance to the refuge.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Suwannee Canal Rd
Folkston, GA 31537
Telephone/Visitor’s Center: (912) 496-7836