After a short visit at Laura S Walker, we set our navigation to Stephen C Foster State Park, nestled deep in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It was late in the afternoon, but we had reservations at Suwanee River Eco-Lodge, which is managed by the State Park, but located offsite in the nearby town of Fargo, GA. We visited the trading post to get checked in, and stock up on a couple of essentials for our hiking bag – like bug spray and sunscreen. I also needed to get my requisite lapel pin to add to my “adventure bag”.
While we were browsing around the trading post, we overheard the rangers talking about their boat tours, and decided that we wanted to get in on that! We signed up for an 8am departure for the next morning, and excitedly began imagining what secret wonders the swamp might reveal.
We wanted to do a little bit of exploring in the park before heading to the Eco-Lodge, so we selected the boardwalk trail, located right behind the trading post. The trail starts out by parting the dense undergrowth with a singletrack, but quickly turns off into the water with an elevated boardwalk. It must have been a tremendous effort to build so much boardwalk into the Okefenokee, but man, what an amazing experience, putting you right into the swampland with minimal effort. Be sure to pack bug spray – even in March, there were still considerable amounts of biting flies.
As we began to get further into the swamp, the undergrowth became a little less dense and we were able to see out into the cypress. We spotted a hawk – most likely a red shouldered – keeping watch from an old dead tree. They would occasionally fly a small circuit around the swamp before returning to the tree again to land, giving us ample opportunity to photograph them in flight and at rest. Once we completed our boardwalk trail, we headed back to get checked in to the Suwanee River Eco-Lodge. We spotted two more red-shouldered hawks right in the parking lot, and took a brief rest from unloading the Jeep to take their photos.
The Eco-Lodge was perfect for what we needed – a basic kitchen, sizable bathroom, fold out sofa and a queen size bed. Teri and I have spent a lot of time camping together out of the back of the wrangler, so getting to sleep in a bed was like luxury! We appreciated the close proximity to the park, while still being able to have “creature comforts”. We pretty much passed out as soon as we got settled. For those who are more night-owl than we are, the park offers a glimpse into the heavens by being a certified Dark Sky Park, and is perfect for astrophotography, or just general star gazing.
The next morning, we got up with the sun, giving ourselves plenty of time to get moving before our boat tour. The first priority of our mornings is coffee – copious amounts of coffee – and we also prefer to just kind of putter around and slowly get our things together to avoid feeling rushed. Once we set out for our boat tour, it only took about 15 minutes to get to the boat ramp from the Eco-Lodge. It was brisk and cool, and I was thankful to have a hoodie because it was quite chilly once we boarded the boat. We didn’t even have to leave the launch area before we spotted our first gators – a small juvenile hanging near the banks, and giant adults on the edge. The guide told us that it was the local mother gator (Sophie) who raises her clutch near the visitor center, and her current boyfriend (Big Boy).
The boat tour winds around the waterways, snaking through the tall grass and stopping along any notable landmarks, such as historical cypress trees or keystone species. We saw plenty of gators basking in the sun, trying to shake off the morning cold.
We also spotted other wildlife – black vultures, turkey vultures, red-shouldered hawks, and double-breasted cormorant. There are plenty of shallow areas that water birds can fish from, but I’m sure it also comes with its own risks from what lies beneath the surface.
Perhaps one of my favorite things from the tour was spotting Orantium aquaticum which is also known as “never-wet” or “goldenclub” and learning about the interesting plant from our ranger/tourguide. He probably thought it was unusual that his morning boat tour was more interested in plants than gators, but he drove the boat in close to allow for better photos.
All in all, I really enjoyed our trip to Stephen C Foster and the accompanying Suwanee Eco-Lodge. It offered such a unique environment, far different than the flora and fauna we usually experience in the North Georgia foothills.