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Breaking in a Swamp Newbie

Any person who has been around me for a while knows I have a deep love for swamps; particularly the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia. I love that black water, cypress trees and lily pads and I especially love sharing it with someone who has never been there. This February I had the opportunity to return to the swamp with my friends Robert Grigg and Jameson Redding. Robert has been with me for most of my trips there but this was going to be Jameson’s first experience in the Okefenokee. He had endured so many stories about my adventures by the campfire I think I just finally wore him down!

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After we all got into camp and set up we made our plans for the next 2 days of paddling. One trip would be down to Billy’s Island, (named for Billy Bowlegs, an Indian Chief that used to live there) and the other would be a float to the Suwannee Sill. The sill is a long earthen dam and canal system that was built in the 60’s. It is the headwaters of the Suwannee river that flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Robert and I had been to Billy’s many times and fish the sill but neither of us had floated the 5 miles between the two. We did not know what the trip would be like and all 3 of us were looking forward to the adventure.

 

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Our first day’s trip to the island was pushed along by some of the strongest wind I have ever experienced in the swamp. I knew it was not going to be a fun paddle back on the return trip. We tried our best to enjoy at least one way of the journey but we all knew what was coming. A family of otters searching for a fish dinner gave us a little bit of a show but it seemed they were having as much trouble catching fish as we were. The return paddle was brutal; white capped waves turned the normally calm surface of Billy’s lake rough as a cob. The folks that drove by us in the tour boat sat in awe and wonder as we plowed our way into the waves. We pulled into the protected canal at the marina and all breathed a sigh of relief to be out of that wind. We caught a few more fish in the canal that leads to the marina. We cleaned our fish and then headed back to camp for a dinner of fried fish, creek bank taters and grilled asparagus. (Check out my cooking bowfin video on YouTube, here: http://bit.ly/1mFwGxQ)

After a great night sleep being serenaded by barred owls, we loaded up for our float to the sill. Thankfully the majority of this trip was through tight cypress canals so the howling wind wasn’t as big of a factor. Leaving Billy’s lake we paddled through the twisting canal stopping to fish in a few places. On a previous trip, paddlers had seen black bears along the way but we were not that lucky this trip. We did get to see some amazing bird life and a healthy dose of alligators. Some of them were reluctant to get in the cold water after sitting in the sun so they just “hissed” their disapproval as we paddled past. When we broke out of the canals and hit the sill it was midafternoon. We pulled our kayaks up on the shore and grabbed our lunches out of the Orion. After snacking and sitting in the warm sun I would have been happy taking a long nap but Robert started catching fish right where we were parked. Pretty soon all 3 of us were hooking into fish and we didn’t even have to get back in the kayaks.

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The swamp is a great mix of fishing, scenery and animal sightings. Each trip brings something new, even for those of us who have been many times. It may be a different critter, a new place or just seeing the swamp in a different season. I still haven’t seen a bear there but I keep looking on each journey through the Okefenokee. It was great to make yet another trip with Robert and to show Jameson just a little bit of the place I talk about so much. I can’t wait till I can load up and head back down there for another opportunity to paddle that incredible place. I know Robert is already planning a return trip and I bet we can twist Jameson’s arm to come back with us!

– Chris Funk

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