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Monday, February 27, 2023

Hiking in Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest

Monday, February 27, 2023

Hi Blog!

After two days of paddling, we needed to give our arms a rest. We cast about for an interesting hike. Just a few miles south of Folkston, Georgia is the Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest. This Florida State Park is located along the Georgia/Florida border along the banks of the St. Mary's River. It promised 12 different forest communities. There are three different loops that provided over 10 miles of hiking. We set our sights on the 7 mile White Sand Landing Loop.

After a leisurely morning, we arrived at the trailhead around noon.

We started our hike on an old woods road through an upland longleaf pine forest. On the right side of the trail, the forest undergrowth has been cleared allowing the wiregrass to take bloom.

The most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida is the pine flatwoods. This community evolved under frequent lightning and human-caused fire, and seasonal drought and flooded soil conditions. Pine flatwoods are characterized by low, flat topography, relatively poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil and, in the past, by open pine woodlands with frequent fires.

We were surprised to see this bird box right next to the trail. We checked, but no one was home:

It was easy to spot the Gopher Tortoise dens. Gopher tortoises serve as a keystone species of the longleaf pine ecosystem providing critical habitat for approximately 360 different species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates that spend all or a portion of their lives in active or abandoned gopher tortoise burrows. These large burrows are a safe haven during frequent forest fires. In fact, the Gopher Tortoise needs fire to open up the canopy and control the growth of woody shrubs. Fire allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, thus encouraging the growth of grasses and other food plants as well as increasing areas for basking and nesting.

The trail took a downhill turn toward the St. Mary's River. The vegetation became thicker and ferns lined the trailside.

We knew when we started our hike that the northern part of the forest was closed to hiking. We assumed it was for a prescribed burn. Part of our trail was through a section of the forest that was recently burned. The fire was so recent, there were still "hot spots" flaming up. We checked the surrounding area and there was no danger of the fire spreading, as the surrounding area was already burned out.

We decided to take the side trail to Hawkins' Shop Landing Camp. We were hoping to find a picnic table and make it our lunch stop. 

After a quarter mile, we reached the camping area just above the banks of the St. Marys River. The St. Marys River is 126-mile-long. From near its source in the Okefenokee Swamp, to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean, it forms a portion of the border between Georgia and Florida. 

The small beach area allows boaters to tie up and camp. (Ed: Kathy did check for alligators before climbing down to the beach.)

Not only did the camping area have a picnic table, it also had a fire ring and benches. After a relaxing lunch, we were sorry to leave this pretty spot, but Ruby was waiting for her afternoon walk.

On our way back to the trailhead, we did stop to smell the flowers.

Unlike most oak trees, which are deciduous, southern live oaks are nearly evergreen. They replace their leaves over a short period of several weeks in the spring. Sweet, tapered acorns produced by the trees are eaten by birds and mammals, including sapsuckers, mallards, wild turkeys, squirrels, black bears, and deer. The threatened Florida scrub jay relies on the scrub form of the southern live oak for nesting. Other birds make use of the moss that frequently hangs from the tree branches to construct nests. Their long sweeping branches are cool.  This live oak has somehow survived and wrapped its arms around its neighboring longleaf pines:

The state forest does allow hunting, but it doesn't look like this check station has been used for years.  We were grateful for the advice given us in the sign:

We finished our hike having covered a little over six miles. We have some chores to do tomorrow, so this is will probably be our last blog in the Folkston area. Our next move will take us to Darien, Georgia near the Georgia coast. Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Okefenokee - Paddling from Kingfisher Landing

Today was our last day without strong winds here at Okefenokee Swamp, so we eagerly headed out for more paddling, despite having just paddled a section yesterday.  Today, in contrast to putting in from the main boat ramp near the Visitor Center in the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, we headed north to Kingfisher Landing, down a primitive, sandy road on the Northeast corner of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  As usual, our entry into the water was without misadventure:


Before putting paddle to water, we strolled around Kingfisher Landing, and spotted this old railroad mounted logging vehicle from the old logging days when Okefenokee Swamp was privately owned by a logging company:

Turning our attention to the canal leading from Kingfisher Landing out into Carter Prairie, we were greeted by a wide, slow-moving stream of water.  Okefenokee Swamp drains into the Suwanee River, which actually originates north of the swamp in Georgia and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Mary's River, which originates in the swamp and empties East into the Atlantic Ocean.

The prairie is characterized by a river of grass, punctuated by rafts of peat, hammocks with bushes and small trees, and larger islands with pine and larger deciduous trees.  Occasionally, larger open lakes and ponds dot the prairie.  Here was a hammock or small island with a few large trees:

Today's paddle didn't reveal nearly as much wildlife as other paddles have -- and not even any alligators, as we saw on yesterday's paddle.  But we did catch these two butterflies enjoying the sun on a floating peat raft as we paddled by:

Much of the paddle was in the open sun, and so we were sure to wear broad-brimmed hats and suntan lotion:

A mile into our paddle, we reached the junction of the Red Trail, which we would follow, headed northwest toward Double Lakes and ultimately around and down to Billy's Island in Stephen C. Foster State Park, which we visited on our paddled adventures here in 2022.  Billy's Island is accessible only by water, but was inhabited over the years.

The further we paddled, the more the landscape opened up.  Winds picked up, and we found ourselves paddling "upstream" against a faint current and into a breeze that seemed to reach about 12 mph or so.  The paddle back down, of course, was a breeze.

One of the more interesting things we spotted on this trip was a plethora of hooded pitcher plants, showing beautiful reds and oranges, fading into dry gray on their upper stalks as they seemed to be dying and drying in the late season:

Sarracenia minor okefenokee (Giant), commonly known as hooded pitcher plant, is a stemless herbaceous perennial that is native to wet pinelands, bogs and savannas in southeastern North America from North Carolina into Florida. It is one of only two species of its kind to employ domed pitchers with translucent white patches that allow light to enter. It has been suggested that the light shining through these patches attracts flying insects further into the pitcher and away from the pitcher's mouth. The pitcher is filled with water and enzymes produced by the plant and helpful in the digestion of prey. In the wild, Sarracenia minor seems very attractive to ants, although it also attracts and eats a wide range of flying insects.  The giant version is found generally only in the Okefenokee Swamp, and can grow quite tall –  up to three feet in height.  Here is a better photo of the hooded pitcher plant taken by a better photographer than we are, and earlier in the season when the pitcher plants had not started to die off for the year:

And then, we also enjoyed the company of thousands of Golden Club plants.  They were plentiful on yesterday's paddle, but they were everywhere where we paddled today:

After eating lunch in a quiet backwater, we eventually reached Mile 2 and reluctantly decided that, because we had started our paddle at noon (much later than we normally like to set out), we really should turn back in order to get back to the campground and give Ruby the cat her mandatory first afternoon walk (and third of the day).  So we marked our turnaround here:

The paddle back was peaceful and -- as others have noted, because Kingfisher Landing is in a remote and infrequently visited section of Okefenokee -- quiet, without the noise of crowds of tourists.  We had time to just enjoy the scenery and share our own reactions to our surroundings and our other blue sky thoughts.

This may be our last paddle for a while, so we will simply say, "See you on the water!"  (Wherever that may be.)

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Okefenokee - Suwannee Canal Paddle

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Hi Blog!

Back in 2013, we didn't have kayaks, so when we first visited the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge, we hired a guide to take us on a boat ride through the swamp. Ten years later, we're back and ready to paddle.

Okefenokee is a vast bog inside a huge saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. There are 8 camping platforms throughout the park allowing multi-day canoe/kayak camping trips.

We started our paddle on the Suwannee Canal. Work on the drainage ditch from the swamp to the St. Marys River began on September 20, 1891. Various crews spent three years digging the Suwannee Canal 11.5 miles into the swamp. Work was slow due to various problems. The sides of the drainage ditch collapsed because of poor engineering design and bad weather. Leased convict labor, large steam shovels, and finally gold miners from north Georgia using large water hoses were unable to dig the ditch deep enough. A steamboat was used to haul rafts of cypress logs along the canal to the sawmill at Camp Cornelia. All of the cypress we see in the refuge are second growth.

Okefenokee Adventures runs tours into the swamp. We may have taken this very same boat 10 years ago. 

We noticed that the tour boat stopped for a while and tourists were taking numerous photos. It didn't take long for us to figure out what they were watching.

There are 8 canoe/kayak trails marked by various colors on the Okefenokee Swamp map. The Suwannee Canal is part of the Orange Trail which traverses the park from the National Wildlife Refuge in the east to Stephen C. Foster State Park in the West, for a total of 17 paddle miles.  Before we knew it, we had conquered a major part of it:  we had reached Mile 1:

Nearly 354,000 acres of the refuge are designated as a National Wilderness Area. The term wilderness is defined as "an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" and "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions"

Spanish moss is an epiphytic flowering plant that often grows upon large trees in tropical and subtropical climates. It commonly is found on the southern live oak and bald cypress in the lowlands, swamps, and marshes of the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, from the coast of southeastern Virginia to Florida and west to southern Arkansas and Texas. The specific name of the plant, usneoides, means "resembling Usnea," a lichen. While it superficially resembles its namesake, it is neither a lichen such as Usnea nor a moss, and it is not native to Spain.

After two miles, we came to an intersection with the Yellow Trail and Pink Trail.

The day started out cloudy and cool, but as the fog lifted, the sun brightened our way.

We thought about paddling to the Coffee Bay Picnic Shelter for lunch, but we were getting hungry and it was still two miles away. We decided to find a place to raft-up and have lunch. We noticed a breach in the canal wall which led to a wide, shallow lake filled with lily pads.

The Golden Club seems perfectly comfortable sharing the lake with the lilies:

The thick vegetation held our kayaks in place while we munched our lunch.

After enjoying the open view, bright sun and frog croaks, it was time to work our way back to the main channel. We didn't have to break our paddles down, but we did have to duck a few times.

The most entertaining part of our paddle was trying to use the rest area before a bunch of canoes and kayaks caught up with us. By the time we left, there was quite a line.

On the way back, we decided to take a slight detour on the Pink Trail where we found a side trail into the Chesser Prairie.

It took most of the day before we saw our first turtle. 

However, there was no shortage of alligators.

If the weather cooperates, we hope to paddle another section of the Okefenokee tomorrow.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Biking Okefenokee Swamp!

 We're back at the Okefenokee Swamp!  We were first here in 2013 (see our blog entry titled, "Okefenokee is Okey-Dokey") and then again in 2022 (see our blog entry titled, "Paddling Okefenokee Swamp - Or, So Many Reptiles, So Little Time").  This may be our last visit, so we mean to make it count.  We're camped across the road from the entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, one of three state and federal units administering the Okefenokee Swamp, so it was easy to get a photo of the entrance sign:

We normally don't put maps and such in the blog, but this photo helps you understand how big the Okefenokee is, where the different administrative units are, and what we have done here.  This time, we are literally at the "You Are Here" location on the east side of Okefenokee.  In 2013, we spent most of our time in the Okefenokee Swamp Park, at the north end; and, in 2022, we camped in the RV and spent all of our time in Stephen C. Foster State Park, on the west side of Okefenokee.

We started at the Visitor Center, which sits at the east end of a long canal that allows paddlers to access the interior of Okefenokee:

As we walked the boardwalk outside the Visitor Center, we spotted a ranger in a patrol boat as he observed one of the tour boats returning to the dock after introducing visitors to the swamp:

We took a walk out Cane Pole Trail, which was in part a boardwalk along the canal and into the swamp's prairie.  On the way, we spotted this local resident, looking very satisfied with his vantage point:

At the end of the trail was an observation platform that let us get up close and personal with the prairie flora and fauna:

Finishing that walk, we started our bike ride along the Refuge's Swamp Island Drive, which would take us out to Chesser Island, which boasts a boardwalk and the original homestead of the Chessers, who owned much of this land.  It wasn't long before we reached a panne, or sinkhole --

-- which boasted a resident alligator who kept to his side of the pond and suggested very strongly that we keep to ours:

Further on the Swamp Drive, we came across sections that have been subjected to prescribed burns to help protect the Refuge from rampant wildfire.  This burn was quite recent, because we could still smell smoky residue, and the only new green life was small shoots of grass:

We eventually reached Chesser Island, where we hiked out along the 3/4 mile Chesser Island Boardwalk.  Every quarter mile, the Refuge has constructed shady observation decks:

We eventually reached the observation tower at the end of the boardwalk --

-- where we got a grand panoramic view of the wet prairie that is characteristic of the east side of the Okefenokee:

Everywhere we looked in the water, we could see turtles sunning themselves in the early afternoon sun.  This fellow was just one of them:

Having finished lunch and the boardwalk, we rode our bikes further on the historic Chesser Homestead, which still stands, and is furnished with the original furnishings of the Chesser family.  It was easy to visualize them living in this modest swamp home:

The living room was fully furnished and provided an interesting window into the Chessers' lifestyle --

As was the open-air bathtub, pump and basin on the back porch, which appear to provide a natural setting for a pleasant soak:

After touring the Chesser Homestead, we continued our bike ride back along Swamp Island Drive toward the Visitor Center.  Along the way, we spotted a tourist dragging his camera out of his car near a roadside pond, and we pointed him toward some turtles he might like to photograph.  In rejoinder, he told us we should take a look at the alligator whose portrait he was already planning to make:

We thought that was the last of our wildlife viewing, but as we got closer to the Visitor Center, Kathy spotted this little snake sunning herself on the asphalt.  We stopped, protected the snake with our bike, and Kathy found a long stick with which to tickle the snake and encourage it back to the protection of the roadside vegetation.  No one wants a roadkill snake.

Once we finished our snaky project, we still had 4.5 miles to pedal back to our campground, but energized by all the discoveries, we found the time passed very quickly.  We got back to our campground just in time to let Ruby cat out to further explore her new campground home.