Final, peaceful morning paddle as I completed my solo trip in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The last three nights, I've gotten in my tent before 9:00 p.m. I've had a good few hours of sleep, and then I would wake up, read, listen to the sounds of the night, and then fall back to sleep until the morning light. Several good hours of sleep - not bad for tent camping.
This morning I was up before 7:00 with a loose plan to paddle back to Stephen C. Foster State Park starting around 8:00. But unlike the prior two mornings, this morning everything was covered with condensation. And the shelter leaked, so water dripped on my tent and other gear. I hoped the rising sun would help dry things off a little before I packed up.
I boiled water and prepared the oatmeal Linda had sent with me. I did everything at a very leisurely pace while enjoying the beautiful, peaceful morning. Again, the songbirds were singing and the hawks and woodpeckers were calling. Fortunately, the carpenter bees had not started their infernal buzzing yet.
I slowly started drying everything with the big towel I had brought. Being adamant about "leave no trace" principles, I made sure there was no inkling that I had been there, and I packed up some small evidence from prior visitors. Even when camping with the RV, we make sure we leave campsites cleaner than we found them and encourage others to do the same.
Around 8:30, I had the boat back in the water and loaded up. The water was smooth but there was just enough current that I could have gently floated the three miles back to Billy's Lake.
In fact, that's exactly what I did for the first mile. The paddle only touched the water to keep me lined up. I was thinking it is worth it to stay the night at Minnies Lake Shelter just to do this early morning float with the current. So enchanting and peaceful and relaxing out there alone.
There were, of course, alligators, but there was more time to really look into the trees and pay attention to the birds and squirrels and nuances of the swamp.
I startled a couple of deer and, unlike their usually silent departures, they made a lot of noise splashing through the shallow waters just out of sight.
A young hawk above me was calling.
Wood Ducks took flight from the channel as soon as they saw me. I floated through the cypress and past the "Turnaround Tree" where many of the boat tours from the state park turn around before reaching Minnies Lake.
I was thinking how wonderful it would be to share this experience with others. I've often thought about Linda & I starting some type of private guide service where we could take maybe two to four people at a time and show them the natural wonders and wildlife of our parks and refuges.
Another shot from this morning's lovely float.
I can only imagine what it would look like when the cypress leave out and are green. Of course, at this time of year, there have been absolutely no bugs while I was on the water and the temperature has been perfect. I've read that it gets really hot and muggy and buggy during the summer when the cypress trees are green. And of course there are more people during the summer, so I'm just fine with having to suffer through bare cypress here in early March.
After the first mile, I picked up the pace ever so slightly and, eventually, I reached Billy's Lake having gone the full three miles from the shelter without encountering another human. I turned right to paddle the last mile on the wider channel.
It was a little after 10:00, shortly after the above photo, when I started meeting people in a variety of boats heading out for the day.
This fellow was doing some kayak fishing, and he had a camera crew .... and his own personal gator escort service.
I passed a couple of ladies in kayaks and one said "You're a brave soul out here in an inflatable". She was referring to possible punctures, but I was never once concerned about that - the FastTrack is quite durable and we've been through much worse than the Okefenokee had to offer.
As I mentioned my first day, I was extra cautious with the gators, with my biggest concern being startling them and having an accidental altercation. I almost had one of those accidental encounters yesterday.
When the gators leave the banks, I can see the lilies move as they pass under them so I can tell where they are. Yesterday, as I was heading up to Minnies Lake in a particularly narrow section, I could see lilies on my left moving and I knew a gator was swimming toward the channel. That one had already been underwater - it wasn't one that ran in when it saw me. Those are just trying to get to deeper water away from me where they feel safer. But, in this case, it looked like we were on a collision course, and I was hoping it would just continue on under the water to the other side of the channel. Nope. It popped its head up in the channel right next to the boat about two feet away from my left foot. When it popped up and saw me, it turned like lightning and splashed away - I'm not sure which of us was more scared in that split-second. Fortunately, it was a smaller one and it never made contact, but it took a few minutes for my heartbeat to slow back down. But I knew it wasn't an aggressive thing - just one of those fluke things I was somewhat prepared for.
Knowing these Okefenokee gators are especially attracted to fishermen, and having seen them chase hooked fish on lines, I quickly decided fishing from the inflatable was a really bad idea. But, with a sensible dose of caution and wariness, I wouldn't hesitate to do the same trip again in the Sea Eagle.
Soon, I was back in the state park canal and my trip was over. I spent the last two and a half days in the quiet, rejuvenating wilderness, barefoot, and quite happy. I may have to make such adventures a regular occurrence every couple of months or so. Thank you Okefenokee .... and thank you Linda for understanding and encouraging me to get my nature fix.