Experiencing the Okefenokee Swamp

By: John A. Lanier

My son and I had an amazing time camping in the Okefenokee Swamp. It was a deep and pure experience of nature, made all the richer because we were outside of our comfort zone. If you haven’t spent a weekend in a state park before, please consider giving it a try!

The best cup of coffee you will ever have in your entire life is the morning after sleeping through a rainstorm in a tent with your five-year-old while camping in a swamp. I know how that sentence sounds. You’re thinking that I had a terrible experience, and that I’m about to complain about the rain or being in a swamp or camping or my five-year-old. You would think wrong. I loved every bit of it, and dealing with the elements actually enhanced the experience. The fact that coffee becomes its platonic ideal after all of that was just the cherry on top.

Stretching Our Camping Limits

 
My wife, mother-in-law, and daughter traveled to North Carolina for a baby shower last weekend, so I got to plan a trip just with my son. We’ve been camping a few times, and I know by now that he genuinely loves it. For reasons of convenience, most of his camping has been in and around Atlanta. This time though, I wanted him to see more of what the state of Georgia has to offer. So we packed up the car and drove nearly five hours south to spend two nights camping at the Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
 
I’ll share more in a moment about our experience, but first I want to say that I’m still a camping novice. I was too focused on ball sports as a kid to want to sleep outside, so it’s only been in the last decade that I’ve dabbled in this form of recreation. It started in earnest with an overnight backpacking class that my wife got for me as a gift in 2015, and since then I’ve read up on, and geared up for, everything that goes into a successful camping trip. That said, we are still talking fewer than a dozen nights that I’ve slept outdoors in my life.
 
Though I didn’t admit this to my wife before we left on our trip, the idea of camping in the swamp did make me nervous. It’s black bear and alligator country, and my son loves to wander off and explore new places. Plus, I wasn’t sure when we would make camp. If there was even a bit of traffic, I would have to pitch a tent in the dark, and I knew that rain was in the forecast for much of the weekend. It wasn’t going to take much going wrong to screw up my carefully laid plans.
 

There’s No Place Like (an Alligator’s) Home

 
We got lucky on two counts our first night. First, there wasn’t any traffic, so I had the tent set up just as the pink hues of the sunset started peaking at us through the Spanish moss hanging from the pines. Second, the rain rolled in just about the time our heads hit our pillows. The pitter patter of rain drops on our tent quickly soothed us to sleep.
 
The next morning was incredible. After one of those cups of coffee and a hearty breakfast, we went to the park headquarters to rent a two-person kayak. Paddling out into the swamp is an experience that I will always remember, and it was the first time in a long time where I felt completely immersed in nature. Within the first five minutes, we saw a half dozen alligators, which reminded us that we were in a wildlife refuge. We were mere visitors to their home, and the home of so many other incredible creatures, and I was overcome with gratitude that I could experience being there with my son.
 
Up next was lunch and a plan to hike the various trails in the park, but that’s when mother nature intervened. Thunderstorms rolled in and drenched the area for nearly 8 hours straight. I learned a lesson that afternoon - make sure you look for the low spot in the ground when you pitch a tent, and don’t put it there. I told you I am a camping novice!
 

What State Parks Are Near You?

 
Fortunately, only one corner of our tent ended up flooded. We managed to survive the storm in good spirits and have another solid night of sleep, thankfully with a lighter rainfall than the afternoon had seen. The following morning was our chance to hike a bit (after more coffee of course) before heading home. Walking along a boardwalk winding through the wetlands, we saw even more of the beauty that she had to offer. I also took the time to explain to my son the importance of the ecosystem we were in, especially when it comes to the amount of carbon stored in the soil beneath us. All told, the trip was a whirlwind, but absolutely worth it.
 
I was outside of my comfort zone in that state park, which can be intimidating, especially when you are responsible for the safety of a small child. We kept safety as our first priority though, and it made for an unforgettable two days. And I share all of this because I want it to be an encouragement to anyone reading. There is no experience quite like sleeping in a tent, and camping gives you a truly rich experience with nature. Yes there are bugs, and yes you might get rained on, and for sure you’ll need a shower when you get home, but it’s worth every bit of it. So take a look at what state parks are near your home (I bet some will even have yurts or cottages if you aren’t ready for the tent experience), and consider planning a trip. Make sure you pack that coffee though, and remember - it will never taste any better.
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