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Paddle Under the Stars in the Okefenokee


February 06, 2017

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If you’ve been reading this section for any length of time now, first of all thank you and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Secondly, you have probably guessed by now that I’m passionate about the outdoors and about our amazingly diverse array of state parks. If any one of these articles has encouraged you to get in your car and go somewhere you’ve never been or to do something you’ve always wanted to but never did, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
 
I love finding places that have, to some degree, eluded or resisted us and have, as a result, retained some basic wild essence that we rarely encounter in our increasingly fast-paced lives. If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon you know how small it makes you feel, how distant. It’s something beyond you, something you are observing but not a part of. Places like that have a wildness to them, an untouched quality that both frightens us and draws us in. That’s how I feel when I look at the night sky or at dozens of pairs of glowing gator eyes, as if I’m intruding on something larger than myself. 
 
Stephen C. Foster State Park, nestled in the middle of more than 400,000 acres of protected swampland, gave me that feeling. The park’s isolation, its distance from sources of light pollution such as homes, cities, and major roadways has led to its recent designation as a Dark Sky park. This means that it’s one of the best places to stargaze on the East Coast, a fact that the park rangers have known for some time, as evidenced by their longstanding astronomy programs and the popular Paddle Under the Stars trips which run most weekends. Reservations and the $20 fee must be received in advance, however the process is fairly straightforward and can be completed over the phone at (912) 637- 5274 in a matter of minutes. 
 
Visitors embark in either kayaks or canoes on a ranger-guided excursion into the depths of the Okefenokee. The first half hour is spent paddling west into a beautiful Georgia sunset glinting off the water. Various types of wading birds such as Great and Little Blue Herons, White Egrets, Cormorants, and White Ibis can be seen on the banks or flying overhead. American alligators patrol the water’s edge and occasionally decide to cross in front of the approaching group, their powerful tails trashing the water as they dive to avoid any further contact. As dusk falls, most birds begin to settle in for the night but the owls and frogs begin their calls over the water.
 
Darkness comes on quickly in the swamp and the recommended headlamp becomes a necessity, not only to navigate, but to get a glimpse of the alligators gathering in the shallows. Their eyes glow orange, a fact which, combined with the sheer number of eyes looking back at you gives them a mildly threatening appearance. The experience leaves you without any doubt that they are the apex predators in this beautifully balanced ecosystem. But don’t let the gators distract you from the spectacular view of the night sky. More stars are visible with the naked eye at Stephen C. Foster than anywhere else in the state, even allowing an unassisted view of the Milky Way. 
 
The park is busiest in the spring and on into the summer, the warmer weather and a clearer view of our galaxy drawing more visitors. However, winter nights offer the greatest number of clear night skies so no time of year is a bad time to visit. The park is a three-hour drive from Statesboro, but if you’re looking to extend your visit, various camping options are available ranging from cabin rentals to pioneer campsites. Paddle trips are scheduled every weekend in February so mark your calendar for Feb. 4, 10, 18 or 24 and make an evening of it. Or maybe you’ve neglected to plan ahead for Valentine’s Day. In that case, I hope you’ve found this article helpful.

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