Don't paddle angry

No one's chasing you
kayaking the Okefenokee Swamp
Photo: Mike Sepelak

I endured the indignity of boarding the the “sit-in” rental kayak on the shores of the fabled Okefenokee Swamp in deep, south Georgia with relative aplomb. There’s nothing sexy about a boat you wear, I don’t care who you are. But you make the best of it.

And if you’re me—all six feet, five inches of burley, middle-aged Idaho man-mush—I’m here to tell you there are more graceful things I can do. Like parkour. Or the trapeze.

Throw in a fly rod, and there was room for me to maybe enjoy the turkey sandwich and the cold beer we’d packed for lunch. But I had to work it off first. It’s no wonder that, within 100 yards of leaving the put-in, my entire right side had fallen asleep. I was numb from the waist down, and if I moved my right leg, it felt like I was trying to lift a giant, overcooked pasta noodle.

I’m not new to kayaks. I really enjoy fly fishing from them, especially if they’re made with fishing in mind. These little boats rented en masse to the visiting public are not made for anglers. Or adults, as far as I can tell. They’re simply for paddling, for getting tourists down to what amounts to eye level with the swamp, including its many alligators, turtles, snakes and the like.

But I tried to fish from this little craft, and I did hook and bring to the boat a really big bowfin—one of two massive fish among a host of many more respectable bowfin we caught over the course of several days on the swamp. That I managed the work the fly from its mouth without having to grab the fish and bring it aboard (seriously, there was no damn room for it) was a minor miracle.

After that, it seemed more practical to just paddle and take in the swamp, which is pretty unreal, given that it’s only about 40 minutes or so from downtown Jacksonville and the millions who live in north Florida and south Georgia. It boasts a genuine wilderness area—some 350,000 acres of it—and it’s deserving of that designation. Lined mostly with canoe trails, the Okefenokee backcountry is now just a place for human visitors, even though humans have called it home for thousands of years. The name of the place is native American in origin and means, “land of trembling earth.”

But back to the paddling.

I learned years ago that kayaking and canoeing still waters are about as relaxing as you make them. The boats are easily maneuvered with little effort, and the more chill you are when you’re paddling, the more fun you’re going to have over the course of a day on the water. Unless your leg falls asleep, of course.

Generally speaking, though, I like to relax my core when I paddle, lean back and let the boat, made for waters like this, just glide. It’s a peaceful feeling. And, even in such a relaxed state, it’s a good workout for the arms and shoulders.

As we paddled quietly up a skinny canoe trail to a “hammock,” or a floating day-use platform maybe three miles from the marina, I heard the commotion long before I saw it. Wading waterfowl lifted off from the floating mats of peat a hundred yards away, and every gator in sight dropped beneath the black water. It sounded as if a flotilla of Olympic 100-meter swimmers were coming my way with the Kraken on their tails.

Instinctively, I oared the little boat out of the skinny channel and let it come to rest atop some lily pads. I grabbed the double-bladed paddle tightly, thinking I might need it for defense should what was heading my way be something significant, like perhaps one of the swamp’s many Florida black bears. Or perhaps a sasquatch—there’s a documented Bigfoot attack in the swamp dating back to 1829, where five men were reportedly killed by a giant creature with 18-inch feet. It’s only a minor obsession that I carry with me for Sasquatch lore, but I’d be lying if I told you the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.

In addition to my paddle, I figured I could swing my numb right leg around with relative abandon—I wouldn’t feel a thing until the threat subsided.

Then, around a little bend in the channel, a canoe appeared. In its stern was a bespectacled shirtless fellow paddling to beat hell. And it seemed that the harder he oared, the more racket he raised and the slower he moved. I looked behind him to see what might be chasing him, but there was nothing.

“How ya doin’?” he asked through a sour expression made more violent by grunts and gasps, as he pushed by me, leaving a respectable wake and a cloud of stirred up muck and plant matter behind his manic paddle strokes.

“Good,” I said, with what I’m sure was a bewildered expression on my face. Then asked him, “How much farther to the hammock?”

“A couple hundred yards,” he grunted. And he grimaced, and just kept paddling, the sun beating off of his slightly pink shoulders that were on their way to a really respectable sunburn. I watched him stir up the swamp for a bit. It took him a while to get past me, and I was reminded of the line from “Groundhog Day,” when Bill Murray counsels Punxsutawney Phil as the rodent takes the wheel of a stolen pickup and drives both of them off a cliff into a quarry.

“Don’t drive angry.”

Shortly, my buddy Steve caught up with me, and the first question he asked was, “What was chasing that pissed-off guy in the canoe?”

“No idea,” I answered, “But he said the hammock is only a couple hundred yards farther.” This was welcome news to me, as I desperately needed restore the blood flow to my leg and un-pretzel myself from the ill-fitting kayak.

Not only was the guy crappy behind the oars, but he was also challenged in the distance department. We paddled another 20 minutes or so before we got to the hammock—well beyond the “couple hundred yards” promised by the Angry Canoe Guy. Mike, our other fishing companion had joined us by then, and as we lounged under the shelter of the floating platform, he, too, had one simple query.

“What was with the guy in the canoe?” he asked.

We sipped cold beers and gazed out over the wild country that is the Okefenokee. We’d fished most of the week, and we were downright mellow.

“Don’t paddle angry,” I said.


Great read. I felt like I was there. Wait...