The trip began with me repeatedly speed-dialing the ranger office for a permit, 10 minutes before they opened and 60 days before the trip. Only seven camping permits are issued at a time, and March is peak season. That's when the gators are out, but most of the bugs aren't. You cannot book any more than 60 days in advance.
I not only obtained a permit, but first choice of trails. I selected the orange trail, from Stephen Foster State Park to Canal Run Shelter. It was rated difficult, but provides the real swamp experience, as it delves deep into the remote areas. Most of the shelters are decks built over water. Canal Run abuts land, providing the opportunity for a campfire.
One of the anticipated highlights, albeit with some trepidation, was seeing the gators. It didn't take long, as one lounged in the launch area, awaiting careless tourist nuggets. We gave him wide berth.
The first stretch is down Billy's Lake. In this case, a lake is a wide channel. We stopped at Billy's Island to stretch legs, as I anticipated this might be the last solid ground for a while. The island has a short trail where you can see remnants of ancient attempts at harvesting lumber.
From there, the trail narrows down to kayak paddle length for about a mile. Then, it really gets narrow for about three miles. Some books I had referenced recommended sea kayaks, probably for carrying capacity. Seven of our ten kayaks were over 16' and struggled in the narrow, twisty stream, dense with vegetation and stumps. For this trail, I'd recommend the shortest boat that will carry gear.
On the lake, we had counted gators. We quickly abandoned that back in here. Welcome to Gatorville. Population 25,000 reptiles and you. My first heart-starter was when I went to push off a rock and saw that it had eyes. Then, my kayak bumped and I thought I hit a stump. A second later, my stern popped up and flicked starboard 30 degrees. It was no stump. Powerful tails on these guys. Not long after that, I heard something crashing rapidly through the brush. I thought it might be a wild pig or Florida Panther, until the gator rocketed off the bank on an interception course with me. That'll liquefy your breakfast. Most of the gators just sun themselves and ignore you, but some dive in and you wonder what they have in mind. They usually just submerge, but the first few times, it gives you pause. I developed the first law of swamp optics: a gator coming at you appears twice the size of a gator at rest. With the stream so narrow, they're right at your elbow, so you keep moving except, of course, for the photo op. The flora can be quite striking. But, be careful. One woman in our group drifted up on a gator, peering through her camera. Her kayak struck a stump and she almost capsized right in front of him. I'd guess that the suction created by her sphincter contraction would've prevented her from falling out of the boat. We all had a laugh on that one. Well, all but one. We really had no gator problem in the channel, with the exception being a log in the channel we had to inch around. The irate gator on it hissed an angry warning. We found that quite rude and made note to report him to a ranger.
I did encounter a gator stretched across the channel and recalled a book's advice for this. Splash or poke with a paddle. Splashing seemed the safest option and fortunately it worked. Gators have short forearms and he must've known he'd be no match for me in a splash fight. He moved on and I breathed.
The vegetation arches over the narrow channel, so take a shorter paddle and wear a brimmed hat and tight collar. Otherwise, you'll have a shirt full of leaves and spiders. The banks aren't really banks, as this part of the trail is all swamp. For overnight trips, you are required to take along a portable toilet. Where you would set it up here is another question. Not to mention who or what might be in the next "stall."
After a few miles, the trail widened to about 30' and it was an easy mile or so to the shelter. It's essentially a partially covered deck overhanging the water. A chemical toilet is also provided. As we were setting up, I noticed a gator cruising up and down in front of the deck, undoubted "tamed" by previous campers who unwisely fed him. It reminded me of the croc in Peter Pan, waiting for someone to drop overboard. The women on the trip thought it was graceful and cute. I was a little concerned that she might drop in after sundown (feeding time) for a snack. Guess who's coming to dinner.
We pitched our tents on the platform and prepared dinner. Then, we settled down to enjoy the magnificent display of stars in this remote corner of South Georgia. Building a fire would've spoiled the view. Not to mention that there were no volunteers to venture into the dark swamp to forage for wood. We were all mellowing out when an unworldly, blood-chilling shriek rang out from just behind the shelter. This produced a few shrieks from among us. I grabbed my flashlight and closest deadly weapon (my damp wool socks) and ran toward the noise. Laughing convulsively and crouched in the reeds was one of our party with a coyote call. We took away his beer and dangled him over the water.
Wearied from the jungle paddling, we retired shortly after midnight. The deck fairly vibrated with the primordial night sounds, and that was just the snoring. The tree frogs came out in force and strived to outdo each other. It sounded like the soundtrack from "Aliens" turn up to max volume. It was intriguing. For the first 15 minutes or so.
Having honed our poling skills on the way in, the return trip was much quicker. We were less fixated on the gators now, and could fully enjoy all the other wildlife. It is truly a unique experience and quite magical. I recommend that you make it a point to experience what few people will never see in their entire lives.
The shelters are wooden decks with chemical toilets, built over the water. They are partially covered.
Some sea kayaks, some sit-on-top kayaks and shorter paddles.
Overnight access requires permits. They run $10/person.
From Fargo, GA, go northeast about 17 miles to Stephen Foster State Park.
Read everything you can get your hands on, especially the swamp's website.