The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a 402,000‑acre National Wildlife Refuge located in Charlton, Ware, and Clinch Counties of Georgia, and Baker County in Florida, United States. The refuge was established in 1937 to protect a majority of the 438,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp.
The swamp is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. It now lies 103 to 128 feet above mean sea level. Peat deposits, up to 15 feet thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that trees and surrounding bushes tremble by stomping the surface. The name “Okefenokee” probably came from the Hitchiti (Creek) word meaning “trembling earth” or “bubbling water.” Habitats include open wet “prairies”, cypress forests, scrub-shrub vegetation, upland islands, and open lakes.
The swamp has a rich human history including Native American settlement, explorations by Europeans, a massive drainage attempt, and intensive timber harvesting. ( Wikipedia )
During the Seminole Wars of the early 19th century, a small party of Indians evaded capture by retreating into the swamp. Over time, this group grew to become a community where escaped slaves and AWOL soldiers were welcome. Their leader went by the name of “Billy Bowlegs.” It’s generally agreed that it is this Billy for which the island was named. This 4000 acre island is the second largest in the swamp and is only accessible by boat.
There is great history of Billy’s Island that involves the Lee family as squatters, The Hebards, a family of loggers and the State of Georgia, all laying claim to ownership. Interesting narratives of this history can be read here…Our Georgia History, The Okefenokee Swamp and The History of Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp
Billy’s Island Details:
Location: Billy’s Island is located in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge with the landing dock being at coordinates 30°49’54.11″N, 82°20’1.07″W
There are canoe, kayak and boat rentals available at the park. Phone # 912-637-5274
Average Paddle Speed: 1.7 mph. This was lower due to numerous stops to view alligators and take photographs.
Width and Depth: Once leaving the access canal, this portion of the river is 155′ wide and thins to 35′ wide at Billy’s Island. The average depth of the waterways in the swamp are from 2′ to 10′ deep.
Side Paddles: There are several miles of paddling trails in this area, all well marked. 4 areas are to the West after entering the river and three are to the right, which includes Billy’s Island. 1.4 miles East, after entering the river from the access canal, is the paddle trail leading North ( RR ) to Minnie’s Lake and Big Water.
Rest Areas: Restrooms available at the launch. Billy’s Island does not have bathroom facilities but a great chance to rest and hike.
Important Information: This would be a buggy hot paddle in the summer months. Watch out for the numerous LARGE alligators.
The Paddle Route…
The launch, located in Stephen C. Foster State Park is nice. It is a small, square marina with a good ramp and plenty of parking. There is also an area along the canal where canoes/kayak rentals are kept on a grassy slope. This area is where I launched. Keep an eye out however, as there are numerous alligators, both large and small along this very thin canal.
The canal itself is barely 20′ wide, shallow and lined with Spadderdock, making the passage a single file endeavor. The canal runs 1700′ before reaching Billy’s Lake ( as the state park map labels it ) also labeled on topographic maps as the Suwannee River. It is on this body of water the adventure begins!
Our paddle to Billy’s Island leads us East on Billy’s Lake. Paddling to the West would lead to several areas of interest to include the Suwanee River Sill, a low earthen dam that was built to raise the water level in the Okefenokee to reduce the numerous fires during periods of drought. That will be another paddle. On this paddle, it’s off to Billy’s Island, two miles ahead!
From the moment of launch, it was obvious this was Gator Country! The Okefenokee is home to an estimated 10,000-13,000 American Alligators and we saw a good share of them. What was interesting was the size of these gators…HUGE…anywhere from 10′-12′ long. According to Georgia sources that track and count the gators, 14′ gators are rare in the swamp. While most of the gators remained basking in the sun, several emerged into the tannin water to get a better view of us. A general rule of thumb for sizing gators is to estimate the distance between the nose and eyes and convert the inches to feet to get a decent estimate of size.
The paddle on Billy’s Lake was very pleasant, a slight breeze, 74° and mostly sunny. Except for a few smaller cypress, the leaves had yet to emerge on the older ones and we paddled along a highway of tall, barren cypress covered in Spanish Moss. Accenting the grey and brown of the cypress was the bright green of Spadderdock that lined both shorelines and a bright blue sky…beautiful.
What caught my attention on this paddle was the abundance of Shining Fetterbush in full bloom, everywhere! It was so abundant I researched it and found it is the principal understory species of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Billy’s Lake gradually thins to 35′ approaching the Island. Here, a marker sign greets us at our destination. A well constructed dock and walkway provide for easy tie up and exit from the kayak. It is well shaded and a great place to rest, have lunch and take the short walking tour that leads to the Lee Cemetary. The Lee family were early squatters on this island and have a great history here. What impressed me about Billy’s Island was the obvious size, covered with large Pines and Saw Palmetto as far as the eye can see. As is typical of the Okefenokee Swamp, there are numerous islands like this and Billy’s is the second largest.
After a nice rest and lunch, it was time to return and once again view many of the same Gators we saw on the way here. This was a pleasant paddle and I look forward to returning when the Cypress trees have leafed . There’s much more to explore here!