Four days of paddling a kayak among 396,000 acres of remote swamp is a wonderful winter pastime for Aiken resident Tom Cofer.
"We try to go once or twice a year, and always in cool weather," said Cofer, a retired surgeon who makes annual visits to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Georgia.
Paddling the scenic wilderness offers a quiet opportunity to move slowly through floating islands of peat that have formed in the prehistoric wetland over millions of years.
Regardless of the weather, the swamp's most famous residents are always visible.
"You'll see alligators, lots of alligators," he said. "But there are lots of little things you won't pick up on unless you're observant."
Winter wildlife include tiny cricket frogs hopping among lilypads, an array of owls, and hawks and other birds of prey.
"The woods on the little islands out in the swamp are peculiar little acts of nature, too," he said. "They have species of pines, for instance, that you'll never see up here. The most impressive things are the big cypress trees, and they can be 3,000 years old."
Bird watching is great year-round, but each season brings its own lineup of visitors.
"This time of year, the greater sandhill cranes migrate down from Canada," he said.
Although the swamp is a popular spring and summer destination, winter visitors are less impacted by some of its least desirable creatures.
"If you've been once, when the bugs are out, you don't want to go again," he said. "People who go down there a lot will plan their trips around this time of year."
Cofer and his kayaking partners typically spend several days paddling through the swamp, camping at designated areas with permission from the National Park Service.
"It's fun to go as a group," he said. "And in areas like this, it's not considered wise to do that sort of thing alone."
Paddling the area, he said, offers an opportunity to find solitude that lures throngs of visitors each year. But there is still plenty to do for those who don't want to camp or paddle.
Stephen C. Foster State Park, located within the refuge, offers a major visitors center, camping, cabin rentals and other amenities. Guided tours of the swamp also are available.
Canoes and small motorboats also can be rented in the area, and hotels, groceries and other lodging are available in nearby Folkston and Waycross.