Stretching across the Florida-Georgia border lies an impenetrable wall of stoic old oaks draped with Spanish moss and rooted in the dark, murky waters of the Okefenokee Swamp. With rumors of unexplained and supernatural phenomena, the swamp is full of secrets to be discovered.
Sand Belongs on the Beach
Folkston, GA, aka the “gateway to the Okefenokee,” will be our hub for this mid-October tour. Our first loop will take us away from the swamp and down to the coast. A late start puts the sun high in the sky as we set out on 23 South from Folkston. The roughly paved surface of Lake Hampton Road unexpectedly dissolves into sand and dirt. We planned some nice, tame dirt roads for this tour, but this wasn’t supposed to be one of them. We are on a pair of adventure bikes, I on a 2014 KTM 1190 Adventure, and my riding partner, Stephen, on a 2014 Yamaha Super Ténéré. These are big machines on street tires, so we don’t want to tackle anything too gnarly, but the powerful machines dutifully slog through. We lean back on the bikes, take our hands off the front brakes, and keep our eyes down range.
The sand doesn’t last long. We’re out of first gear and enjoying the hint of salt in the air as we close in on Fernandina Beach, FL. This quaint beach town, situated on the north end of Amelia Island, is the only U.S. city to have flown eight different national flags throughout its history. Earning the nickname the Isle of Eight Flags, the area was claimed first by the French, then the Spanish, British, Spanish (again), the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America, and finally, the United States. This turbulent pattern of changing hands doesn’t seem to have left any scars, however, as the town boasts beautiful architecture, a peaceful harbor full of sailboats, and miles of white sandy beaches.
We stop for a bite at Timoti’s Seafood Shak where there is a smorgasbord of freshly caught sea creatures. After lunch we continue south beside Amelia Island’s waterfront, though the ocean has to peep in and out from behind swanky beachfront homes to be seen. The bikes are humming nicely, but we decide to take a break to enjoy the ocean views. After the sandy trails earlier today, parking the bikes on the beach is no problem.
The road is calling so we remount our motorcycles and head inland adjacent to the St. Johns River. Jacksonville is just south of us, but traffic remains thankfully light. We’re leisurely winding our way along the river when the cooling towers of the JEA Northside Generating Station come into sight. To the casual observer, the massive steam spewing stacks are a dead giveaway for nuclear power, but the plant is actually keeping the lights on in Jacksonville with natural gas, oil, and coal.
A meandering course takes us back to Folkston and our home base at the Newell Lodge. We retire for the night in a quiet cabin surrounded by grand old oak trees under a blanket of stars unspoiled by city lights.
Invading the Swamp
A heavy fog covers the landscape as our tires squirm on the sand leading out of Newell Lodge. Our goal for the day is to explore some of the dirt tracks that skirt the edges of the Okefenokee Swamp and to wander its outer reaches. Like yesterday, our well-laid plans have some flaws. We had aimed to rumble down Swamp Perimeter Road, a dirt lane that forms the border between the swamp and surrounding farms. As it turns out, this area is for government use only and requires a permit to travel. So, we take any side road we can that seems to be heading in more or less the right direction. After an hour trying to penetrate the misty fortress of the Okefenokee, we resign ourselves to pavement again.