Pat’s Wildways: Blackwater Swimming

By Pat Foster-Turley

I guess I’m like a Florida Gator after all, not the sports type but the type that feels most alive in a warm watery domain. I especially enjoy swimming in the blackwater rivers of our state, where I camped and canoed many times as a grad student at the University of Florida. The water is black — or actually tea-colored brown — from tannins from decaying peat and vegetation, but it is as clean as any water anywhere and the wildlife abounds. Yes, there are snakes and alligators in there someplace but they stay away from people. Hey, the ocean has sharks and that never stops me from enjoying our beaches. Same with the maybe-risks of swimming in these rivers, a very small risk compared to the very great enjoyment I get from swimming there.

The St. Marys River near St. George, Georgia is a local swimming hole used mostly on weekends.

It’s been years since I’ve swam in a blackwater river, but the urge has become overwhelming to me as of late. On my weekly trips to the Ark Wildlife Care and Sanctuary (ARK) in Hilliard I sometimes drive just a bit further on the way home to look at the St. Marys River, where it is crossed by the bridge to St. George, Georgia. A dirt road past the bridge leads to a boat ramp on the river, a beautiful spot to contemplate the scenery. There’s a rope hanging there for people to swing into the river, a fun thing to do. But when I go there on weekdays I am alone, and with no one else nearby and out of cell phone contact it just doesn’t seem safe enough to swim there alone. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t find any friend to go swimming with me on the river, and Bucko had been there, done that years ago and he wasn’t interested either.

I have seen locals swimming in the river on weekends however, so, when I recently went out to the ARK on a Sunday I was all set to jump in the river afterward when hopefully other people would be around. After I finished my fun with the otters and nutria at the ARK I took off my protective jeans and changed into my bathing suit covered up with shorts and T-shirt. I was just about to leave when Elizabeth “Possum Patrol” Musser, who rehabs and releases more than 100 opossums each year, showed up with a pickup truck full of donated produce from Winn Dixie and a possum in a cage, ready to be released. “Pat, do you want to go out to the woods with us to release him?” asked Jonathan Howard, the director of ARK. “Absolutely!” was my immediate reply.

The Kawasaki Mule ride to the river traversed swamps and forests.

We three and the possum boarded Jonathan’s Kawasaki Mule and headed off on an adventure ride through the cypress swamps and wildflower-filled fields, over logs, across deep ditches and under golden orb spider webs until we got to the place the opossum was to be released. The opossum ran off with no problems but instead of turning back Jonathan said, “Hey, let’s go to the river!” And soon there we were on the banks of the St. Marys River, right on his property. I stripped off my T-shirt and happily jumped into the river. Blackwater swimming at last! I was home!

Pat enjoys finally swimming in the St. Marys River.

The St. Marys River is one of the cleanest waters anywhere. It originates in the Okefenokee Swamp with no industrial, agricultural or municipal runoff along its 130-mile path south, east, then north, forming the border between Georgia and Florida. The St. George Bridge and Jonathan’s property are in the first third of the river, where it is all about cypress and tupelo trees and sandy beaches. Beyond this, up at Trader’s Hill in Georgia the river widens and swamps and sandy bluffs appear. Further along, it passes under the Blue Bridge on Highway 17 and starts becoming saltier and saltier with a tidal influence as it heads to the sea near Amelia Island.

There are two good places that I know of near us to access the St. Marys River in its freshwater sections, under the St. George Bridge and Trader’s Hill up by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Interestingly although the river originates in the Okefenokee Swamp it comes off the western side, and Trader’s Hill, although only a few miles from the Okefenokee on the east side, is far away from the river’s source. At Trader’s Hill there is also a rope swing, and even more exciting, a crude ladder on a cypress tree gives another diving board of sorts. Wherever you go in the freshwater section of the river you will find clean water (albeit brown-colored), mellow currents and, even, a sort of tonic for your hair which turns soft and shiny after a dip in the tannic waters.

Traders Hill is another access point to the river in Georgia, complete with a ladder on a cypress tree for jumping access.

None of my friends are brave enough to swim in the river, but I assure you once you do it your fears will be gone. And just maybe you will become a Florida Gator like I am. But first, you have to pass the blackwater swimming test. Go Gators!

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.  [email protected]

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Trusted Member
8 months ago

Thank you so much for bringing to life for us the beauty of the St Mary’s River and its pure origins and lack of industrial pollution. What a treasure!

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
8 months ago

Very fun! The St. Marys River runs south out of the O Swamp because it runs into Trail Ridge, a north-south oriented ancient dune ridge. But then it finds a way through to the east and hits yet another north-south ancient dune ridge in Nassau County and flows north, until it finds another break and makes a run for it to the east and the ocean again.