As we dip our paddles into the black-brown, mirrorlike surface of the water, our canoe glides quietly down a narrow channel bordered by tall moss-draped cypress trees. We are alone.

But not quite. For the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, in the southeastern corner of Georgia, is the home of an abundance of wildlife. Soon we are attracted by the hammering of a pileated woodpecker. Silently, we stop within a few yards of where it is whittling away. Suddenly a large piece of bark gives way to its relentless efforts, exposing any insects beneath.

Nearby on the same channel, my wife and I spot an alligator dozing in the muck of this giant water-covered peat bog. We paddle closer for a look, retaining a respectable distance but still getting closer than I've ever been to an alligator in the wild.

During our two-day visit we saw turkey vultures, red shouldered hawks and a number of alligators against a backdrop of raw, isolated, unhurried beauty.

After the Everglades, this is the nation's largest swamp. Some 38 by 25 miles in size, this freshwater swamp is practically as primitive as it was before man arrived on the scene. Although heavily logged in the early part of this century, there are only a few places that bear signs of man's work.

There are three entrances to the park (located between Interstates 75 and 95) and plenty to see on a short visit, but the best way to immerse yourself in the isolated beauty of the swamp is by canoe.

Trips of one to six days are possible with advance reservations. Canoeists sleep overnight on man-made islands or natural ones at reserved sites. The number of canoeists allowed at any one time is limited.

The most popular time for visiting the swamp is March and April: the flowers are in bloom, the insects are not yet on full alert and the alligators are waking up from winter and sunning along the edges of the waterways. In the summer, temperatures are very hot and the insects (deer flies, mosquitoes, and sand gnats) are very persistent, but the alligators are out -- except on the hottest days. Fall and winter months have the more pleasant temperatures, but the 'gators are less visible and there is less vegetation.

For short-time visitors, the Stephen C. Foster State Park entrance, on the heavily wooded west side of the swamp, is closest to Interstate 75. Arriving through the town of Fargo, Ga., you can use the park's campsites or cottages. Campsites go to those who arrive first; cabins are reservable ($30 a night, sleep six). Rental boats and 21 canoes are available for day trips only on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are usually enough canoes except during March and April. A guided boat tour is also available by reservation.

One interesting day trip is to Billy's Island, where a lumbering town was located. You can see a few remains of the town and imagine life when a railroad was built over part of the swamp to the island and the local theater showed silent movies.

Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, on the swamp's southeast side, not far from Interstate 95, is in the "prairie" section of the swamp. Visitors may follow an 11-mile canal into the swamp, passing through an area plentiful in waterlilies, neverwet, ferns, and a variety of sedges and grasses.

An interpretive tour is offered in a rubber-wheeled train; there are walking trails and a 4,000 foot boardwalk and observation tower, a night tour and a visit to a restored homestead. Canoes may be rented here for overnight trips or

The northeastern entrance is the Okefenokee Swamp Park, a private nonprofit operation at the edge of the swamp offering visitors a good, quick overview of the swamp. Guided boat tours through a beautiful cypress forest, a boardwalk, museum, and a popular serpentarium and botanical garden are available as well as an observation tower.

For details, contact:

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Fargo, Ga. 31631. Phone (912) 637-5274.

Overnight canoe trips: Write or call the US Fish and Wildlife Service; PO Box 117; Waycross, Ga. 31501. Phone (912) 283-2580. The service also has general information about the swamp.

Canoe trails are assigned no more than two months in advance in order of requests. (For trips in March or April, when the flowers are in bloom and alligators out, you are advised to call at 7 a.m. two months exactly before you wish to canoe.)

Canoe rentals are $16 for a two-day trip and up to $48 for a six-day trip. You travel 7 to 13 miles between campsites. Once you are given a reservation for a trail, you must call a private concession at Suwanee Canal Recreation Area for reserving the canoe. Phone (912) 496-7156.

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