Top Ten National Wildlife Refuges for Paddling

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Picture of Okefenokee National
Picture of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (Alan Cressler/NWR)
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In addition to wildlife observation, refuges provide rich opportunities for wildlife photography, hunting, fishing, environmental education, and nature interpretation. For more information about all 551 visit the National Wildlife Refuges web site

Scenic driving, day hiking, car camping, backpacking in a wildlife refuge… Each activity brings you progressively closer to the unseen wonders of these public lands, but to peek into the truly intimate natural elements of the country's national wildlife refuges, consider leaving the solid ground behind and paddling into the parkland. Whether you navigate the waters on your own or hook up with a guided trip, you'll get a close-up glimpse at shorebirds, mammals, and other wildlife as well as the charismatic megaflora that compose these animals' home.

"When you're in a canoe, you're not as intimidating to wildlife," says Nancy Brown, a public outreach specialist at the South Texas Refuge Complex, which sits the state's southernmost tip where guided canoe and kayak outings on the Rio Grande and the Laguna Madre are sellouts. A former Alaska kayak guide, Brown helped secure National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants for the half-day interpreted paddle trips in the complex's three national wildlife refuges: Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley and Laguna Atascosa. "We've paddled right beneath hawks and past white-tailed deer. When you're in a canoe, animals don't appear to see you as a predator."

A boat is a must for those who wish to explore Oregon's Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which boasts a year-round marked canoe trail, as well as at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which crosses southern Georgia and northern Florida.

"The vast majority of the refuge you can see only by water," said Blaine Eckberg, Park Ranger at Okefenokee Refuge. "Paddling lets you enter one of the largest wilderness areas east of Mississippi River, full of egrets, cranes, and, of course, alligators."

Two islands and seven raised platforms are available to paddlers who want to camp overnight in the swamp, as Eckberg recently did. "You may hear alligators growling, but they're not likely to bother you. They're not interested in people."

But with over 1,000 marked water trails within the national wildlife refuge system, the real challenge is finding the right one. Here's our pick of the ten best.

Published: 25 Aug 2010 | Last Updated: 6 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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