We had just walked through the turnstile, putting us inside Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp Park, when Younger Daughter gestured toward one of the rangers and whispered, "He's missing two fingers on his hand."
"That's a good sign," I said.
My daughter frowned and kicked me in the knee.
Now before you, too, think me callous, let me explain. I was a man on a mission. My mission was to see an alligator. In the wild.
Since you almost never hear of alligator sightings along, say, the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, it was clear we were going to have to head south. And since we had a week's vacation, that's what we did.
We took the train to Georgia, ostensibly to do the tourist thing in Savannah and spend a few days on Jekyll Island, one of the Golden Isles off the Georgia coast.
But I didn't just have Georgia on my mind. I was thinking gators all the way.
I've always been fascinated by the creatures. Maybe it was the tales I heard growing up, about how they lived in the sewers of New York, reaching monstrous sizes and blasting out of toilet bowls. Or maybe it was the mesmerizing effect they had on me as a kid when I stared at them through thick glass in the Bronx Zoo.
I watch PBS and the Discovery Channel for alligator documentaries. I know they are relatively unaggressive, except when guarding their young. (It's those mean-spirited, long-snouted crocodiles who give reptiles a bad name.) I can quote from the wisdom of Albert, the comic alligator from "Pogo" who lived in the Okefenokee.
Until this year, my best shot at seeing real alligators was on a trip 10 years ago to New Orleans. We took a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi, opting for the five-hour trip instead of the two-hour jaunt because I thought it would give us three extra hours to sight gators. We had a guide who spoke some unintelligible dialect; even my wife who, like C3P0 in "Star Wars," knows 6 million forms of communication, didn't understand one word this guy said. We endured five hours of gibberish and watered-down drinks and saw nothing.
Since then, on various mini-sojourns below the Mason-Dixon Line, I've kept my eyes peeled in vain for scaly green reptiles. In Georgia, I figured to satisfy the obsession quickly. I'd been told gators often lounged on the banks of the Savannah River, so I spent hours walking along the promenade overlooking the wide, muddy waterway that divides Georgia and South Carolina.
Gators were so plentiful on Jekyll Island, I was told, they sunned themselves on the golf courses. I drove mindlessly around the island for two days, and the scariest thing I saw was an old man in yellow pants and a paisley shirt using a driver to get out of a sand trap.
Suddenly, it was the next-to-last day of our trip and I hadn't seen a gator.
I looked at the map. Okefenokee was about an hour away. I looked at Fodor's guidebook: "A boardwalk and 90-foot tower are excellent places to glimpse cruising gators and a variety of birds."
Birds, schmirds. But cruising gators?
"Hey," I said, "how about if we go?"
To be truthful, my wife and Younger Daughter had a hard time envisioning giving up the wide, hard-packed, white-sand beach of Jekyll Island for a day in a swamp. But since the only other swamp we'd ever been in was Older Daughter's college dorm room, they were curious to see one that wasn't woman-made.
So we went. And when we saw the ranger who, in my mind, had clearly had an unfortunate encounter with a gator that resulted in the loss of his fingers, I admit my reaction to the tragedy was a little too enthusiastic. I deserved to have my knee kicked.
But I was getting desperate.
Captives in the park
Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a wondrous, primitive place covering nearly 700 square miles. There are entryways into the swamp on the north, east and west sides. Okefenokee Swamp Park is at the northern entrance, about 12 miles south of Waycross, Ga. It has ecology exhibits, a bear enclosure, a serpentarium and an exhibit where three gigantic alligators, some river otters and a variety of turtles are kept in captivity.
The dark, shallow water -- tea-colored from the tannic acid produced by decaying vegetation -- attracted me. Grasses, lilies and other plants jutted out of the slow-moving water, vying for space with the cypress trees. If there were gators to be found, this was where I was going to find them.
And it only took about two minutes before Younger Daughter shouted, "Here's one, Dad!"
Sure enough, there was a 12-foot gator, completely out of the water. His name was Roy, he died about 20 years ago, and he was stuffed and mounted.
Things only got worse along the quarter-mile-long boardwalk. I got a little excited when I saw something green poking out of the water; it turned out to be a frog. I saw a couple of kids staring intently and pointing to something on the side of the boardwalk: a black snake. There were a few lizards hopping from bush to bush and hawks circling overhead. But nothing that looked long and lean, green and mean.