Swamp Song

Georgia: The 436,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp is filled with natural wonders -- and alligators at every turn.

March 19, 2000|By Jody Jaffe and John Muncie | Jody Jaffe and John Muncie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Our city eyes see gators everywhere. Underneath the Spanish moss. In between the cypress trees. On the shore. In the water. We see a million alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp, but they're all, except one, made of pine logs and our imagination.

Or so we think.

It isn't until our second trip into the country's largest swamp that we realize some of the alligators of our imagination might have been real. It took the trained eyes of a tour guide to tell what was tree and what was gator.

Okefenokee. Just saying the word is fun. The syllables play bumper cars inside your mouth, with all those vowels crashing against consonants.

But this place would be fun even if it were called Smith Swamp. Where else can you visit alligators, watch stick-legged birds stalk marshlands, paddle miles of quiet canals and walk across the bog on meandering boardwalks?

Only in the Oh-kee-fen-OH-kee.

First time in, we paddle. For three and a half hours, we steer our rented canoe through the swamp's tea-colored water, looking for alligators. We are in the land of Pogo -- Walt Kelly's famous cartoon opossum -- and leaving here without seeing his kin would be like missing Mickey at Disney World.

In the steamy days of August, the Okefenokee looks like Daytona Beach for alligators on spring break. Gators are cold-blooded and they like the sun more than college coeds do. But during our late December trip, the mercury barely cracked the 50s, which is sweater-weather for alligators. When it gets that cold, they burrow into holes or float in the water with just the tops of their heads showing.

Still, off season in south Georgia has advantages. You can book one of the nine cabins in Okefenokee's Stephen C. Foster State Park or take your pick of campsites. In spring, rangers have to turn away tourists; in winter, your main competitors are flocks of migrating birds. And even on a pale mid-December morning you'll probably still catch sight of one of the swamp's 14,000 to 18,000 alligators, though you may not know it.

We canoe for nearly an hour before spotting a gator perched on a log. It's a youngster, about 5 feet long and the color of wet cobblestones. (Gators grow about a foot a year; males can reach 14 to 16 feet.)

Folks around here seem pretty blase about gator danger. "If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone," says Jackie Clay, interpretive ranger at the park.

Long-time park employee and southern Georgia native Marilyn Hart agrees. "We've been a park for over 50 years and we've only had one incident," she says. "A gator came up and ate a dog."

Rangers say that alligator metabolism slows down so much in winter, gators often stop eating altogether.

Emboldened by this information, we paddle within an oar's length. The gator doesn't blink an eye at us or the two motor boats that stop by filled with a dozen people pointing, snapping pictures and talking excitedly. When we paddle back an hour later, the gator is there, still stone still.

Pogo's world

There are three entrances to the Okefenokee. We'd flown into Jacksonville, Fla., and driven two hours northwest to the most remote entrance, leading to the Stephen C. Foster Park, an 82-acre enclave leased from federal land by the state.

There isn't much to be said about the surrounding landscape: it's as boring as statistics class -- flat, low and covered in wire grass or miles of fast-growing "slash" pine developed and planted in endless rows by timber companies.

But amid the monotony is the Okefenokee, among the more surprising 436,000 acres in the world. Technically, it's called the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and it's not exactly a swamp. The water is neither still nor stagnant -- rather, it's a huge watershed draining slowly south, giving birth to two rivers, the Suwannee and the St. Marys.

It's been a wildlife refuge since 1937, and the place teems with animals, snakes, birds (more than 200 species) and all those alligators. It's also home to three types of carnivorous plants, 16 species of salamanders and something called the Pygmy Sunfish.

But its most notable denizens probably belong to that alternative Okefenokee universe found in the "Pogo" comic strip created by cartoonist Kelly.

From 1948 to 1973, in newspapers across the country, Pogo, Albert, Churchy, Miz Hepzibah and others dispensed gentle wisdom, word play and biting political satire in the moss-draped, slightly ominous liquid landscape of Kelly's Okefenokee.

The rich ecosystem may be the main attraction for the swamp's more than 400,000 visitors a year, but Kelly's characters and imagination still play a role. Okefenokee Swamp Park, at the swamp's northern entrance, has a small Pogo museum honoring his legacy.

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