The Natural Georgia Series: The Okefenokee Swamp

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Okefenokee ... Bah! LeRoy Powell 1943-1999.

By LeRoy Powell. Learn more about the life of LeRoy Powell.

I was disappointed in the Okefenokee Swamp. I was seven years old and ready for a Grand Adventure. What I knew about swamps was what I'd seen in Tarzan movies. I knew swamps were full of man-eating snakes and alligators. I knew peril awaited around every bend. So when my parents decided a trip to the swamp would be educational and entertaining to me and my sister I was really excited by the prospect.

What a letdown.

First of all was the ride through the flat, pine-infested, coastal plain. The first several million pine trees were entertaining. There were a bunch of them with resin cups attached, catching the pine sap that leaked from wounds in their trunks. And peering down the long, straight rows of trees was more interesting than peering down the long, straight, two-lane highway. By looking out the side windows at the ranks of pines you got a stroboscopic effect. After the first billion pines, even that began to pale, and I sank back in the seat with nothing to do but annoy my sister, Marcia.

Finally we passed through Waycross and turned at a sign that said, "Okefenokee Swamp Park." Now, I figured, things are going to get better. The eternity of pines began to give way to patches of water dotted with moss-draped cypresses until we arrived at the park itself. Here we boarded a big johnboat, and with a native guide at the tiller of the outboard motor, we set off down a narrow water trail into … ADVENTURE!

At our first stop, the guide pulled some leaves off a plant and rubbed them together in his hands to produce a passable lather. At that age I was not particularly interested in cleanliness, but the novelty of getting soap from a bush was appealing. As we continued to putt-putt along, I scanned the overhanging branches, hoping to see pythons and cobras dangling in wait to pounce on Marcia. I was disappointed. All I saw was Spanish moss and birds and a squirrel or two. The guide said there were lots of wild animals in the swamp, bears and wildcats and deer and otters. We didn't see any more of them than we did sister-eating snakes. There were more birds…little yellow ones and big white ones and big grayish-blue ones. I didn't figure any of them would attack Marcia, so they were not of immense interest to me. I had to entertain myself by swatting the man-eating bugs that swarmed every time the boat slowed.

The water lilies we passed were pretty, and the way the leaves of golden club shed water was neat, but I really perked up when the guide showed us the carnivorous pitcher plants and bladderworts and sundews. They weren't big enough to devour Marcia, but I had high hopes they'd at least grab one or two of the yellowflies that were dining on us. They didn't.

Sunlight pierced openings in the cypresses, making bright pools here and there. I sat back and swatted at the bugs.

"There's Old Oscar," the guide said, pointing ahead of the boat.

"Oh, my!" my mother exclaimed, sliding closer to my dad on the boat seat.

"EEEwwwwwww", said Marcia.

Now this was more like what Tarzan and I had in mind. Oscar was an enormous ALLIGATOR! He lay in the grass beside the trail. There was the huge head, with lots of teeth, "The better to eat Marcia with!" I thought to myself. His horny hide was topped with two rows of scales running from where his neck would be if he had a neck to the tip of his tail. He was about a hundred feet long. At any moment he could attack. I knew his pose was only to lure us closer. As we neared, I watched the reptilian eyes grow larger and more alert, but I wasn't only watching Marcia, I watched Oscar too.

"Why don't you reach out and pet him?" I innocently suggested.

"DON'T YOU DARE!" squawked Mom.

Oscar casually slid into the dark water.

Oh Boy! This big ol' alligator is going to attack the boat and we'll all be gator chow but I'll rassle him into submission and save the family, right after he finishes off Marcia!

Oscar didn't attack. As a matter of fact, we didn't see him again once he swam beneath the surface. We saw other, smaller, gators on the way back to the park dock, and more birds, and plants, and flowers. None of it held any luster. We had the prospect of a full-scale alligator attack, and the alligator wouldn't cooperate. Gee.

It's been decades since that first trip, and I've returned to the swamp many times. I've learned to appreciate the birds and the flowers, and I now know Okefenokee is not dark and forbidding but alive and beautiful. I know all this, but the swamp could have been more wonderful if the alligator had eaten my sister.

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