Whenever an Okefenokee excursion comes to an end, I am immediately antsy about another trip. Typically I have to wait another year, but sometimes two! During the wait, the anticipation builds. I frequently gaze at the large fold-out National Geographic topographic map I purchased at the Stephen C Foster State Park trading post in 2015 and hung on my office wall. I am astonished by the immensity of the swamp: the seemingly endless road into the refuge is a mere toothpick’s length on the 3’ square map. Much of metro-Atlanta could be swamped waist deep in the Okefenokee’s total acreage.
Of all the vastness in this huge wilderness area, only three main canoe trails, just over 100 miles total, transect the refuge map. Looking at the other areas void of trails and shelters makes me to ponder these less frequented areas. Are they open lakes, prairies or dense swamps? Do the alligators and swamp bears concentrate there more than the frequented areas? How about bobcat and cougars? What scenes do Red Bird Prairie and Hickory Hammock hold? And “Strange Island”: what mysteries lie there? Pockets of Cottonmouths or rattlesnakes? I can’t wait to get back again!
In 1894, naturalist and ornithologist Bradford Torrey wrote of the Great Egret in his book, A Florida Sketch-Book.
“Incomparably the handsomest member of the heron family (I speak of such as I saw) was the great white egret. In truth, the epithet ‘handsome’ seems almost a vulgarism as applied to a creature so superb, so utterly and transcendently splendid. I saw it—in a way to be sure of it—only once. Two birds stood in the dead tops of low shrubby trees, fully exposed in the most favorable of lights, their long dorsal trains drooping behind them and swaying gently in the wind. I had never seen anything so magnificent. The reader should understand that this egret is between four and five feet in length, and measures nearly five feet from wing tip to wing tip, and that its plumage throughout is of spotless white. It is pitiful to think how constantly a bird of that size and color must be in danger of its life.”
“Sam lay rolled in blankets beside Frodo. ‘I had a funny dream an hour or two before we stopped, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘Or maybe it wasn’t a dream… I saw a log with eyes!’ ‘The log’s all right,’ said Frodo. ‘There are many in the River. But leave out the eyes!'” – Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 9
Like floating driftwood with eyes, the alligator is exceptionally camouflaged as it lies submerged in the dark swamp waters. Often lying as still as a stone for hours with only its eyes and nostrils above the surface, unwitting prey may often come within chomping distance unaware of their danger. A sudden sideways slash of the head and a large fish is trapped in those unrelenting jaws. A forward thrust of the tail and a duck or otter may disappear down that previously unseen gullet. A strong thrust may even propel the alligator several feet out of the water to nab the unsuspecting heron from its perch.
An excerpt from A Florida Sketch-Book, by naturalist Bradford Torrey, written in 1895:
“I look up from my paper to see a turkey buzzard sailing majestically northward. I watch him till he fades in the distance. Not once does he flap his wings, but sails and sails, going with the wind, yet turning again and again to rise against it,—helping himself thus to its adverse, uplifting pressure in the place of wing-strokes, perhaps,—and passing onward all the while in beautiful circles. He, too, scavenger though he is, has a genius for being graceful. One might almost be willing to be a buzzard, to fly like that!” – Bradford Torrey, 1895
Internet rumor has it that the alligator received its name from the Spanish explorers that claimed Florida in the 1500’s. If true, I’m sure that el legarto didn’t simply mean a lizard, but THE Lizard! For the impressive alligator is no mere squamate, but on the order of a greater magnitude: Crocodilia!
The order Crocodilia are large, predatory reptiles. They are primarily carnivorous and feast upon fish, crustaceans, birds, mammals and even other reptiles. While they are quite imposing in appearance, and some crocodilians have attacked humans (the largest number of attacks comes from the Nile crocodile), the American Alligator is rarely a threat to people.
According to a Georgia Department of Natural Resources publication, “the opportunity for humans to experience any of the alligator’s weapons first hand will come only to those who attempt to capture one. Under natural conditions, alligators are usually shy, retiring creatures that generally mind their own business, which does not include promoting encounters with humans.”
Although ratsnakes (Pantherophis sp.) can be found in the Okefenokee, this is a bonus post of a snake I recently wrangled further north in the Georgia Piedmont area of Oglethorpe County:
A frantic friend called me with a “giant rattlesnake” in his yard. Knowing it probably wasn’t a rattlesnake, I kept making excuses to avoid driving out to his Oglethorpe County home. But he kept insisting, “I promise, it will be worth your while.”
On arrival it was, of course, gone from the spot where he first spotted it. After about 5 minutes of flipping logs, my friend saw it over in a nearby brush pile. I love the yells of excitement and fear heard on the video as I pulled this big Eastern Ratsnake out from the debris and onto the open ground!
I measured it right at six-feet; probably one of the biggest I’ve caught. It had a squirrel-sized lump in its belly. My friend counted all his chickens and none were missing.
Prior to being set aside as a National Wildlife Refuge, White-tailed Deer were commonly hunted on the open prairies of the Okefenokee Swamp, as described in an excerpt from the 1926 book History of the Okefenokee Swamp:
Chase Prairie derives its name from the fact that it was a favorite place to chase down deer that would come out on the space to feed upon the grass and water plants. A number of hunters would gather with dogs around this large Prairie and some would chase the deer from the islands into the Prairie, while others would have boats convenient, and they were so expert with the little narrow boats used in the Swamp that they could propel these boats so swiftly over the water-covered Prairie that a deer would be overtaken before he could cross it.
Any visitor to the Stephen C Foster Georgia State Park campground in the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp has met “Sophie”. She is the resident gator that lives, patrols and fills the boat launch area with babies every year. Sophie can often be seen laying in the grass near the canoes, or occasionally up on the boat ramp. On most of my visits, Sophie has been the only gator in the boat ramp area. But on this trip, her suitor, “Tank” was hanging around, undoubtedly awaiting the beginning of breeding season!
Multiple trips to the Okefenokee and I hadn’t seen a Pitcher Plant since 1997. So on this May 2020 trip I was going to find and photograph that signature swamp Sarracenia! From what I had read, some of the largest Hooded Pitchers – up to three or four feet – grow in the Okefenokee Swamp. Pitcher Plants are native to North America and found along the coastal plain from North Carolina down into Florida.
After three days of paddling and exploring the trails around the Stephen C Foster campground, I finally broke down and had to ask park staff*. “On the way out of the campground, about a quarter mile on the left, just under the 25 MPH sign I flagged off a small patch so the mowers wouldn’t hit them.” And sure enough, there they were! Perhaps I was imagining a more secluded and swamp-like scene to find these carnivorous vegetables, but a roadside ditch will do!
Excerpt from the 1912 Okefenokee journal of Dr. W.D. Funkhouser:
“We five started in alone, carrying 50 pound packs, with a compass as our guide. The water was from waist to shoulder deep, full of giant cypress trees, and so closely overgrown with underbrush and entangling vines that we literally had to cut our way with axes every step, and could only advance a mile a day.
“Sometimes we would come to a big gator tunnel through the underbrush, where a large alligator had crushed his way through and we would crawl through it to save some cutting. The difficulties were that the sides were usually supplied with wasp nest’s, and there was always the chance of meeting the alligator coming back.”