It was 5:30 a.m., a rather chilly morning for early May, when we pulled into the parking lot of Okefenokee Pastimes. There we were met by Steve and his wife, Jo, the owners/operators of Pastimes. After the introductions and handshakes, we headed up to the office where we took one last bathroom break and packed a few essentials to take with us like drinking water and sunscreen. Mission accomplished, Steve finished hooking-up the little flat bottom boat, and we all piled into the truck. From there, it was a short ride to the main entrance of the Okefenokee Swamp where the fun was about to begin.
As I stepped down on to the little flat bottom boat that would provide our transportation for the next eight hours, I just knew this was going to be something special. No sooner than we had pushed off the dock, our guide Steve, pointed at the dark water and at just above a whisper called out "gator." In the predawn light I watched a line of bubbles about six feet out in front of the boat coming right at us. We sat quietly as the bubbles passed under the boat and out the other side. Just minutes later we spotted two more swimming across the narrow channel that led to the swamp. One was much larger than the other and the big one wasn't giving an inch. We had just enough room to pass him, but he wasn’t at all happy about it. His mouth opened wide and out came a rather loud and long hsssssss. As we inched even closer, he snapped around to face the boat, paused, stared at us for a moment and with a big resentful slap of his tail, SMACK, he disappeared into the black water.
Shaking my head and laughing to myself, I can remember thinking . . . how AWESOME!! As I turned to look at Barb (my wife) I notice her mouth was open too and so were her eyes – like she’d just seen a ghost or something. Unlike the gator however, it wasn't anger I saw on her face. It was more like – well, fear just bordering on panic. Teasing with her a bit, I said, “Gee, you think he wants to play?” She mustered-up about half a smile. Then I heard her exhale as the color started to return to her face. She snapped around, looked at Steve and said, “Do they always do that? Do we have to be worried about them?” Steve answered, “No, just as long as you don’t get out of the boat.” He joked with Barb a little and she started to relax so I asked, “Um, could I have my arm back now???”
Say the word "swamp" and something in our collective human consciousness conjures up dark, creepy, ugly, images when actually nothing could be further from the truth. It's hard for me to explain to you what I saw and felt that day in a way that does the Okefenokee justice. This is a beautiful and ancient place not yet spoiled by human hands. Enter the swamp, and it’s as if you’ve somehow been transported into another world, one with a strange and watery landscape. The loose interpretation of the Indian word Okefenokee is “land of the quaking earth.” It may appear to you that there are pockets of dry land all around in the form of small islands, but looks can be deceiving. Upon closer inspection, what you are actually looking at are floating islands of peat or simply mounds of reeds and arrow weed. Set one foot out of the boat and chances are you’re going to get wet. The swamp, although beautiful, is in fact a harsh environment, but one in which the plants and animals who call it home have adapted extremely well.
As we toured the Okefenokee with our guide Steve, one thing became perfectly clear. In this place, we were the intruders and all the wild things here knew it. We were being watched from every angle as if we were sitting in an old clunker of a car, driving slowly through some very expensive suburban neighborhood. We were never approached or in any real danger, but all the animals seemed to know where we were and what we were doing. And although I like to consider myself a student of nature, I must admit I have never seen anything quite like the Okefenokee. Truly this is a place worthy of our care and respect. Even Barb agrees after that initial shock wore off, she enjoyed the trip tremendously.