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Destination: Georgia

Swamp Safari

Getting up close--but not too personal--with alligators in Georgia's freshwater Okefenokee

April 12, 1998|ELLIOTT MACKLE | Mackle is a writer based in Atlanta

FOLKSTON, Ga. — At treetop level, we test the protective railing of the observation tower overlooking Chesser Prairie, a wide-screen, shore-to-horizon, full-color expanse of lily-dotted marshes, ponds, gray-green trees, Spanish moss, frogs, birds, snakes, Jurassic alligators and carnivorous plants in southeastern Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp.

The crowd on the creaky platform numbers several dozen, including a few off-duty local firefighters who are joking and leaning out toward the wind-dappled water 50 feet below. "Fear Is Not an Option" their T-shirts proclaim.

A zoology class on a field trip from Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., has set up tripods and fancy telescopes to examine the details of what is called "prairie" in swamp language only. In fact, "swamp" is something of a misnomer too. The water is not brackish or stagnant, not even muddy; it would be clear but for the tannin from decaying vegetation that colors it brown.

The observation tower stands on Chesser Island, a flat, sandy thicket of palmetto, oak and pine settled around 1858 by a hardy pioneer, William T. Chesser. His homestead, which is opened occasionally as a "living museum" attraction, is among the most accessible areas of the 620-square-mile Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

In the distance, the late afternoon sun's rays pick out other islands, turtles warming themselves on fallen logs and blue herons and egrets getting their supper. Pointing, one firefighter identifies the tree-lined course of the Suwannee Canal, a failed late-19th century attempt to drain the swamp and harvest its forests of rot-resistant cypress, red bay, pine and other hardwoods.

Shading his eyes, Juniata biology teacher Chuck Yohn tracks the slightly graceless approach of a long-necked, short-legged water bird as it banks and sets down in a stream not far away. "Look," he cries, "an anhinga." "A juvenile," adds a student with three cameras around her neck.

"An alligator," Yohn continues, pointing farther west. "You can see its eyes in the sun, about three-fourths across the lake."

A shirtless male student--his wiry back pointedly turned toward the resplendent panorama--mutters that what he wants is to eat some gator. I tell him that I enjoyed fried alligator tail the night before at a restaurant in nearby Waycross. He rolls his eyes and mockingly asks if it tasted just like chicken.

His buddy--sporting a butterfly tattoo and a ragged Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt--tops me, claiming to have once eaten freshly run-over possum. Seasoned it with lemon and pepper, he says, sounding almost serious.

Their teacher doggedly continues, "See those white ibis over there?"

"Pow, pow," answers Roadkill, aiming a spray of imaginary bird shot across the primeval marsh.

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Okefenokee was formed almost 250,000 years ago when the Atlantic shoreline receded, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped behind a sandbar. Abundant rainfall replenishes the swamp, which is headwaters of the Suwanee and St. Marys rivers.

This fragile patch of more-or-less unspoiled natural land in the rapidly developing Georgia coastal plain is home to sandhill cranes with 7-foot wingspreads, diminutive wood ducks, mink, river otters, Florida black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, barred owls, 14 families of fish, 20 species of frogs and toads, five species of venomous snakes and an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 alligators.

"Okefenokee," the white man's version of Seminole words meaning "land of trembling earth," refers to one of the swamp's most characteristic features: Its "land" consists largely of unstable bogs and clumps of floating peat formed from dead trees and plants. Building up and rising to the surface, these waterlogged rafts shelter the seeds of other plants, eventually turning solid enough to support shrubs, wildlife and trees.

More than 431 million board feet of timber were harvested in the two decades of commercial logging early in this century. The refuge was created by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, and logging is forbidden.

All of this meant relatively little to me until recently. Having grown up in south Florida near Everglades National Park, I'd followed Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comic strip set in Okefenokee ("We have met the enemy and he is us."). But that was about all I knew of the place.

Then industrial giant E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. announced plans for a 38,000-acre titanium mine on pine forest lands directly bordering the eastern edge of the refuge. Opposition has been fierce, and the plan is now before an independent study committee.

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