"Just don't crowd them...or separate a mother from her babies...or get between a 'gator on land and its route to the water!" These were the instructions Steve gave us before we pushed our canoe off into the Suwanee Canal of Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp. "We'll remember that," Neda and I chorused, as we exchanged wary looks and wondered exactly what we had gotten ourselves into this time. Steve and Jo, the owners of Okefenokee Pastimes Campground had prepared us with caring history and environmental specifics of the swamp whose name means "Land of Trembling Earth,"before leaving us with those final words. Canoeing on our own into the depths of this famous swamp, surrounded by alligators, egrets, bears, bats, snakes, skinks and salamanders was certainly going to be an unforgettable experience!
We entered North America's largest swamp cautiously. We assured the canoe-rental employees that yes, we had paddled before (twice counts, doesn't it?) and zig-zagged our way off the bank and into the entry canal. A few minutes later, Neda and I had figured out the art of steering and paddling enough to keep the canoe straight, and were off to explore the interior of this beautiful raised wetlands basin.
Making our way through the canal, we noticed that there was no visibility beneath the water's mirror-like surface. The locals told us that the water is actually clean enough to drink, but appears as this dark brown, tea-stained color from the cypress trees growing on the banks, and from the presence of other decaying vegetable matter. Whatever the reason, this opaque water surely wasn't going to make it easy to know where our alligator buddies were swimming! And yet they knew where we were at all times...
It was only minutes later that we had our first 'gator encounter. Neda eyed him less than 4 feet from the canoe, with an excited, "There's one!" While I fumbled for the digital camera, I tossed Neda the video tape to open and insert into the video camera. Apperently we needed some work on this process, because we were just slow enough to completely miss taping the alligator that crept alongside us, with his entire body visible! We soon learned not to worry about that missed opportunity as we began to spot alligator eyes peering out of the dark water at us every few minutes. The trick would be to capture one on film before it submerged under the surface again, completely disguising itself with the cloudy swamp water. Click on our video to see the results.
We were asked during a school visit in Florida soon after our experience if we had been nervous canoeing along among all of these toothy carnivores. "Well," we answered, "we trekkers never let a little fear for our lives stand in the way of bringing the complete story to our audience!" In reality however, these alligators were truly more afraid of us than we were of them. As long as we kept our respectful distance, they would certainly keep theirs. Instead of being afraid, we were thankful for this opportunity to be so close to them. One of the greatest things about being in a wildlife refuge is that we were able to observe these incredible creatures in their natural environment, and not behind the window at the zoo.
Aside from capturing some alligator action on film, Neda and I spent our day enjoying the beauty of the different swamp habitats. Our friend Steve had dubbed the swamp a "mosaic" of open wet prairies, cypress forests, scrub-shrub vegetation, upland islands and open lakes. We wondered at the hundreds of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that call this swamp home. Although we kept our eyes open, we weren't able to see some of the threatened and endangered species that live in the swamp like the red cockaded woodpecker, American bald eagle, wood stork, or eastern indigo snake. We know they're there though, and can only hope they continue to increase their numbers in this protected habitat.
Neda and I were awestruck by the peaceful experience, beauty, and variety the swamp offered. It was hard to believe that just a few years earlier the swamp's existence was threatened by human "progress!" In an effort to easily collect titanium and other metals found 30 - 50 feet underground, the Du Pont company had decided to strip mine the eastern edge of the swamp. This privately owned, 1.5 mile-wide ridge created the eastern border of the bowl-shaped Okefenokee. Du Pont proposed to clear out all vegetation from square mile sections and to bring in huge equipment to dredge the ridge for several decades to come. They would then truck out hundreds of loads of minerals each week and backfill the mined area. Scientists and environmentalists alike agreed that although the ridge around the swamp was not officially part of the Okefenokee wildlife refuge, digging into it would have a serious negative impact on the amazing ecosystem of the swamp.Be sure to listen to what locals had to say about the swamp and the strip mine!
Luckily for us, and the 400,000 visitors to the refuge each year, concerned community members and national organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society mobilized a protest against the mining that Du Pont was about to do. The citizens engaged in a two-and-a-half-year struggle that involved collecting petitions and writing letters, organizing meetings and making appeals to save their swamp. Even Bruce Babbitt, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, helped their cause by saying that "Du Pont could do the people of Georgia and the people of the U.S. who care about God's creation and this wildlife refuge a real public service by simply withdrawing this proposal once and for all." After hundreds of hours of hard work put in by caring individuals, the environmentalists won their battle when Du Pont did in fact withdraw their mining proposal. The swamp was, for the time being, saved!
Emerging from the swamp with our muscles sore from paddling (but all of our limbs intact) Neda and I discussed how awesome it was that the swamp was being protected. The beauty and diversity that we encountered was definitely worth fighting for. If you see something in your community that you think needs improving, don't be afraid to step up and meet the challenge. Steve and Jo did not always have the support of the entire community but they believed in what they were doing and so kept up their struggle. It is inspiring to know that a group of concerned citizens was able to work hard and save something that they cared so much about. It may not always be easy to make a difference, but the rewards can be so amazing. Because of their efforts at the Okefenokee, we know that Steve will be able to offer his wry alligator advice to enthusiastic canoers for years to come.
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