We were still living in southeast Atlanta when we began going to the Okefenokee every fall. And working with our church's youth, eventually the inevitable happened, and we took a couple of teenage boys down with us on one trip. Todd and Gene, sons of the pastor and our head deacon.
That was a fun trip! It was warm that year and that was the trip we found a great place to swim in the Suwanne River just off the main highway. But on susequent trips a vistor's center popped up there. Apparently the refuge had also decided that was a great location ... so we only got to swim there that one time.
The boys liked to fish and the Okefenokee is a great place to fish. But fishing in the swamp has its own unique challenges to consider ... alligators!
Alligators will generally just leave you alone, but, like the deer and the racoons in the park, they quickly learn to associate the presence of people with the possibility of getting food. If you're catching fish that are too small, or fish you don't want, the alligators are just fine with you throwing them a fish or two, whether you meant to or not. They've learned to recognize fisherman when they show up. Fortunately alligators are territorial, so you'll likely only have one to keep a watchful eye on when out fishing. If there are more, it's probably a mom with some of her brood.
The regular park rules apply here: don't hang hands and feet off the side of your boat ... especially don't splash, slap or stir up the water. The gators think it's a fish in distress – easy dinner! – and they'll come check it out. You're also told to not hang stringers of caught fish off the side of your boat. Get a water-filled bucket and keep your caught fish in there and inside the boat.
And the really important time to keep a watchful eye is when you've caught a fish and you're reeling it in ... reel fast or your caught fish turns into bait and you might find a gator on the end of that line! Or no line at all if that gator was big!
When we went out on the water with Todd and Gene, we rented 2 canoes ... one for us and one for them and all their fishing gear. Canoe seats can get uncomfortable after a while, so it's good to bring floatable cushions supplied by the park, or bring your own chairs. You can buy special "chairs" that attach to the canoe seat and provide not only a softer seat, but a back rest as well. Gene brought one of those fisherman boat chairs that sits on top of the boat seat and positions you up high. A high center of gravity in a canoe didn't seem like such a good idea to me, but what do I know? I was outnumbered by the guys, and Bill didn't say anything about it, so I just tried to not look or think about it.
We got out into the swamp and they found their fishing spot. The boys fished and I settled down in the front of the canoe with a book, waiting for a nap to happen. I had learned how to get down onto the bottom of the canoe, leaning against a boat cusion and the seat, straw hat to shade the book, prop those feet up on the bow and wake me up when it's time to go somewhere! The swamp is just wonderful ... even with your eyes closed!
Bill's job was gator patrol. An 8-footer already had its eye on the boys and was watching their every move, inching closer and closer. Bill kept trying to maneuver our canoe between the boys' canoe and the alligator. Every time they would cast out, or reel in an empty lure bouncing on the water, the alligator would try to slide in a little closer and Bill would block it's path with our canoe.
But fishing can be an uneventful pastime. The fish weren't biting and the boys were getting bored. Even the alligator settled down, realizing that there really wasn't anything to go after on those empty lines.
When the boredom settled in, and they realized that even the alligator had given up on them, a new game was birthed ... before every cast there were always a few throws towards the gator, trying to bop him on the snout and get a little rise out of him.
"Stop teasing him!" Bill would warn. And they would for just a while. But then they'd start back up again. Eventually one of them snagged a line on the alligator's back scales, with one of Bill's favorite lures attached. He was not happy. He had to cut the line and then got to sit and watch his lure floating around on its final forever home on an alligator's back ... so close and yet gone forever!
So that put a stop to that game. It didn't matter anyway. because the alligator was just ignoring them. It's no fun to tease somebody who won't react. So the gator wouldn't play ... no fish were biting ... nothing was happening ... everybody, beast and human, got lured into a quiet complacency ... until ...
GENE SNAGGED A FISH! And suddenly EVERYBODY was wide awake! Including the beast!
Before Bill could get our canoe in front of him, the alligator was well on his way toward the struggling fish. High on his perch Gene was spinning the reel as fast as he could. We were all shouting, "Faster! Faster!"
Gene spun! The alligator was coming!
Gene spun! The alligator was closing!
Gene spun! The alligator was inches away!
At the canoe! Gene grabbed the line and pulled the fish up out of the water! The alligator lunged!
The canoe rocked violently! So did that high-sitting fishing chair with Gene in it! Gene was shirtless and, starting at his head, the color instantly drained out of him, leaving him ghostly white! We all held our breath ... waiting for the next splash ... our brains calculating what needed to be our next move ... an eternity of seconds ... and ... nothing! The angels must've been surrounding that canoe that day ... the boat settled, the chair settled ... and although is was quite a few minutes before any of us could breathe again, it was all okay! Nobody was in the water! Everyone was safe and dry in the canoes! What a relief!
Gene got out of the chair and opted for the canoe seats. I suspect he had to swallow hard a few times to get his heart back down into his chest! And his color was coming back, albeit very slowly! Todd, too, wide-eyed at the other end with a death grip on the side of the canoe, was slowly beginning to realize that he was still in the boat and not swimming in the swamp with the gator! They had tangled with an alligator and had lived to tell the tale!
Recovering from events like this is really interesting ... you had braced yourself while waiting for the inevitable tragedy that was about to occur. Then there's the sobering realization that it wasn't going to happen after all. Then relief. Then try to breathe normal again. Then the dam breaks and your emotions explode! Should you laugh? Should you cry?
That particular day recovery began with the nervous laughter ... was it really proper to laugh at what had almost happened? Then we were all remembering and relating what we had each witnessed and what had flashed through our minds. It could have turned out so badly, but it didn't. It was all okay ... and yeah, it was okay to laugh about it!
The boys had a story to tell! And tell it, they did, to the park staff and anybody who'd listen for the rest of the trip. They could hardly wait to get back home and tell their friends about their adventure!
And to this day, I can never forget how the color drained out of Gene ... I've never seen someone turn so white in a split second! Bill says he remembers the expressions on both boys' faces ... who knew eyeballs could pop open that wide!
And both of us were just very, very relieved that we didn't have to go home and explain to their parents how we took their boys down to the swamp and fed them to the alligators!