The visitor's center in Waycross, Georgia is great for an initial visit/intro to the Okefenokee. You can join one of the tours and hear the guide's spiel that will tell you all you need to know about this wondrous place. This center is also the launching point for multiple-day, mapped-out canoe treks across the swamp.
But our favorite go-to place is Stephen C. Foster State Park in Fargo, Georgia. I say "in" Fargo, because that's the mailing address. What's actually there is the beginning of what we affectionately refer to as their "driveway". It's where you turn onto a 2-lane straight-as-a-pencil road. With the exception of a couple of ranger residences, it's just flat, straight 17 miles of nothing but pine trees. Eventually you'll come to the gated park entrance, which will be locked tight around 10 pm, so don't be late ... it is dark and lonely out there at night!
Once in the park, to the right are camping and picnic areas, to the left are the cabins. Straight ahead will take you past the interpretive center to the boat basin and office where you can rent john boats, canoes or kayaks, or sign up for that campground or cabin. We always go for the cabin, 'cause we're wusses ... smart, but wusses nonetheless!
Plan and pack well, because it's a good 40-50 miles to the WalMart or chain grocery store. So you want to make certain you have needed meals and clothes. It's probably been a good decade or so since we've been, but our first trips were in the late 70's and not much has changed in Fargo or surrounding areas in all those years. Perhaps it's built up some more now. There was one small mom and pop grocery in Fargo and maybe one small restaurant. But you couldn't just hop in the car and go grab something.
And no night life! Today they probably have satelite TV and internet, but in those early trips you couldn't get good TV or radio reception. And no cell phone reception. The park is just too remote. Plus they lock you in at night, so you couldn't go anywhere even if you had a place to go!
But no worries ... they have the interpretive center. It's a small building in the middle of the park that houses a museum and a meeting area. In the evenings the rangers go there and give talks or show movies and answer visitors' questions about the swamp. And that's where we got to know Pete.
Our first few trips to the swamp were Pete's first years there, too. He was a terrific story-teller and over the years he really grew into to the role. He grew a beard and his stories got more outlandish with every telling. We always looked forward to hearing his wild swamp tales. Then we didn't go for a few years. When we finally went back, Pete had moved on to another state park in the north Georgia mountains. I'm sure those wild gator stories turned into wild bear stories and mountain visitors are surely enjoying Pete as much as we did.
I remember Pete so well, not only because of his colorful stories, but the psychological trauma he caused me the very first time we popped into the interpretive center to hear him talk. I was excited to be there, and I don't remember where Bill ended up, but I was sitting on the front row – my first mistake – in between a couple of other park visitors. And I was wearing shorts and was bare-legged – my second mistake.
Turns out Ranger Pete was truly a great outdoorsman and a hunter. And his favorite prey? Rattlesnakes!! I don't know if he ate the meat, but the main thing he did was tan the skins. And they were beautiful.
Now I don't like snakes, but I am a bit fascinated by them. I would never touch one, but I could watch them for hours from behind a glass, like at the zoo. It's that sick kind of fascination, like an accident that's too gruesome to see, but you can't look away. And the patterns and colors on snakes are so beautiful.
So there's Pete standing up front, holding up what was probably about six feet of snake skin and telling us about the tanning process. I was all eyes and ears.
Then he did the unthinkable ... he walked up to the front row – with me dead center – and laid that stinkin' thing across our laps! I thought I was going to PASS OUT!!
Fortunately I didn't. I think and hope that from the outside nobody could tell ... at least nobody ever acted like they noticed ... while they were all oohing and ahhing and touching, I was frozen solid and inside my head my brain was exploding: Take it off! Take it off! Oh, PLEASE! TAKE IT OOOFFFF!!!!
At some point it got removed, and I lived to tell the tale. For the rest of that trip I really wanted to tell him that it might be wise to check with folks before pulling stunts like that, but I never got up the nerve to tell him. After that experience I was always very careful where I sat during Pete's talks. Always check out the lay of the land and have an escape plan ready!
And Ranger Pete had lots more to say about things other than snake skins. Most of the talks he gave were about the people and history of Billy's Island and the logging settlement.
He told us about a boy named Gator Joe who lived on Billy's Island. Joe liked to swim in the swamp. He nailed boards to the side of a cypress tree out by the island dock and then tied a rope up high on one of the branches. He liked to climb up, swing out over the water and jump in. One day he jumped in right into the open jaws of a waiting alligator and got stuck up to his waist! The animal clamped down hard on Joe's torso! Joe managed to get away (no explanation for THAT!) and was left with the scars all around his waist ... thus his new name, Gator Joe. Of course we all knew that was a tall tale ... but when you go to Billy's Island, you'll see the rope and the boards on the tree ... hmmm ....
Then Pete told us about old George, and we knew George was real, because we had actually seen him in person, as well as in the photos of him at the center. George was an aged 12-14 foot alligator that lived out in Billy's Lake right where the boats entered and exited the boat basin. Visitors had fed him through the years and over time he had gotten quite tame. But George was old, and blind in one eye, and would accidentlly bump into canoes on his blind side, sometimes nearly tipping them over. So it got to be a routine thing at the park that the rangers would occasionally catch him and transport him far out into the swamp, thinking they were getting rid of him. And a week or so later, he'd show back up in the park. Then they'd do it all again. I think eventually they got him far enough away ... or perhaps George finally passed on. Alligators can live almost as long as people, so who knows ...
The most gruesome alligator story Pete told was about a park visitor with a dog. The park allows pets, but they have to stay safely inside the cabins at all times. Alligators love dog meat!
The boat basin where boats are rented and launched has a very nice dock around it now, but years ago it was just a big open pond with a grassy sloped shore where boats and canoes were launched and parked. There's usually a gator or two hanging around in the pond, especially when someone is fishing there.
One afternoon a lady showed up for the tour boat with a small dog. Dogs aren't allowed on the tours, and instead of taking the time to take her pup back to her cabin she tied him to a stake on the grassy shore. Bad move, because there was just an empty, lonely stake when the tour returned!
Now I don't know if that actually happened, because I can't imagine the rangers allowing her to do that, but Pete's story did it's job and rattled visitors enough that no one ever did that!
But there's one Pete tale that was my all-time favorite. Time has dulled some of the details in my brain, but here's a Sherry-version of it:
One day two men went out into the swamp to go hunting. In the boat on the way they got into a heated argument. One of the men got so angry that he grabbed his hunting rifle and shot and killed his companion. Now he was in big trouble ... what to do? Then he got a great idea! He went out to Billy's Island, dragged the body off into the woods and buried it. Now he was safe ... no one would ever know. On the way back to the boat a bear spotted him and gave chase! He had left his gun in the boat! But maybe he could outrun the bear, and jump into the boat and push off into the water before the bear caught up! But it was not to be ... he reached the boat, jumped into the back and grabbed a paddle ... too late! Before he could push off, the bear had jumped into the front of the boat and was coming towards him! With seconds to spare, he grabbed his gun and fired! The noise startled the bear so badly that it turned around to retreat, but not before the bullet had entered its open mouth! The bear turned around so fast that the bullet came flying out of the back of its head, striking the man right between his eyes, killing him instantly!
And that was the first murder/suicide in the Okefenokee.