I would be remiss if I didn't spend one of these blogs talking about the favorite and most mysterious swamp inhabitant: the American Alligator.
Even if they smile and say they agree with you, most people don't believe it when you tell them that alligators aren't that aggressive and won't attack you unprovoked.
Even if you were in the water with them, they might come check you out just from sheer curiosity, but there's a low chance they'd attack you, though I certainly wouldn't volunteer to test that theory! Swimming in the Okefenokee is probably not a great idea!
The right size gator can definitely take down large prey, as we witnessed first hand one afternoon when a large buck was attempting to swim across Billy's Lake and got ambushed by an alligator. It happened right at the take-out point from the park. A tour boat full of little kids was just on their way out and got a front-row seat to the whole gruesome ordeal! I doubt there was much sleep for them for a few nights afterwards and, all these years later, they're all grown up and probably still telling the tale!
If you Google American Alligator you will find out lots of cool facts: like they can live up to 50 years. The males are twice as big as the females, and can get up to 15 feet and 1000 lbs. The females are doting and protective mothers and will watch out after their young for a couple of years after hatching. The males will eat the babies, but if a young gator can survive until he's about 3-4 feet long, he'll probably be just fine and live a nice, long gator life!
Elegant swimmers, they barely disturb the water suface as they glide by. On land they're a bit clumsy, but don't underestimate them ... they can run quite fast in short spurts. If you accidently corner one on a trail, you might not be able to out run him! If it's a female with a nest nearby, you'll really be in trouble!
And watch out for that tail ... both ends of an alligator are lethal!
Before we discovered Stephen Foster State Park, we used to stay in a hotel and visit the swamp at the Waycross Swamp Park in Waycross, Georgia. As well as being able to rent boats there, they have terrific nature trails.
The park itself is beautiful with a large lawn out front. They have lots of visitors going through and the alligators get quite used to people. And they love that lawn for sunning! They crawl up and plant themselves right in the middle of all those folks walking about and lay motionless for hours. The park staff has to stay alert for people who mistakenly think they're not real and will try to stand or sit their children by or on them for photos ... but those aren't statues!
Out in the swamp in a boat or canoe, you won't get so close. You'll see them up ahead in the water, but as you get closer, they'll slip beneath the surface and pop back up after you've passed. The one exception to this is my husband who has an uncanny knack for being able to silently slip the front end of the canoe right up on top of them while his unsuspecting wife is napping there ... not funny!!!
They add to the atmosphere of the swamp through sound, too. You'll hear them bellow, which I think is not a good word for it. It's more of a gutteral rumble, like the T-rex in Jurassic Park. If they're in the water when they bellow, their whole body vibrates and makes the water around them dance. They bellow to attract mates and to let everybody know that's their territory. And you'll hear their bellows more frequently in early spring when they are mating.
The other distinct sound is the grunts coming from the babies, either on the nest or still young and hanging around mom for protection. When you hear those grunts, take notice and when you see where they are, give them a wide berth ... you do not want mom to show up and take care of things!
And then there's the loud cracking of a turtle shell. Alligators love turtles and they have no trouble cracking the shells with those strong jaws. Loud cracks that carry across the water and give me cold chills down my spine!
But not as chilling as the sight we saw while hiking the sill once ...
The sill was created in the late 1800's when some knuckleheads spent 3 years digging a channel in a failed attempt to drain the swamp to create more farmland. Crazy people!
The result was a 2 1/2 mile long straight channel. The dirt berm was piled up along one side and now you can go there and walk the path at the top of the berm out to the end to the dam that was added later. It's not very high or steep and the ground slopes gently downward a few feet to the water-filled channel.
It's a nice 5 mile hike to go out to the end and back. There's no shade and it can be quite hot in the sun. But it's a nice, easy walk with the forest on one side and the channel and swamp beyond on the other. The shore on the opposite side looks almost like a beach and the alligators like to crawl up on that for a sunbath. It's a good spot to see birds and turtles and the alligators are there for the same reason. Every visit to the Okefenokee includes an afternoon hiking the sill.
The dam at the end was added to help control the water levels. After a hot, dry Georgia summer the water level can get very low in the swamp. It makes some of the boat trails impassable and they have to be closed. So it limits where and how far you can go in a boat.
But what makes the boaters sad, makes the alligators very glad! The lower the water goes, the more concentrated the fish get. And concentrated fish are easy to catch, resulting in well-fed alligators! Normally very territorial, low water can also force the gators into closer proximity of each other and you'll hear them squabbling when out in a boat. But a full belly can make even the most cantankerous of them a bit more tolerant of their fellows ... as we were going to witness in a spectacular way ...
We were at the swamp once after an exceptionally hot, dry summer. And we took a break from the canoe one afternoon to hike the sill. The water was so low ... the channel wasn't dried up, but was on the way to being dried up.
The sill is just a bit eerie to me. It's like walking through a zoo with no cages. The alligators we saw there were always either in the water or on the shore on the opposite side. It never seemed to occur to them to get over on our side, or come up the hill to the path. And I certainly wasn't going down to the water! It's like the beasts and the tourists just knew where they were supposed to be, and everybody stayed where they belonged. And all was right with the world!
I knew also that they're very territorial, so when we began our walk, I was surprised to see a few of them lying close together on the opposite side. Well, that's unusual! I thought.
We kept walking and we began seeing more and more of them. We concluded that it was just because they were well fed and not really competing with each other ... but it was really strange ...
Then about halfway to the end, we saw the creepiest sight I've ever seen anywhere ... hundreds of alligators! Piled up on the other side. Laying next to each other, on top of each other, in the water, on the beach ... alligators everywhere! And I suppose they really were well-fed, fat and happy, because there were turtles there, too! Sunning right beside the alligators on the shore and swimming carefree amongst the ones in the water.
I suppose that if the turtles weren't worried, I shouldn't have been worried either, but the sight was so ghastly! We continued our walk, but it wasn't very pleasant and I was glad when it was over!
Back at the park. the staff didn't seem very alarmed either. They had seen that sight before. It was just because of the low water. When the water levels come back up, the alligators will go back into the swamp.
But I don't know how you could just nonchalantly get accustomed to a sight like that ... it was the scariest thing I think I've ever seen!
Well ... except maybe for chiggers ... but then, I never saw those!