December 30 2009 by Amy Graff
One of my favorite books as a child was the National Geographic title, Explore a Spooky Swamp. It told the story of Willie and Isabella who go on a boat tour of the Okefenoke Swamp with a guide named Johnny.
Johnny shows the children tiny frogs, a snapping turtle, and a mother alligator defending her nest. They float under a canopy of trees laden with Spanish moss.
My father read me the book again and again, and I always dreamed of visiting the swamp. But I never knew exactly where this mysterious place was until I was looking for a place to stay overnight between Charleston and Jacksonville, Fl.--I wanted to break up the drive.
Looking at a map, I noticed this great big swamp in Waycross, Ga, about an hour outside of Jacksonville. It was the Okefenoke Wildlife Refuge, and it immediately click that it was the place featured in the book. The swamp was fresh in my mind because I still have the book and I had read it to my kids only days before. I booked a hotel and packed the book in my suitcase.
When we arrived in Waycross, my daughter was the one who first spotted the Okefenoke Swamp billboard advertisement with a huge alligator.
"I don't want to go! I don't want to see an alligator!"
We ignored her cries and pulled down the road that leads to the Okefenoke Swamp Park.
We walked into the gift shop where you buy boat tour tickets and I showed the lady behind the counter my National Geographic book.
"Oh my God! That's my uncle Johnny!" she screamed. "Where did you get that book? I have never seen that book! You know he's now 85 years old. He was just here a few days ago."
It turns out that Johnny has lots relatives working at the swamp--because our boat guide, T.J. (above), said he was Johnny's nephew.
In a small motor boat, T.J. led us through a skinny waterway passing under a thick tangle of red bay trees--it looked exactly like the picture from my book. Terrified, my daughter curled up next to me.
T.J. spoke in a Southern drawl and told us about the swamp's inhabitants: bears, turkeys, hawks, and bobcats. But mainly he talked about alligators.
"Wanna know bout gators?" he asked.
My daughter shivered.
He told us that alligators lay 50 to 60 eggs. Typically, 20 of them hatch and then only 1 to 2 survive. Why the low survival rate? Gators are a tasty treat. Fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, and birds eat them--and alligators eat other alligators.
T.J. pointed out several spots where he had seen a gator earlier in the day. We were the last boat tour and the sun was going down. T.J. explained that alligators come out for the sun in the afternoon, and in the evening they go under water, where they can stay for up to 30 hours. My daughter was relieved that we might not see an alligator after all--and I have to admit that I was feeling a little more at ease.
And then as we were coming around a bend--there was a gator resting on a swamp bank. It was huge--over six feet long.
T.J. pulled the boat up close. We were only about 10 inches away from his mouth. My daughter and I both screamed. The gator jumped into the water and swam into a bed of floating lily pads.
My husband got the gator on camera...
After the gator swam away, my daughter said, "Wow! That was amazing!" While it was certainly scary, we were both happy we had seen a wild alligator.
Want to plan a trip to the swamp?
The Okefenoke Swamp Park, located in Waycross, Ga., is open every day, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas New Year's Day. $16 includes admission to the park, a 30-minute boat tour, a narrated train ride through the park, entrance to the nature center where you can see alligators, an otter, and snakes. The best time to see alligators is on warm, sunny days. For more info: okeswamp.com.
The Best Western Bradbury Inn & Suites is a three-year-old hotel that's seven miles from the entrance of the Okefenoke Swamp Park. The hotel has a heated swimming pool and offers complimentary breakfast. More info: bestwestern.com.
After a day at the Okefenoke, it's worth splurging for a meal at the Pond View. The restaurant in and old downtown building has lots of style with exposed brick walls and original hardwood floors. Order a steak or the mahimahi. More info: pondviewinn.com.