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Drought brings out alligators at Okefenokee

WAYCROSS, Ga. -- A dry spell has lowered the water level dramatically in the Okefenokee Swamp, hindering motorboats and canoes, raising the danger of wildfires, and prompting alligators to crowd into the deeper pools in search of fish.

``This is an excellent time to see alligators and other wildlife," said Martin Bell, manager of Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Joe Yeager, manager of the Stephen C. Foster State Park on the western side of the swamp, said that usually three or four alligators hang out around the park's boat basin, but on several recent nights as many as 75 have crawled in.

Officials emphasize that droughts and wildfires, usually caused by lightning, are part of the natural cycle of the Okefenokee, a 438,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia that attracts 350,000 to 400,000 visitors a year.

``This is just the ebb and flow of that water regime," said Jim Burkhart, a ranger at the refuge. ``The animals are all specially adapted to this. They know what to do. This is nothing earth-shattering or new."

Weeks of below-normal rainfall have lowered the swamp's water level by about 1.3 feet and reduced the flow in two rivers, the St. Marys and the Suwannee, that originate in the swamp.

``Folks are having trouble motorboating on both rivers," Burkhart said. ``Lots of sand bars that are normally covered are exposed."

Motorboats are still available for rent, but boaters have to paddle down a 2,000-foot canal to reach Billy's Lake, which still has enough water for boating. Guided boat tours have been canceled and signs posted to keep motorboats out of shallow areas.

The swamp's 15 canoe trails are still open, but some canoeists have to drag or carry their boats over shallow spots. Usually canoeists can paddle from one side of the swamp to the other.

The refuge has not had any significant fires, but the staff is on alert.

One of the best-known denizens of the swamp, Oscar the alligator, seems to have hunkered down in a secluded pool surrounded by a camellia garden. The 14-foot, 1,000-pound reptile is thought to be about 90 years old.

``He's been a memory for a lot of people," said Margaret Whipple, who has worked at the park for 20 years. ``They come back after 10 years and ask, `Is Oscar still around?' "

``He's doing well with the drought. He's been through this many times before," Whipple added.

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