Paddling over muck and amid alligators

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher Percy Collier
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2005

There are no flashy travel brochures advertising high-end trips to southeastern Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, no snappy runs of text touting ''molasses-colored waters teeming with large reptiles." After all, swamps aren't exactly the kind of tourist meccas that attract hordes of visitors each year. ''Frightening no-man's-lands" is how the Environmental Protection Agency characterizes our traditional view of them, before going on to explain the gravity of their nationwide decline.

Still, it was precisely this ominous allure that brought me to the Okefenokee: the opportunity to paddle into the primeval.

In the elegant coffee-table book ''Okefenokee" (University Press of Mississippi, 2002), George W. Folkerts writes eloquently of wading out with a net to ''catch beetles, bugs, and tadpoles" while ''cottonmouths, alligators, and other fabled dangers of the Swamp never cross [his] mind." In ''Paddling Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge" (Falcon, 1998), authors David O'Neill and Elizabeth A. Domingue boldly posit that, ''If you can't paddle around the alligator, you may be able to gently coax it out of your way. In many instances, diligent use of your paddle to lightly splash the alligator with water is sufficient."

Such statements didn't strike me as encouraging. But then a pamphlet published by the refuge, the government entity that manages most of this land on the Georgia-Florida border, grounded me: ''There is no need to fear snakes or alligators as long as you take normal precautions and do not disturb or feed the animals." The brochure went on to address some of the rules associated with a backcountry trip involving alligators: no dogs, no children, no dumping food, no swimming, no wading. After that, I spoke to a refuge employee and a local outfitter. Both assured me there had never been an unprovoked alligator attack in the swamp.

I began to feel confident that, with the right planning and research, we could pull this trip off. My paddling partner and I had both spent time in wilderness areas and we knew how to paddle pretty well. We wondered if this fear of alligators, like our collective perception of swamps, was askew, an irrational fear based on watching too many horror movies. We would find out soon.

We had been told the best time to paddle the Okefenokee was spring, during the height of alligator mating season. So it is a foggy spring morning along the northeastern edge of the swamp when we pull a rented, blood-red canoe from the roof of our car, strap down our gear, and push off into dark, mirror-calm water with a cooler containing our only source of drinking water for the trip. Over the next three days, we will paddle from one end of the swamp to the next . . . carefully.

Observing that the earth shook beneath them as they walked on its upland, early Native Americans named this area Okefenokee, ''land of the trembling earth." The swamp covers close to a half-million acres, most of it in the 396,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the third-largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. The swamp has an average depth of only 6 inches, and its bottom is thick sludge, or peat, the same stuff that dyes Okefenokee water coffee-black.

Eons ago, this area was in a temperate climate zone. Cold winters slowed vegetative growth and plant matter had enough time to decompose. Now, it's in a subtropical zone, which means this decaying organic muck builds and builds until an occasional fire burns it out. Here's what this means for a paddler: Get out of your boat and you could find yourself chest-deep in mud.

About 110 miles of marked water trails snake through this swamp, and a series of primitive, open-air wooden platforms (some completely surrounded by water) are scattered throughout. In the 1960s, this area was a lesser-known fishing and hunting paradise. These days, more and more visitors come toting cameras and binoculars, with boats strapped to the roofs of their cars and wildlife observation guides in tow.

A paddler can spend up to five days in here, following crude mile markers, steering through the labyrinth until it feels as if his or her arms will fall off, sleeping in the company of reptiles of all shapes and sizes in the middle of the swamp. Reserve a backcountry permit and it comes with a unique itinerary. Your group alone is assigned a specific trail to paddle during the day and a specific shelter to stay in at night. You're on your own, but where you are and where you'll be each day is clearly established up front. It's a system that keeps crowds at bay and safety in mind.

Sixty years ago, there was another, decidedly more aesthetically pleasing, way a human's presence was noted in the swamp.

Before the invention of cell phones and beepers, before the advent of global positioning technology and the ubiquity of motorized fishing boats, enchanting sounds carried through the Okefenokee. It has been said that the yodel of a ''swamper," as the first non-Native American settlers in the Okefenokee were called, calling home to his wife while he was out hunting or communicating with a hunting partner, could be heard for miles on a breezy night. Recordings of these intonations, developed over the course of about 90 years, make old-time snippets found on the ''O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack seem like Britney Spears.

While the recordings are available on the Internet, these chants are no longer heard in the swamp. Since the establishment of the refuge in 1936, which led to the relocation of all swampers, the only authentic hollering that takes place here is largely ceremonial, reenacted on special occasions.

Hollering is not the only distinctive sound here. In spring, birds are chirping, frogs are croaking, and -- literally, above all -- mating alligators are bellowing.

On our first night, we think we hear the many bellowing alligators that we had read so much about: deep, throaty sounds, one on top of the other, like the squawks of a reptilian cocktail party. But on the morning of day three, we realize we have been hearing croaking frogs all along: One hundred feet from our shelter, we hear a bellow straight out of ''Alien," a jarring purr so deep you can almost feel it in your bones.

We pull our canoe from the black water at the other end of the swamp later that day. An alligator watches us from a nearby bank, not so much as flinching at the hull scraping along the concrete. After three days on a self-guided, 33-mile backcountry paddle, I feel invigorated, though a tinge of uneasiness about getting up close and personal with toothsome reptiles lingers. I try not to worry about it. In a few weeks, I'll be on a more mainstream summer vacation. The beaches will be sugar white. I'll sip water from the safety of my partially enclosed cabana, sleeping on a wooden chaise longue, all the while on the lookout for shark fins stealthily advancing through crystal clear water.

Christopher Percy Collier is a freelance writer in Georgia.

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