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Alligators, Birds and Plants, Oh my!

Oct 14, 2013, 2:03 p.m.

It’s 9:30 in the morning, but the air is still cool. Nevertheless, I’m slathered in sunscreen and dripping with insect repellant. In other words, I’m ready to meet some alligators on a trip that will take my husband and me from Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, the largest blackwater swamp in North America, to Florida’s Everglades National Park, a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve as well as a World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee Swamp

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Rental boats are available for folks who want to explore Okefenokee on their own.

Along with a dozen other passengers, we climb into a 24-foot flat-bottomed boat and set out through water that’s the color of strong tea—a result of tannic acid caused by decaying vegetation. At 10:08, we spot our first alligator. At 10:12, there’s another one, and then another. At 10:32, one leaps out of the water, arcing in front of us. “Sometimes they leap 6 feet into the air,” says our guide, Chip Campbell, owner of Okefenokee Adventures. It’s a fact I find most disconcerting.

By this time, the gators are appearing every two, three minutes. There’s one over there, curled in the grass, gazing at us with steely eyes. And that log over there...It moved! I stop counting when I realize I may be tracking fallen trees as well as prehistoric reptiles.

In short order we become mini-experts on alligators. We learn how to tell an alligator from a crocodile (It’s all in the teeth; a croc’s lower teeth overlap his upper); to judge the reptile’s length (Estimate the distance between the eye bumps and snout bump; that distance in inches pretty much equals the gator’s length in feet); and to escape one that’s chasing you. “Climb a tree, run in zigzags, or...” Chip laughs heartily… “outrun your friend!”

It’s obviously a good day for alligators, but even on gatorless days, there’d be plenty to see. The swamp is home to a large variety of other reptiles, as well as amphibians, fish, mammals, butterflies and more than 230 species of birds, including egrets, herons, ibis, sand hill cranes and red-shouldered hawks.

Chip puts the boat in reverse so we can better see a soft shell turtle, which instantly submerges to avoid us. No problem. Chip heads toward a flooded forest, where, he says, we’re likely to see a snake.

“Most, but not all, poisonous snakes have cat-shaped eyes,” he tells us. Since I have no intention of getting close enough to a snake to see the shape of its eyes, I dismiss this piece of information as superfluous.

I’m more interested in learning about the medicinal properties of various plants—spotting those that will repel insects, relieve depression, grow hair and clean hands. “But there’s no remedy for folks who get their hands eaten while plucking plants,” says Chip, and I decide to stick with the pharmacy for my medications.

By 11 a.m., as another gator glides by, we’ve seen so many that we’ve become blasé. We turn our heads but don’t rush for our cameras. Our memory cards are full, but even without more photos, we know we’ve had a trip we’ll never forget.

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