Notes From the Swamp

WE slip the metal canoe into the tea-colored water off Kingfisher Landing an hour before noon. The five-foot American alligator that had slowly turned in the middle of the waterway to better examine our preparations submerges as we push away from the sandy bank. Its armored head and nostrils, along with its intentions, vanish under the warm, dark surface. Local teenagers who swim in the Suwanee and St. Mary's rivers - both fed from this immense quagmire - claim these creatures are man-shy and usually disperse from swimming holes when summer bathers enter the water to escape the moist heat. Still, I hold my hand high on my paddle as we glide above where the reptile left faint circular ripples.

This is my third venture into this nation's largest freshwater swamp. The first time was 12 years ago. I was a sophomore studying marine biology in southern California. Spring final exams had been hard, too hard. During those extensive study sessions in the university library, all I could think about was how I was going to jump into my car and drive slowly across the United States, taking in all the landscape my book-weary eyes could hold.

I remember much of that cross-country trip. Yet, only this place - devoid of human life, a large soggy patch in a southeastern corner of Georgia - compels me to return with a force that tugs from a point below my consciousness.

The modern name for the 438,000-acre bog holds vague resemblance to the original sound spoken by the Seminole Indians, who once hid here from the advancing white settlers. Okefenokee: Oh-key-fen-oh-key means ``trembling earth.'' Leaves and twigs continuously rain down from its vegetation to form thick layers of decomposing detritus under the swamp water. Methane gas, generated by the rot, often lifts black masses of peat to the surface - some mere inches across, others platforms 100 feet long. Set foot on the floating islands, called blowups, and the plants that have anchored their roots sway slowly as the unstable ground trembles underneath.

MY PHOTOGRAPHER friend, Scott, flew with me from the West Coast. He kneels in the canoe's stern, helping pilot us down the wide channel. Along the shore, long-leaf and slash pines grow closely together with various gum, bay, oak, and magnolia trees. Thorny vines and long silvery beards of Spanish moss hang from many of the branches. The moss has no roots. It survives on nutrients from the dust and microscopic droplets suspended in the still air.

Scott and I are the only canoeists who have been allowed into the swamp in more than a month. The swamp is overgrown, and in many places impassable due to an extended drought that has lowered water levels. Of the 100 miles of back-country canoe trails normally open, eight miles might remain accessible by boat. And that is highly questionable, warned the canoe concessionaire. ``The last couple quit after two hours, said every passageway was overgrown.''

The raised wooden platform we are scheduled to camp on rests near the south end of Bluff Lake, a tiny pond in the middle of Durdin Prairie. Two miles from our solitary launch, the landscape unfolds into a vast marsh dotted with stands of tall cypress trees. From a distance, the thin trees curtained with moss remind me of Macbeth's witches dressed in rags, standing by their cauldron.

Prairies in the Okefenokee are not solid plains of cultivated Midwestern grain, but rather marshes choked with neverwets, pipeworts and ferns, maiden canes and sedges - try walking and you're swallowed to your knees. The meadows are actually lakes completely sheathed with yellow- and white-blooming water lilies.

The temperature has risen to 97 degrees Fahrenheit; with the humidity, it registers closer to 110 degrees on the human skin. With each passing hour, Scott and I drink a half gallon of water. Our shirts are soaked in sweat. Ironically, out on the open prairie we feel smothered. The never-ending high buzz of katydids coupled with the intense humidity causes a kind of claustrophobia. It touches your body everywhere, drapes over your head and torso: a warm and wet electric blanket you can't rip off.

Scott's exposed arms are badly burned. There's no shade for miles. He pulls on a long-sleeve shirt and fights off a sick feeling. The air is so rich with moisture now, we feel as if we are breathing through a respirator filled with lukewarm soup.

The last time I boated in the Okefenokee was Christmas, 1989. Georgia had experienced its first snow in more than 100 years. The air was frigid. The torpid alligators had their snouts frozen in films of ice. I tapped one's head with a broken stick. It just sank, too numb to respond.

So far today, we have spotted two or three of the reptiles. The heat must be keeping them on the bottom. We can follow their progress by the surface trails of tiny gas bubbles released from the decaying swamp floor as they crawl along it.

PADDLING has become torture. Lily pads, ranging in size from silver dollars to dinner plates, clog the narrow creek that winds through the prairie. We use our paddles as levers and struggle over the tangled flora and the clots of peat blowups that bar our way. We progress, inch by inch, a mile per hour. With three more miles left to our campsite, our shoulders aching and eyes stinging, we understand why the previous canoeists turned back. The Okefenokee's elusive and grand beauty has revealed itself, but it has exacted a heavy price.

Hundreds of lime-green cricket frogs, each no bigger than a bottle cap, frantically hop across the lilies ahead of us.

My mind wanders, random thoughts freed by fatigue. Exploring the Okefenokee, a person can easily adopt the ancient Greek philosophy of spontaneous generation. Pollywogs and iridescent dragonflies must sprout from the mud for there are so many of them here, and fish are born from the decomposing meat of drowned animals. Louis Pasteur conclusively proved it otherwise through scientific experimentation, but not until late in the 19th century; and I doubt if he ever canoed through this swamp.

In the Okefenokee, the infernal cycle of life spins stories stranger than any human imagining. Hooded pitcher plants line the meadows. Fluted leaves trap insects for the carnivorous greenery, as if the vegetation had intelligently planned it that way. Only the maggots of flesh flies can thrive inside the pitcher, gorging on the moths that blunder into the digestive secretions at the base of the plant's leafy tubes. When the maggot metamorphoses into a winged adult, it repays the pitcher by pollinating its foul- smelling flowers.

We reach the camp platform in the late afternoon. Too tired to cook, we eat crackers, nuts, and jerky, then set up our net tent against the mosquitoes and gnats. Under a darkening sky, we glide onto Bluff Lake hoping to feel a breeze. The hot evening remains placid. Numerous bats, busily catching insects, sloop and flutter above our heads. Curiosity tempts us to follow a shallow creek to discover where it leads.

Neither Scott nor I notice the telltale trail of bubbles, until we run the canoe's keel right on top of the hidden alligator's spine. A brief thrashing under us and it's gone. Two men, extremely shaken, paddle back to the platform.

By midnight, tears of exhaustion streak both of our faces. The heat has not abated. Sweat trickles from our naked bodies as we strain to sleep. We must rest if we expect to make it back to civilization, paddling through what we pray will be the relative cool of the morning. Between fitful dreams, I come to believe no person belongs in this alien land of extremes.

Three of the four species of poisonous North American snakes live in the swamp: rattlers, cottonmouths, and the gaily banded coral snake, cousin of the cobra. Only the copperhead is absent. Scott and I have surely journeyed back into prehistory to the great epoch of reptiles - the scenery speaks of the Jurassic. A momentary splash in the water surrounding our platform disturbs my dreams. In a fleeting vision, the truck-sized head of dinosaur lifts from the mire, its crimson eyes hungry.

A small shrew or rat has nibbled some of our food during the night. No matter, we make a quick breakfast from what's left, pack up and push off with the gathering light. By 10 a.m. we are halfway home. The air is still cool. Scott lifts his paddle and lets us drift into a clump of bamboo. A rookery of red-headed sandhill cranes on a cypress island has captured his attention. I hear the mechanical clicks of his camera's shutter until the lanky gray birds lob into flight, whooping loudly.

As if in response to the birds' cries, a loud noise suddenly echoes across the swamp. It sounds like series of deep burps resonating from the inside of a steel drum. All along I have hoped to hear this sound. It raises goose bumps on my arms. The next day I confirm with the rangers that what I'd heard was an alligator's staccato bellow.

Scott and I are the last people the rangers allow into the swampland until autumn rains replenish its waterways.

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