Okefenokee, Georgia, March 2012
Do I believe in the crocodile? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I first had the dream a long, long time ago… Yeah, I know, it’s alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp and not crocodiles. And alligators are not nearly as dangerous as crocodiles. But my recurring dream isn’t exactly specific, it’s just very vivid. I’m walking on the edge of a swamp, a large toothy reptile rises up from the water, snatches my leg and pulls me under. I wake up thrashing in bed, trying to escape those dreadful jaws. I’ve had the dream for years and I’ve always thought of the monster from the dream as a crocodile. That’s why I can occasionally be heard to say that it’s my destiny to die in the jaws of a crocodile. But there’s no reason really why it couldn’t be an alligator. Here we are in the Okefenokee Swamp, and there are alligators everywhere…
After we leave New Orleans, we head back generally in the direction we came from. We don’t follow the coast again though. Instead we go inland to experience a different environment. Or course we don’t escape the strip malls. They are everywhere. Like a voracious disease infecting mother earth, they seem to clutter the horizon as far as the eye can see. Growth! Development! Isn’t it great? In between the strip malls, there are patches of trailer park; mass produced mobile homes that humans have to live in. In another life, I once read a judicial opinion that described mobile homes as the preferred form of low income housing in the northeast. Apparently, it’s the preferred form of low income housing down here in the south as well. The flimsy, ugly, poorly insulated, energy wasting contraptions constructed primarily form globalized mass produce components instead of locally available materials are everywhere. I can’t help but question the legitimacy of an economic system that produces such a result. Strip malls and trailer parks… oh what a wonderful world.
The next great destination on our agenda is the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. The largest federally protected swamp in the country is chock full of reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and insects. There are no shopping malls and very few humans. In other words, it sounds a lot like my kind of place. Since it’s federal land and a national park there should be free or almost free “primitive” camping within it’s boundaries somewhere. We’re also hoping to rent canoes. If the world is perfect, we will be able to paddle out somewhere into the maze of interconnected swampy waterways and camp out on a backwater island among the gators for a few days.
But alas, the world is far from perfect. They do have a system in place that allows tourists to canoe through the waterways and camp on designated platforms. But the system is very regulated and requires pre-registration and permit applications. It’s not the kind of thing you can just show up and do. It is possible to take a motor boat tour: a couple hours in the swamp with a guide and a group on a motorboat for 20 bucks a person, but an adventurous paddle into the dark watery maze on our own is just not in the cards.
Thankfully, there are a few nice walking trails and a short road that meanders through a small section of swamp. So we will be able to explore some of Okefenokee on our own. But much to my great dismay there is no camping allowed anywhere in the park except on the designated platforms within the context of the regulated canoe system. The walking trails are all marked with signs that say “no camping” and “no overnight parking.” If we want to sleep in the area, we will have to go to one of the private campgrounds outside the national park. There are brochures for available places on the rack at the visitor center.
Of course this injustice annoys me but it certainly does not surprise me. It is but another manifestation of the fundamental problem. Ecological systems are legally separated from human beings. We are allowed to visit such systems but only as long as we do so within the protection of a regulatory bubble. We are not part of nature, we are separate and distinct from nature. This ideological construct becomes even more apparent a short while later when we see the tree harvesters. I do not doubt that the logging companies are operating sustainably within the context of a tightly regulated federal system. But I do find it strange as a matter of principle, that such machines of devastation are allowed on this supposedly public federal land, but human citizens with tents are not.
Anyway, we do have a wonderful afternoon on the walking trails. We see more alligators than logging trucks and the path along the canal is beyond spectacular. Swamp waters so still they reflect a perfect mirror image. There’s another world just beneath the surface. How do we get to that other side?
In the late afternoon, we go looking for a place to stay. There’s a private campground right outside the park but they want to charge us 25 whole dollars just to set up our tent. The “unfree” country continues. A few miles down the road, however, we see a sign for “Trader’s Hill Campground”. It’s one of those places that was built during the great depression as part of Roosevelt’s jobs program and has since fallen on hard times. It’s in an out of the way place, at the end of a long dirt road on the side of a river. There’s a boat launch and a couple fishing docks there which are popular with locals and a collection of campsites. There are only a few old school possibly abandoned rvs scattered about and no tents. I know it’s the off season and it almost seems shut down. Maybe there’s no one here at all? But there is. We are greeted by a super friendly woman who welcomes us with good news.
“It’s only ten dollars a night for tent camping. You can set up over there by the pavilion or there are more spots down by the river.”
We choose the riverside location and we are the only people camping. There are a few vehicles near the boat launch but we have the grounds to ourselves. How good is this life? We choose the prime spot and set up our tent. We stroll down to the riverside and out onto one of the docks. We sit there for a while and watch the dark waters flow past. Some locals are fishing from the other dock and there are two small boats afloat on the river. The setting sun sparkles in the trees and the water is very reflective. It almost seems like I could dive from the dock and reach the other side. Where oh where might the crocodiles be? But no, I’m not swimming; it’s too cold for that. I’m content to sit here and dangle my toes over the edge and into the water.
After dark, we sit by a campfire in our brand new and quite comfortable dollar store camping chairs and sip wine while watching the crackling flames. We discuss the possibility of alligators lurking in the darkness. But seriously, have you ever heard of an alligator attacking a tent? There is absolutely nothing to worry about. The real creature of concern in these parts is the raccoons. All food must be put inside the vehicle. No doubt about it, they will come scavenging in the night. As we climb into our tent for the end of the evening, I imagine the great drama unfolding in the darkness around us. Do alligators eat raccoons? Do raccoons attack alligators? Or maybe…perhaps…they live in harmony?
The next day is truly incredible. Me and Ms. B. go cycling with the alligators. We follow that nice little road that meanders through a small section of the park. Along the way, we pass ponds and swamps and a fair number of alligators. We stop occasionally to smoke weed or take photos. Images from my dream keep flashing through my mind. I know in my dream I am always walking when I get snatched so I should be safe on the bicycle. Besides, alligators do not generally attack a full grown human. So there’s really nothing to worry about. Nevertheless the thought still lingers in the back of my brain. Is today the day of my big moment? Is it my turn to get eaten? We stop the bicycles at a particularly beautiful spot. I leave the bicycle and walk towards the water’s edge. The fear of the alligator is an irrational fear. Am I facing my fear or living out my destiny? Ms. B. is there with her camera to capture it all if it happens. Closer to the water I walk. I see some alligators off in the distance. But are there any here? Just beneath the reflective surface? Come and get me Monster from the Swamp. I’m not afraid to die…
But no, I don’t get attacked and eaten. That day has yet to come. We take lots of photos and continue on our way. How much fun are humans allowed to have?