Look over to the right of Mike's shoulder at the big gator!
Mike has wanted to canoe through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for years, so he was really excited when I managed to get a camping reservation at the last minute. Apparently March and April are the most popular months to canoe camp, due to the pleasant temperatures and fewer mosquitos. I called just two weeks ago, and luckily there were a couple of sites still available for this prime weekend. So we borrowed a canoe from FLETC, tied it to the roof of our car, and drove about an hour to Okefenokee. When we arrived to pick up our permit, it was nowhere to be found. Apparently there's a lack of communication between the refuge staff and the concessionaire (as there tends to be at all federal sites), but FORTUNATELY the concessionaire lady went the extra mile and managed to snag us a permit for the site we had reserved.
Now, I grew up in natural places, where wild animals like moose, wolves, and foxes roam free. However, I've never, ever lived in a place where alligators are the top of the food chain. The thought of being in the water with these huge reptilian beasts was terrifying and very intimidating for me. Luckily Mike has lots of experience canoeing with alligators from his time in the Everglades, and his confidence was enough to get me into the canoe. The refuge is nicely managed, balancing multiple uses. There are aquatic trails for motor boats and some separate trails for canoes and kayaks. So we paddled through the murky water, and my heart was in my throat for the first hour or so. Every once in a while, we'd either see an alligator sunning itself on the side of the canal or we'd hear a huge "splash!" where one had submerged itself. The canals aren't very wide, so we ended up pretty CLOSE to the gators. Mike was in the stern, steering us, and sometimes I ended up way too close for my comfort. Check out the photos and videos to see alligators in their natural habitat.
After paddling about 7-8 miles, we arrived at Monkey Lake and pulled the canoe up to a little boardwalk, which led to our home, sweet home. The wooden platform, called a "chickee", was the perfect place to spend a night! We were a little bit elevated, so I felt confident that the gators wouldn't climb up to join us in the darkness. Our tent was sheltered from the sun, and we lounged around in the shade for a few hours. At sunset, we set off in the canoe to explore a lake a little further away. As we returned to our campsite, a huge gator laid claim to the lake. It submerged itself completely to allow our passage overhead, but we later heard it splashing around in the darkness. We laid in the tent for about an hour, being lulled to sleep by the sounds: crickets and frogs chirping, alligators splashing, small rodents running through the underbrush, a barred owl hooting overhead, and the distant calls of sandhill cranes.
After a wonderful night's sleep, we returned through the maze of canoe trails to the main marina. Now I have more of an appreciation for alligators, although you couldn't pay me enough to get into that murky water and go for a swim with them! (You might wonder why I would even think such a thought, but Mike said for just $50 he'd swim 10 yards...CRAZY!)
Okefenokee--Definitely worth a visit or two!