Drought hampers boating, brings out alligators in Okefenokee

Published 7:33 pm Friday, August 11, 2006

A drought has lowered the water level in one of the nation’s largest swamps, hindering motor boats, raising wildfire risks and forcing alligators to congregate in the deeper pools.

“This is an excellent time to see alligators and other wildlife,” said Martin Bell, manager of the Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross. “Of course, there are not many days you’re not going to see an alligator out there, unless it’s super cold, below freezing.”

Joe Yeager, manager of the Stephen C. Foster State Park on the west side of the swamp, said alligators are traveling in packs, most likely in search of fish, which have also congregated in the pools.

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Normally, three or four alligators hang out around the park’s boat basin, but on several recent nights as many as 75 have slithered into the basin, Yeager said.

“We’ve had an influx of ’gator visitors,” he said.

They check out the place and then head back to the deeper waters of Billy’s Lake, he said.

Officials emphasize that droughts and wildfires, usually caused by lightning strikes, are part of the natural cycle of the Okefenokee, a 438,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia that attracts 350,000 to 400,000 visitors a year.

“This is just the ebb and flow of that water regime,” said Jim Burkhart, a ranger at the refuge’s headquarters near Folkston. “The animals are all specially adapted to this. They know what to do. This is nothing earth shattering or new, this is just a part of the rhythm of the ecosystem.”

Weeks of below normal rainfall have lowered the swamp’s water level by about 1.3 feet, and has reduced the flow in two rivers — the St. Marys and the Suwannee — that originate in the swamp, Burkhart said.

The St. Marys runs east to the Atlantic Ocean and the Suwannee, southwest through Florida to the Gulf.

“Folks are having trouble motor boating on both rivers,” Burkhart said. “The upper ends of the St. Marys and Suwannee are real low. Lots of sand bars that are normally covered are exposed.”

The state park still rents canoes and motor boats, but people in motor boats have to paddle them down a 2,000-foot canal to reach Billy’s Lake, which still has enough water for boating. The park has also canceled boat tours.

Visitors also can rent motorboats and canoes on the Folkston side, but guided boat tours have been canceled and signs have been posted to keep motorboats out of shallow areas.

The swamp’s 15 canoe trails are still open, but Burkhart said only the most ardent canoeists would dare to venture into the hot, buggy swamp this time of year, with the added risk of having to drag or carry their boats over shallow spots. Normally, canoeists can paddle from one side of the swamp to the other and spend up to four nights in the wilderness, sleeping on platforms.

Although there haven’t been any significant fires so far, the refuge staff has raised its preparedness level, Burkhart said. When there’s a fire in the swamp, firefighters try to keep it from spreading to commercial timberland surrounding the refuge and when there’s a fire outside, they try to keep it from jumping into the refuge, he said.

“We’re watching things very carefully,” he said.

Meantime, one of the swamp’s most well-known denizens — Oscar, the alligator — seems to have hunkered down in a secluded pool surrounded by a camellia garden at the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Oscar floats in tea-colored water that reflects towering pine and cypress trees like a mirror. The brownish tint comes from the tannic acid released by swamp vegetation.

With only his snout, eyes and a portion of his ridged, reptilian back exposed, the 14-foot, 1,000-pound Oscar peers up at visitors through dark eyes. He’s believed to be about 90 years old, because he was already mature when the park opened in 1946, and isn’t as spry as he once was.

“He’s been a memory for a lot of people,” said Margaret Whipple, who has worked at the park for 20 years. “They come back after 10 years and ask, ’Is Oscar still around?’

“He’s doing well with the drought,” she said. “He’s been through this many times before.”