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The Okeefenokee Swamp is a must-visit, not just because it is the largest blackwater swamp in America or because it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia*, but because it is there.  The latter is the reason we visited, helped along significantly by the dullness of Valdosta.  When I realized that in an hour we could be in one of the most rural state parks in the South, a place whose two voiceless velar plosives snap your speech like a whip, I insisted that we go there immediately.

We had to drive across the bottom of Georgia to get there, a route so unpopulated that it made me wonder what would happen if we popped a tire.  I had some idea that it might not be the best thing in the world to be a blonde stranded by the side of this lonely highway, or to be in the company of what was once known as a “longhair” and perhaps still was, in certain parts of the country. 

With this thought in my head, I drove over the speed limit and was relieved to make it to Fargo, where the Suwannee River passes under the road.  Fargo was so small that I realized that if a resident suddenly craved a specific brand of frozen pizza, he’d have a very long way to go to buy one.  Either that, or he’d have to make do with English muffins, tomato sauce, and Kraft Parmesan.  If you wanted that DiGiorno pizza, you’d have to drive the 50 miles to Lake City, Florida.  On the up side, there wasn’t a chain restaurant or Starbucks in sight, or a WalMart or a Hampton Inn.  Fargo was just a little speck on the greater map of Georgia, hiding out on the western edge of the swamp, abandoned by the lumber industry.

Fargo did have one thing that was absolutely beyond compare.  The Suwannee River Visitor Center was the best such center I’ve visited, for its screened-in porch with Adirondack chairs.  Here you could sit and look down at the river, or at the bridge that crosses the river, or at the occasional car that crossed the bridge that crosses the river.  All was well with the world.

Inside, there was a snake in a glass vitrine and a three-ring folder that held plastic pages with pictures of the swamp’s reptilian inhabitants.  It was meant as an identification game for children; you were supposed look at the pictures and then guess which type of snake it was.

I couldn’t do it.  I wasn’t up to the job.  I was going to need a refresher course in herpetology.  There is a reason for continuing education.  I used to think most continuing ed was a load of crap, except as demanded by medicine and computer technologies, but here was a clear case for it.  I still do not think it is necessary to maintain an insurance broker’s license, but that’s just my personal opinion.  The snake wasn’t a rattler (diamondback or dusky pygmy) and it wasn’t a moccasin, but here I stopped.  The colors of the snakes in the folder didn’t match the color of the live specimen.  The real snake was banded and had alternating circles of reddish brown and yellowed bronze, but it didn’t really look like any of the snakes in the book.  It’s a trick, I thought.

It’s a copperhead, my companion announced.  I didn’t think it resembled the copperhead I had seen in Miami, although the beady red eyes were the same and I suppose the head had the tell-tale pit viper shape. Perhaps what we had here was the second species of copperhead found in the South.  I didn’t want to put too much thought into this when I realized how nicely Mother Nature had camouflaged this creature; it would exactly blend into fallen leaves in the forests we routinely visit.  Here I’d been worrying about every other venomous snake except this one, and this reptile was probably the hardest one of all to spot.

I tried a calming exercise of visualizing myself shopping at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan and then going to see a matinee of South Pacific. It didn’t work, and on that frustrating note, I wandered off to take a picture of a stuffed juvenile black bear (also found in the swamp) and then I signed the guest book and left. 

Thank yew fer viz-tin, said the woman at the desk.  Thank YOU, I said, and I meant it.  I reached into my pocket, grabbed a five-dollar bill, and made a donation to the visitor center.  Some token was demanded for making me even warier than I already was.  This was a good thing and I appreciated it. Complacency is an enemy.  Knowledge is power (in my case, phobia and power are about the same thing). We got into the car, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed for the Okeefenokee Trail.

*The Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia are: Amicalola Falls, Okeefenokee Swamp, Providence Canyon, Radium Springs, Stone Mountain, Tallulah Gorge, and Warm Springs.  There are copperheads at each of these locations.

Tomorrow:  Into the swamp, or at least onto a boardwalk in the swamp.

The Suwannee didn’t look like much of a “stream” from the visitor center.    Granted, there was some flooding around the center, but unless it reduced to a trickle, calling it a “stream” was a bit of an understatement.  The river rises in the swamp and runs out to the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida coast 266 miles later.

Once again, Stephen Foster never saw the river (or stream) that he immortalized in song.

Apparently it’s considered a real treat to spot one of these bears in the swamp, since such sightings are the exception rather than the rule.

Flooding around the visitor center.  The Suwannee has been high for a couple of months now.

I’m not sure what I’ll do when I finish visiting all the places one can possibly visit along the Suwannee.  Move to the Mighty Mississippi, I imagine.  As it stands, I am planning a road trip to Natchez.

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