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Don’t Let the Gators Steal Your Swamp Magic!

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I’m up to my eyeballs in alligators?”  We all know what they mean…they’re surrounded by problems and situations that threaten to damage or destroy, or at least produce a lot of fear and anxiety.  Well, I really was in a mess of gators one time.  I’ll tell you about it, and then tell you what I learned.

I married very young, had both my kids by the time I was 20, then started college when I was 28.  I was SO happy to be in an academic environment that I excelled in every class I took. I ended up with a 4.0 average, probably based on the sheer excitement of being there.  With being “good” at so many things, I couldn’t seem to narrow it down as to what I wanted to be when I grew up.  So I just flitted about taking anything that struck my fancy.  One series of classes was in Biology, and I signed up for Zoology, Microbiology, Botany, Entomology, and Ornithology.  I even decided to get my B.S. degree in Biology.  One Zoology professor took us on a field trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, in south Georgia and northern Florida.  It’s a huge swamp, and is the largest unspoiled wetland wilderness on the North American continent.  Our group of about 10 students and 2 professors acquired wilderness permits for paddling through, and camping on platforms over the dark cola-colored water for three days.

It was in April, the weather was fabulous — sunny days and cool nights.  The water lilies were in bloom and the giant cypress trees, rising from the slick-as-glass dark water, created a surreal atmosphere, a virtual fantasy land punctuated by the calls of a huge array of birds and sightings of all manner of wildlife.  A perfect trip, I thought, as we launched our canoes.  We hadn’t paddled more than 100 yards when I noticed two eyeballs and a snout coming straight for us.  You guessed it — a giant gator swimming full steam ahead.  My heart was racing, but at the last minute, he ducked under water and swam somewhere under our canoe.  Then I looked closer and saw that what I thought were big logs were really big gators ON the logs, sunning themselves.  Some were even frozen in a pose that included their mouths hanging wide open.  Why had the park ranger not mentioned this?  It was very unnerving.  But our professors had been here many times before and they had conquered their fear long ago.  I later learned there is an “alligator forecast” posted in the Park Ranger Station, and now you can even access it online.  I checked today, and right now (almost the same time of year I first went) the forecast is rated “Very High – Gators Galore – Running Amok.”  Good thing I didn’t see that all those years ago.

The three days went by without incident, and I learned to breathe normally and just accept that I was co-existing with dozens of the largest reptiles I will ever see, and the closest living creatures that we have to a dinosaur.  Furthermore, I am amused now at the instructions to people entering the swamp – “Swimming is not allowed (duh!), always respect these impressive creatures (Big DUH!) and do not let your fear prevent you from the enjoyment of touring the swamp.”  Oh, right.  And the last line, I just love:  “As with any excursion into a wilderness area, use common sense, preparation, and always be alert.”  Oh, and there was that part that tells us that alligators are not pets and we should keep children away from them.

Had I really grown accustomed to these giant reptiles swimming all around me, under my canoe, and sunning themselves just a few feet away?  I guess I did, because many years later, I took my new husband back to the swamp on a camping trip to the same place I had experienced all that swamp magic.  He was NOT amused by all those gators and he did NOT get over his fear.  After one harrowing day for him in the swamp, and one restless night in a tent where we shared space with a lot of raccoons rummaging through our things, we packed up and drove to a resort in Tampa, FL., —  much more to his liking.

So, what’s the point here?  I think there are all kinds of figurative alligators everywhere – real threats to our peace, serenity and safety. Some gators come in the form of unpleasant people.  I would call them people-eaters.  Some gators might represent circumstances over which we have no control.   When we launch out into the waters of something new, whether it’s a mid-life transition, or learning new skills, or a new career, or anything requiring faith and perseverance, we should expect the gators.  I suppose our professor could have taken us to a nice calm, boring lake and we could have paddled around just to say we’d been there.  But we would have missed the great ADVENTURE of the swamp, the raw beauty, and the immense sense of satisfaction knowing we had learned to overcome our fears and we’d had a heck of a trip!

So, don’t let the gators stop you from going and doing whatever it is you want to do.