Spanish moss dripping from live oaks -- cypress knees crouched in inky-black water - wild alligators lying in wait for unwary prey. Welcome to the land of Pogo, the famous comic strip character who poled his flat-bottomed boat through the swamps of southern Georgia. This month, residents of Northeast Ohio can take a trip through the famous Okefenoke [okee-fen-okee] Swamp without their own backyard. But as INFOHIO's/90.3's Karen Schaefer reports, this isn't your usual natural history diorama, but a living, breathing ecosystem that puts you right in the action.
Gary Gerone- "Okefenoke isn't even a real place to most people. It's where Pogo lives, it's fictitious."
Karen Schaefer- It's a swamper's paradise this month at the Lorain County Metroparks French Creek Nature Center in Sheffield. For the last six years, park staff have created award-winning exhibits that entice winter-bound Ohioans to visit exotic climes ranging from the late Jurassic to the bottom of the sea. This year, it's Okefenoke Swamp in south Georgia, whose quaking peat bogs give it the name, The Land of Trembling Earth.
"It smells like a swamp!"
GG- We have all the features of a swamp in here, so naturally, we're going to have the aroma as well. The two big plants in this exhibit are the bald cypress and the sphagnum moss and, here's an example here of a large bald cypress tree...
KS- The owl!
GG- The owl...that's a real owl. We not only have live plants in here, we have live animals, too. That's the bard owl and that's a common owl in our river valleys, but it is the common owl of the Okefenoke Swamp, sometimes called the Swamp Devil, because of its outrageous call. When they put that call to words, it's very southern.
"Who cooks for you, who cooks for you'all."
KS- While the owl is tied to its perch, Naturalist Supervisor Gary Gerone says a lot of the animals in the exhibit are allowed to roam freely. And he frequently points out that, though the Okefenoke is an exotic environment, it shares many of the same animal and plant species as northern Ohio. But what makes this exhibit really different is the combination of a living, breathing ecosystem - and human interaction. Not surprisingly, the Okefenoke is a prime school field trip destination.
GG- You know, a place like the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo can do beautiful landscapes with live animals. You know organizations like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History can do a diorama with the taxidermy and the trees that look so real. And we take an environment like Okefenoke and we put you right in it. It's a very living experience. So, Phil, you had to find four basic types of wetlands, do you remember what they are?
PHIL- Yeah, there's the swamp, the marsh, the fen and the...bog.
GG- Well, what do you think of the Okefenoke Swamp?
PHIL- I think it's pretty cool. I like the snake part.
KS- One aspect of the exhibit's inter-activity is the snake pit, where kids can crawl through a viewing tunnel and to go nose to nose with a snake. Another is when one of those same snakes tries to make a break for it.
GG- This green snake here, look at it, it's coming up the tree trunk there. I don't know, I'm fearful. I think there's a chance it can sneak through one of those holes. They are masters of escape. Hey, Jerry, I got a favor for you to do here. Can you get that snake for me?
KS- The snake is safely recaptured and returned to its lair. Then it's on to the alligators, after first crossing the quaking peat bogs.
GG- This is what it would be like to walk on a peat mat that would be floating. It's very unstable. It holds very well...
KS- Oh, my!...Whee!
GG- ...but could tear at any time.
KS- Wow. That's something! ...Oh, these are the baby alligators.
GG- These are two of the baby alligators and that one's (looking) as if we've got a camera and it wants its picture taken. Uh, they will make a little noise like a...[he makes the noise]...kind of noise and the mother hears that very well. And she will come quickly. What color are the baby alligators?"
Child- They're black and yellow.
GG- Well, what color were the big ones?
Child- They were all black.
GG- Do you think you want to go and pet one of the big alligators?
GG- But they were fun to look at, weren't they?
KS- Oh, and here are the real alligators.
GG- Yeah, this is a nice collection of American alligators. We've got five of them here, they're between five and six feet long. What do you guys think, there are four of them here and there's one over in the water there.
Woman- What would you feed it?
Child- Well, I don't have no food!
KS- What do alligators eat?"
GG- In the wild? Just about anything. And not necessarily smaller than themselves.
Child- Hey, I see them really sharp teeth.
GG- Do you want to touch an alligator?
Child- No way!
GG- That's what I say, too. That was a good answer.
KS- Gary Gerone and his staff envisioned, researched and assembled the Okefenoke exhibit in about two months for an initial cost of just over $10,000. He says all it takes is a little space, some hard work - and a lot of imagination.
GG- When somebody comes to an exhibit like this and, sure there's a lot of plants and animals, the last thing you expect is a lizard to go across the boardwalk or a butterfly to float by. And so, I have a hunch, with our success, some others might try to do some of these things. What did you like the best?
Boy- I liked the, um, I kind of liked the bridge, that, yeah...
GG- The Trembling Earth?
KS- Okefenoke, The Land of the Trembling Earth, runs now through March 26 at the Lorain County Metroparks French Creek Nature Center. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Lorain County.
Admission to the Okefenoke Swamp exhibit is just one dollar. For more information, call 1-800-LCM-PARK.