Okefenokee Swamp Exhibit

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NEWS ARTICLE from THE MORNING JOURNAL, Thu, Jan 20, 2000, By RON VIDIKA, Morning Journal Writer

"Okefenokee Swamp exhibit slithers to French Creek Nature Center

SHEFFIELD VILLAGE -- The French Creek Nature Center is getting ready to shake, rattle and hiss.

With everything from a close-up view from inside a snake pit to a walk along a stretch of 'trembling earth,' the Lorain County Metro Parks [LCMP] offered a preview of their sixth major exhibit in as many years, 'Okefenokee: Land of the Trembling Earth.'

The exhibit runs from Jan. 28 through March 26 at LCMP's French Creek Nature Center, 4530 Colorado Ave.

[The Okefenokee exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission to the main exhibit is $1. For further information, call 1-800-526-7275.]

One of its rooms, all 3,500 square feet of it, has been transformed into what Gary Gerrone, naturalist supervisor for LCMP, calls 'the king of the swamps in Northern America,' the half-million-acre Okefenokee Swamp that stretches from lower Georgia into the northern tip of Florida.

A five-foot long female alligator, as seen from inside the holding pit at the new Okefenokee exhibit at French Creek Nature Center in Sheffield Village. (Morning Journal/Ross Weitzner)

Gerrone said Seminole Indians named the area, 'The place where the earth trembles when you walk,' or Okefenokee.

The 'trembling' is the result of unstable layers of peat formed on top the Okefenokee waters that looks deceptively safe, but 'trembles' when walked upon and can cave in at any moment.

'The swamp is not what it always appear to be,' said Gerrone. 'You're not on terra firma all the time.'

A mock peat bridge built with truck bed lining and filled with water, stretches across a portion of the exhibit between two bald cypress trees, to simulate the 'trembling' effect.

However, the display sure to win over the children is the 'snake pit,' a boxed viewing space with three, Plexiglas bubble windows. Children crawl into it through a circular tube-like entrance outside the glass-enclosed snake exhibit.

Outside the bubble windows, at eye-level, will be a sampling of snakes indigenous to the Okefenokee; a dozen long, slithering red rat snakes and yellow rat snakes, who call the Okefenokee home.

'We allow you to get closer than you'd ever get,' said Dan Martin, director of LCMP, referring to the snake pit.

Joining their slithering neighbors from the Okefenokee swamp will be seven large alligators, each about 5 feet in length, 10 baby alligators and an alligator snapping turtle.

'The turtle's head is the size of a football,' said Gerrone.

Among the native flora on display are palmetto trees, bayberry shrubs and the carnivorous, insect-eating pitcher plant.

To add to the bog-like atmosphere, long, coiled strands of Spanish moss hang from gnarled branches of cypress trees.

'Eighteen cypress trees are bolted to the ceiling in the exhibit,' said Gerrone.

Sounds of the Okefenokee will be heard by the public as they wander through the replica.

Martin said the cost of the exhibit is an estimated $10,000.

Spectators may notice an alligator surfacing from time to time in the main pool of the exhibit, but that is purely for effect.

With the pool still empty as work crews put in last touches, the pneumatic mechanics of the alligator could be seen.

Gerrone said when you add water, the 'gator seems to comes alive and serves as a 'protective mother' watching over her brood.

Gerrone said he wants to change the public's view of a swamp 'as a dangerous place full of venom and disease; a place to be drained for economic benefit.'

Said Gerrone, 'We want to show the beauty of it and proclaim it as another part of Earth's natural history.'...

The Okefenokee exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Admission to the main exhibit is $1. For further information, call 1-800-526-7275."

ARCADE ARTICLE from THE MORNING JOURNAL, 1-29-00, By Cheryl Ashton, Arcade Columnist

"Swamp Romp at French Creek Nature Center

It's a green faceted-jewel of a landscape, with towering cypress draped with silvery Spanish moss, knees planted wide to hold their balance high above the tea-colored water. The water, so dark yet so full of life, threads through the peat, carrying with it an urgency to live, to spring forth with color and fragrance and primal life ...

Look up and see an owl knowingly surveying the horizon for the tiniest of movement. That might signal a snake or small rodent is on the menu for tonight. A chorus of tree frogs and leopard frogs send ripples across the reflective waters. You keep walking down the trail, which is packed solid in some places and very unstable in others, making you hesitate with each step.

Then you come face to face with the star of the show -- the American alligators. With nothing but a piece of Plexiglas to separate you from these prehistoric reptiles, you can get closer than ever to these amazing animals that might have existed along with dinosaurs.

The five different adults range in size from four to five feet in length. While they seem bored and disinterested, you still don't feel quite comfortable turning your back on them.

Logistics played a big part in putting together this exhibit. 'We picked up the alligators in St. Augustine, Florida,' said Gary Gerrome, naturalist supervisor for Lorain County Metro Parks. 'Each alligator was packed in a separate crate for transport and had its jaws taped shut for safety.' He also explained that while there is not much force exerted in the action of opening the jaws, there's a tremendous amount of force when the jaws clamp shut.

One would think the dangerous part would be to remove the tape once the gators reached their temporary home in Lorain County. 'Actually that wasn't the hard part,' pointed out Gerrome. 'We've got about two months until the exhibit ends to think about how we'll get the tape back on!'

On a less threatening scale, 11 baby alligators have taken up residence further down the trail. Their big brown eyes stare up at you. Looking at their slightly opened jaws, you might feel they're actually smiling at you. 'It was very surprising,' admitted Gerrome. 'But these young alligators have a sense of cuteness about them. It's no wonder people try and keep them as pets.'

Snake and skinks slither through an underbrush of more than 400 perennials that obscure the banks of the bog and threaten to encroach across your path. 'We spent a few intensive days going from a simple framework to a finished product,' said Gerrome as he pointed out several of the many plants furnished by Barnes Nursery.

Azaleas, alders, and fragrant bayberry are identified, as well as a redbud tree and marsh marigold which were on the brink of blooming. This was different than most of Barnes' landscaping requests, because the designers didn't want the symmetrical, neatly trimmed trees and shrubs but the bent-over, irregular shaped plants that you would typically find in a natural setting.

Joel Loufman, Metro Park horticulturist, spent longs hours on the phone planning the procurement of all the various plants. Timing was a key factor, as Loufman was able to obtain a number of cut-off bald cypress trees from an unlikely source:

Zaleski State Forest in southern Ohio is home to more than 100 of these stately trees which are much more at home along the slow moving waters of the Suwannee River than Ohio's Raccoon Creek. Not natural to this area, they had been planted, perhaps as an experiment, close to a century ago and adapted and thrived.

Zeleski officials were in the process of thinning out some of their forest land, and the officials at Lorain Metro Parks were able to use the cut cypress in their exhibit. Some of these trees are more than three feet in diameter. Their large, wide-spread limbs form a canopy overhead that shields the sun and sends shadows across the shifting path.

Every turn of the winding boardwalk brings you face to face with other inhabitants of the bog. The Okefenokee is also home to a number of carnivorous plants, like the sun dew and pitcher plant. Like a variation on a theme, their colors and mechanics are just another example of the adaptability these plants have in making a home on an unstable land mass.

The design staff have made all the exhibit areas very kid-friendly, with crawl-through areas and hands-on features. But, hey, with gators, snakes and meat eating plants, what more could a kid ask for?

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 700 square miles along Georgia's southern border. The vast bog inside a huge saucer-shaped depression was once part of the ocean floor. Plants take root on islands of floating peat moss fed by the dark brown water.

While not the clear, chlorinated water we are used to drinking, it suits the natives of the area. They commonly consumed the tea-colored water by first making a whirlpool with their hands to reach down to the cool water below the surface. Tannic acid released from decaying vegetation gives the water it's dark color and provides nutrients to all it touches.

Millions of years later this dish-shaped depression cups in its hands an entire ecosystem that is constantly threatened by the invasion of industry. Just recently a major chemical company planned a massive titanium strip mine on adjacent land. Fragile environments such as these can be lost forever if not properly protected and cared for.

Just recently a major chemical company planned a massive titanium strip mine on adjacent land. Fragile environments such as these can be lost forever if not properly protected and cared for.

This is no traveling, prepackaged exhibit. 'Oh, no, we put this all together ourselves', Becky Voit, public information officer for the Metro Parks, said. 'We have people who come up with the idea and follow it through to completion'.

But where did they get all that dark, swampy water? 'It's really a simple formula once you get it down,' Gary Gerrome said in a matter-of-fact tone. 'We took gallons and gallons of tap water, mixed in huge quantities of sphagnum moss and other organic material.

'But the color still wasn't there.'

Hence, the final secret ingredient -- tea. 'Yep, we added lots of tea'. Gary took in a deep breath and looked around the room at the amazing re-creation that has taken place. 'Even the smell is authentic,' he said with a smile.

The exhibit is at French Creek Nature Center (4530 Colorado Avenue in Sheffield Village) and closes on March 26. Hours are: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (open later every Thursday till 9 p.m.). Admission is $1. Many public programs are scheduled for schools, scouts and other groups. For more information call 440-949-5200 or 800-LCM-PARK."

(c) 2000, The Morning Journal

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