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Is Tate’s Hell State Forest Really Hell?

Is Tate’s Hell State Forest a Bad Place to Visit?

So how bad is Tate’s Hell State Forest? That depends on perspective. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans didn’t use the area very much, probably because it was mostly swampland that drained into estuaries of East Bay and the Apalachicola River, and more fertile ground was found nearby. Logging/lumber/and wood product companies took ownership and attempted to drain the land in the 1950s, inadvertently endangering the environmental health of the bay.

Tate's Hell State ForestCebe Tate fought insects and suffered a snake bite while searching for the Florida panther who was preying on his livestock. He probably also shared the swamp with alligator snapping turtles and eastern box turtles, snakes, including the Apalachicola king snake and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and alligators and bears.

Old Cebe Tate slogged through acres of wetlands rife with biting insects before he finally found his way out. Tate’s Hell Swamp makes up 70% of Tate’s Hell State Forest, but prairies offer dry footing and host a wide variety of pitcher plants (designed to trap and digest insects) and other wildflowers, as well as a variety of grasslands.

The Florida black bear, once almost hunted to extinction, is making a comeback these days, and human-bear confrontations can be just as dangerous today as it was for Cebe Tate then. When in Tate’s Hell State Forest or Swamp, use caution when encountering a Florida black bear. Do not crouch or lie on the ground. Instead, speak calmly and assertively and back up slowly. Noise will often scare the bear away, as well.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is 187,710 acres of rugged country and a four-wheel drive is recommended. Amenities such as trash containers are non-existent, so be sure to take all garbage with you when you go. Caution is strongly advised when swimming or boating, and diving into streams and rivers is prohibited. Primitive camping is available in selected areas for a nominal fee and there are 12 tent camping sites at the Womack Creek recreation area, which also offers a bathhouse with hot showers.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is definitely rugged country, but that’s part of its attraction. We’ll explore those in the next post.

The Gator That Almost Got Me

This is the story of the gator that almost got me. As we drove through the swamp, I spotted a blue heron stalking fish in a ditch by the side of the road:

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But every time I got close, the bird would slowly walk away from me:

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You can’t blame them. Hunted to near extinction around the turn of the last century, their blue feathers were highly prized for ladies’ fashionable hats.

But I’m not much of a hunter. I broke the sacred rule of the swamp: know where you’re walking. In other words, be aware of your surroundings. But I wasn’t. I saw that heron and yelled for my husband to stop the car.

Maybe I lose track of my surroundings because I was looking through a lens and it distanced my brain from its immediate surroundings. Maybe I was just lazy. Regardless, I was so engrossed in stalking the heron that I was completely unprepared for what happened next. As I concentrated on zeroing in on the heron, I heard a huge splash a few feet from my left shoulder.

Turning to see what was causing such a commotion, I first heard a thunderous crack of jaws slamming shut a split second before I saw the alligator as it rose up out of the water, easily swallowing the fish in its maw. Suddenly I was looking UP at the underside of an airborne alligator. For a few suspended seconds, gator and I were within a foot of each other. It could have easily lunged for me and you would never have known this story.

An Alligator's Maw

Instead, it retreated backward, never taking its eyes off me.

Every hair on my body standing at attention, I scrambled to get back in the car, closing the door as a shiver ran up my back. My husband started to drive away, but I ordered him to back up because I wasn’t about to leave without getting a picture of the gator that almost got me. He started laughing. Laughing!

He said I am the only person he knows who would insist on taking a picture of an animal that came close to eating me. I still don’t see what’s so funny and you’d think he’d be a tad more concerned, but once he knew I was in the car, he just thought it was funny that I was so scared.

Well, YOU try being calm, cool, and collected after seeing inside the jaws of death and see if you don’t jump.

Of COURSE I wanted a picture! My hands were shaking, so I had to rest the camera on the open window of the car door, but the camera still shook a little. I don’t know that I would have been able to get a good shot even if I had been able to coax him out of the shadows, but if you look closely, you will see his head poking out from the edge of the grass.

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As he returned to his hiding spot, with just his big old nose sticking out, he kept his eye on me.

I stayed in my car. One close encounter a day is enough! The moral of the story?

When you’re walking in the swamp, watch your step.