Originally created 01/22/06

Beaten path is not for this Joe



His real name is Richard Flood, and he's from Pennsylvania.

But his fans know the softspoken giant of a man by a more familiar name: Okefenokee Joe.

Today, at 73, this nomadic icon of outdoor education is headquartered, at least temporarily, in North Augusta as he prepares for his 30th year as a traveling cheerleader for all things wild.

"It's what I've been called to do," he said of his popular lectures that use snakes and music - among many things - to convey a message of conservation and respect for the outdoors.

"The most important part of my message is that all the life beyond the concrete was here before we were," he said. "We need to learn more about it so we can treat it with respect."

His meandering route takes him across the Southeast each year, to school gyms, outdoor shows, museum functions and countless other engagements.

"It's not something you do to get rich, either," he said. "It's work, but it's also what I was put here to do."

Joe is equally popular for video documentaries, including an Emmy-winning 1990 program called Swampwise, that have become immortal through public television reruns.

"A lot of people have watched that show," he said. "Trouble is, when they meet me, they tell me I don't look like I did in Swampwise, and I tell them that I've gotten a little older."

Joe has little formal training for his role as an educator, naturalist and musician. But he has plenty of experience.

"Every summer, from the age of 6, I went to a YMCA camp in the mountains," he said. "At 13, they let me be a junior counselor, and I taught woodlore and survival skills."

His young adult years in the 1950s led him into an initial career in music.

"After I got out of the Army, I teamed up with an old buddy and got into singing," he said.

His group, The Country Lads, auditioned successfully for a stint on The Jimmy Dean Show. He later moved to Nashville, where he was a sought-after performer and songwriter.

After many years in the music industry, a change in life led him to Georgia's sprawling Okefenokee Swamp, where in 1973 he became the animal curator for the 750 square-mile wilderness.

It was during those rewarding years of catharsis that Okefenokee Joe was born.

"I loved it there," he said wistfully. "At dark, when the park would close and the people would leave, the place became mine. It was its own city - Okefenokee, Ga. - population one."

Joe's years in the wilderness taught him an appreciation for the outdoor wonders that exist just beyond the concrete of our sterile urban world. His performing talents soon led to lectures at the park.

"They had me giving a few talks," he laughed.

"They would announce them over the loudspeaker. One day someone asked what I wanted to be called and I told them 'Call me anything, just not Dick Flood.'"

That's when he adopted his now-famous name.

When he "emerged" from Okefenokee in 1981, his traveling program began in earnest - complete with diamondback rattlesnakes and other creatures that left his audiences in awe.

"I always tell people snakes won't bother you if you don't bother them," he said. "There is a Golden Rule of nature: If you don't need it, leave it. Everything in nature minds its own business, and if we do that the world will be a better place."

Joe spends his free time writing songs, usually soft ballads that use his favorite friends from the swamp.

All it takes is a guitar.

"Old Joe the turtle,

Been 'round since time began.

Knows more than most people,

Will they ever understand?

Live life slow and easy,

Take the world in stride,

Don't go 'round complainin',

When things don't turn out right."

What's in the future?

"I'd like to let all the snakes go and just play music, but I can't afford to retire," he said with a laugh. "So I'll keep right on doing what I like to do."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.