Some Valdosta students escaped the concrete classroom Thursday and discovered a world of educational opportunities outdoors.

A yellow school bus filled with Sallas-Mahone Elementary School third-graders arrived at Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area shortly after 9 a.m. As the students exited onto a dirt drive covered with gravel, an AT-38C and T-6A "Texan II" from Moody Air Force Base flew overhead. The 40-plus boys and girls immediately looked at the jets in the clear, blue sky. This was definitely not the world they were familiar with on their 3686 Lake Laurie Drive campus, one filled with the sounds of papers shuffling, computers beeping, phones ringing and doors slamming.

In the tradition of first days at new schools, Neda Hon, Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area's education coordinator, introduced herself to the young Wildcats as their outdoor classroom teacher.

"I hope you have a good time today," she said, birds chirping in the background. "We are going to do a lot of work and learn a lot of things in a short amount of time. But I hope you have fun doing it."

With clipboards, pencils and paper in hand, the students kicked off their learning adventure with a brief encounter with Peaches, a full-grown, female bobcat.

Hon's lesson began with the story of how the carnivore came to live at Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area at the age of eight days. She explained how Peaches' mother was carrying her in her mouth while crossing a busy street.

When a car approached, the mother bobcat dropped her baby in the middle of the road and ran away. The woman driving the car, Hon said, stopped and picked up the baby bobcat, thinking it was an abandoned kitten. However, a visit to a local veterinarian ended with a shocking discovery and Peaches, a mammal, came to live at Grand Bay.

"The bobcat is my favorite animal," said Ashford Wilson, 9. "I like its smooth fur. It's a meat eater."

Big Al, an alligator snapping turtle, was the next stop on the list. This 140-plus-pound, 60-year-old reptile once lived in Louisiana, Hon said, where he was one cajun family's beloved pet. A move to Georgia changed all that.

"It's illegal to have an alligator snapping turtle as a pet in Georgia," Hon explained.

Unable to survive in the wilds of Georgia, Big Al is a permanent resident of Grand Bay and a favorite of Akil Marable, 9.

"I like Big Al," said Kiara Payne, 8. "He's a carnivore. He likes to eat fish. He's big, and he snaps."

The third-graders were especially intrigued with the turtle's wormlike tongue, used to trick fish into swimming close to his mouth.

Laurie Sutton, 8, found a friend in Dewey, a barred owl, the only animal the students were able to touch. "This is the only place I know where I can pet an owl," she said.

The silent hunter set up house at Grand Bay after he was struck by a car, an accident that left him nearsighted.

This impairment was discovered when Dewey was attempting to catch some mice for dinner and flew into a tree.

"I like that he was saved," Sutton added.

Last on the official tour of animals was a 25-year-old gopher tortoise, the state reptile, named Georgette. Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area adopted her after she attempted to cross the interstate.

After a bathroom break, the Sallas-Mahone students proceeded to the half-mile boardwalk through the large, shallow, peat-filled wetland, destined for the area's 54-foot observation tower. Along the way, they learned there is more to plants and trees than looking pretty, smelling good, and serving as a base for a tire swing.

The first stop on the walk was in the Wet Savannah, a five-inch deep section of the wetlands. There they discovered two plants Native Americans once depended on for their survival -- broomsedge and redroot. Hon said broomsedge was once consumed as a tea and used to ease backaches. Redroot was crushed and used to make bread.

"We make our bread from wheat flower," said Shaivon Edwards, 9.

A few steps more and they arrived at the shrub bog where red maple trees and buttonbushes flourish in the six-inch deep swamp. Hon said maple syrup is an obvious product of the red maple tree. Native Americans chewed on the buttonbush to ease toothache pain.

At the ecotone, where the water's depth rose to 12 inches, the students discovered the soapbush, whose seeds the Native Americans used for bathing purposes, and carex, which serves as a hideaway for the water rat, Hon said.

"It's kind of weird how the Indians were so dependent on the plants for everything," Edwards said. "It's kind of neat, too."

Things got a little more interesting for the third-graders when they entered the blackgum-cypress section of the wetlands, an area 29 inches deep. They learned that black bears depend on the berries from the blackgum tree for their survival. During years when there are no blackgum berries, there will be no black bear cubs. This is due to a lack of nourishment for the mothers, Hon explained. The cypress is a good source of lumber, she added.

The cypress trees continued to grow in the 47-inch deep water of the cypress-gum pond area, the students discovered. But the most abundant plant life in this part of the swamp was the water lily.

Hon said, "The Indians used the water lily a lot."

The roots were boiled and consumed as a tea to treat chest colds. They were crushed to make a paste for insect bites and scrapes. Native Americans also consumed the plant's flat green tops and white flower.

"I like the lily pads," said Valerie Walsh, 8. "There are all kinds of plants out here, but the lily pads are my favorite. This is a great place to come."

However, it was the purple bladderwort that truly captivated the students' attention. Hon told them this meat-eating plant can consume a bug 1,000 times faster than they can snap their fingers.

As they headed for the prairie, an area filled with pickerel weeds -- whose seeds were once consumed as snacks -- and old man's beard -- which was once used as a bandage -- the observation tower came into view and the students started cheering.

"It's fun coming to the tower," Edwards said. "But it sure is a long walk."

Edward Alexander, 8, enjoyed his walk to the tower, chatting along the way and searching at every stop for tad poles.

In small groups, the students were led to the top of the 54-foot tower by Hon for a view of the wetlands. It was Destinee Eady's greatest moment.

"I loved climbing the tower," she the 9-year-old. "It was a lot of fun."

Walking back, each of the students pointed out new discoveries missed on the initial trip down the boardwalk. All were eager to sit down and enjoy a sack lunch and cold drink.

Nancy Sartin, third-grade teacher, said the students visit Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area every year. It's a trip she looks forward to each time. She never tires of learning about the animals and plant life.

"This is a fun place," said Walsh. "There is lots to do and see. It's a good place to visit."

Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area is situated within a 13,000-acre wetlands system in the flatwoods of Georgia. It is the second largest natural blackwater wetland in the area, the largest being in the Okefenokee Swamp.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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