Paddling with Gators
I had been to Florida several times by now from my home in Southern California, but had yet to see an alligator that wasn’t asleep at an amusement park. Having those in California as well, I was beginning to think this gator thing was a ruse dreamt up by the Florida tourism board.
We had been hiking through several ‘parks’, which is what Florida calls their many swampy areas, without ever spotting any of these alleged reptiles. Most of these parks have a mile or two of boardwalk a few feet off the ground, which is covered with water, depending on current drought status. In a state with 11,000 miles of rivers, 8,000 lakes and 22,000 miles of coastline, there are a lot of these parks to enjoy.
Today’s journey was to take place in Myakka River State Park. It was March, and we were between race days at Daytona, so we wanted to explore and get some paddling done while I was out here in Florida. We found a place online called the Myakka Outpost to rent kayaks and canoes, and off we went.
The Outpost was situated on a small bay of a large lake. My first alligator sighting was a large fellow sunning himself on the opposite bank of this small bay. The locals didn’t seem to mind at all, but I was suddenly not so sure getting into the water with this guy was such a brilliant plan.
Deciding the biggest and strongest boat would be best in this scenario, we decided to go with a Canoe for this trip.
We paddled out into the main body of the lake, carefully noting that the gator on the bank stayed put. Staying near the shore and skirting around the lake in search of wildlife seemed like the best course, and we followed the shoreline around to a small dam.
Having seen no other alligators for some time, we were beginning to believe the monster on the shore was just a tourist lure. We heard all the talk of gators being masters of camouflage and all of that nonsense, but we were enjoying our nice day, and such things were likely exaggerated. Steve Irwin said American Alligators were basically scardey cats compared to his Aussie Crocs.
What’s the worst that could happen?
We paddled around the shoreline even further away from where the other tourists were boating, hoping to find other wildlife to see, confident that the “Great Florida Gator Myth” had been busted.
We paddled around the edge of a small cove, and began to round the corner of this small peninsula that jutted out into the main lake. The side we approached from was just another beach, and we could not see what was around the sharp corner.
She was in front, and as the boat peeked around the spit of land, she stopped paddling, and motioned for me to be quiet. Figuring another sleeping gator would be on the bank, I rested as the boat drifted forward.
Well, there was certainly another alligator sunning itself on the shore. And another. And another. And another. I was quickly trying to get a count as we drifted slowly in the slight breeze, when most of the smaller ones (they were up to maybe 5-6 feet in length) popped up and ran into the water, obviously to come and eat the two tasty tourists who were dumb enough to paddle this far back away from civilization. The larger ones had obviously eaten recently, as they remained on the shore to let the younger ones have the free meal.
We sat in the boat clutching our paddles in hopes of mounting some type of last stand, and of course snapping pictures as we continued to drift in the breeze. We noticed our fearsome demeanor seemed to keep the youngsters at bay, though they could be seen popping up in the water to try to get an idea how to attack us (I’m sure of this, anyway…they could have just been breathing, I suppose).
Paying close attention to the water around us, we hadn’t realized how close to the shore the slight breeze was pushing the canoe. It apparently got close enough that only the biggest of the gators on shore felt safe enough there by himself, as the rest of the larger adults joined us in the water.
About the time she suggested we should move further away, the boat was turned away from shore, so I was looking back. I heard the sound of one of the gators surfacing, and glanced down to see it staring at me from about a foot behind the boat. As soon as I looked down at it, he went back under the surface. Assuming I’d scared him away, I thought perhaps her suggestion to move along might be a good one.
When the same gator popped back up a moment later in the same place, I knew then he wasn’t going to leave.
As soon as her paddle hit the water on her right, the gator that was under the surface next to her wildly jumped what looked to me like completely out of the water. She leaned hard to the left as it splashed both of us. I yelled out in the calmest way I could for her to NOT tip the boat, and hoping she didn’t realize that whipping tail came as close as it did to her.
Thankfully we could see the gator that we had spooked move off into the open water, so we were fairly sure (“desperately hoping”? Same thing.) that it wanted nothing further to do with us. But just to be sure, we made certain to loudly drag our oars alongside the aluminum canoe with each paddle stroke, as well as bang the sides of it every few seconds, until we could get our heart rates down.
It measured about a mile on the map from the point we left the gator beach, in the direct beeline we made across the lake and back to the dock. An airboat might have covered the distance faster than we did that day, but I doubt it.