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Here Thar Be Gators

A college teacher, I spent my Christmas break in Punta Gorda on the southwest (Gulf) coast of Florida. The weather was perfect and I not only sailed every day but also kayaked. It's a great area for kayaking: along with the canals and the greater Charlotte Harbor area, there are lots of fresh-water creeks and rivers on which to play.

I've been going to Florida for four years now, mooching off my brother and sister-in-law (Punta Gorda residents) and enjoying the Florida sun. In all that time, in all the kayaking I've done, I've never seen an alligator outside of a wildlife preserve. I was feeling smug and pretty safe. ....cue "Jaws" music: du dum, du dum, du dum....

My sailor brother is not a regular kayaker, but I brought my "beginner" kayak with me and he joined me on several daytrips. One day we went paddling on this pretty little creek called Shell Creek. It was a warm, sunny day after a string of cooler cloudy days. The turtles (tortoises?) were out en masse on the creek, sunning themselves on every available log, stump, rock, etc. that protruded from the water.

Not being completely stupid, I thought to myself, "If the turtles are sunning themselves, maybe there are alligators sunning themselves somewhere along here. Oh boy! I might get to see an alligator!" (Note to self: "not stupid" does not equate to "not naive.")

And yes, indeed, we did see a couple of alligators. Way far away on distant creek banks. They didn't seem too menacing, and as soon as they saw us, they would slither away into the undergrowth. How cool. ...du dum, du dum, du dum....

Now fast forward a few more days. Another warm, sunny day. Another part of Shell Creek, very winding and scenic, with lots of shallow pools, ox bows and side loops and lakes. Again, my brother was with me. And again, we saw some alligators. The first one I saw, on the trip upstream, was sorta big. But, most disconcertingly, when he saw us, he slipped *into* the water. Toward us! Yikes.

Nothing happened (other than my heart rate increasing). We paddled on. We saw another alligator. This one was big -- easily 10-12 feet long. Nice Mr. Alligator, heh heh. And again, when he saw us, he slipped into the water. Now keep in mind the creek was only about 50 feet wide. We were in the middle. Which means Nice Mr. Alligator was only about 25 feet from us, in our tippy little flimsy plastic kayaks.

I began a mental review of first aid techniques. What would serve as a good tourniquet when Nice Mr. Alligator decided to make an appetizer of my arm?

And yet, intrepid explorers we, my brother and I continued upstream. I regained control of my pulse. Nothing happened -- we weren't bumped by any underwater self-motivating logs. Whew. The weather was perfect, the scenery gorgeous in a south-Florida-marshland kind of way. I began to relax again.

I was so relaxed and confident that, when my brother suggested we split up and investigate what looked like a loop of creek off to one side ("you go this way and I'll go that way and we'll meet in the middle of the loop") I agreed. ....du dum, du dum, du dum....

So I'm paddling blithely, alone, down a narrow side loop of creek. La di da. Now, let's review: a) To my knowledge, no kayaker has ever been killed by an alligator. b) To an alligator, a 17' kayak must look like a pretty big competitor, if not predator. c) Two kayaks together must seem even more daunting to something with a brain the size of a walnut. d) It's not alligator breeding season, so lone alligators are not likely to be overly aggressive. e) There are probably lots of alligators in the creek, none of whom had ever bothered me, and I just hadn't seen any of them. All sensible, logical reasons to not fear alligators.

But let me tell you, sense and logic fly right out the window when you paddle by the biggest, longest, fattest, blackest sumbitch granddaddy of 'em all, king of the lizards, can-you-say-Buick-station-wagon, uber-gator, who writhes and splashes (I mean throws water into the air a la the old Tarzan movies with Cheetah the chimp ooga-oogaing in the background) toward you. On a narrow creek! In your kayak. Eye to eye.

If only I had paddled that fast back in the days when I was doing marathon races! (Yeah, I know you can't outpaddle an alligator. *You* try sitting still when a frikkin' dinosaur is coming at you.) I came whipping around the bend and met my brother coming up his side of the loop. "You see how fast I'm paddling?" I called to him. "That's because there's the world's largest gator behind me."

"Oh," he says. "I think I'll turn around."

We saw that gator again, just his nostrils and eyes above the water, as we exited the loop of creek. He was watching us.

Obviously, I lived to tell the tale. I'm not writing this from a hospital bed. In hindsight, I imagine the reason the gator thrashed and writhed so much was because he was more-or-less stuck on his mud bank and he wanted to get to the safety of the water. It probably *wasn't* a threatening gesture. But you know that old saw, the thing your Mom used to say when you got spooked by a spider? "I'm sure he was more afraid of you than you were of him."

Not hardly!

Submitted by Karen Pautz, Fulton, MO

For more great stories: See the Archive!

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