September 13, 2004
We had just launched our kayaks into the Hillsboro Canal at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and were paddling alongside the levee, when I spotted the telltale snout, head, and back of a sizeable gator.
We kept a respectful distance, having read all the posted advisories discouraging visitors from approaching or feeding alligators. Still, it was something of a thrill, realizing that we were paddling through alligator territory.
A five-mile canoe trail runs through the refuge, which encompasses the remaining northern freshwater section of the Everglades. Visitors can boat, canoe, and kayak in the canals, or walk and bicycle along the levees. The refuge plays an important role in Florida’s water storage and flood control, but it is also a key wildlife habitat, attracting birdwatchers, wildfowl hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
I soon wish we’d brought binoculars with us, as we saw an incredible variety of bird life flitting through the saw grass and roosting in dead tree limbs. Red-shouldered hawks perched boldly on cypress branches all along the levee, while ibises, egrets, and herons waded along the edges of the canal.
It was a day of brilliant azure skies offset by fluffy white clouds, both above us and below us, mirrored in the still water. Soon, I’d succumbed to a Lethe-like stupor, mindful of little other than the sun on my shoulders and the delicate sensation of gliding over the water. It seemed I’d merged seamlessly into this world of tall grass and calm water, the tumult of the outside world becoming a distant memory…
KER-SPLASH! A sudden surge of churning water and violent snapping of reeds just in front of my bow shattered my reverie. For a second, I was stunned, and then reflex jolted me into action. Back paddle! Fast! One thing and one thing only could be making such a prodigious ruckus – an alligator. A big one. I hadn’t seen it, but it had certainly seen me. I’d shot backwards across the canal and was a good ways downstream before the agitated splashing and heaving subsided.
My heart was still pounding long after the ripples had faded from the water’s surface. While I knew that there are only a handful of alligator attacks in Florida each year, I couldn’t help but think I’d just had a better-than-average shot at becoming a statistic. Later, as I traded places with my son, watching as he and my husband paddled off together, I fought back a deeper fear. Luckily, it proved groundless when they returned safely just before sunset, slapping and cursing at a far more relentless and ever-present threat – mosquitoes.
A comic scene ensued, as we attempted to mount the kayaks on the roof of the car, all the while dodging and slapping the ruthless bloodsuckers. "Ow! Damn! Arghh! Hell’s bells!"
Lurking somewhere just offshore, I imagined, an alligator was watching the frantic dance of the human intruders. And smiling.
From journal Snowbirds in the Slow Lane