I can't tell you what possessed me to go into the water with that alligator, but there I was standing in the middle of the Withlacoochee River.
The truck coasted into Nobleton on a sweltering summer morning. The air loomed heavy over the bridge offering glimpses of the enthusiastic canoers that stirred at the outpost. Scurrying like worker ants the paddlers prepared for the first shuttle trip to nearby Silver Lake. The filtered view of the river revealed no secrets as we passed over the silent flow.
What mystery lay ahead as we idled through the final turn onto the long narrow drive? Oh what excitement lives just beyond the headlights beam, in the fog that grew thicker near the river. The overhanging willows, oaks and cypress trees stood as proud guardians hanging over tin roof of the old log cabin. My dormant childhood excitement spiked… I was at home... in the swamp again!
John Morris, a retired big league ball player from New Jersey was my guest for the day. He'd heard my stories about the swamp and wanted to see for himself why I was so drawn. We moved quickly from the car to avoid the throng of mosquitoes that took fancy to his sweet smelling skin and hair.
I welcomed Johnny to the swamp and wondered what he was thinking. He didn’t need to say a word, he let me know instantly by swatting frantically at the buzzing pests.
I tried to make him as comfortable as possible by offering bug spray, but somehow I knew that “comfort” – in a swamp - might be impossible to a newcomer. It’s likely that my advice of “a few welting bug bites add to the outdoor experience” didn’t help matters!
After a nice breakfast cooked over the wood stove we unpacked our gear and moved to the porch. Daylight was approaching and the fog played hide-and-seek with the shadows and low laying areas of the yard. My ears were full of city noise pollution and for the first five minutes we heard nothing but ringing. We watched the river slip by and waited patiently for our eyes & ears to adjust to the outdoors.
The frogs were first to pierce the barrier followed harmoniously by the crickets ... then it all came together. The swamp critters formed a wooded orchestra that performed their songs in the shifting shadows of the Oaks. Bullfrogs as big as cream buckets belched out mating calls with billowing pops and cracks. Tree frogs provided the harmony and the gators threw in a few bass growls. The Chick-a-dee’s provided the lyrics with there Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee song.
The gray squirrels wasted no time. When they got a whiff of John's city boy smell they sent a warning cry through the canopy, Chuk,chuk,chuk, chukka -- squeeeek.
My memory flashed back a few years to the time my dad taught us kids how to build a squirrel call. He did it with an old peanut butter lid that he cupped it in his left hand. He fished around in his pocket and pulled a two-inch stove bolt and held it in his right hand. With quick, short strokes he'd drag the bolt along the edge of the lid. Dad's raspy call would lure 'em within range on a regular basis. I still use one today.
We moved off the porch and stepped quietly to the river. A light breeze carried the earthy smell into the air and it blended with a patch of wildflowers that massaged my nasal airways and stimulated relaxation. The river's high water marks stained the trees well above where we stood and told stories of record rainfall and recent floods -- nature’s way of eliminating the weaker entities that live in the swamps..
Startled by a wheezing cough I turned and caught a glimpse of something stirring down stream. I bobbed my head like an old barn owl and tried to get the visual advantage of what turned out to be Joe, the neighbor, standing inside the base of a granddaddy cypress.
His silhouette against the fog moved with an eerie quickness and before I could blink he was upon us. His raspy Marlboro voice returned my greeting as he grabbed my hand shaking it with the authority of a steel worker. He offered his hand to Johnny and commented on his nice smell. He knew the smell would attract the winged biters and he kindly offered a solution. "A nice dip in the river'd do ya good." He then spat a gob of Redman off to the side that trickled down his chew-stained beard.
Johnny’s comment on being a “wilderness rookie” got Joe’s attention and he took the opportunity to show the city-boy a few things.
He told a story of an alligator that he'd been 'baitin up' for the past few weeks and wanted to know if we wanted to see him. Johnny surprised me with his enthusiasm and spoke up, "Hell yes! Where's he at?"
Joe responded, " Well. The best place to see him is out on a shallow sand bar in the middle of the river." I shuddered when Johnny called the charge, "Let's go!"
Joe's face lit up with a toothless grin that showed the deep cracks his aged cheeks. "Now he's about a ten footer. We shouldn't have a problem with him as long as we keep a safe distance."
"What would that distance be Joe." I asked nervously.
"I'd think you'd be safe around twenty feet." He said confidently.
I wondered where he got his information. I had heard somewhere that gators were impossible to train -- always have been...always would be. That's why they've been around for tens-of- thousands of years.
Johnny was quick to shed his Polo shirt and $150.00 Nike's. He followed Joe (who remained fully clothed) toward the center of the river.
Not for one minute did Joe seem concerned about what we were doing. "Gets a little deeper here. May have to swim a bit out to the middle." he said.
The sun was just skimming the treetops and it pressed the fog down onto the river. The temperature of the water was… invigorating, especially when it reached my tender midsection. The three of us swam toward something I hadn't planned when I left St. Petersburg...a game of fear extraction!
"I spoke to Joe about it briefly a few weeks later and I came to the conclusion that he knew what he was doing all along -- giving us a chance to look primitive death in the face."
With every stroke I questioned what we were doing and why we needed to go to the middle of the river to see a gator. I've seen hundreds of gators and they were no big deal...from the shore. John on the other hand had never seen a gator and I wanted to be there with him for the experience of it all.
My toes scuffed the soft bottom sending a chill down my spine for the possibility of what else lurks below the surface that I couldn't see. The muck turned to hard sand and I dug my toes in and leaned heavily into the current to keep from being swept away toward the Gulf of Mexico.
We shivered uncontrollably in water up to our armpits. I noticed Joe had a beer with him and he sipped quietly and watched our expressions as we nervously looked about expecting a gator to appear any moment. Seconds later it did. Twenty yards down stream a large head appeared motionless in the surging current. The fog slid over his aerodynamic head in waving sheets of white. He was floating in an oily slick that appeared to come from John's body. Fancy body oils, shampoo & bug spray combined with Brut proved to be a great gator attractant!
"OK I'm out a here." Joe said as he dropped his beer and headed immediately toward the shore. John was close behind riding in his wake. I, on the other hand, couldn't move. Something was keeping me from moving. At first I was mesmerized by how much bigger they look at eye level. He slowly moved in for a closer look and I stood my ground.
John called from the shore, "Don't be stupid Kurt, get the hell out of there." Joe stood with his arms crossed not offering any suggestions.
I couldn't help but to wonder just how dangerous this situation was. Every fiber of my being wanted to believe that I was as safe as being with a Golden Retriever. I felt content as the gator moved in. His eyes looked compassionate and friendly as a pup. That's when I realized his approach -- he lulled me into a false sense of security with the trademark of a big gator -- swim silently and carry big teeth!
Now within ten feet Joe expressed concern. "Time to go Kurt...start movin' boy!"
I couldn't move. I waited too long and now I was afraid that he might attack. I watched the gator’s eyes quickly change from peaceful blue, to a demonic red leer of a prehistoric hunter. Then he submerged out of site.
There's a theory about gators. To measure up their prey they must move within visual distance below the surface. In this pitch water that meant moving within inches of me. Suddenly I cracked. As if being hit with a baseball bat loaded with common sense I kicked my muscles into gear and headed back. The moment I turned my back on him was the most frightening moment that I can ever remember. I felt my vocal cords squeal for help. I could feel him moving closer as I struggled to cover the short distance in the heavy current. Time stood still as I gulped water and splashed like wounded duck. My mind was very convincing in telling me that he was within biting range.
When I reached the shallows I tripped and fell facedown in the mossy mud. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a huge wake moving toward my feet. I lunged toward dry ground and grabbed a powerful hand that nervously pulled me to safety.
The gator slid into the shadows and turned sideways exposing his enormous ten-foot body. His armor was thick, glossy black and heavily plated with ridges and spikes. For a moment he just floated there. Then his eyes rolled back and he disappeared into the river.
Joe was smiling from ear to ear from the satisfaction that another “City boy” has been initiated into swamp school. Jersey John realized that the gator is a fearless predator that demands respect. I headed back to city-life a little wiser too - packing a new appreciation for Florida’s swamps and the creatures that patrol the murky depths of the Withlacoocheee River.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals