There is little comfort in the knowledge that the alligators in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp are not known for attacking humans, particularly when one lunges toward my kayak and sticks its head up, paddle-length away from me, and I’m staring directly into its reptilian eyeball.
This isn’t the first time Barry and I have kayaked here and maybe I’ve taken a more complacent attitude toward alligators. There seemed to be an agreement between paddlers and alligators, and typically they would remain basking on their designated log to sun themselves, or they would slowly cross your path in the channel, submerging their heads underwater just before you floated over them. That’s the way I liked it – a front row seat in the presumed safety of my fiberglass hull.
On this particular day, maybe it was because a cold front had just passed, there were hundreds of alligators, some very small, maybe 1-foot long, and others that were huge, measuring at least 10-feet long. They were basking in the sun on logs, on the muddy banks or camouflaged between the lily pads. About two hours into our paddle and after delving ever deeper into the swamp, the gators got much more numerous, and in my opinion, much bigger.
My first hint as to what was to follow was when we headed into a very narrow channel. First we had to get by the gatekeeper: a huge gator that made me mumble a series of expletives as I slowly paddled by. I put away the camera, this was going to take some vigilance and I didn’t want to accidentally drift into an unsuspecting alligator while fiddling with my lenses.
We reached a point in the park that required permits and turned around to head back. All this time, Barry was ahead of me and I suggested that I lead the way. I’d already spotted several alligators perched on mossy hammocks at kayak-boarding level. I kept an eye out for one particular alligator, maybe a 12-footer that was on the riverbank, nose down to the mud. As I went by, I must have startled him out of his stupor, and with a splash, he headed directly into the murky water. Instead of disappearing, as it was unofficially agreed upon, he decided to pop his head up about two feet away from my kayak. I was eyeball to eyeball – and all I could think was “death roll”.
His head was huge, way bigger than my flimsy carbon-fiber paddle, which may have made a nice serving platter, or better yet, a toothpick. I got a close up view of his broad head enveloped by a bumpy jowl, jagged teeth revealing themselves from beneath its awkward looking grimace. I stopped paddling for a few seconds before I let out a scream. I wouldn’t say it was blood-curdling, but it was enough to alarm the alligator, and he ducked back under the water. Seconds later, panicked or curious, he popped his head up once again and looked at me. I screamed. He dove.
From behind me, I could hear the voice of reason – Barry, telling me to ‘keep paddling’. I didn’t wait around to see if the alligator was going to make another appearance, instead, I propelled myself forward, my paddles windmilling like cartoon legs, and I was moving – fast. One alligator after another jumped, slithered and dove into the water like synchronized swimmers, most likely disturbed by the manic speed and noise I was making.
It took me a few minutes to regain my composure after running the gauntlet. Barry, who assured me that I was safe, caught up to me and offered to paddle ahead – I graciously accepted.
I have nothing but respect (and fear) for these beautiful and powerful alligators. This was a humbling reminder that the wilderness belongs to them. This is their element, and clearly at that moment, I was completely out of mine.
Later that night, as we turned around to head back to our tent after listening to the chirps, tweets, hoots and groans of all the swamp creatures, we could see the outline of a barred owl standing on a sign only a couple of feet away from we were, watching us. The sign it was standing one read: ‘Please do not feed the wildlife.’ As we approached to try to get a closer look, it turned its head and very silently flew into the woods. That, in my opinion, is how I prefer my wildlife encounters.