July 2019

Notes on Paddling with Alligators

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

There exists in humanity a deep-seated psychological revulsion toward alligators, an ancestral horror at the reptilian jaws of death. For better or worse, I was born without this fear. Over the years of hiking and paddling the Lowcountry, my encounters with them have always been peaceful (I try never to let my love for dangerous wildlife cross the line into stupidity), so I’ve arrived at a certain comfort level based on familiarity. Yet people are often appalled at what appears to be reckless behavior by so much as venturing into gator territory. I would like to share some of my observations and experiences in the hope it sets minds at ease a little, or even empowers people to get out and do some adventuring of their own.

Gators want to retreat (usually)
It’s a beautiful sunny day in the Lowcountry. I am alone, floating atop mirror calm waters in a brackish estuary, miles from the nearest house or dock. Nothing breaks the stillness but the salty cries of seabirds and the dip of my paddle in the creek. Suddenly, I come around a bend in the marsh and SPLASH! An alligator has slid down the bank with a frantic start that soon gives way to a palpable sense of relief as he enters his watery safe-zone; that characteristic profile of eye and nose bumps breaking the surface is visible for a few moments before he disappears completely in the direct path of my boat. A sneak attack? I think not. This fellow became aware of me long before I spotted him and chose withdrawal rather than confrontation.

Gators fleeing at my approach—gliding away silently in the blackwater, slipping discreetly down banks into the deep, submerging slowly with a few bubbles and that “you can’t see me, I’m invisible” look—has generally been my experience. But wildlife is by nature unpredictable, so there are always exceptions; in fact, some exceptions are predictable. Individuals I don’t count on retreating are mommas with babies, humongous granddaddies, and any animal that feels trapped or cornered. And if a gator has been fed by humans, forget it; all bets are off—steer clear before good behavior flies out the window.

Give gators fair warning
Once I was hiking in the ACE Basin, toward the end of a long and exhausting loop, when I saw a massive gator up ahead. Stretched completely across the path with his head in the reeds on one side and his tail in the canal on the other, he was blocking my way and could have stayed like that for hours. I really did not want to backtrack, so I gave a loud whistle to alert him of my presence. To my surprise, he obliged by crawling into the reeds and disappearing down the canal! Another time, I was riding my bike in the Savannah Wildlife Refuge when I came around a sharp turn and had to slam on the brakes because I nearly crashed with a gator. We both froze in terror and found ourselves at an impasse. Finally, I eased backward ever so slowly with the bike, and as soon as I was out of sight around the bend, again, I heard the telltale splash of his escape. I learned that sometimes animals won’t retreat while you’re still locked into a visual with them.

Later, I found a way to apply these lessons on water. I was paddling the New River upstream from the Highway 170 Bridge, venturing way back into the headwaters (a huge swamp behind Sun City.) Every time I thought I was to the end of the navigable channel, it just kept going. At one point, I crossed under a powerline right-of-way and began to enter a wide pooling area that was evidently the gathering point of the gator nation. In these situations, I’m nearly always alone, it’s silent, and things feel elemental. So, it occurred to me to beat the side of my boat with the oar—lo, the congregation of gators began to part before me! I paddled right through the center without incident. Now, when in doubt, I use the oar trick, as I imagine gators feel intimidated by a sound they don’t recognize and want to get away.

Size matters
There is a world of difference between a six-foot juvenile and 14-foot granddaddy. The former I would venture close enough for a photo op; the latter has no natural predators on earth, and he knows it. Basically, anything over 10 feet, I steer as wide away as possible, but anything under that I don’t worry about too much. That’s just my personal precedent. Once I was paddling a spring run outside Orlando when I spied a little guy in the shallows, maybe five-foot. I eased up closer and closer, snapping photos and eventually getting within intimate portrait range. I had just clicked the last image and was starting my respectful retreat with tiny backstrokes when suddenly he lost patience and flipped out, rolling over in a spray of mud that covered me. I guess I deserved it.

It took many years for this to occur to me and I don’t know how verifiable it is, but the logic seems sound: As far as a gator knows, my boat and I are the same—one creature. So, if my kayak is 10 feet long—nearly double my height—so am I! Little thoughts like that go a long way toward empowerment by taking the fear factor out, looking at things logically and realizing that in nature nobody wants to tangle with somebody bigger than them. People who spend their lives around alligators avow they really only attack dogs and babies, not full-grown humans; and they definitely don’t attack unknown sea beasts with 10-14-foot-long profiles. So, when venturing out in my kayak I try to own that.

Mommas with babies
Everyone knows that when it comes to wild animals, you don’t mess with the baby unless you want to mess with momma. A companion and I were boarding a canoe in the Okefenokee when the local outfitter gave us some advice: “Now y’all are probly gonna see some li’l baby gators out there—if momma tries to rush the boat, just whack her over the head with the paddle. She’ll get back.” Luckily, that never came to pass. On another occasion I was kayaking Florida’s Wekiva River and had meandered into a little side lagoon where I leaned back and allowed myself to drift contentedly in the sun. I was starting to doze off when I heard the gentle croaking of a baby gator—an adorable sound, but a dangerous one. I looked up and saw that I had been drifting right into their nest! Jeez, thanks for the warning little guy. So, get to know the sound, people. YouTube it. It might save your life one day. 

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