May 22, 2012
One of my favorite parts of wilderness kayak camping with the local clubs, is sitting around a nice campfire, talking, sharing food & drink, and the story-telling. Stories of past trips – some funny, some dramatic. Some tell an occasional bawdy joke or two, or… ten. Some tell stories of tough conditions & how we got through them. On this particular Friday, the stories continued into the night, through the shared blackberry brandy & warm duck (isn’t it supposed to be “cold duck”?). Bit by bit, the circle got smaller as people drifted off to their tents, to rest up for the next day.
Saturday, to me, is the “payoff day”. You plan for days, or even weeks. You wake up in the pre-dawn hours, load the car, drive, pack the kayak, paddle 10 miles or so, set up camp, and after all of that – on the first day, you’re almost too tired to do much of anything. On a one-night trip, you have to do the whole thing in reverse almost as soon as you wake up! But if you’re out there for 2 or more nights, you have ALL DAY Saturday, to explore, take pictures, fish, or even simply lie on a beautiful, quiet beach and read… whatever you want to do. I wanted to go fishing.
I paddled out between Whitehorse & Gullivan keys at first, hoping to find some of the mackeral that we had seen on our way out on Friday. I didn’t find the mackeral, but I did catch & release some ladyfish and spotted sea trout. The spotted sea trout were out of season, but I toyed with the idea of keeping some anyway. It’s a dishonorable, yet time-honored tradition among campers, to call it “mystery-fish”, or “camp-meat”. People that wouldn’t otherwise even go so far as to jaywalk, have been known to do this. I thought, for a while, about keeping a ladyfish and using it for shark bait, but then I thought that I’d much rather catch a nice snook or redfish, so I didn’t. Pete had mentioned the Four Brothers Key area as a possible fishing spot, so I headed over that way.
On my way to Four Brothers, I hugged the shorelines, casting my tipped bucktail jig under the mangroves at all of the likely points, but having no luck. I continued this way, working the shoreline until about 2:00 or 2:30… getting more & more frustrated at not finding the snook & reds. The afternoon heat was steamy, so I loosened my sprayskirt from the cockpit, to let the air circulate. It was a calm day, with no power boat traffic, so I didn’t need the sprayskirt to keep waves from crashing into the boat. I finally came into an area where I was catching some ladyfish and… uh… ummm… a kind of fish that shall remain unidentified, but let’s call them “speckled-mystery-sea-mullet”, OK? I wanted something to share with my campmates, and that seemed to be all that was available. I put them on a stringer, and clipped it to a bungee on my kayak’s deck, to keep them alive and fresh. Hopefully, I would catch a redfish or snook, and release the “mystery fish” alive.
After fishing the shoreline along the full length of Four Brothers Key, I decided to try a hidden lake in the center of an un-named island just to the north. My chart showed that there was a mangrove-lined creek that entered the lake from the north side of the island. The creek was easy to find, and quite picturesque, with the mangroves even forming a shady overhead canopy as it wound its way into the interior of the island. It was a fairly deep creek, with a good amount of flow from the outgoing tide. As I made my way to the hidden lake, a beautiful pink roseate spoonbill took flight ahead of me, flashing the bright slash of red on its shoulder. There were other wading birds working the shallows, as I entered the lake. Now that there was room enough to cast again, I made a few tentative casts, while watching for the telltale signs of snook popping the surface, or reds tailing.
I sat there, close to the opening, trying to decide which part of this fairly large hidden lake to fish first. I was about 15′ from the mangroves to my left, and maybe 50′ to 75′ from the mangroves to my right. As I sat there, pondering my plan, I saw a large wake coming from the mangroves to my right, and heading straight for the bow of my kayak. All that I had on my mind, at this point, was snook & reds. My first thought was “Snook! BIG snook!”. The wake crossed under the tip of my bow, and did a 90 degree turn to the left, no more than 2 feet from the side of my kayak. I positioned myself to cast behind me, to place my lure ahead of the fish, to “lead” it, when the wake seemed to disappear.
At that moment, it all happened. The left side of my kayak lurched underwater, and I was pulled upside-down instantly. I instinctively knew what it had happened. A shark had grabbed the fish on my stringer and pulled me down. My spray skirt had been off, so in an instant, the kayak was half-full of water, and I was dumped into the water with the shark, with my kayak drifting away from me. I took a couple of quick strokes & grabbed the kayak, scrambling to pull myself up onto the hull of my upside-down boat. I wanted to be OUT of that water, and NOW. My only thought was, how much my kicking, lily-white legs must look like fish on a stringer.
The thing I didn’t realize was, the huge splash that I made, and the solid resistance of the weight of the kayak against the stringer of fish, must have scared the shark off. All I knew was, it was somewhere close by. As I climbed onto the kayak, it sank at my end, filling it with more water, so I did the “cowboy crawl” toward the center of the boat, to balance it, all the while, keeping my arms & legs on top as much as possible. If you think that it’s any easy thing to do, balancing on top of a 22-inch-wide, upside-down sea kayak, then I invite you to try it yourself, sometime. You could say, that I was “highly motivated”. I reached around to the front deck, where I had the stringer clipped, and unclipped it, then I threw the clip away from the kayak. I didn’t want that shark to start pulling the kayak around again, since I had a pretty tenuous grasp on the boat at this point.
Now that I was in a “relatively safe” position, I had a chance to assess my situation. I was unhurt, balancing on top of my upside-down kayak, still holding onto my fishing rod! I never let the rod go, through the whole ordeal. To this day, I have no idea how I did that. As I looked around for signs of the shark, I could see my paddle, chart, and water bottle drifting slowly toward the creek, with the outgoing tide. I was in a hidden lake, where no passing boat could ever see me. Even a plane flying overhead in a search pattern would have to have a tremendous amount of luck to spot me. I got there on my own, so I was going to have to get out, on my own.
My paddle. It was floating toward the mouth of the creek. I was going to need that paddle to get back to camp, and there was only one way to get it back. I had to swim for it. I hadn’t seen the shark’s wake since before everything started happening, and all was quiet, so I decided to go for it. I slipped back into the water & swam over to the paddle, still with a firm grip on my fishing rod, using the smoothest stroke possible, so as not to make attractive vibrations. Then I swam back to the kayak with the paddle. Nothing was happening… I wasn’t being bitten! So, with feelings of trepidation, I decided to stay in the water & swim the kayak to the mangrove shoreline.
The mangroves were thick, with no beach area to speak of, and the water was fairly deep right up to within about 6′ or so of their roots. There were enough roots to keep me from sinking into the muck, so I started emptying the water from my kayak. It was then, that I saw that the stringer was still attached to the kayak, having gotten tangled up in the deck bungees! I pulled on the stringer, and to my horror, I saw that the fish were still there! Shark bait!!! I quickly stuffed them into the cockpit behind the seat, and continued to empty the water out, as quickly as possible. You have no idea of the relief I felt, when I was once again able to climb into that kayak. I sat there trying to calm my breathing, and slow the pounding of my heart. After a few minutes, I finished clearing the water out with my sponge, then paddled back out the creek, in a vain attempt to find my chart and water bottle.
I had spare charts, a submersible GPS and VHF radio, and they were both still functioning properly. At this point, however, the emergency situation had passed, so there was no need to call anyone. I knew exactly where I was, so I headed back to camp by the shortest possible route. Somehow, I just didn’t feel like fishing any more that afternoon.
After getting back to camp, I took my first good look at the “spotted sea mullet” that were on that stringer. There was a bite mark that measured 5 1/2″ wide, cut cleanly about 1″ deep on one side, with small lacerations matching that size on the other side. I “guesstimated” the size of the shark to be in the 5′ to 6′ size range.
After relating my story at camp, a few people asked me if I was done with kayak fishing, or if I would do it differently. No – I am not done with kayak fishing, but I AM done with stringers. I was aware that a shark could come along & grab fish off of a stringer, but for some reason, I thought that there would be more warning – like tugs on the line, that sort of thing. It was that scene in “Jaws” that had me fooled. Do you remember the scene, where the guy throws his wife’s roast off of the dock, tied to an inner tube? That gigantic shark gave a couple of feeble tugs on it, before shredding that dock to pieces. That, my friend, was FICTION. This was REAL. That rushing wake was my only warning, and I didn’t recognize it as the only warning that I would be given.
There’s always a few stories that come out of each camping trip, and that’s mine, for this particular trip. I learned from it, came out of it unscathed, and hope that by sharing it, that others will learn from it too. If you use a stringer in salt water, YOU. ARE. TROLLING.
Anybody else up for some kayak camping, and fishing? I am… but don’t expect me to provide you with any “mystery-fish-camp-meat”, OK? Karma… is real.
May 8, 2012
“The Battle of Fisheating Creek” sounds like it may have taken place at an obscure Civil War battlefield, but this is a battle that is being waged today, between one of Florida’s cattle baron families, and the public. The creek has been traveled by the public since the early days of Florida’s settlers, when the waterways were the highways that were used for trading and travel. These days, it is used for recreation, by paddlers, campers, hunters , fishers, birdwatchers, and photographers. It has been immortalized in stunning black and white photos by the world-famous photographer, Clyde Butcher.
Fisheating Creek is well-known amongst the kayakers and canoers of south Florida, as a great place to see the kind of scenery and wildlife that you might only expect to see in old-time photographs. You can still see the real natural beauty of this place, just a little over 100 miles south of the city that “The Mouse” built, Orlando. Fisheating Creek is a nature photographer’s paradise, with majestic cypress trees, spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the tea-stained red-brown, yet clear water, twisting and turning throughout its length.
Here, you can get up-close to nature in its beauty, with great blue herons that squawk at you angrily, as they give up their fishing spot, and hot-pink roseate spoonbills, swishing their heads side-to-side as they search for shrimps and small fishes in the shallow waters. Sometimes, as you glide silently amongst the cypress trees in the narrow channels, you get a hint of what is to come. Downy feathers cling to the bushes, and an earthy odor of guano tests your senses, just before a flock of a hundred white ibis fly up, with their “grumpy old man call”… awk, awk, awk, awk… like an old geezer complaining about kids invading “his” sidewalk with skateboards. The limpkin looks at first, like the older brother to the ibis, because of its general shape, and the long, somewhat curved bill. But they are larger, they are colored brown with white specks, and they are louder as well. Their cry will wake you out of your reverie, and if you’re fast enough, maybe you can snap a shot before he takes off with his apple snail meal.
Of course, being wild Florida, there are gators, big and small. You might not see any for a few miles, but then again, you may see enough that you will lose track if you try to count them all. These gators are wild, and wary, and are unlikely to approach humans. They are much more likely to watch as you approach, then silently slip into the water, still watching, with just their eyes and nostrils protruding above the surface. If you get closer… poof! They submerge and wait for you to go past, before quietly surfacing again.
In the 1980′s, Fisheating Creek’s natural beauty began to be known by more than just the local residents. People came from miles away, to paddle its pristine waters, and camp & fish on its shores. They recognized the creek for the treasure that it still is, mostly, to this day. That was perceived as a problem by Lykes Brothers, the big cattle company that owned hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the creek. They claimed ownership of the creek, and erected fences and felled trees across the waterway, to restrict access.
The Battle of Fisheating Creek had begun, and Lykes Brothers had fired the first shots. These were answered by people such as Becky Hendry, and then Ellen Peterson, through the organization that came to be known as “Save Our Creeks”. David Guest, now a lawyer for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against Lykes. Working with Guest, Monika Reimer searched through nearly a century’s-worth of records, until she found a hand-drawn map from the 1920′s that proved conclusively, that Fisheating Creek had historically been a navigable waterway along its 50 mile length. It was the evidence that was desperately needed, to stop Lykes in its tracks. In 1997, it was decided in court, that Fisheating Creek belongs to us, the public.
In the 1997 agreement, it was decided that exotic vegetation that had clogged Cowbone Marsh, about halfway between Rte. 27 and Lake Okeechobee, would be removed, to restore the natural flow of the creek. That task was turned over to the Florida Game Commission. According to Earthjustice, the money that was appropriated for this purpose, was misspent, and instead, was used to buy swamp buggies for hunters and fishermen. The Army Corps of Engineers got involved, and brought their own “solution” to the Cowbone Marsh “problem”. Their plan is to dump 50 million pounds of sand in the marsh, and build several roads through it, effectively splitting the creek, creating a lake, and cutting the flow of water to the lower part of the creek, and Lake Okeechobee.
David Guest and Monika Reimer are in the process of filing several legal actions to prevent this, but in the meantime, a series of dams have already been built across Cowbone Marsh. As recently as July 2008, I paddled from Lake Okeechobee up to Cowbone Marsh. At that time, the flow of water was still getting through the marsh, and I was able to paddle my kayak the 9 or 10 miles to get to where it was blocked by water hyacinths. In September 2009, I kayaked from the Fisheating Creek Outpost by Rte. 27, nearly 12 miles downstream, to where thick grasses had blocked navigation from the other side of Cowbone Marsh. At that point, I had paddled all but 1 or 2 miles of Fisheating Creek, from the mouth, to approximately 36 miles upstream. I was eagerly anticipating being able to “connect the dots” after the exotics were removed.
On my last attempt to reach Cowbone Marsh via the mouth of the creek, the flow of water had trickled to almost nothing, as a result of the dams that had been built at the marsh. Only a mile into the trip, the water was so shallow that I had to get out and walk my kayak for a hundred yards at a time. This is a kayak that can easily float in 8″ to 10″ of water. After slogging through the shallows like this, for 2 1/2 miles, I gave up the effort and turned around.
Pic #1 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Pic #2 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Now I hear about this misguided plan to change Cowbone Marsh, and Fisheating Creek, forever. These closed-door decisions have been made, with zero input from the REAL owners of the creek, you and me… the public. I am just one paddler, but this doesn’t just affect me. It affects every member of the public that might want the future generations of, not only Florida residents, but of the USA and the world, that want to have the natural beauty of Florida’s still-natural waterways to remain pristine, for the people, and the animals, to enjoy.
What can you do to help? Visit the following links, and donate your money, or your time. They will both be needed, and you can help.
Save Our Creeks: http://www.saveourcreeks.org/index.html
April 16, 2012
Diana Nyad is one of the most dynamic and inspirational persons that I have ever met. She gained worldwide fame while in her 20′s, as a long distance swimmer, breaking or establishing world records that stand to this day, nearly 40 years later. Those records include swimming 28 miles around Manhattan Island in less than 8 hours, and the 102 mile crossing from North Bimini Island in the Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, in 27 1/2 hours. The one great record that eluded her grasp in her younger days, which still holds her in the tight grip of an “Extreme Dream”, is to swim from Cuba to Florida, without the use of a shark cage or a wetsuit. Now, at age 62, Diana Nyad intends to achieve that dream.
When she is not training for her next distance swim, Diana often works as a motivational speaker, always earning standing ovations from her audiences. I’ve been privileged to hear some samples of her inspirational speaking, when she has spoken to her “Extreme Dream Team”. I am lucky enough to have been able to play a small part in the team. It seems as though she just can’t help but motivate and inspire people. Every time she is with a group of people, and she starts talking, everybody just stops everything to listen.
During the gathering of the Extreme Dream Team, just prior to Diana’s September 2011 attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she gave us all a motivational speech. She told each one of us how important it was, that we play our part… do our job… to the best of our abilities… because she would not be able to do HER part, without each and every one of us. At the end of her talk, she taught us all the “team cheer”, which we repeated, going faster & faster, louder & louder each time, until we finally ended by yelling at the top of our lungs,
“Where we gonna leave?
What are we gonna achieve?
We were nearly breathless with excitement, after finishing our rowdy group cheer.
My role within the Extreme Dream Team was small, but as Diana pointed out to each of us, it was a very important job. I was one of the 6 kayakers that were chosen for the kayak team. Our job was to provide one essential part of the defense against the sharks that Diana would almost certainly encounter, while completing the 103 mile swim across the mile-deep Florida Straits. Our kayaks were fitted with electronic “shark shields”, which give off an electronic field that repels sharks. We kept 2 kayaks in close proximity to Diana at all times, staying close enough to keep Diana within the 12-foot radius “zone of protection” that each kayaker provided.
Another essential part of the shark protection, was the shark divers. These roles were played out by some incredibly brave men, whose job it was, to get between Diana and any sharks that came anywhere near her. They were armed with only a stick, and a fiercely protective attitude towards Diana. I did NOT leave out the word “bang”, when I said “stick”. No – this was not a weapon that could kill a shark with a bullet or a concussive explosive blast… these guys were armed with a STICK. They used these sticks to push the offending sharks away… to point them in another direction. I seem to hear you asking, so I will tell you… YES. They were called upon to do this during the September 2011 swim, when an extremely dangerous and unpredictable shark known as an Oceanic Whitetip, showed a little bit too much interest in our activities. But that is their story, for them to tell… this is my part of the story.
As members of the kayak team, the 6 of us each worked in 3 hour shifts. Each kayaker would be on the water for 3 hours, then off of the water for 6 hours, around the clock. In our 6 hours of “off” time, we could dry our clothing, get a sponge bath, eat, and catch a little bit of sleep. These shifts were partially to prevent our fatigue, but it was also to be certain that our shark shield batteries could be recharged in between shifts. This was our whole reason for being there, so keeping our shark shields fully functional was of prime importance.
Our kayak team leader, prior to the swim, told us that we should not distract Diana by talking to her during the swim. She had handlers on her main support boat, Voyager, that would be talking with Diana during every rest break. She would swim for a pre-set time period, then Bonnie, her #1 support person, would sound 3 long blasts on a whistle, calling her over to Voyager’s starboard side. There, Diana would be given bottles of water, coffee, hot broth, and bite-sized pieces of food. She would be given a warming shower from a water bag that was held over her by one of the assistants. During this entire rest break, communication between Diana and her handlers was vital, and there should be no distractions from the kayakers. Later in the swim, I was to break that rule wide open.
The Cuba to Florida swim was expected to take Diana about 60 hours to complete. I want to be clear, here. What I am talking about, is 60 hours of constant physical effort, with no sleep. Not only is she not able to sleep, but she cannot be physically supported by her assistants, or by the support boat that they are on. Diana must tread water, or rest while floating. An observer from the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame was on the main support boat, watching every moment of the swim, to make sure that these rules were followed to the letter.
Sixty hours of virtually continuous physical exertion is daunting in itself, but there is a mental toll as well. Sleep deprivation can play havoc with one’s mind. Diana Nyad knew what she faced, and prepared herself for it mentally, just as she prepared her body for the rigors of the long hours of swimming. She planned to deal with the mental fog that accompanies the lack of sleep, by creating a “playlist” in her mind. She has a collection that ranges from sixties sitcom theme music, to popular music, and even some of her favorite books are stored away in that iPod player in her brain. By the end of the 60 hours, when the mental fog would be closing in on her, she planned to fight it away with the help of Stephen Hawkings. She would battle the fatigue, and the mental wandering, by using that wandering to her advantage. In her mind, Diana and Stephen would be pondering the mysteries of the universe, together, while she continued plying the water to achieve her Extreme Dream.
The weeks prior to the swim were filled with anticipation. Diana needed a “weather window” of 4 days, for the best wind and wave conditions for crossing the Florida Strait. The everyday lives of all of the members of the Extreme Dream Team were put on hold, while keeping track of every storm system that approached from inside and outside of the waters between Cuba and the Florida Keys. The Weather Channel was the first to come on, whenever turning on the TV. Weather Underground dot-com was one of the places that I visited on the internet, several times per day. I wore a headset & CD player while working, trying to brush up on my rusty Spanish-speaking skills. I hoped for a chance to use it while in Cuba. I knew that most of the team only saw Cuba very briefly during Diana’s August 7th attempt, but a few of us were hoping for a little more time to be able to do some sight-seeing while there. We were to get that opportunity, albeit, a short one.
~TO BE CONTINUED~
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April 6, 2012
Here is that part that to some, may seem like a dramatized fiction… but it happened just this way. Today’s trip has provided Jim Baldwin with a “catch phrase”, and a story that I am sure that he will be telling, for years to come… and it will go, something on the order of: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was in the 10,000 islands, and…?” Yes. It’s that good.
The day was beautiful… as I mentioned, the tide was with us; we were making great time; we had gentle breezes & good temperatures, and a layer of clouds that kept us from burning up under the hot sun. We had just finished checking out Panther Key, and had started to go around Gomez Point, at the outer tip of Panther. The water was shallow, and we were occasionally bumping our paddles on the bottom, so we were edging away from the shoal, but still in fairly shallow water. Mullet were jumping and splashing here and there, and an occasional ladyfish even jumped high enough for us to clearly distinguish them from the crazed antics of the bellyflopping mullet. Jacks boiled the surface in their schools from time to time, and suddenly, out of nowhere, one made a 10′ long jump, about 3′ out of the water, and sailed over Brenda’s kayak deck, just in front of where she sat in her cockpit! “Jumping jacks” is nothing out of the ordinary, but the funny thing about this one was, it went over sideways! I think everyone in the group witnessed the fish’s great leap, and we talked and laughed about it for several minutes afterwards.
We were still abuzz over the excitement of Brenda’s fishy encounter, when I saw something small and round break the surface of the water, maybe 20′ in front of Jim’s boat. I pointed, and told him that I thought that a small sea turtle had surfaced just in front of his boat. Jim peered in front of his kayak, and gave it a couple of strokes forward, to close the gap. Then he started to say, “That’s a BIG TUR-”
I’ve got to break into this story here, to explain something. There are moments in a person’s life… moments in time… when the events of a few fractions of a second couldn’t possibly fit into the actual amount of time that they are supposed to have taken. For example: In the fraction of a second between the time that Jim said the two syllables, “tur” and “tle”, I had enough time to realize, before he finished the word “turtle”, that this, indeed, was the complete word that he was about to say. I not only had enough time to think that, but I ALSO had enough time to clearly enunciate, in my mind, the complete thought… “This is extremely shallow water. We are past turtle egg-laying season, aren’t we? And, we aren’t really anywhere near a beach that any proper-thinking, self-respecting turtle would lay it’s eggs on – we’re on the outside of a shoal! So-o-o-o… why in the heck would there be a BIG turtle here?” In the next nano-second, STILL before Jim had a chance to utter the 2nd half of the word, “turtle”, our entire group watched with amazement as Jim’s kayak started to rise out of the water and pitch over to the right side, as a volcano of water began to erupt under him. Sitting, as I was, 10 or 15 feet to his left, and maybe 20 feet behind him, I lost sight of the red color of his boat’s deck as the entire white underside of his kayak appeared, seemingly suspended, over the surface of the water. The stop-motion nano second ended, as Jim completed the word: “TLE!!!!”
The funny thing about this is, as we had been paddling down the 3 mile canal from Port of the Islands, Brenda, Pete and I had been telling Jim and Paul some of our manatee stories, about our own encounters, and those of our friends. One of these, had been the story of a friend who had encountered a manatee in very shallow water. It had not only bowled him over, but it had cracked his fibreglass kayak hull as well. Up until today’s encounter, though, I think that Jim and Paul had been having a difficult time believing just how fast, and how incredibly powerful, a very scared manatee can be.
Think about it for a moment. You take a kayaker in a 40lb. kayak, and you take a half-ton manatee… put the manatee under the kayak and scare the hell out of the manatee. Who do you think will come out the winner in that little conflict? Ask Jim. He’ll tell you. And, don’t forget to say to Jim, if you’re ever kayaking with him…
“That’s a BIG turtle!!!”
(note: Have any doubts about this story? Watch the accompanying video. See just how difficult it can be, to spot a manatee. Then, watch the “eye-opener” at 2 minutes, 14 seconds into the video)
The Myakka River is a unique river… a treasure, for a nature-loving kayaker like myself. It meanders back & forth through natural oxbows, trying to put off its eventual mixing with the salt water at its mouth, 30 miles away, in Charlotte Harbor. If you were to stretch this river out straight, it would probably be five times longer than it appears to be, on a map. These wildly twisting turns create niches along the way, with deep narrow channels of moving water, bordered by shallow weedy marshes that are loaded with wading birds of all kinds. There are the elegant black-necked stilts, bold-patterned anhingas, and the strangely exotic and colorful roseate spoonbills. The drama is apparent with the many places on the shoreline, where the weeds are flattened to the ground by sun-seeking alligators.
Compared to many other rivers, the Myakka seems to have more than its share of gators. Driving into Myakka River State Park, just east of Sarasota, it seems that every time you drive over the bridge, or go to the concession area, there are people ooh-ing and ahh-ing and snapping pictures of gators from a safe distance. For a tourist adventure, you can book a short trip on the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal… huge airboats that carry a sizeable crowd out to Upper Myakka Lake, where you can take more pictures of the gators from a safe location. If you’re lucky, there might even be a wading bird or two that aren’t scared out of their wits by this monstrosity that invades their feeding areas.
I prefer a quiet approach, that doesn’t leave the local wildlife scattering to the winds or the waters. A quiet paddler may see deer, wild pigs, raccoons, otters, turkeys, white ibis, and a wide variety of herons and egrets. Probably because the river isn’t bordered by residential areas for many miles of its length, the alligators are far more likely to show their more natural behavior. Rather than being accustomed to our noisy intrusions, the gators along the upper parts of the Myakka still have a natural fear of anything that is bigger than they are… or bigger in most cases, I should say. There are some BIG gators in this river.
“THEY… are afraid… of US???” – I seem to hear you asking. Well, yes. These alligators are very wary of intruders. If you like to chat loudly with your fellow paddlers, you’ll still see gators. Most likely though, all you will see is their eyes and nostrils barely protruding above the water’s surface. Then, as you approach, POP! They submerge. If you & your paddling companions have a lull in the conversation, you may see the gators laying on the bank up ahead, warming their cold blood in the mid-day sun. As you paddle closer, they start shifting their positions, then finally stand up and walk to the water, sliding gracefully in until they can hide their bodies while keeping a hesitant eye on you. Then… goodbye! You won’t see them again, unless you sit quietly and wait.
If your group can move quietly downstream, including keeping your paddle strokes as silent as possible, you will see even more. There are places along the river where it is not uncommon to see as many as 20 of these prehistoric beasts looking like a lineup of cut logs. The river is never terribly wide, so it seems that you can’t pass by quietly enough and far enough away, to keep from spooking them. It looks like a scene from an old Johnny Weismueller Tarzan movie, when you see a mob such as this, rushing the water in a frantic effort to disappear into the depths. The difference is, there is no film editor, to add in the scene of Johnny swimming, knife in mouth, then wrestling the rubber critter and stabbing it to death before he can become its lunch. It takes a Hollywood writer and creative film editing, to create that kind of drama. In all actuality, these are just some nervous animals that don’t want to deal with “the unknown”… YOU.
A few years ago, my paddling group had heard of a place that’s downriver from the state park, known as “The Deep Hole”. We were told that it was in the vicinity of Lower Myakka Lake, and that it was a natural sinkhole, that was 50 to 60 feet deep. The surrounding lake is quite shallow and fairly large. In the dry season (winter, to you “snowbirds”), water levels in the river and its lakes drop significantly. The gators like to have water nearby, that is deep enough for them to be able to disappear completely. They can be found in isolated spots along the lakes and the river, but they tend to congregate in numbers in places like The Deep Hole. I have seen as many as 60 alligators in the vicinity of the Hole at one time. This is especially impressive when you consider that the entire Hole is no larger than a football field.
During our group’s first visit to The Deep Hole, we were understandably cautious. Despite our combined years of experience kayaking in Florida, we had never seen so many gators concentrated in once place. The smallest ones were about 6 feet long, and I hesitate to estimate how long the largest could have been. I will say this: when you see a gator that is a foot tall while LAYING DOWN… that… is a B-I-G gator. Our group decided to close ranks to form a raft, with all of the inside kayakers holding onto the cockpit coamings of the two kayaks that they bordered. The two outside kayakers would control the movement of the raft with their paddles, awkwardly moving the group into the center of the Hole as a unit. It worked well, although as the paddler on the right, I wanted to move to the center of the Hole, while our paddler on the left would have preferred not to. Lots of pictures were taken, along with a decent video of the nervous chatter amongst the group.
A couple of years later, the group returned, with a “Been there, done that.” attitude, and a somewhat relaxed opinion of the real danger that exists, in being surrounded by at least 40 (on this occasion) large, wild alligators. We had two people, myself, and Joe, that were eager to capture this moment on video. Despite the vocal warnings of some of our companions, Joe and I paddled into the center of the Hole, and drifted our individual kayaks as we shot and narrated our videos. We drifted casually, and even bumped our kayaks together, chuckling as we got video of each other, saving the moment digitally.
There were gators lined up on the shore, sunning, and there were more wary gators that had entered the water upon our somewhat silent approach. We had been there long enough, that some of the gators that had previously submerged, were coming up for air. A bald eagle was eating a fish in one of the nearby cabbage palms, and anhingas dried their wings in the warmth of the sun. It was a peaceful and tranquil scene. It didn’t last.
Wham – SPLASH!!! My kayak was suddenly rocking with an impact to the bow! Without thinking, I instinctively dropped my camera (still running) and grabbed the paddle that was laying across my lap, and did some quick bracing moves, to keep from turning over. The whole incident was over as quickly as it began, but that’s all it took for my heart to triple its beat. I stabilized myself, and backed my kayak up, catching my breath from the close call. I’m still a little bit amazed that I didn’t let out a string of obscenities through the whole event.
It was NOT an “attack”. I’ve had this exact same thing happen on numerous occasions, but in the other instances, it had been with the “gentle giant” manatees that frequent the local waters. That will get your heart rate flying as it is, but in THIS case, there was the added thought of all of those teeth, and all of those nearby toothy companions. You could say, that it was a nervous moment for me (understatement of the year!). The manatees in the previous instances, and this gator, just happened to be surfacing in a spot that was already occupied… by ME. When it felt the weight of my kayak on its back, it panicked. It just wanted to get away, and in its rush to escape, it hit my bow, HARD. No offense meant, and none taken. It’s just another story for the campfire, or for the blog.
One thing that you will learn about me, as you read my blogs, is that I’m a bit of a storyteller. Some storytellers are notable, for the way that they, shall we say, “embellish” a story. In an attempt to make the story better than the reality, the plot may be “punched up”. “Facts” may be inserted ie: “there was a SEVENTEEN-FOOT-LONG gator, staring at us hungrily!” You will never see embellishments like this, in the stories that I tell. Every tale is TRUE, as it happened. Does this one sound a little bit too “fantastic”… maybe… “fictionalized” a little bit? Watch my video, and decide for yourself. The “action” starts about 3 minutes into the video: