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:

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