This piece first appeared on the Parks and Points Blog.
The first day at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge was so perfect that I could hardly wait to go back, in spite of the alligators.
My husband Dick and I visited the Refuge on an eighty degree Florida day in mid-March because I wanted a pleasant place to bike; my internet research said that a miles long multi-use trail ran through and along it. Shortly after we arrived, though, Dick pointed to a patchwork of wetlands on the Refuge map. “Let’s ride here,” he said. “The Ranger says it attracts migrating and nesting birds.”
The “patchwork” is a collection of a dozen or so rectangular, multi-acre wetlands bounded by bikeable levee-like ridges. Four of the rectangles make up what is called the Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment, or LILA. That’s an eighty acre ecosystem simulation project designed to test the impact of various water quality, depth, and flow scenarios, and to thus help restore the Everglades to the mighty but shallow river that covered around a third of Florida before 20thcentury development drained much of it for homes, farms and businesses.
More than fifty types of birds nest in the Refuge and another two hundred species live there or stop off during migration. I bought a laminated guide, Birds of Southeast Florida, in the gift shop, and we set out.
The Refuge offers little shade, so the mid-afternoon sun beat down on us. I hoped that the bright heat would bring the birds out to cool off in the shallow waters, although most seasoned bird-watchers recommend dawn and dusk for peak activity. We wove in and out of the wetlands, slowly, slowly riding our bikes on the hard-panned, grassy ridges.
Of course we saw the ubiquitous White Ibis with their long orange-ish legs and hooked beaks, but we also sighted the purplish Glossy Ibis and the brown striped American Bittern. The bright red beaks of the Common Gallinule popped against the dark waters of the wetlands. Semipalmated Plovers, with their brown backs and white ringed necks, and Red Winged Blackbirds flitted everywhere. We spotted multiple varieties of egrets and herons; Black Vultures gathered on nearby trees. More than one Snail Kite, an endangered raptor in the hawk family, skimmed low over the wetlands, picked up something in its talons, then glided off to find a convenient place for eating. Black and white Anhingas perched on branches, wings spread to dry and soak in the heat. Almost always when I paused in my biking and put a foot down, dozens of newly hatched black and yellow lubber grasshoppers crawled up my leg.
In a distant section of the wetland patchwork, a spot of pink caught my eye. “Dick!” I cried, “I think that may be a Roseate Spoonbill!” I’m not a knowledgeable birdwatcher, but I knew the Spoonbill because of several fruitless attempts to find one in earlier Florida visits.
We stood quietly for twenty minutes or so watching the Spoonbill forage in the shallows. Now and then it paused from swinging its “spoon” in the mudflats to stretch out its wide rosy wings. Off to the right, groups of Black-Necked Stilts and Spotted Sandpipers pecked at the water with their long, straight bills. Closer on, ducks floated by.
In two hours of leisurely biking, we saw twenty species of birds that we identified using my laminated guide, and dozens more that were too fast or far off to absolutely recognize.
Later, we biked a five mile loop through the Refuge’s Cypress Swamp at a pace more suited to fitness; near its end we passed a boat launch. There was a little wooden hut, and racks loaded with canoes and kayaks. Out in the adjacent slough, a sign sticking up out of the water read “Canoe Trail.”
I thought about that canoe trail for a couple of days. My husband and I are not paddlers, but the promise of a closer look at the many species of birds enticed me. I imagined us gliding along silently watching a Great Heron or a Green Egret up close and preening its feathers or foraging for insects. Maybe we’d get lucky and spot another Roseate Spoonbill or a red-headed Pileated Woodpecker or a blue-crested Belted Kingfisher. I studied my bird guide carefully, seduced by the prospects.
But that’s when dark thoughts about alligators crept in.
My guess is that almost everyone knows of the American Alligator. It’s omnipresent in Florida and many live in the Loxahatchee NationalWildlife Refuge. The alligator is a fierce looking creature. And it is fierce, a predator whose roots go back perhaps two hundred million years. Its ancestors outlasted multiple climate extremes and vicious carnivores, like dinosaurs and pterosaurs. The modern alligator’s lizard-like body can grow to around eight to fourteen feet and up to a thousand pounds. Its back is covered with small bony patches threaded together with a network of collagen fibers that make its hide strong, flexible, and crack-resistant. It’s got a large and powerful jaw with eighty or so teeth, and unlike most animals, it continuously regenerates lost teeth over its lifetime. So you will never meet a toothless alligator.
It’s not that I’d never seen an alligator in person or even up close. We’d biked the fifteen mile Shark Valley loop in Everglades National Park several times, and had passed within ten or twenty feet of dozens of sunning and swimming alligators. But the speed of our bikes and the throngs of visitors nearby made it somehow seem safe.
Even so, I kept having visions of a large and powerful gator seizing me out of a canoe and drowning me in a death roll, then stowing me in its gator hole for later consumption. When I researched strength characteristics, I learned that a University of Florida scientist had measured the force of an alligator’s bite at more than 2,100 pounds per square inch. Escaping those jaws would be like “trying to lift a pickup truck off of yourself,” the scientist told ScienceDaily. From another source, I learned that the alligator’s jaw strength is only in closing and not in opening; a man, it said, can easily hold an alligator’s mouth shut. I imagined myself with my arms wrapped around an alligator’s jaw, squeezing it tight while resisting the powerful thrashing of its tail until Park Rangers on an airboat swooped in to save me.
I googled“what to do in a confrontation with an alligator.” Mostly, the advice recommended avoiding close contact. Some sources said to stay thirty feet away. One website reported that the real danger zone is half a body length as that’s the distance over which a gator can “very rapidly strike.” “Yikes!” I thought.
On the other hand, I reasoned that theLoxahatchee Rangers wouldn’t allow canoeing in the alligator infested waters if it wasn’t reasonably safe. I told myself that I should go to prove that nothing bad would happen. And if I didn’t go, I knew that I would obsess over missing out on some spectacular bird watching because of what was, maybe, an irrational fear.
After a few days of thinking, the idea of being eye level with the birds, even though it also meant being bite level with the gators, won out with me. I suggested to Dick that we go back to the Loxahatchee Refuge for the canoeing. So we did.
The five and a half mile canoe trail itself is beautiful. A ten or twelve foot lane cuts in a loop through wet prairie, sawgrass ridge, and tree island habitats. White water lilies, open to show their delicate lemon-hued centers, dotted the sloughs. Still budding yellow spatterduck poked up among verdant heart-shaped pads. Overhead, a bright azure sky, practically cloudless, stretched out, uninterrupted. On a hot and humid day, it was pleasantly cool and even a bit breezy down in the sawgrass. And the quiet felt delicious. We heard the occasional distant whine of a boat motor, but the noise of the urban sprawl just a few miles away didn’t touch us.
The paddling, however, was a problem. The canoe we rented at the little hut was less substantial than I expected. It was about twelve inches deep, a thickness I thought was well within the capacity of an average alligator jaw. We paid a little extra to rent plastic seat backs that that clipped onto the canoe’s built-in benches, which helped with stability, but still, the canoe felt tippy.
Dick insisted on manning the rear, leaving me in the front-most seat. So of course I couldn’t see what he was doing back there. He kept paddling us toward the slough’s edges, which I though of as prime alligator hiding places. I repeatedly cried out, “We have to stay in the middle!” as I paddled furiously in an opposite direction. Dick just laughed.
The slough seemed surprisingly shallow. In most places, my eye judged the water to be a foot and a half deep, maybe two. At first that felt comforting. I reasoned that if an alligator attacked, at least I could stand up to get some leverage to fight back. But when I pressed my oar down through the water, I couldn’t feel a hard bottom. “It looks shallow,” I warned Dick, “but the bed is soft and mucky. It’s just mire or maybe quicksand.”
About a half mile into the trail, Dick spotted a gator. “To your left,” he whispered. And there, lurking just above the water line, was a pair of alligator eyes, still, quiet, and intently watching. I was too scared to scramble for the point and shoot camera that I had earlier tossed into the bottom of the canoe. We just paddled briskly away.
Several hundred yards further, a second gator, too close I thought, silently observed us glide by. Then, short of the trail’s one mile marker, I saw a third gator twenty or so yards distant, but it was on the move. “There’s one ahead,” I yelled to Dick, “and it’s coming right at us! Keep left! Keep left!” I paddled hard to veer out of the gator’s path. As we neared, it suddenly and quietly disappeared beneath the water, leaving behind dozens of tiny bubbles.
Now I focused my whole attention on scanning the slough ahead. My eyes swept from left to right, again and again, looking for the telltale line of jaw, eyes, and back-hump just above the water. From a distance, bits of mud-caked roots jutting up out of the water looked remarkably like alligators.
We went on for another mile or so with no new sightings. Then, too late to change course, I noticed a crop of surface bubbles directly ahead, and, as we passed through them, the dark shadow of a gator below. “We just went right over one!” I cried.
I could not relax. My job, I told myself, is to paddle, as strongly and consistently as I can, and to keep my eyes moving, looking for trouble. We oared steadily on and on through the slough, pausing only briefly to read the interpretive signs placed at intervals along the trail. We saw birds, yes, but thinking back, I can’t name any of them.
Finally, after a couple of hours and several more alligator sightings, we passed the trail’s five mile marker. I pulled hard for another two hundred yards, but finally eased up on my oar. “The landing must be just around this curve,” I told Dick.
A bird flitted in a nearby scrubby tree, and I lifted my oar to let the boat drift as I paused to look. It was a Red-Winged Blackbird. I’d seem many of them on our first day in the Refuge, but I didn’t have any photos. I turned to find my camera.
On the opposite side of the canoe, so close I could reach out and pat it on the head, was an alligator, at least five or six feet long. Before I could dip my oar into the water to get away, the gator lunged toward the boat and with a splashing dive disappeared beneath it.
My heart stopped. The alligator vanished, but I couldn’t stiffle the shriek welling up in my throat. Dick, still calm and quiet, exercised his oar so that in a minute or two the landing indeed appeared, just ahead. “Now I can breathe,” I said.
When we were back on dry land, Dick confessed that he hadn’t pointed out all of the alligators he’d seen. He had not mentioned an especially large gator, maybe ten feet long, that shimmied off a bank and swam directly at us. “It was just after we launched,” he said. I didn’t need to know that. Dick hid a smile behind his hand.
The day fell short of expectations. I wanted intense bird watching, but in my preoccupation with the great lizards I didn’t much notice the herons and egrets and ibis in the sawgrass, the songbirds in the trees, or the raptors over head. But I did leave feeling strangely sympathetic to the alligator that I so feared. Surely, this wild and ugly creature, at the top of its food chain, must play some role in the balance of nature, even if it wasn’t obvious to me.
I bought Kelby Ouchley’s book American Alligator, Ancient Predator in the Modern World. He calls the alligator a keystone species, one that has a critical influence on its ecosystem. The holes that gators dig out in the wetlands supply protection for fish, birds, and other animals, particularly during dry spells. Turtle and snake eggs have been found co-habitating in the relative safety of alligator nests. And, writes Ouchley, alligators help keep populations of their own prey and down-chain species at healthy numbers.
And in some ways, the alligator amazes. Its well-under-an-ounce brain oversees a physiology with sharp vision and a relatively intense sense of smell. It can even see underwater because of transparent eye covers the slide shut when it submerges. Little bumps around the alligator’s mouth are so sensitive that they detect the disturbance of a single drop of water falling into in a large pool. At night, the alligator can somehow align its body with the stars.
I appreciated my day paddling among the gators, and I loved the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. On my next visit, though, I think I’ll join a ranger led bird walk or photography tour. I’ll leave the alligator canoeing to the brave.