Kayak Ride Can be Gator Bait
LOXAHATCHEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Fla. (MCT) - It just wasn't my day. Late for a group paddle, I arrived at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Palm Beach County about a half-hour after everyone had set out. I hesitated at paying the $5 entrance fee, thinking I might just turn around and head home.
But the ranger at the gate said the paddling trail was well-marked and that it would be impossible to get lost.
What the heck. I had driven more than 50 miles to explore the marsh for the first time; might as well check it out.
It wasn't the most exciting paddling I have ever done, but it had its moments.
I drove through the parking lot to the canoe/kayak launch, unpacked and inflated my kayak, and paddled across the boat channel to the canoe trail entrance.
The trail is a 5 ½-mile loop that passes through a sawgrass marsh, wet prairie, a few stands of dead melaleuca and several tree islands, located on the east side of the vast, 144,000-acre refuge. Besides kayaking, visitors also can hunt ducks (in season); fish from a boat or pier; ride bicycles and hike.
Less than five minutes after I embarked, I encountered my first alligator - maybe a seven-footer. It floated motionless in the slough, its eyes half-closed, no doubt soaking up the warm sunlight.
I coasted to a stop in the sawgrass about 20 feet away and snapped a photo, figuring the gator would flee if I came closer. But it neither moved nor blinked as I floated toward it in the narrow trail.
When I got to within 10 feet of it, I snapped some more photos, and it still didn't move. But it emitted a hiss as I passed.
Warning taken. I kept going.
The next couple of miles passed quietly. I spotted a vulture, a couple of herons and an ibis, but that was about it in the way of birds. No humans at all. But that wasn't surprising for a weekday, and considering that the group of retirees I had planned to meet are veritable Bobby Rahals in kayaks to whom I would be very hard-pressed to catch.
After about mile three, things got interesting again. About 50 yards ahead of me, a large alligator swam languidly down the center of the trail.
Hmmm. If I lagged behind it, who knows how long it would take before the animal submerged, or crawled up onto a bank, or stopped? So I resolved to keep my pace and announce my presence in order to avoid startling it.
When I closed to within about 20 feet of it, I called, "Hey, bud! How's it going today?"
The gator just kept swimming.
"Ahem," I began again. "How's it going!"
I couldn't tell exactly how big it was because part of its body was submerged. However, taking in its rear view, I can tell you that the space between its eyes seemed rather vast - an indication of a large reptile.
At last, the gator seemed to sense my presence. It slowed, turned slightly and seemed to give me a sideways glance. I raised my paddle in salute.
When I was about 10 feet behind it, it pulled over to the side of the trail and submerged. I didn't know whether this was good or bad, but I kept going past where it went down, hoping it wouldn't somehow mistake the broad floating craft for an enemy (or prospective mate).
As I continued full-stroke ahead, I glanced back a few times to see if it might be following me. It wasn't; I never saw it again.
Arriving back at the head of the trail about a half-hour later, I disembarked and encountered a tourist couple who mistook me for the paddle concessionaire.
I explained that I was a local just out for a quick paddle, and they asked me - somewhat nervously - if I had encountered any alligators.
"Just two," I answered, watching their eyes grow wide.
I quickly added, "But they won't bother you. You'll be OK."
I hope I was right.
© 2008, The Miami Herald.
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