Getting in the water with a bunch of alligators was never high on my bucket list. Sitting inches away from their jaws, in an open kayak in a mangrove swamp was even lower. Actually, kayaking with alligators had never been any where near my bucket list. Now, here I am, about to get into a kayak for the second time in my many decades of life (don’t ask how many) and do exactly that. “Relaxed” was no where near what I was feeling.
OK, full disclosure: We were invited to explore this western, most wild part of the Florida Everglades by Tod Dahlke, owner of Tour the Glades. And Tod did mention an afternoon kayak excursion. But in the rush to coordinate travel plans, learn about Tod's eco-friendly business, and familiarize myself with the area, I had not given a great deal of consideration to my travel companions on said kayak tour - alligator mississippiensis !
Logan, our Tour the Glades guide, pulled the truck off the road through the high bush into an opening in the trees. Water is never far away in and around Everglades City. It is not necessarily deep - but it is everywhere. So is the wildlife. Now, as he unloaded the kayak, Logan was telling us something about a heron rookery on one of the mangrove islands around the bend. He was excited, so was Les. Frankly, the rookery was not among my present concerns. Late June in the Everglades is a bit buggier and more humid than the cooler, dryer winter months. We slipped on mosquito protective netting.
The place was deserted except for one guy with possibly more decades under his belt than I (a good sign), fishing along the marshy banks. This is a small community, the man smiled broadly at Logan. They exchanged some words and I think he said something to me and I probably answered, but Logan was getting the red kayak in position and my eyes were locked on it - and the still, silent, water. I had blithely told a worried city friend that losing clients to alligators is bad for business so these folks would make sure we came back. I hoped that was true.
I took the front spot of Logan’s 2 person kayak, Les got into his own. Logan handed us life vests assuring us that the water was never deeper here than 4-feet, even now, in the rainy season. Just deep enough, I thought. We pushed off into the still water.
The kayaks formed gentle ripples on the mirror-like surface. So far no (visible) alligators. Logan seemed disappointed.
We headed toward a tunnel of brown tangled roots.
Tall lush mangrove trees surrounded us forming a canopy overhead, I ducked and pushed away branches and looked up in time to see dozens of loose stick piles balanced on flimsy branches. How can birds as big as tri-colored herons raise their chicks in such rickety looking nests?
Hot weather came early this year, so the herons had nested early too. Most of the adults were already gone, their job done. The young birds lingered together where they were born, learning to fish, finding their way, easily identified by their rust colored necks. I started to relax.
We paddled toward another mangrove tunnel, this one far more dense with tangled roots and branches and leaves creating the narrowest of water paths and blocking the sky. The chorus began softly at first getting louder and more insistent. Before I fully recognized the sound we were covered in zillions of mosquitos! UGH!
Logan never lost his paddle rhythm. In seconds we were in the open again - bugs and buzzing behind us - mostly unscathed. The netting, bug spray, recommended pants, and long-sleeved shirt had done their jobs. Logan stopped the kayaks.
Soft and sweet late afternoon air enveloped us, pig frogs croaked, herons called, it was gorgeous. Logan asked if I’d like some chocolate.
Chocolate? Out of nowhere, he handed forward a tray covered with fresh juicy orange sections and luscious dark chocolate. How did he do it? Maybe it was water, maybe the mosquito adventure, maybe the frog-bird chorus or the soft breeze, but whatever it was, I would swear there has never been a more delicious orange or richer chocolate anywhere than in that kayak at that moment.
Then, sadly, it was time to go back.
We paddled through another mangrove tunnel (fewer mosquitos, again no casualties), and out into the big pool.
We asked Logan, still looking for the elusive alligators, how he came to this extraordinary place.
About a year ago, he said, with the ink still damp on his University of Miami biology degree, and a deep need to embrace the natural world he'd been studying, he contacted Tod Dahlke. Tod, owner of Tour the Glades, believes that love for the natural world, a true understanding of the Everglades' unique ecology, and a passion for sharing are imperative qualities for his guides. Logan and Tod hit it off immediately. Logan headed to Everglades City. The fit seems perfect.
Logan understands every inch of that water and the islands, every leaf, every creature. He shares his knowledge, tips, tidbits, and stories with contagious enthusiasm bubbling from his very core.
It had been a wonderful adventure but still no alligators until finally … Logan pointed to the right.
There motionless, just a few feet away, was a young ‘gator watching us, a good one-third of his tail missing, probably, Logan told us, the result of misguided youthful bravado connecting with a humorless older male. That little guy will have to be clever to survive. Logan motioned again. Up ahead was a much bigger, older ‘gator, simultaneously eyeing both us and the little guy. We stopped and watched until the youngster was safely away. "Big Guy" swam proprietarily off across water.
Logan, relieved that he’d delivered alligators to his charges, paddled on toward the shore.
All in all, it was a wonderful 2-hours. Peaceful, beautiful and, I must admit, not frightening at all. I’d get back in that kayak in a heartbeat. We floated up toward the clump of tall grass next to the sandy kayak landing point. All was quiet. Very quiet.
There in the grass, looking up at the kayak landing was the biggest Florida alligator I’d ever seen.
The fisherman was gone.
Our Thanks to:
Tod Dahlke, Logan, and Tour the Glades
for a fun, fabulous, responsible wildlife experience proving that even a 'fraidy-cat like me can love kayaking with alligators.
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