I’ve been tussling with the idea of writing about alligators over the past few weeks. I was inspired by a story told to me first hand by a couple of delightful and intrepid ladies. The account of their alligator adventure caused me to laugh out loud every time I have tried to put the story on paper. It is difficult to write while laughing. The account also caused me to relive or rather revive some of my own encounters.
Some of my earliest experiences with alligators happened on the golf course in much the same way they happen today. We didn’t have the luxury of instantly filming the experiences much less instantly making them available to the world. I can’t recall even having a camera amongst the party on golf outings. Big alligators were common though, we just didn’t have proof. We saw alligators on golf greens, alligators in ponds, and alligators crossing fairways all the time. This held a special place in my heart since I was essentially a non-golfer. I am the guy that packed a 2 piece spinning outfit in the golf bag so I could fish the water hazards while my golfing brethren chipped in from 40 yards out. If there was ever a chance to develop the sport of underwater golf, I would have been a medalist because if there was a water hazard anywhere to be found, my $2 Titleist golf ball would find it unerringly. A good day on the course for me was only using 12 balls to play 18 holes. This was always the case unless there was a house nearby. In the case of a house, the ball would strike it instead, saving the second shot for the water hazard.
By far the most exciting golfing experience for me was to hit a ball to the edge of a water hazard. Inevitably it would land within striking distance of a cottonmouth moccasin or next to a well concealed 8-10-foot alligator either sunning itself or laying just offshore waiting for some unsuspecting mammal to make its presence known. In other words, lunch. Two legged mammals tend to scream and make a lot of other noises. They commence to engage in all sorts of ninja moves that must seem untoward to most alligators. Alligators are content with dining on a nice softshell turtle, raccoon, fru fru dog, house cat, or pond bird than running down a two legged ninja. The flapping, screaming ninja moves seemed to deter snakes as well. The initial display is always accompanied by a hop skip, hand flapping retreat back to the cart for a rest and a cold beer. It’s difficult to look cool after nearly crapping your pants. There is a method to coolness though. Put your feet over the dash, pull your visor down, pretend you drive like Steve McQueen. Adjust your expensive sunglasses and make hand gestures to the rest of your party putting for the cup. By the second or third hole they don’t even care if you catch up with them. They’ve written you off, called off all bets that you are part of and will simply assume you had too much beer, you’ve dropped out, succumbed to heat stroke or an errant clear sky lightning strike. This is the precise time to extract the spinning rig and cast for monster bass that have had zero fishing pressure. These fish never heard of a Dalton Special, a silver spoon with a pork rind tail or a black grape worm. Neither had the alligators. Both dined exuberantly on the offerings. I never landed an alligator on a rod and reel but lost plenty of expensive top water tackle. I also caught a lot of bass.
Springing forward, I have had lots of other ‘contact’ with alligators. We grew up at a time when swimming pools were cool. Cool if kids were still living at home anyway. During periods of drought alligators move. They move through ditches, culverts, dry ground, virtually any terrain to get to a water hole. In the days before any meaningful flood control, a gator hole could just as easily be a swimming pool. We pulled 2 alligators out of neighborhood pools and ‘relocated’ them before we hit 10 years of age. A half mile from where I grew up there was an infamous clear water pond with a dock and boarding ladder. It was the best swimming hole. The resident alligator was named Bob and he swam with us. Bob never offered to eat any of us. Mostly it seemed we were a curiosity to him that supports the idea that alligators are generally peaceful creatures. This was around the time when alligators were placed on the endangered species list in 1973.
After 1973 things changed. Frequent encounters with bigger and bigger alligators began to happen. Hunters and poachers that had kept them in check now faced serious Federal charges for ‘molesting’ alligators. Gators got bigger, encounters became more dangerous.
Personally, I had never seen an alligator bigger than 10 feet until they became endangered. Then, in 1979 or 1980 during a particularly severe drought I encountered a big boy that ended my love of wade fishing for largemouth bass on Lake Okeechobee. I had taken a small boat out of the Harney Pond Canal to a patch of pepper grass far before daylight. The banks of the canal looked like a scene from a Tarzan movie. Hundreds if not thousands of red eyes stared back at me from the canal bank. Alligators driven to the food supply concentrated by the low water. At the end of the canal I was met by a sand bar so shallow that I had to get out and drag the skiff across it. Unsettling as it was, the trip across the bar was uneventful.
I arrived at a large field of pepper grass, an island of grass in about 3 feet of water. The entire grass bed was probably close to an acre in size. I anchored my boat and stepped off into the water which was unusually clear for the big lake. I made my way around the grass bed and caught several nice fish. When I rounded the end of the grass bed I saw a massive alligator between me and the boat. Where it came from I had no idea. I had circled the area I fished and saw nothing before I anchored the little boat. It was as if the alligator materialized out of nowhere. So began an aquatic cat and mouse game. I moved back to the other side of the grass island, and there was my new friend, again between me and the boat. This went on for an hour and a half. I had visions of being out there until dark, it wasn’t pleasant. Finally, I took an approach right through the middle of the grass bed as quietly as I could. I approached the edge near my boat and the alligator was gone. It had most likely gone looking for me and never expected my beeline through the peppergrass. I searched the water near the boat and didn’t see the animal. I pressed through trying to keep the thought of it laying on the bottom out my mind. I made it to the boat, climbed in and left. I never saw the alligator again. I never went wade fishing in Lake Okeechobee again.
When I first thought of writing a blog post about alligators I tried to coax some favorite gator stories from some of my old friends. Stories abound, most of them are funny, and all of them turned out reasonably well for both human and alligator. I’ve heard of or witnessed personally alligators in sleeping bags, swimming pools, bathtubs, and the back seats of automobiles. Asking for an alligator story evoked many responses that put me in the unexpected position of narrowing the field down to either the funniest or most bizarre. I chose funny.
This story involves a couple of ladies that worked at an exotic game hunting preserve in Florida. They prepared meals for hunting parties. Like most upscale hunting lodges, this one had a large walk in cooler. Like most private hunting operations on private land it is legal to take alligators year-round.
With a hunting party in camp, these ladies oversaw the noon meal. They went together to the walk in cooler to retrieve what they needed to prepare the meal. Walk in coolers are just that. They have an insulated door hinged to a sometimes-huge insulated box with racks or hooks for hanging game and shelves for other items that are made more palatable by the cold. Some coolers have lights that come one when the door is opened, others have a switch that must be located. These days they all have a failsafe exit mechanism in the event someone is closed inside. These ladies entered the cooler and unbeknownst to them an earlier party had bagged a 12-foot alligator that was stretched along the floor in the dark. Alligator nervous systems, being what they are, don’t always give up the ghost in a human construct. After they entered the cooler and hit the lights, the beast hissed. Alligators in this state of not really being alive or dead sometimes do this. They can do this for hours. The ensuing tumult sent both ladies screaming and running for the door. The first one out slammed the door, lady number 2 crashed into it sending her into a similar state of consciousness as her hissing scaly nemesis on the floor. The alligator never moved. Once recovered enough to complete the exit, her only memory was seeing her friend still running and screaming several hundred yards down range of the cooler.