Kayaking the everglades is both exhilarating and foolhardy. Each thrust of the oar into the moss-covered water propels you a few feet further into an unknown destiny, whether that be a divine photo-op of cormorants fishing beneath the shade of a bald cypress, or to put yourself down as the special-of-the-day on a gator’s lunch menu.
I pulled my kayak to the water’s edge and settled into a launch site not twenty feet from an alligator nestled in the sparse cattails lining the shore. I had not even noticed his presence until I was ankle deep mud-sucked into the water’s edge, prepping my kayak for the day’s journey. I only looked up because of an eerie “hiss” I heard as I placed my camera in the watertight hold of the boat. I glanced up and there he was. All twelve feet of him!
It was a hot, moist morning absent the cooling breezes of the previous day. Salted sweat trickled down my chest and forearms, requiring little effort on my part as I warily eased my kayak into the still waters near the sun-bathing gator, whose lizard eyes were locked on my every move. To reinforce his primacy in this back-water environment, his massive jaws opened ever so slowly to reveal two rows of sharp daggered teeth. While my limited knowledge of Florida gators reassured me that he was merely cooling down, I chose to interpret the gesture as an invitation to dinner. I backed away another twenty feet.
Slowly, I eased my blood-red kayak into the water, never once breaking the stare-down I was engaged in with this pre-historic reptile. I strategically placed the boat between me and the lounging lizard of death, but I knew in my gut, which was slowly churning in warning, that this was a vain effort. So to reassure myself (or further delude myself!) my left hand fell upon the sheathed Bowie knife I had attached to my belt. Instead of bolstering my confidence, I suddenly felt like a child who had brought a pop-gun to a high noon shoot out at the O.K. corral.
I gently stepped into the kayak and pushed off with the gator-side oar. As the bow of my craft quietly knifed through brackish water, the silence was cut short as the gator, too, entered the bayou. I paddled four times for every single effortless swish of his giant tail. This was not good. Not good at all. His eyes, which had been locked on me since my foolish arrival, suddenly slipped beneath the greenish waterline.
No, this was not good at all! Where had he gone???
With several deep, full-armed strokes to my left, I reversed course and headed back to shore only slightly less quickly than my heart was then beating. I crashed up the embankment and bolted from my kayak. I sprinted through the low grass toward the parking lot and the relative safety of my nearby waiting truck. I left my $3,000 Pentax in the captain-less kayak; a peace offering should the alligator choose to accept it.
But he never resurfaced. I waited for a full half-hour, scanning the water for any sign whatsoever of my dinner-host before I braved the slow, methodical return for my boat and my camera. And then I saw his eyes break the water once more.
Fuck the Everglades. Fuck my kayak and my camera, too! I returned to my my truck, shakily turned the ignition, and headed north, to Orlando. I heard they just refurbished the “It’s a Small World” ride…just my pace.