“We are just going to stop here for a moment,” our guide Jon casually said as he slowed his kayak. The reason for the pause lurked just around the bend of the narrow mangrove tunnel. The happy chatter and banter of the morning halted rather abruptly. We had seen many alligators sunning themselves on the banks of the Turner River that morning, but the one that lay ahead of us was in a different league, and it was blocking our path. With its eyes and snout barely poking out of the water, many, many feet back (too many) we could just barely make out the tip of its tail. Using our 14-foot double kayaks as a benchmark, Jon estimated the gator to be about 12 feet long—about as big a beast as you are going to find in this northwestern section of the Everglades ecosystem (we were technically in Big Cypress National Preserve, immediately adjacent to Everglades National Park).
The timing for this encounter was unfortunate. We had been on the water for two hours and had just reached the innermost and narrowest point of the tunnel. Turning the kayaks around was physically impossible. So we waited. And waited.
Carl, as we later named the gator, seemed content where he was, with no intention of budging. There being no other way to exit the tunnel, Jon edged slightly closer to see if he could inspire the reptile to move along. Carl obliged, initially. He swam several feet in the direction we were headed. The hope that he might just lead us out of the tunnel was fleeting. Carl clearly had other ideas—he wanted to travel in the opposite direction—past us—towards a wide pond where a certain female alligator had often been spotted.
Now it was Carl’s turn to play the waiting game. After some time, Jon once again inched closer and closer to encourage Carl to move on, to no avail. Soon Jon found himself alongside the gator and determined that the only course of action was for all three kayaks to glide past Carl as gingerly as we could. He called out instructions to those of us in the remaining two kayaks: “Keep your paddles out of the water” (you do NOT want to accidentally hit a gator) and “stay as far to the right in the tunnel as you can.”
My older brother was in the front boat with my oldest son (Matthew). They reached out to their right, grabbed the aerial roots of the mangrove trees lining the tunnel and used them to slowly propel their kayak forward while sticking as close to the trees as physically possible. After that, there was no choice but for Thomas (my baby!) and I to do the same. Under penalty of death, I told Thomas he was to keep his hands in the boat and should not touch or do anything other than sit completely still in silence. With my heart pounding and my brain questioning both my parenting and my previous assertion that the only way to truly experience the Everglades is on the water, I slowly reached out with my right hand and wrapped my fingers around the sand-papery root of the nearest tree. The bumpy pores on the bark felt comforting—they would prevent me from losing my grip. With my left hand, I grasped the next root in front of me and hand over hand grabbed tree after tree and creeped forward. “I can do this,” I thought.
Right at that moment, Carl unexpectedly slid completely under the water, and we lost all sight of him. Adrenaline pumping, my eyes darted across the still water, but the heavy shade of the tunnel left the water dark and opaque. There was no way to make out his location. I steadied myself and attempted to maintain outer calm (inner calm had been on the verge of failing for some time). In the end, we scooted past the location where the gator had last been spotted. It was probably for the best that I couldn’t see Carl as we passed within inches of him.
Euphoria washed over us minutes later as the last kayak emerged from the tunnel. We had come seeking adventure, and we had found it!
Later in the day as we walked part of the loop at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, surrounded by dozens of tourists, where alligators are a dime a dozen, we couldn’t help feeling the scene was a bit anticlimactic. No wildlife spottings here in one of the most popular parts of the park would be able to compete with the thrill and chill of meeting Carl in the water.