I rented my kayak from Skunk Ape HQ. You read that right. Skunk Ape Headquarters. The skunk ape, long lost cousin of the common bigfoot- is still rumored to be lurking in the Everglades around the Turner River. At least that’s what the good folks at Skunk Ape HQ will tell you.
Oversized, campy concrete big foot statues are scattered around “Headquarters”, along with jaguar statues and other wildlife. I wasn’t quite sure how to prepare for a skunk ape encounter, but I was given a few tips on gator run-ins.
“Our friends are out there. So just keep your hands in the boat and stay about 15 feet away. They shouldn’t give you any trouble.” Uncertainty rang in my mind, thinking a gator encounter was just slightly more realistic than one with big foot. Little did I know that gators were in fact the most common sight on the river.
I vaguely remember encountering gators on a fan boat everglades tour when I was a teenager. They were heavily domesticated gators “out in the wilds”. They swam right up to the boat and opened their toothy mouths wide. We quickly figured out they weren’t trying to swallow us whole and were instead asking for their regularly scheduled snack. The gators were waiting for marshmallows in fact. For this apex predator, It was a cute juxtaposition.
Running into gators in a kayak, by myself, on an unknown body of water, had me feeling much less self-assurance. Especially when I wasn’t really expecting to see one (much less dozens). A Mid-Atlantic boy like me just isn’t used to encountering wildlife in the region that not only has an ability to kill me, but might have an interest in doing just that. “Are you gonna do what I think you’re gonna do” I asked the first ~10-foot gator I happened upon.
After my heart sank back down out of my throat, I started sizing him (her?) up. Time seemed to stand still for a minute or so, as still as the inanimate gator. “Is this another one of those campy statues from HQ?” Placed here to startle tourists with a hidden camera nearby?
Nope. These were living, breathing (apparently) gators. With all 2000 lbs of bite force in that slightly suggestive smile. Here in February, they didn’t seem to be interested in biting much, despite a smorgasbord of wildlife and tourists to choose from.
During the winter months here in South Florida, gators enter a state of brumation- not a complete hibernation- where their metabolism slows down and they become less active. Many of them stop eating for long periods of time, and only emerge from their makeshift mud burrows on warm sunny days. This unusual 91° February afternoon might explain why I ran into so many on the river.
Despite knowing nothing about the river or the watershed, I was confident I could make the 4 mile paddle south to the mouth of the Turner River. Landing a few snook in the open flats would cap off my theoretical record setting fishing expedition through forests, mangrove, sawgrass and coastal flats. I’d of course still have energy to make the trip back somehow, even after wrestling a tarpon safely to the kayak. This assumption also despite being told by a guide on the river that the mangroves become pretty much unpassable. Pretty much doesn’t mean completely, I confidently told myself.
Before reaching any mangroves, I’d have to cautiously paddled through this initial gator encounter though. Not too close to the opposite bank I told myself. You never know where a gator ambush might be waiting…I’ve seen Jurassic Park. I gathered my confidence back up (careful not to touch the water, remember), and got back to speed heading south. This would be the beginning of a pattern of quite literally every 100-200 yards along the river. The gators were just everywhere.
Alligator nests are constructed from vegetation and mud. Females can lay upwards of 50 eggs at a time. The temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings, with cooler temperatures producing females and warmer temperatures producing males. This was a warm afternoon in the midst of what was being described as an unusually warm couple of weeks. It just so happened I’d stumble on a nest of recently hatched baby gators while paddling the Turner River. Oh, and a rather large mama gator.
The Turner River gets quite narrow, not to mention overgrown, in many parts. The entire river system is more like a deep stream. Here through this section where the mother gator and her babies were warming, the river was less than 20 feet wide. I could have stretched my paddle to touch them. Which I think the mother recognized as well.
In all honesty, I was far from the only person on the river this afternoon. In fact, I’d passed a number of guided groups heading north from morning paddle expeditions. But I was the only solo explorer, which made me wary of a mother alligator within spitting distance.
“Ok, I’m not in between them. That’s good, right? No, that’s bears… Well, it’s probably gators too… Just go slow… they can’t see you if you don’t move, right?... No that’s T-Rex’s.”
All that internal dialogue stopped immediately when the mother started moving. First her tail a bit. Then her back legs. Then, silently, it slid gently into the water.
This wasn’t crystal clear Florida beaches water. This was murky river system water. And in it, Somewhere completely unknown to me, the mother alligator was in there. If I wasn’t careful, the contents of my bowels would be too.
Slowly I started paddling backwards. Don’t turn your back I told myself. It’d make too much disturbance to try and turn the boat here anyways. So I just paddled backwards. Eyes scanning the water surface and the slowly receding nest in front of me. “Punch it in the nose? No, that’s a shark. Try to look big? Loud noises? No, that’s a bear again.” All those hours of Crocodile Hunter (not to mention Halloween outfits) were long gone at this point. It was just time to go.
Maybe this story is about overcoming fears. Maybe it’s one of blissful ignorance. Truth be told, I heavily weighed the option of turning around after spotting my first gator. Despite that initial encounter being only a few hundred yards from the boat launch. But here down river with the nest, it wasn’t just fear. We were actually the nuisance here.
After turning the boat right and eventually catching up to a group of paddlers, it was apparent that tours had been paddling by the nest all day long. It just so happened that I was the last paddler who would finally send the mother into the water for who knows what reason. I don’t know whether it was wary or irritated, but seeing it disappear beneath the surface without so much as another ripple meant it was time to head back. The rest of the afternoon would revolve around catching alligator gar and bass, and eventually making my way safely back to the ramp.
For those who seek a deeper connection with the natural world, kayaking on the Turner River is an adventure that cannot be missed. Especially during winter months, which bring peak bird populations. Be prepared for the unexpected though -especially during warmer spells- for the thrill of encountering wildlife in its natural habitat, and for a rush of adrenaline that comes from navigating around unknown twists and turns of the river.
But most of all, be prepared for the sense of awe and wonder that comes from experiencing the Everglades. This is a place that will stay with you long after the last paddle stroke has been made, a journey that will put you face to face with more wildlife than you’d imagine.
I’m glad to be back on the Potomac though.