Saturday, November 19, 2011

The American Alligator

About six years ago, Erik, Michael and I received an offer we couldn't refuse. Floyd Williams, a park naturalist with North Carolina State Parks, asked if we would like to take a canoe trip out into the swamp of Merchant's Millpond - a cypress-wooded backwater in Eastern North Carolina. I had been working with Floyd for a number of months identifying beetles from the park and he wanted to show us an area we couldn't get to by hiking.

We found a number of Donacia beetles on the pond lilies. We also saw several water moccasins swimming across the water. This was a new experience for me. I knew this particular species was fond of water but I had only seen snakes before on dry land. Watching its movement on water was at first fascinating and then a little disconcerting - especially when one swam right past our canoe. Floyd picked up the creature with his paddle for a closer look as if this was the natural thing to do.

After an hour or two, we came to the far end of the park and clambered out of our canoes near the largest cypress I had ever seen. It was well over 6 feet in diameter and must have been many hundreds of years old. There were also water moccasins all around the trunk. We didn't stay too long. It really wasn't very safe. On the way back, Floyd's wife spotted what we hoped we might see: an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). She pointed to an area covered with duckweed and it took me several moments to finally see the giant reptile. Only the top of its back and head were visible.

We were several yards away from it and I asked Floyd how close we could safely get to it. He suggested that fifteen feet would probably be a good distance and so I got out my camera and told Erik and Michael to paddle to within 15 feet. What I didn't account for was how effective the two of them were at paddling. They indeed stopped at 15 feet but then the canoe's momentum carried us several more feet forward. Sensing this, I hurried and instructed them to paddle the other way while I took a couple of pictures. Fortunately, the alligator was not in a mood to bother us and we managed our retreat without incident. It was quite a rush. I think we got to within seven or eight feet of the animal.

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