A romantic - get away!

Published July 31, 2005

The huge fan-driven double-decker for the tourists at Myakka Lake was packed with Mennonites and children eating ice cream or gator bites. But we had our new green canoe: it was our second anniversary and we wanted a picnic on the water.

It was a lovely day, bright blue March sky. The water looked inviting and there was no line at the canoe ramp. So we muscled the boat off the car, launched, glided maybe 50 feet into the inlet next to where the dock reaches into the lake.

I squinted, turned half around to my husband and said, "Honey, that's an alligator! Look."

He looked, frowned, and said, "That's a stick."

"No," I said, pointing at the dark ridges in the water, "see, it's an alligator. Snout bump, eye bumps, tail bumps. And there's another one, and another one, and another one."

"Cool," he said, standing up to get a better view. "Just like on National Geographic."

We had wine and cheese and bread with us, a romantic afternoon in the wilderness. He had planned it all. We knew nothing about Myakka except it was a park with a canoe ramp, and that the ranger we talked to at the entrance had looked at us funny when we asked if we could swim, then recommended against it. I had hoped to find a quiet, sheltered spot somewhere, birds overhead, a clear sky, wine and food and laughing and love. I didn't want to think about being eaten.

But I began to, especially when, as we cruised further into the lake, a freakishly large alligator grunted his way out of the cattails and jammed himself into the lake, beelining toward our increasingly tiny boat. His wake dwarfed ours. I could see individual teeth in his mouth, even from this distance.

I said, not turning around, "Let's go back to one of the picnic tables, okay?"

"He's not even looking at us," Chuck said. "He'll go underneath or veer or something. Don't worry."

But we paddled a little faster after that, or the alligator turned away. In any case by the time he might have done a Jaws-number on the canoe, we were in worse trouble than that.

At one end of Myakka is a short dam; the other end is narrow and shallower, and more filled with alligators. It seemed all three once we were there, in it - narrow, shallow, lousy with alligators. We entered moving pretty fast since we were still escaping the grunter from the shore. We shifted this way and that to avoid the snout bumps, the eye bumps, the flashes of tail. There were so many it was impossible to miss them, but we tried.

Then we went aground in the middle of the lake.

Only not really. Chuck's end was aground, only not really that either. The canoe stopped with a little grinding noise. He said, "Push off the bottom with your paddle." I pushed, hit nothing but water. Which is when we realized that we were aground on alligators. Which is about the time that the water erupted around us.

It's like a car accident. You don't really remember what happened at the time, but you remember that, as it was happening, everything looked brilliantly colored, distinctly outlined. There's no narrative, just impressions: the cattails on the shore; the man in the bass boat with a line in the water, oblivious; the white spume of water against the dark lake, the olive-colored trees, the blue sky.

I didn't drop the paddle, but used the adrenaline to dig hard against the water while in the back. Chuck tried to push off something, anything solid that wasn't writhing. We rocked and jolted. The lake frothed, fumed, spat. A tail came out of the water, rolled over, slid under again. We paddled, pushed, said absolutely nothing to each other - and then somehow we were clear, speeding down the lake, moving so fast that by the time we crossed paths with the double-decker, they braked for us, the whole boat watching us blur toward the dam.

I wanted out, O-U-T, out. A comfortable picnic table, the front seat of the car, broiling pavement buttered lavishly with insects and toads. Anything but the canoe. We beached at the dam, caught our breaths. Chuck said, "How about we portage into the river? The alligators can't get over the dam, so it won't be scary. I promise."

I knew this wasn't true, but I love him. We were two years married. It was our anniversary. He had planned a romantic picnic on the water, bought the food and wine, picked the place to go, been happy as a kid to get there, both of us were.

So I dusted off my shorts, lifted my end of the boat, and deposited it on the river-side of the dam. We got in, launched into the pool there, began paddling into the river.

I don't know what made us both simultaneously look left, but we did, and there, on a hummock in the river, stood an alligator as long as our canoe, longer even. His mouth was open, it looked like slick whitish-gray porcelain molded like draped cloth into a tongue, gums, horrible lips. There was a bird in there, delicate and brown, picking the gator's teeth while it made wet, huffing sounds and shifted its weight on its ridiculous-looking feet.

We glided, silently, carefully, past, went up the river until the point where it cuts a narrow channel in the middle, then spreads shallows all around into the empty spaces that stretch out to the trees, the trees to the sky. Sitting safe in the canoe, feeling our luck, we ate bread and fresh cheese, drank a little red wine, held hands and watched a pair of eagles fledge their chick in front of a bank of purple and white clouds strung along the tree line.

- Emily Hipchen is a professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa.