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Treading lightly in gator land

When you live in Jurassic Park, it pays to keep the T-rex in mind.

Published May 15, 2006

Alligators give Florida its wild edge. They are dinosaurs living in an otherwise modern, civilized state. You can attend the symphony tonight and be devoured while taking a swim tomorrow.

Alligators don’t scare me, but they certainly make me think. They make me think I need to be cautious while swimming, wading, cycling or even running. When you live in Jurassic Park, it pays to keep the T-rex in mind.

We probably will never know all the details of the recent gator attacks. What we do know is that four poor souls had the bad luck to get too close to one of those Florida dinosaurs. Maybe they knew what they were getting into when they played in or close to the water. Or maybe they didn’t know that the water is wilderness and that alligators are the rulers of that wilderness.

I don’t swim in murky lakes, rivers or canals. I like springs because the water is clear. You can see what’s around you. That said, I was swimming at Wakulla Springs State Park two years ago when the lifeguard whistled. An alligator I hadn’t noticed was approaching the swimming area.

The lifeguard rowed a boat toward the alligator, which retreated, bewildered, into the reeds. I returned happily to my swim. Several times during the next hour, I stopped and glanced behind me. Just in case. In Manhattan, a wary traveler in the subway at midnight keeps his eyes open for muggers. Floridians need to be just as savvy in alligator country.

I love to ride my bike in the Everglades because alligators often lie in the middle of the road. I don’t play chicken with them. I stop, grab the handlebars, lift the bike over my head, then bounce it off the pavement on the front wheel. I don’t know why, but alligators find it threatening. They slink into the water, temporarily defeated. But when I return an hour later, the alligator will be waiting for me on the road.

One time in the Everglades, the airboat broke down. We had to push the boat through the sawgrass. The water was as high as my thighs. Suddenly I found myself treading water. I had stepped into an alligator hole. It was night, and therefore alarming, but the alligator wasn’t home and so I am here to tell you the tale.

I used to run every morning at Boyd Hill Nature Park, near Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg. I always saw bald eagles, coral snakes, gopher tortoises. In the spring, male alligators look for mates and crawl out of the lake and ponds inside the park.
Panting with effort, jogging around a corner, I suddenly felt the need to stop — that’s “stop’’ as on a dime. The alligator, a 9-footer, was sprawled across the path only a few strides away.

Once I got over my fright, I was thrilled. Then worried. A jogger or cyclist coming from the opposite direction might not stop in time to avoid the gator. I looked around for weaponry and located a long tree branch. I reached out and tapped the alligator on the tail.

It rose on its haunches and hissed.

When I tell people the alligator hissed, they think of their cat, perhaps, or even the lion at the zoo.

This was a different sound. This was a hiss from the Mesozoic, a 200-million-years-ago hiss so deep and so threatening I felt it through my shoes.

The alligator crept off the path toward the lake. Eventually the hair on my neck settled back down.

I felt completely, wonderfully alive. It was the greatest run of my life.

I can’t imagine living in a state without alligators.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or

[Last modified May 15, 2006, 21:55:23]

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