A liitle nest of six inch alligator babies makes a cute picture, lined up in the sun, motionless (cute to some, scary to others). The straggly-haired young man renting the kayaks assured us that the alligators would leave us alone. We accepted his reassurance, even laughed at his imitation of manatee mothers giving alligators the evil eye. We signed all the release forms, selected our paddles and donned our life vests. He outlined the suggested routes on the map. Go this way and it’ll take you four hours. Go to the lagoon and you can see the birds. Float here and watch for the manatees coming up for a breath. Then his expression changed.
“ Do not get out of the kayaks,” he said, looking directly in our eyes, “unless you can see clear to the bottom of the river, and you have a sandy beach with no logs or vegetation around.” He delivered this speech with urgency, punctuating the words, like "not" and "clear" and "sandy". Then he repeated it.
Alligator families have some similarities with human families: there’s that coziness of all the cute babies together on the log, there’s the mother lurking nearby in the water, keeping a watchful eye out against predators, many of whom have baby alligator on the menu. But an alligator baby doesn’t want to know that Daddy is coming for a visit, since the largest threat to young alligators are adult alligators.
And…there’s that mouthful of teeth, 80 impressive tools when they open their jaw...the bone crushing jaw that snatches up Great Blue Herons with one gulp. There’s the amazing stillness of reptiles. Alligators warming themselves in the sun look ever so much like discarded tires, the treads appearing in the brush on the side of the river, or submerged in the bed of sea lettuce. And then you follow the tread and notice the eyes, just at the water line, watching you…The legs, ready to propel the alligator. Giving them a wide berth, they don’t usually budge as we glide by, but we do on occasion see them slither into the water.
On our kayak ride we never saw the bottom of the river, as the water of the St. John’s River is colored by tannin which turns the water a dark brown. Nor did we ever see a sandy beach clear of vegetation, which did leave us scratching our heads about the kayak wrangler’s warning about getting out of the kayak. Both elements appeared when we returned to the beach at the end of our paddle. Ever enthusiastic, he emerged from his hut just in time to inquire about our trip and help us beach the boats.
The presence of alligators served to make our gentle paddle ever more a better story. The Sandhill Cranes, the Red Shouldered Hawks, the Little Blue Herons, the Yellow-bellied Sliders, the promise of manatees, the cypress trees, the knees of the cypress trees, the Spanish moss, time with old friends, and at the end of the day, the setting sun, all contributed to the richness of our adventure at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida. A welcome respite from the winter of 2011.