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Thursday, July 1, 1999

Our Amazing Alligator Adventure

To experience the Florida Everglades up close and personal, we took an airboat tour. We called the first people we saw in the yellow pages and chose the recommended 6:00 departure time as we’d have an hour of daylight and an hour of dark. The next day we had a beautiful drive down Alligator Alley, water and grass (growing in the water) and the occasional tree as far as you could see. On the way, we realized we forgot our camera, so we planned to buy one at the gift shop. At first we thought the directions were strange, but we figured hey, it’s the Everglades, not your normal state park. So we drove past a certain mile marker, made a U-turn at the only road, and looked for a pavilion with a red roof. Well, we found it, a small parking lot and four poles with a roof. Nothing and no one there. Then we heard something faint. Closer and closer, it was an airboat! It pulled up to the “building” and we saw him. Grizzly Adams, seriously. Long hair, ZZ Top beard, flannel shirt, torn jeans, no shoes, Crocodile Dundee hat complete with alligator teeth, and a huge knife. Hmm. The other couple seemed fine and said they had fun, so we hoped for the best. Grizzly introduced himself as Alligator John and invited us aboard. He offered us some pop or beer from a little cooler on the boat. So much for a gift shop. We sat on the bench in the front (no seat belts in sight) and he offered us safety glasses, saying they’d help with the bugs. Yuck. We also got headphones so we could hear him over the very loud fan. He asked what kind of tour we’d like, some people like it slow and romantic and some like it crazy and dangerous. Allen chuckled and of course voted for dangerous and also added he wanted to see tons of alligators! The look on Alligator John’s face told me we were in for a wild ride. As we pulled away, both gripping the rail, Allen smiled from ear to ear while I didn’t (to avoid the bugs). Alligator John told us a little about the Everglades, an amazing sea of grass covering a million acres. It’s a four-inch deep river slowly flowing into the ocean. He told us about the plant and animal life, the history of the Everglades, the water levels, the droughts, the floods... all the while whizzing through a maze of grass taller than the boat and waterways not quite as wide. We were hanging on for dear life, dodging grass and bugs, and giggling like children. He took us by old cabins used long ago, some with great stories. Small islands in the middle of nowhere, with nothing more than a wonderful view and absolute peace. Apparently there are only around 100 and some people live in these while others are rented out for getaways. Alligator John must have noticed Allen desperately straining his eyes in hopes of spotting an alligator. He took us to a friend’s cabin, looked around, tapped the water, and called for Moe. Okay Moe was a huge alligator and swam right up to us! The only thing between it and Allen was um, nothing! Even crazy, fearless Allen was nervous and asked if Moe could jump up in the boat. Alligator John filled us in on alligator behavior and explained she certainly could, but first, she’d curl her tail under so we would know. Then he added if she did jump, he’d have another souvenir for his hat before she could get in. I think we believed him, especially after examining the knife he proudly showed us. We watched in awe and yes, in fear, as Moe swam around us. Alligators are so awesome and terrifying. You just see those scary eyes. You can see their head (and, if you’re 'lucky’ like us and are only a few feet away, their whole body) moving slowly and constantly. No sudden moves, no feet flapping, just unmoving eyes staring at you coming closer and closer. Wow, so that was Moe. We had lots to see, so off we went, hearts still racing.
Alligator John said he needed to get more oil at his cabin. Um, okay. So we went flying over the grassy ocean to his place. This place looked like Alligator John. He told us how he had cleaned out the front ‘yard’ by standing in the water pulling out handfuls of grass. Of course, standing in the water shared by countless fish, snakes, and of course alligators. The cabin was on a little bump of an island, with no land in the front, and very little in the back. As he went to work, he told us to feel free to look around. I looked around. Allen looked for alligators. He wandered off toward a bank (a perfect place for them to hide). As I was contemplating how we were in the middle of nowhere with a strange man and how no one would ever find us if he left us there or if anything else should happen, Alligator John started walking quickly toward me with an axe! No joke, I promise. As I panicked and turned to run to Allen, he was already running up to me, but with an exciting story. Alligator John put the axe with some tools and appeared to be just straightening up some things around his camp. I wasn’t sure what to think, but was distracted by Allen’s story of scaring an alligator from the bank into the water just feet from him. Both of our stories were a little too scary, so I was sure glad to get back in the boat!
The sun was starting to go down and Alligator John said he would show us a sunset like we’d never seen. He was right. It was unbelievable. It was like a sunset over the ocean and a beautiful meadow at the same time. We just sat there in awe for the longest time. Then the after-dark portion of the tour began.
Alligator John switched on his spotlight hat (like a coal miner uses) and told us it was going to get really fun. Oh, man. He explained how it would be much easier to find alligators in the dark and to look for the red eyes. Allen, being Allen, thought seeing Moe was pretty cool, but was ready to see alligators that weren’t so tame. Alligator John smiled and said hang on! And boy, did we ever! We raced around the waterways, still dodging bugs, but now also ducking from huge spider webs glowing in the spotlight. He would point out a pair of red eyes and we’d go chasing after them! I’m amazed we stayed on the boat. Zipping from side to side, 180° turns, flying blind around corners of tall grass. He said the younger alligators would run from us, while the older wiser ones would just sink down and hide. So we’d spot and chase and watch them watch us. It was exhilarating and scary, a feeling I enjoy, but Allen thrives on. Then Alligator John showed us some baby gators. I was just thinking where’s the momma? Allen, of course wanted to hold one. Worse yet, Alligator John obliged him! He used a tool of some kind to situate it, then kind of jumped in and grabbed it. Allen held it (I touched it). Of course not having a camera at this point was just torture. It was about two feet long and so cute. Any kind of baby is cute, but I couldn’t stop thinking about its very large mother that was probably watching nearby. Plus Alligator John had the only spotlight and it wasn’t pointed at my side of the boat! Thankfully, we left shortly without the baby and resumed our chase. It was amazing how many gators we saw after we didn’t see any the first hour. During one run, the alligator slowed down and we ran right over him, bump, bump! He was fine, the airboat just pushed him down a bit. It’s amazing how fast they can go too. They still are so graceful and steady, even while swimming for their lives from three crazy people in a boat!
It was so hard to have that much fun and not smile. So we ate a few bugs and took many shots in the face, but even that added to our adventure. We were amazed, and a little sad, as we pulled into the waterway by the road, that we were back to the shelter where it all started. As we thanked Alligator John, we looked at him with appreciation and respect (and Allen with envy) instead of the fear and uneasiness we had initially. We also looked at the Everglades differently. Not just as a unique and beautiful display of nature, but as an exciting playground begging for us to come back and enjoy again and again, with so many hidden treasures only for those brave enough to look for them.
We so regret not having a camera to capture this amazing adventure, but we promise every detail is true. It was so crazy, scary, wild, and exciting, there is no need for even an exaggeration. Besides, there is no way we could come up with a story half as good as this one! 
Margie & Allen Lundy - Somewhere in the Florida Everglades - July 1999 -

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