So, a couple of weeks ago we encountered a rather large alligator blocking the trail at the end of a five-mile hike. The hike was a loop, and the trail was bordered by water on either side. We could see our car. But the alligator was an ALLIGATOR, and not the six or seven foot ones you see everywhere in Florida, AND it wasn’t moving, probably because it was too full, because, to be honest, its bulging gut made it look like it had already eaten a hiker.
Plus side, it probably didn’t have room for another hiker in its belly.
Minus side, it was. Not. Moving. The sun was setting. And I figured that if we did turn around and hike the 5 miles back the other way, that it would probably just waddle the hundred or so yards to reach the trail at the other end of the loop to block us that way, too.
You may think that I’m giving a reptile too much credit, but as I told my husband, we had no way to know if it was a regular alligator or an evil genius alligator without first backtracking the 5 miles we’d already hiked to find out. (I won’t tell you the rest of the conversation because there were a great many words said that I shouldn’t type, many bracketing the adjectives we were using to describe said alligator.)
We started creeping behind the alligator, and it raised its head to look at us, which was the first it had moved besides simply opening an eye, and we hightailed it back what we thought was a safe distance to rediscuss our plan of action.
At this point, I was sure we were indeed dealing with the Hannibal Lecter of the reptilian kingdom because it settled back to sleep and who could sleep at a time like this, even though it was probably just faking and laughing, which made me mad, so I took my pack off and walked behind it, and this time it didn’t dare look at me because if it did I was going to shove the bag that I’ve been sweating on for ten years down its throat and prove that a hungry woman is the true king of the jungle. After that, I just had to wait twenty minutes for my husband to work up the nerve to join me, and since he had the car keys….. I waited. Patiently, I promise.
That somewhat roundabout story brings me to my point – hiking is hazardous. We’ve encountered many injured hikers over the years, and have done our best to help patch them up. We’ve taken classes on Wilderness First Aid, read books on ‘survival in the bush’, and have reached a point where we feel comfortable in our ability to safely navigate our way back to civilization in the event of an injury.
But what if the hazard isn’t a broken bone or a sprained joint or a wound of some kind? What if it’s something else you encounter on the trail. Like a giant alligator? Or an overgrown, prehistoric turkey. Because this wasn’t the first time my path had been blocked. Or the first time I’d been made to feel unsafe on while hiking.
Only a month before, I’d taken my camera and gone hiking on my own. Let me begin by saying that there are only certain trails that I’ll hike on my own. One of my requirements is that it is out in the open so you can see far and wide in every direction. But that doesn’t always keep you safe from an attack.
It was a beautiful day in December, sunny and warm in the way that Florida is known for. I was well acquainted with the area, a wetland reserve that receives plenty of traffic by both hikers and wildlife, and was searching, in particular, for the kingfisher who hangs out there and has been (still is) eluding my lens.
Like many trails in the area, there is water on both sides of the path. Unlike other trails, this one zigzags in a series of connecting loops and you can see several miles of the twisty, turning road from about 85% of the path. I was on one of the short stretches where you can’t see everything, heavy camera aimed at a stump in the distance where the kingfisher was taunting me, when I first heard the noise. I’d heard the call before – I was pretty sure in one of the Jurassic Park movies – and it carried the way sound sometimes carries over water, where you can’t determine which direction it’s coming from.
Lowering my camera, I said a few choice words to the uncoperative kingfisher and hurried along the path. Overgrown cattails ceded to the dried husks of outbloomed water hyanthinths, and I could once again see almost the entire trail. And I discovered I was alone.
Not only could I not see any other hikers, a rarity in this area because of its picteresque nature that draws both locals and tourists alike, I also couldn’t see what had made the noise, either. But as I stood there, looking around for the source of the bone chiling cry, it came again. Louder. And I was fairly certain, angrier.
I’d been on the trail over an hour already, and it would take me at least a half hour to get back to the parking lot taking the shortest route back, so I decided to call it a day. I slotted my camera back into my vest harness (told you it was heavy) and quickened my pace towards the exit . . . when the sound came again, this time from behind me.
My skin tightened in that pre-goosebump sensation one has when their adrenal gland hasn’t quite decided how to respond and their entire body is on edge waiting. I spun to face the very loud assailant closing in on me, only to see a Sandhill Crane storming across the trail. Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re very pretty birds. Large and grey with an almost heart-shaped patch of red on their heads. They can also be very aggressive. And although I only saw one, they almost always travel in breeding pairs that mate for life. Then a low flying shadow emerged from over the water, landing on the trail on the other side of me, and the mystery of the single Sandhill Crane was solved.
Both birds proceeded to yell at me with their prehistoric war cries while strutting closer and closer. There was water at my front, water at my back, and dinosaur relatives approaching from each side. (In case you’ve never been on the wrong side of a Sandhill Crane, imagine being penned in by agressive, prehistoric turkeys. And yes, I know that there’s probably a better precursor than a turkey, but if I said velicoraptor you’d assume I was embellishing – though not by much – and if you imagined a rabid turkey on steroids I don’t think a Sandhill Crane would be far off.)
I just barely managed to skirt past the one in front by tiptoeing along the water’s edge, and the duo continued to chase close behind me for the better part of a half mile. And this, people, is why hiking is hazardous. And why you should always be prepared. Even if there are some things out there that you absolutely can’t prepare for. Which, again, is why hiking is hazardous. But so is walking across the parking lot at the grocery store (no lie) so I guess I’ll keep taking my chances.