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The Unplastic Alligator

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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Many years ago, the first time I went to Okefenokee Swamp, along with my brother, Joe, we didn't quite know what to expect. We went to see alligators, of course, but we expected to have to paddle way out into the swamp to see a few little ones.

We were barely a hundred yards from the boat basin when we saw a huge twelve-foot alligator sunning himself along the bank of the canal. He was out in plain view, and he just lay there, calm as could be, as we paddled slowly past, taking a few nice pictures.

We spent several hours in the swamp, watching more alligators, turtles, birds, and plants, until it was time to head home.

On our way back to the boat basin, there was that same twelve-foot 'gator exactly where he had been that morning. He hadn't moved an inch!

We knew what was going on. In order to ensure the tourists an exciting experience, they had planted fake alligators along the sides of the canal. We were sure it was fake. Pretty sure.

It was awfully lifelike. But it hadn't moved all day!

We decided to prove that this was not a real alligator. They wanted us to take pictures? Well, we'd take some pictures all right! We would drift very slowly and get close enough that I could poke the alligator with my paddle, held in my fully outstretched left hand, while I took pictures with my right hand.

But just in case, we formulated an escape plan. Joe, in the front of the canoe, would be ready to paddle as fast as he could. As soon as the alligator showed any sign of life, I would shift my paddle from poking position into paddling position, and help Joe to get us out of there.

So, as I poked the alligator, I would be at least five feet away. That's pretty close to get to a twelve-foot alligator, when you think about it.

For better or worse, Joe and I were both young enough that, although we had heard of this "thinking" thing, we rarely let it interfere with our plans.

We drifted slowly up to the alligator, our canoe parallel to the bank and to the alligator. His head was toward the back of the canoe, closest to me, and his tail was toward the front, but there were some small bushes between Joe and the alligator. As soon as we got within reach of my arm and outstretched paddle, I began poking the alligator gently along his jaw.

I pushed on the jaw hard enough to feel the texture and the resistance. It felt hard and unyielding, as you might expect of molded plastic, and the resistance felt like nothing more than dead weight, falling back into position after my gentle push.

Yes, it really seemed like a plastic alligator, but there was something about it. It didn't really react, but there was something subtle, some look of annoyance or dull confusion in that ancient dinosaurian eye. I still wasn't a hundred percent convinced that it was a fake alligator, but that means I wasn't sure it was real, either.

The canoe continued drifting slowly beside the alligator. After three or four pokes, I got to a point where I could poke the bulging muscle behind the jaw. The paddle sank in slightly. It had the feel of living flesh rather than molded plastic.

It was a real alligator!

He opened his jaws and pushed back against my paddle, and all doubt was removed.

About twenty-seven milliseconds later, I noticed that the escape plan was not being put into effect as quickly as I would have liked. I lowered the camera from my eye to see Joe's paddle floating on the canal about two inches beyond his outstretched fingers.

My curiosity as to how this situation had come about was superseded by more pressing concerns regarding an angry twelve-foot alligator that was entering the water about two feet away from me.

By the time I put my part of the escape plan into action, Joe had recovered his paddle, and we soon set an unofficial speed record for the Suwannee Canal. The alligator followed us a short distance up the canal, making sweeping alligations with his tail.

Epilogue 1: I don't advocate disturbing the wildlife, especially dangerous animals, but what can I say? I did it. I don't recommend it.

Epilogue 2: No, I don't have the pictures. I had run out of film rather early in the day, and was actually headed back in to buy some more, when someone gave me a roll of home-loaded film. I neglected to adjust my camera for this faster film, and all the pictures came out completely overexposed, just blank white with a few streaks of green.

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