We set off on foot on the nature trail at Magnolia Plantation to hunt ‘gators after a wasted boat trip where the captain/guide nudged all the alligators into the water rather than slowing down for a viewing. “Do you think we’ll see any alligators this early in the day? It isn’t very hot yet.” Alligators, being cold-blooded, don’t hibernate but aestivate, or lie in a state of torpor during extreme heat. Jimmy and I aestivate after lunch most days.
“Do you really think this is safe?” The impatient tour guide had informed us that alligators can swim at 15 mph, run on their little stumpy legs at 35 mph and using their tails, jump up to five feet. So once you’ve upset them . . . hmmm . . . rip and swallow, rip and swallow we’d been told. If a turtle can satisfy them for a month, a human “bean” must be good tucker for at least six months. “I wonder how recently they’ve eaten?”
The day before, I had seen a man gamely striding around the Plantation on two artificial legs. The image of him and the size of the alligators’ toothy, bone-crushing jaws played on my mind. Being one of the oldest reptiles on the planet, alligators are certainly survivors and I didn’t fancy my chances in a face off. “Do you think we’ll see ‘Big Red October’?” He’s the 50 year old resident of the estate measuring 14 feet long and weighing 800 pounds. “They told us there’s never been an alligator fatality in South Carolina.”
Beginning to jabber with nerves, I distracted myself by photographing egrets, herons, turtles, coots and moorhens, having completely forgotten that snakes were known to nest in logs near the trail – some of them, like the cottonmouth, being poisonous – until Jimmy reminded me. I then tiptoed prissily down the center of the wide, well-trodden path.
As we walked the nature trail alongside the pond, all the strategically placed basking planks in the pond were empty except for the tantalizing snacks of turtle perched on the ends. Having taken a particularly pleasing photo of a cormorant with his wings outstretched, drying them ready for his next fishing expedition, I began telling myself that all was not lost; it was a lovely day for a walk and I had some good photos to show for it.
I was just beginning to stroll as we rounded the bend onto the straight piece of trail where the camera battery had died. This, it suddenly occurred to me, was where we had seen most of the alligators the day before. The basking planks, like little ski jumps, were aimed towards us so we were unable to see anything until we walked further and alongside them.
“LOOK!” and I throttled Jimmy as I grabbed the binoculars hanging around his neck. The telltale triangular ridges of the ‘gator’s back were just discernable to the naked eye, but I wanted to be sure so squinted through the binocs. “There’s one! There’s one!” but Jimmy was snugged up too close to me, tethered as he was by the binoculars’ strap, to see anything but my ear.
As we hustled along the path, two alligators were clearly visible on planks erected 30 to 40 yards out in the pond. “The light’s wrong. The sun is shining into my lens. I need to walk further down and shoot back at them.” But I fired off a couple of “rounds” at them anyway in my excitement.
Jimmy paused while I took the photos and then began to stride off when I snagged his arm and sank my fingernails into it. “Lo-o-ok,” I barely said on a breath, and Jimmy followed my gaze with his eyes. No more than three paces ahead lay a 10 foot alligator dozing happily in the mud beside the path. Had Jimmy walked on, she (well she reposed in a languidly female way) could have taken his leg off at the knee with hardly a twitch.
Jimmy reviewed the situation while I snapped a few more pics using my zoom lens. My feet were rooted to the spot. Caution held me back but stupidity kept me there. “We can get back to the plantation house this way can’t we?” asked Jimmy, indicating the path past Ms. Jaws.
“I’m not walking past her.”
“She’s asleep. She won’t bother you.”
“Nope. I’m not getting any closer.” After a close encounter with a buffalo at Yellowstone, I’d become a little more wary, although at 35 mph neither of us had a chance even now if Ms. J. had decided it was lunch time. She was sleeping prettily with her mouth closed but I knew 70 some teeth lurked inside her enormous head so I zoomed in on it for one last shot, then backed prudently away and Jimmy followed suit.
As we retreated, we passed several smiling hikers, cameras in hand, striking out on the nature trail. I had thought to warn them of the alligators but then thought heck, let them make their own fun!