Get Lost in the Woods (But Never Wade with Gators)

I was raised in the suburbs and didn’t have much opportunity to take a walk in the woods when I was a kid. One of the first things that Judy got me to do when we were dating was to go hiking. We went up to Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio and began to wander up and down the trails. On the way to a small pine forest, a rarity in southwest Ohio, we paused by some boulders at the edge of a small river. I looked up at the overhanging cliff and said to Judy, “This looks like a great place for an ambush.” I was half kidding—it would have been an ideal spot for a surprise attack—but saw that I had surprised her, that I had put the tranquility of our surroundings in a whole new light for Judy. She wasn’t amused. I was beginning to learn that my part in our nature travels was to point out butterflies and pretty flowers, not to speculate about how to turn a peaceful path into a killing field.

We camped at Acadia National Forest in Maine on our honeymoon, and hiked up a mountain on a foggy day. The fog got thicker as we climbed higher, and black tree branches glistening with moisture clawed at our backpacks and sweatshirts as we snaked our way upward. The wood looked like the gloomy, haunted forest in Snow White. I thought that we had reached the top on several occasions, but saw that one rocky outcropping led to another. When we finally reached the crest of the mountain we were surrounded on all sides by gray fog. It felt like we were in the middle of limbo with no distinguishable features around us except for the few square yards of rocks, gravel and lichens at our feet. A fog horn sounded mournfully in the vague distance.

On our way back down we took another path. Our map was unclear about its route, breaking off into broken dashes that didn’t inspire confidence. Once we got down to ground level the trail petered out completely, and soon we were bushwhacking between oaks and elms and through weeds up to our thighs. Judy had been a girl scout, and I followed her until I noticed that we had begun to meander in aimless directions. I took the lead when she confessed that she was lost, and heard some odd sounds coming from straight ahead. I remembered that a crew had been working on a stretch of road on our drive to the hiking trail and decided to home in on the beeps and rumbles of an engine.

We burst out of the forest and surprised the workers as they patched potholes. We followed the road back to the parking lot where we had left the car, and agreed that we should have taken the same route back that we had used to get up to the top. It was just common sense.

A year later in the Rocky Mountains we didn’t follow that agreement. We were up on the continental divide looking at glacier topped mountains that seemed to fade away into an infinite distance. The late afternoon sun turned lichens on the side of a mile deep canyon a bright,golden color. We were intoxicated by the beauty of the vista and perhaps by lower levels of oxygen at a high altitude, and decided to take another trail down off the mountain. Blue Lake shimmered in the distance, enticing us to visit its shores.

We discovered, of course, that the path was a lot harder than it looked from up on high. We had to cross icy patches of melting snow, gravel and boulder fields. The going was slow, and Rick, our guide and Judy’s brother, began to get edgy. The sun was sinking fast and we had a long way to go. Just as the light failed completely we stepped off the last glacier and sat down in a rocky clearing on the edge of a dark wood. We were exhausted.

We sipped some water and ate trail mix and tried to decide what to do. We could wait till daybreak and hike out, but Judy had to catch a plane at six in the morning for a conference in Asilomar, California. Or we could try to stumble along the path in the dark and hope for the best. We didn’t really want to spend a cold night sleeping on gravel and dirt, so Rick took the lead and we began to hike in the dark. I went second with Judy following close behind. She shamelessly used me as a guide dog. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see my feet. When I tripped over a log or turned my ankle in a hole she knew what to avoid.

Rick went ahead in spurts and I was afraid that we would eventually be left behind. When we lagged 30 or 40 yards back he would hold up his cigarette lighter and shine it so that we knew that he was still there.

We exited the woods at 2 a.m. and staggered to the car. Judy caught a later flight, and I spent the rest of the day sitting on a sofa in an apartment in Denver watching cable TV. I had time to go out for a hike before I flew out of town the next day to join Judy, but I couldn’t seem to bestir myself to leave the comforts of a plush sofa and a refrigerator filled with beer.

Years later we moved to Florida and eventually discovered Wekiva Springs State Park. A spring gushes out of the ground, the water pushed up under pressure from the Florida Aquifer, and spills out of a pool to form the Wekiva River.

Judy and I rented a canoe on a sunny day in June and began to paddle down stream through the Wekiva forest. We saw baby gators and turtles sunbathing on wooden stumps along the banks. A blue heron waded in the shallows and looked at us suspiciously before flying to a distant spot on a sand bar. It was a lovely day.

We turned around when we reached a marina near Rock Springs, and had to fight the current on our way back. When we passed under a laurel oak tree we heard the sound of a snap and were surprised when a heavy branch landed in the middle of the canoe between the two of us. I was in the bow and looked over my shoulder after I heard and felt the thump. The branch surprised me a bit, but I was more concerned by Judy’s behavior. She was trying to back out of the canoe off the stern. I looked down at the bottom of the canoe and saw an angry rat snake heading straight for her. I told Judy to stop moving and began to yell and wave my arms. The snake reversed course and turned on me. I put my paddle in front of its nose and dared him to make the next move. Judy took the opportunity to grab the branch and use it to lift the snake up by its middle and dump him in the river.

While we paddled on our way Judy said that the snake had probably climbed out onto the branch looking for a bird’s nest, and its weight had caused the branch to snap. I thought that we had been extraordinarily lucky that one of us hadn’t been hit on the head by the branch or bitten by a seriously pissed off serpent.

We rounded a bend and heard a series of crashing noises off to the right. Judy called out, “Look, there’s a black bear cub climbing a tree!” When I spun around to look the cub was gone, and I told Judy to help me turn the canoe so that we could go back and take a closer look. Then I realized that the cub probably had a mama lurking nearby that wouldn’t take kindly to any intrusions into its privacy. I cancelled the order and told Judy that we should start paddling like mad. It was time to get the hell out of there before the river offered up any more surprises.

About five years ago Judy and I decided to take a hike on a hot summer day at the Little/Big Econ Nature Preserve outside of Oviedo, Florida. The path is on a high bluff that follows the Econlockhatchee River. The black water river is a deep, murky brown from the tannins it absorbs from the trees along its banks, and teems with fish and fairly large gators. If you walk along the banks for a long enough stretch of time you’re sure to see the unsettling sight of a fifteen foot alligator rise up slowly from the inky depths to crest on top of the river. What danger had once been completely invisible becomes lethally apparent.

Judy and I came to a break in the trees along the bluff and looked down to the white sands on the opposite shore of the river. We saw a twelve foot gator sunning itself on the beach. It was fat like the crocodile in “Peter Pan”, opened its giant jaws from time to time to reveal its white gullet and spiky rows of teeth, and it spun the stump of a missing hind leg in slow, counterclockwise rotations. He had probably lost his leg in a territorial fight with another alligator, which prompted the following question:  How big was the gator that defeated the fat monster sunning itself on the beach in front of us?

We went further up the path, got hot and tired, and decided to come back the way that we came—yes, we had learned our lesson over the years. The gator was gone by the time we returned to that spot, but he had left behind a long belly slide track in the sand leading into the water. We went further up the path and took a break in the shade. As we sipped some water we heard someone coming along the path toward us. He was a dripping wet, thirty year old man who wore nothing but sodden boxers. He carried shorts and shoes in his hands and came up to us as if there was nothing odd about his appearance. He told us that he taught environmental science up the road at UCF, and that he had been wading in the river back by a nice beach with white sands. I told him about the fat, three legged gator that we had seen there, and suggested that it was a bad idea to go wading in a black water river infested with gigantic, prehistoric reptiles. He just laughed and said, “I didn’t see any gators.”

I turned to Judy after he merrily trudged onward and said, “They never do.” We began to lay bets about whether or not the young professor’s tenure review committee would ever have to take up his case.

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