A DAY WITH THE 'GATORS AND BIRDS ALONG THE ECONBy John Geary
As I came to another turn in the river, a slight movement caught my eye. There, on a bank less than 10 yards, away lay an alligator - but not for long. Before I could even think about dropping my paddle to grab my camera, the 12-foot long primeval-looking reptile slid off the bank and disappeared under the water, leaving a trail of air bubbles - and leaving me to wonder how I might have fared if he'd been trying to attack me instead of trying to escape.
I was to see several more alligators that day, during a long day's paddle down central Florida's Econlockhatchee River, through a portion of the Little Big Econ State Forest. The river is located less than an hour's drive from Orlando. This state forest is significant historically as it contains the first means of crossing the Econlockhatchee River: The Old SR 13 railway and trestle was part of the Flagler Railroad System during the early 1900's. Today, it is part of the Florida National Scenic Trail and hikers use the old trestle to cross the river.
A variety of wildlife species live there, including gray fox, river otters, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bobcats, waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds.
But I can see all that paddling at home. Having never seen an alligator in the wild, I was really hoping to see one. In fact, you could almost say I was on a "gator quest". Yes, I would enjoy the impressive list of birds and even the occasional red-bellied turtle (a distant cousin to the 'gators) the river and its environs offered to us: red-bellied turtles. But I wanted to see the big 'gators.
Patience, and a bit of daring, would be required, as it turned out.
Our day's adventure began underneath the bridge crossing the Econ at County Road 419. Its wooded shores greeted us with calls of mourning doves, goldfinches and red-headed woodpeckers. On occasion, we were lucky enough to see them darting from tree to tree in the mixed forests of sable palms, saw palmettos and oaks, but much of the time, we had to satisfy our senses of hearing rather than sight.
Further downstream we saw the first of many anhingas, or "snakebirds", whose nickname derives from their practice of swimming in the water with just their heads sticking out at the end of their long neck - very snakelike, indeed. They spook very easily, so it's very difficult to get close to them.
Three different species of herons showed themselves along the river: great blues, little blues and tri-coloreds as we drifted along the water. Bird life was not restricted to the riverbanks, either. High overhead, we often spied turkey vultures lazily drifting along on thermals, ever vigilant for a potential meal.
The morning drifted by as we paddled downstream. The bird life was wonderful, but - I don't know if I mentioned this - I really wanted to have a close encounter of the gator kind - but by the time we pulled out for lunch, we hadn't had any luck.
One of the guides told me she'd seen one about 300 yards away in an oxbow off the river's mainstream, so while everyone else started lunch, I paddled toward the spit of land she'd indicated.
I saw another great blue heron, a vulture and another anhinga, along with a turtle, but no 'gator.
After lunch, I decided my best chance to see a 'gator would be to paddle far enough ahead of the group, out of sight and out of hearing, so the noise would not disturb the wildlife. It paid off when I turned a corner and spied a medium-sized alligator sunning on the bank. It wasn't there for long. I barely had a chance to blink, before it was into the water. Then I realized I'd been holding my breath, and I could exhale again.
Minutes later, another larger 'gator jumped in just ahead of me, then another one several minutes after that. A smaller four-foot 'gator sat on a log jutting into the water until I got too close, and off it went.
As we paddled closer to our takeout by the bridge, we saw no more 'gators but plenty of bird life in the form of egrets, kingfishers and herons.
Our nine-mile paddle came to a close as we reached our takeout under the bridge, my mission accomplished. I said a silent "good-bye" to the 'gators and their environment.
IF YOU GO:
Guides and kayaks were supplied by the Titusville-based A Day Away Kayak Tours ( www.adayawaykayaktours.com/ ; email, firstname.lastname@example.org phone 321-268-2655) The company leads two different trips on the Econ as well as other waterways that are part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, including day trips, overnight excursions and night time bioluminescent tours.
For more information about traveling and outdoor recreational opportunities in the Titusville area, checkout the website www.visitflorida.com
Additional useful web links:
1. Paddler's eye view of the Econ River-1.
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