Gator Hunting Winding Down

Mike on the RiverLooks like I’m going to have to give up on finding a gator is 2009. Weather is turning cooler earlier, and with the nights now normally going well below 70 degrees, gators will be hunkering down for the winter. Finding a sleeping and hiding gator isn’t going to be easy… but it isn’t going to stop my hunt. There are other reasons to hit the gator area’s this time of year.

Migratory birds are starting to arrive. That could be good for gator hunting as well as just for the pleasure of looking at the birds. Over the next month, Canadian Geese will be arriving in massive numbers as they migrate south. They stop over in Wheeler by the tens of thousands. Me and my kayak will be floating among them as often as possible, and if the day is warm and has been for a while, you better believe I’ll keep my eye open for an active gator that takes advantage of a goose dinner.

Also, I’ve taken this year as a chance to explore and figure out the Refuge. Having never explored it before, I had no idea how extensive the area was. I ended up on the Tennessee River proper more than once thinking I was in a backwater, and was on a flooded swamp thinking I was crossing the river. I’ll be investing in a kayak-worthy GPS system this year to help keep that from happening. (Ya hear me, Santa?)

I’ll keep writing up my Flint River excursions. Even my mistakes like the recent twilight trip through the most technical part of the Flint. (Bad idea, don’t suggest it to anyone!) And if I get out on the Refuge, I’ll be writing about that too.

Stay tuned for Gator Hunt 2010. It should be a fun one!

First Attempt At Gator Hunting

This post is about a week late.  No, it’s exactly a week late.  This is the story of my first attempt at hunting for the elusive North Alabama Gator.  It took place on Sunday, 14, 2009.

As I said in a previous post, I’ve decided to track down the North Alabama Gator.  Rumor has it that the gator can be found in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, but there are few pictures available, if any.  And no pictures of active nests.  In fact, since the gator release in the 70’s, only one nest has been found and that was in 2001.

Limestone Bay at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Limestone Bay at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

So I went looking.  My first attempt at finding the gator was to try the backwaters of Limestone Bay. I put in at Arrowhead Landing, but that may not have been the best choice.  Everyone claims the gators are in the various backwater swampy sections, so that’s where I wanted to go.  Arrowhead Landing, however, is a long paddle to the backwaters.  Over a wide bay that can be quite windy.  But I made it to the backwaters and explored as far as I could after the long slog.

Water Lillies in the Backwaters of Limestone Bay

Water Lillies in the Backwaters of Limestone Bay

Actually, I was willing to explore more, but my GPS wasn’t working at the time, and I came to a point where I wasn’t sure I could find my way out if I continued.  So I turned back instead.  Quite disappointing for the first time out.  But the trip wasn’t wasted, as I learned quite a bit about myself and my abilities.

One of the interesting things I learned is how and why eyewitness testimony in the search for cryptids isn’t the best of evidence.  I was on a channel where I’d heard rumor that gators had been seen.  I was coming up on a log, and thought I saw a turtle sunning itself on a branch.  As I reached for my camera, the “turtle” jumped off the log.  Only as it left the log and I got a better, if fleeting, glimpse of the creature I realized it wasn’t a turtle.  Now I can’t swear it was a gator, but it sure looked like one.  It had the typical markings of a young gator, with the yellow bands found on the very young.  But it could have just been a typical turtle and I could have had “gator on the brain” and seen what I wanted to see.  Without the picture to identify the critter, I basically have nothing.

Take a look at this picture of a young alligator:

Yes, these two cuties are on the back of an adult gator, but you can see the color difference between the big one and the very young.  You can really see the yellow stripes in this picture.

Now look at a common turtle in the refuge:

I know what you’re thinking, how can anyone confuse these two critters.  They are clearly different.  But think about a quick glance as it slips off a log to disappear into the water.  Add to that the fact that you’re looking for a gator, and trust me, you can get them confused.  So I don’t know what I saw.

(BTW, I shamelessly pirated those pictures off the web.  Bad researcher!)
This is the area I think I may have seen a baby alligator.  Maybe.

This is the area I think I may have seen a baby alligator. Maybe.

Now I do know this, if it was a gator I saw, Momma wasn’t far away.  The American Alligator is one of the very few reptiles to care for their young.  It is thought this is a throwback to the dinosaurs, which really the American Alligator is a modern version of a dinosaur.  So if it was a gator, I was damn close to my ultimate goal of seeing and photographing a North Alabama Gator.  Frustratingly close.  I didn’t see momma anywhere, so I’m leaning toward believing I saw a turtle.

I didn't come up completely empty.  I managed to anger this momma mallard.

I didn't come up completely empty. I managed to anger this momma mallard.

But I clearly had gator fever.  Every splash, every rumble and every log was thought to be a gator by my brain.  It was completely infectious, I was convinced I’d see one around the next bend.  It got me to wondering about field research into mystery animals.  I can see how someone could easily get Big Foot Fever when out in a camp for the purpose of finding Big Foot.  How ever sound, every falling acorn, could become the creature you’re looking for and how hard it would be to stay objective and watch for real signs of your quarry.

So I learned alot about this project of mine.  Not all of it just about looking for Gators.  I learned using a kayak paddle in a canoe isn’t a good idea.  There is a reason canoes use canoe paddles and kayaks use kayak paddles.  I got that.  And I got to test out my new waterproof digital camera.  I’m pleased with the results, and the video isn’t half bad.

And now, I’ll leave you with a video of the point where I decided it was time to return to my car and slog back across Limestone Bay!

Back on the Flint, An Exercise in Tree Avoidance

Loaded Up and Ready To Rumble

Loaded Up and Ready To Rumble

Living in Huntsville, Alabama is a great treat.  Everyone says so.  One of the things that makes Huntsville a great place to live is the easy access to so many recreational activities.  Including my favorite, going out in a canoe.

About ten minutes east of Huntsville is the Flint River.  It runs from just north of the state line to the Tennessee River, making it almost exclusively a Madison County treasure.  And at one point or another I’ve floated just about all of it.

Raccoon and Deer Tracks

Raccoon and Deer Tracks

Today I had the chance to redo what was once my favorite section of river.  I don’t think it will be my favorite section anymore.  The recent rains monsoons have brought down far to many trees and I spent the better part of the trip avoiding them.  From zig-zaging down the river to get around them to actively going under, over and through them.

I talked my normal canoe partner, Jim, into going with me on this odessy.  The wife and kids had other plans so they dropped me off at the Little Cove Road canoe landing.  Jim parked at Hays Nature Preserve and while I readied the boat, the wife ran and got him.  Then we headed out around 5pm.

The Little Cove Road landing is an interesting one, and not in a good way.  Usually there is about a 6 foot steep drop from the parking lot to the river.  Right now it’s about 3 foot as the river is still up pretty high from all the flooding and rain.  And right at the landing is a huge fallen tree that blocks the exit.  To get around it, you paddle upstream under the road before turning quickly and going downstream.

The early part of this 7 mile or so paddle is a fairly deep hole, and even with the higher water the going was pretty slow.  Jim and I felt little urgency, we’d done this section of the river in under 2 hours before, so we didn’t feel much pressure despite the late start.  We figured we’d be at the take out by 7pm and at dinner up the road by 7:30.  And the wide clear start of the trip only re-enforced this feeling.

Oh how wrong we were.

Ultimately the trip took 2 hours and 40 minutes.  The reason was trees.  Lots and lots of trees.

NewCanoe - 2

A wide hole on the flint river

Now you may think that avoiding trees in a canoe isn’t much of a problem.  Trees typically don’t grow in the middle of a river, so what’s the big deal, right?  Wrong.  They do grow in the middle, on lots of little islands, that get saturated in all the recent rain and then they fall over.

Lots of them fall over.

Many completely crossing the river.

This tree completely blocked our passage.  We had to lift the canoe over the tree.

This tree completely blocked our passage. We had to lift the canoe over the tree.

About an hour and a half into the float we hit our first magor obstical.  A tree completely blocking the way, and large enough we had to get out of the boat and lift it over.  While not overly hard, it wasn’t a peice of cake either.  Some fancy footwork between Jim and I, along with some interesting rope work, got us up and over.  Luckily it was the only one that we had to portage over.

From that tree, things continued to be interesting.  We limbo’d under several, once passing the boat under while going over the tree ourselves.  Once I had to lay down in the bottom of the boat and PUSH the canoe down to get it clear.

The author, With Canoe

The author, With Canoe

In the end the trip to Hays Peserve was wonderful, if a little full of trees.  We stopped only once to stretch (not counting all the limbo stops) and found both Raccoon and Deer tracks.  We saw one heron, a woodpecker, an otter (we think) lots of signs of turtles, a few larger fish, and ducks (I’d never seen mallards on the Flint prior to today’s trip).  Blessedly we didn’t see any snakes.  We didn’t beat sunset, but still had plenty of twighlight to load up by.  And then we hooked up (late) with friends and family at a mexican place up the road.

Chips, salsa and a good canoe trip.  No wonder Huntsville is #1.