A Birthday Paddling…

Catchy title, don’t you think?

So I went for a paddle on my birthday.  Took the old kayak out for the second time this season, and it was nice to be on the river again.  I went WAY up north compared to my usual paddle spots, and paid dearly for it.  That far upstream had very little water, and I spent quite a bit of time walking instead of floating.

I put in at Oscar Patterson Road, which is in northern Madison County.  My goal was to make it as far south as Ryland Pike, a trip of around 17 miles.  Ambitious, but with a decent flow that far north, not impossible.  With the river at floatable levels, the current is about 7 mph, so with some paddling you could do that in a reasonable time.  I put in fairly early, so had hopes to be at Ryland Pike around 2-2:30 in the afternoon.

Didn’t happen.

For one, the trip was just too full of walking and portages to be done that quickly.  Only one real snarl where I had to drag my boat up on dry land, but that was enough.  Getting in and out made the boat fill with water pretty quick, so there was that too.  Had to stop twice to drain the boat.  In my kayak, an Old Town Vapor, the very stable design makes it hard to get water out.  It’s also pretty hard to get water IN, so that’s okay.  I put in a drain plug, but put it in a place I THOUGHT would be reasonable, but really isn’t.  This year’s model has a drain plug, and it is in a much better position.  At $5 to install, I may copy them and put one in where the factory does.

Anyway, the trip was fun.  I didn’t bring a camera, so no pictures.  There was more technical spots than I am used to, including going over a 2 foot waterfall.  Exciting.  But again, plenty of walking was involved as well.  Saw more turtles on this trip than I have ever seen.  Don’t know if I was quieter of if the population is higher that far north.

Also, I’m used to the Flint to be a mostly mud bottom.  Up that far north the bottom is mostly stone.  That meant the fish changed from big old fat catfish to big old fat bass.  That was different.  And while I’m used to seeing 3-4 herons while paddling, I must have seen 20 on this trip.  Including two that were fighting, a sight I’ve never seen before.  It looked like two swashbuckling swordsmen going at it with their big old beaks and their wings spread wide.

I did see snakes, but not many.  I expected to see more since the bottom was stone, but the water moves fast and they tend to not like that.  I’m not complaining.

Didn’t see any muskrats or signs of river otters like I do further downstream.  In fact, I didn’t seen many large animals at all, except for heron.  Which is a pretty damn big bird when it circles around you making angry noises.  Thankfully no geese, since any geese there this time of year would be resident.

I missed the ducks I’m used to, but again the fast water would deter that.  I missed the cliffs of the downstream sections, but the drop was significant.  I won’t swear to it, but the GPS said I dropped near 100 feet.

I didn’t prepare well for the heat and the sun.  I’m a bit sunburn on my face and I ran out of water.  So when it was 1pm and I made it to Winchester, I had to pull out.  I couldn’t survive another 10 miles in the heat without fresh water.  There used to be a canoe rental place at Winchester, but that closed when the owner died and is all locked up and not accessible.  I did find a way out, but it wasn’t easy and involved pulling the boat up by rope.  That wasn’t fun.

But overall, a very fun trip.  Unfortunately pulling my gear up the cliff at the take out caused my paddle to fall out, and I didn’t notice it till I was almost home.  So I had to return to the take out and search for it.  Thankfully I found it.

I took with me a new paddle, so I’m extra glad I found it.  I wasn’t sure I’d like this new paddle that was a birthday gift, but I found I really did like it.  Instead of locking in place with spring loaded pins, this one locks together with a compression joint.  That allows me to feather the paddle in any position I want (I like about 30 degrees I found) and not in the predefined 45 and 90 degree settings.  It also means I could make the paddle as long as I wanted.  I need at lest 230cm, and while this one is only supposed to go to 230, I had no trouble going beyond the stops and having a 240 or 245cm paddle.  So yea, much paddle love.

So that’s my trip.  Not very exciting since I took no pictures or video this time out.  Frankly, I’m glad cause I was exhausted by the end.  I did turn on my tripminder, so if you caught my tweet you could have followed me down the river here at the blog.  Hopefully I’ll be out again soon and you’ll get another chance.

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More Eyewitnesses Including My Own!

I’ve finally seen a North Alabama Gator!

Unfortunately not in the wild.  But nevertheless, here is PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF of a North Alabama Gator!

Finally, a North Alabama Gator

Finally, a North Alabama Gator

On Labor Day I took the family to a local safari park… you know the kind, where you drive through and look at free range animals in their, well not NATIVE environment but at least free range.  The exception to the free range rule was the Alligators.  As the only predators in the park, the gators were all kept behind fences and away from the other animals.

The picture above is one I snapped as we drove past.  This particular gator is, I guess, about 6 feet.  Nice and fat and I’m sure does just fine during the winter months. (In fact, I know he does since I asked.  They only collect the smaller gators and their one caiman.  And they had one very small crocodile as well.  But they don’t do anything special with the big gators to keep them healthy over the winter.  Once it gets cold, they stop feeding them, and when the weather warms up and the gators get active they return to feeding.

Better yet, they’ve successful BRED these gators.  They had a two year old in a tank inside the “Planet Reptile” exhibit.  This wonderful park is Harmony Park, and it is my new favorite family fun place in North Alabama.  For $6 a person, you get up close and personal with LOTS of animals.  And I do mean close!

An Emu sticks its head in the car

An Emu sticks its head in the car

So I highly recommend that you take your kids, your date, or whatever to the park.  Click on the link for directions and hours, but the park is closed November to March.

My daughter finds someone slower but not uglier than her father!

My daughter finds someone slower but not uglier than her father!

But I also got another comment about seeing a gator in the wild here in North Alabama.  This one really excites me because its late in the season AND in an area I know.  Here’s the comment form Charlotte.

Just last night around 9pm, we were at the boat launch on Sharp Ford Road in Morgan County and spotted a 5 foot alligator. It was under the bridge appearing to be trying to hide until we shined the light on it. We then watched it as it swam around like we were not even there with the light shining directly on it. There are here. We were considering gigging some frogs but that quickly changed our minds.

– Charolette, September 7th, 2009

Now I know where the boat launch on Sharp Ford Road is.  Clearly they were there at night, which I’ve been told is the easiest time to find a gator because their eyes reflect light so well.  So I continue to get eyewitness reports of gators here in North Alabama.  Here is a map of where the boat ramp is.  It’s the bright white square just north of the road and east of the water.   I’ve actually put the boat in close to there.

So I’m still not sure if I’ll ever see a wild North Alabama Gator, and with my current run in a play, my weekends are sorta full. till the end of September.  So it is unlikely that I’ll make it this season unless September remains unseasonably warm.  But gator hunting 2010 sure looks promising.  And I’ll leave you with some more photos of gators from Harmony Park.

A "little" gator

A "little" gator

There are two gators in there, hard to see in the picture.

There are two gators in there, hard to see in the picture.

More Eyewitnesses and a little help!

So I posted this YouTube video from my first trip in my new kayak this summer.  I got an interesting comment on it today:

dude i fish out there all the time you look like you are out at arrowhead. I see tons of gators back there you just arent in the right spot. the second week in April is the best time to find them they are out in the open getting there first meals. Cool to watch.

guitarshredder849 via YouTube

Besides checking out his shred video on YouTube, it seems he spins a rod as well as shredding guitars.  So he’s given me a place and a time to look for the elusive North Alabama Gator.

But this shows me that this cryptid is clearly not elusive to the locals.  In fact, it seems that it is a nuisance to them, which is a shame.  I got another comment here on the blog that made me quite sad.

I have seen several gators at wheeler NWR. I have seen several babies 6-8″ long and one about 8′. one about 5′ and a couple about 3′. Flint Creek on the south side of the River is a good place to look as is Limestone cove near Mooresville. Part of the problem is that the locals shoot them whenever they get the chance. So if a gator is not shy it is quickly dead!! Gators are sneaky and will lie at the surface with just their eyes showing. I found two babies that were dead with their tails missing.

-Tom via WordPress

If locals really are killing the gators, I’m quite upset.  These are still federally protected critters, even if they are out of their “normal range.”  If you’re caught killing a gator in Alabama without a tag, and there are NO tags given for hunting them in North Alabama, the fine is pretty high and is a felony under federal law.

I think what Tom is calling Limestone Cove is what I’ve come to call Limestone Bay.  It is a large backwater near Mooresville, Alabama.  I’ve not tried Flint Creek yet, it’s an extra 30 minute drive or 60 minute paddle from my home base, and since I often just get a few hours, I haven’t gone there yet.

Now guitarshredder849 speaks of Arrowhead, and that’s the boat launch on Limestone Bay/Cove.  So that’s two people who’ve given me tips to try that area.  Earlier this summer, I got this:

Hey just stumbled on your blog and can tell you with certainty that there are gators in the limestone bay area. Somewhere around 2001 or 02 I caught one while fishing in Limestone bay at night. It was a farily small one about 2 feet at the most. I hear about some others but that it the only one that I have actually seen personally. Blackwell Swamp is also said to have some but I have yet to see one there even after a lot of hours canoeing over the years there. Good luck with finding one.

-Matthew via WordPress

There’s that Limestone Bay area again.  I’m liking Limestone Bay more and more for my future gator hunts.  But that’s not the only tips I’ve been given.

Wheeler is where they are. I am an avid kayaker with wheeler in my backyard. Cotaco creek off upper river road in somerville is where i see them the most. Day or night. You can also access the remote parts of the creek from AL HWY 36 in Cotaco. I know for a fact a 12-14 foot gator stays there.

-Jansen via WordPress

I’m not familiar with Cotaco or Somerville, so some time with Google Maps is in order.  But I do know where HWY 36 is, so I think I might have a general idea where he’s talking about.  I’ve tried emailing Jansen, but haven’t gotten a reply so far.  I’ll hit him up again and see if he can give me better directions.

I also got this one:

I know for a fact there are aligators in north alabama. My family and i have been camped out in Mallard Creek camp ground and saw a gator. The manager of the camp ground warned us about feeding the ducks because he had spoted a gator between 10 to 12 foot long. Try the areas around mallard creek and fox creek in Lawrence and Morgan county

-Meagan via WordPress

I’m even less sure about Mallard Creek than I am about Cotaco.  Funny, I’ve lived in Madison County, Alabama all my life, but I’ve learned more about the local geography since getting my canoe.  And I’m learning even more since getting interested in gators and getting the kayak.  Life is funny sometimes!  Plenty of leads and new places to look!

But the weather here in North Alabama has clearly shifted.  While it is still getting a bit warm late in the day, the temps have fallen enough that I’d imagine the gators are starting to go dormant for the winter.  I may get lucky and find an active gator over the next couple of weekends, but I doubt it.  Not that I won’t try!  I’m thinking a trip to Cotaco or Arrowhead is in the offing for this weekend. (No gator hunting trip this weekend.  I’m also in a play, and seems our technical director won’t be in town to build the set on the stage.  Just been drafted to do that instead of something I want to do.)

Last weekend I went out to “the bottoms” where another commentator had sent me a picture his wife had taken of an estimated 10 foot gator.  I looked for a while from shore, but I wasn’t as lucky as they were.  I’ve yet to spot a gator there, but I tell ya what…  if ever there was a spot that SHOULD have a gator, that’s it.  It looks like something in Louisiana instead of Alabama.

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!

Twilight isn’t just for Vampires anymore.

Got a text during church from my usual canoe buddy about taking the boats out today. So I got permission and cleared it with everyone and went out, perhaps a little latter then I like.

Did the stretch from Ryland Pike down to Little Cove Road. Normally I do the stretch from 72 to Little Cove Road, but adding Ryland Pike to the trip only adds a little over a mile. That’s like 20-25 minutes. So we added the extra little bit. And that extra little bit was pretty much our downfall.

First, a little over the mile, AS THE CROW FLIES, is more like 2 miles on the water. So that’s 40-50 minutes. And then as we passed Highway 72 we stopped to talk with some other kayakers and canoers. A little kid there fell in the current and banged himself up, and since I NEVER go on the river without a first aid kit, so I had to help out. Then we left there, and we had the river all to ourselves… cause no one else was stupid enough to be on it that late.

So on the other end, the scariest portion of the river in my opinion, we ended up paddling in the dark. Now I’d gladly paddle a LAKE in the dark. I’d even paddle a nice slow wide river in the dark. I’d like to get a water proof headlamp and actually do that sometime, as some commentators have mentioned, it’s easier to find gators that way. This isn’t a scared of the dark complaint.

The last quarter mile of the river on our chosen route is a pretty quick moving section with lots of snarls. Nothing we haven’t done before, but I’ve had plenty of trouble here too. I’ve flipped a few times, nearly flipped more times than I care to count. Last time Jim and I did this section in the canoe, we got sideways against a log. The current was fast and strong and rolled over the side of the canoe. Jim is quick to point out we didn’t flip, but that didn’t keep us out of the water.

So we get to the danger zone, and the suns behind the mountain so it might as well be dark. It’s that stupid twilight time when you can’t see for crap. And yet we’re running down the river dodging logs and trying to keep from rolling over a log, rock or snarl. It wasn’t fun. Okay, it was fun. But it was pretty darn scary.

And thankfully uneventful. Couple of close calls. I got hung up a time or two, Jim ran the canoe into a sticky spot in a place I couldn’t help much. I’m still not sure how he did it. In some freak way he got the front of the canoe hooked around the branch of a tree in a weird way that I still can’t wrap my head around. And the current was so quick I couldn’t get back to help. Somehow he freed himself and we got the boats pulled out of the water.

So for the first time in a couple of weeks I got the boats wet. And it was good. If scary in the end. But hey… scary is good too.

Kids are Amazing Creatures

Kids are pretty amazing. I took my kids out for a day on the river, and they went along fairly happily. We went down to a place on the Tennessee river where I spent a few hours in a cave hiding from a thunder storm a few weeks ago. The kids wanted to see the cave and so we went.

The trip to the cave was uneventful. We saw some fish, a turtle or two, and lots of boats. In fact, my only concern was some idiot motorboater (is my bias showing?) running us over.

But that didn’t happen and we had a grand time. We scrambled up into the cave, hung out a bit and the kids wanted to try some swimming.

The swiming didn’t go well. The girl, my four year old, hurt her knee and the boy, my six year old, got scared when he realized there was no shallow water.

DSCF0445.JPG

I tried go coax them back into the water by going swimming myself. I dived from the cave and swam out a bit. I turned to try and coax the kids into the water but they wanted none of it. The girl was still crying over her hurt knee. The boy thought there might be snakes. I looked downriver and no longer cared. A big thunderstorm was heading our way. Looked like we’d be spending some more time in my weather cave.

Problem was, unlike the first time, this storm didn’t want to die. It kept on for more than an hour. Then pushing two. I had no clue when it would end. So after the thunder stopped we started looking for a break in the weather to dash the quarter mile from the cave back to the car.

Jim and Sean

The problem was that quarter mile was across open water that was rolling with wind induced waves. Big waves. So we waited. And looked for a pattern. And when I thought I found it I threw the kids in the canoe and took off across the river.

My friend, Jim, had taken my kayak out with us. I found comfort in the fact that if something went wrong and the canoe rolled over, Jim was there with the kayak to grab a kid.

We’d pulled the kayak up in the cave when the storm really started because it is more likely to have trouble with to much water in it. The canoe stayed tied up outside the cave. So when the kids and I where in the canoe, we headed off while Jim had to put his boat back into the water, scramble aboard and set off.

We’d picked a point in the rain when the wind and most of the waves had died down, the rain was slacking and we had a good chance of crossing. I got about 100 yards from the cave and could get a good look downstream.

The Cave

Moving in fast was a wall of water. In front of that was wind driven waves and I knew it was going to get rough. I hoped it was far enough downstream that we could get across before it hit. I screamed over my shoulder to hurry Jim up and paddled hard.

We didn’t make it. The winds in front of that rain came in quick and pounded into the canoe. I yelled to the kids to lay down in the bottom of the canoe. The lower the weight, the more stable the canoe. The winds were pushing me hard, and the best I could do is quarter the wind and cross against the current. The wind still managed to push me far off course, about an eighth of a mile upstream.

My kids, however, thought we were having a grand time. They thought the waves were fun, the rain a hoot and the wind exciting. I, however, was convinced that they were going to panic, the canoe would flip and I’d be in trouble. That didn’t happen. They giggled and teased each other, but stayed low and still all the way across. They were brave little troopers. They made me quite proud!

Of course after getting back to the car, loading both boats onto it in the pouring rain, and dripping wet, Jim and I got in the car and started to leave. Which is EXACTLY the moment the sun came out!

Still a fun day, and the kids actually enjoyed the trip.

More eyewitness testimony

Seems my gator hunting antics have brought commentors out of the woodwork and I’m getting more eyewitness accounts of Alligators here in the North Alabama area.

The first was from Matthew who responded to my post, Gator Hunting in North Alabama.   Here’s what he had to share:

Somewhere around 2001 or 02 I caught one while fishing in Limestone bay at night. It was a farily small one about 2 feet at the most. I hear about some others but that it the only one that I have actually seen personally. Blackwell Swamp is also said to have some but I have yet to see one there even after a lot of hours canoeing over the years there.

I’ve been in both Blackwell Swamp and Limestone Bay hunting, thus far with no success.  But its good to get more conformation that I’ve been looking in the right places.  I’ll keep looking in Limestone Bay, as I’ve gotten the most reports of gators in that area.

Maegan had this to say in a comment to the same post:

I know for a fact there are aligators in north alabama. My family and i have been camped out in Mallard Creek camp ground and saw a gator. The manager of the camp ground warned us about feeding the ducks because he had spoted a gator between 10 to 12 foot long. Try the areas around mallard creek and fox creek in Lawrence and Morgan county

I’m not familiar with Mallard Creek or Fox Creek, but you can be sure I will become so.  I’m getting more and more willing to go farther and farther afield in my search.  I’ve been a somewhat lazy kayak/canoe person, having mostly confined myself to about a 20 minute radius of my house.  I’ve certainly expanded that this summer.

Not a comment to the website, but I’ve been given a clue as to where a few nests might be.  On Sunday I got caught out on the Tennessee River during a thunderstorm.  (This is the great story I alluded to in this post, and I’ll post more about it as soon as I get the pictures off the camera.)  As a result, I ended up taking shelter in a cave just off the river.  I hid out in this cave with a few locals who were also out and about in a kayak and a canoe.  They had just found what they believed where two alligator nests near that same cave.  I got a good description of how to get to the area, but couldn’t investigate this past Sunday because of the weather.

Friends and family have also been talking up my crazy idea of Alligators in the area, and I get more reports from people I know.  It is clear that the majority of the reports are in the Wheeler area.  (I suspect that Mallard and Fox Creeks are too.)

So thanks to everyone reporting in on their gator sightings and sharing your gator stories.  I hope this trend continues!  And for those of you who canoe or kayak, let me know!  If you’re in the area, maybe we can paddle together!

A kayak conspiracy

It’s a conspiracy I tell you! Stores put their kayaks on sale in the summer! There is no water in the summer! God how I complained of spring rains, now I’d love a week of rain so I could kayak again!

I went out early early Saturday morning. I was at the put in on the Flint before sunrise. There was no water, despite going far south on the river.

I made it a quarter mile upstream before snags made the river impassable. It took me an hour to get that far, searching for ways around blockage. And ten minutes to return. If that.

For those that float the Flint, I don’t suggest the stretch between Little Cove Road and 431. And the quite aweful landing on Hayse Nature Preserve is even worse with the low water.

Guess I’ll be going back to Wheeler for the rest of the summer. The gators should have hatched and the warm June should mean lots of males came out of the eggs.

If I can find them.

Gator Hunting In North Alabama

The Big Foot Hoaxers at the nationally televised press conference

The Big Foot Hoaxers at the nationally televised press conference

It’s a little embarassing to admit this in public places, but since the big flap over Big Foot last August, I’ve been somewhat interested in the idea of cryptozoology.  For those of you who missed the flap, a couple of goobers from Georgia got swirled up in hoaxing the finding of a big foot body.  Their press conference announcing the find ran on most of the cable news networks and was quickly proven to be a hoax.

I’ve always been facinated by mystery animals, and in 2001 when I took a trip to Europe with friends I insisted, to the point of giving up the “right” to pick any other destination or activity, that we go to Inverness just so I could take a ride on Loch Ness and look for Nessie.  I got that trip, and spending time in Inverness is still one of my favorite memories, right up there with my wedding, the arrival of my son and the birth of my daughter.

Scotlands famous Loch Ness

Scotland's famous Loch Ness

Other than that fruitless cruise on Loch Ness, I’ve never done any “searching” for any type of weird animal.  In 1994 I did do a search for, and eventual found, a nesting pair of Bald Eagles near Winchester Tennessee.  That was more an accident than a mission, I saw a bald eagle land on a telephone on my way to work at the newspaper in that small community.  I was told I must be mistaken, since there were no bald eagles in that area.  I saw it again the next day, and managed a fuzzy picture of it.  Next thing I knew biologists from the University of Tennessee wanted to know more and they found the nest.

Since then, my interest in animals has been as an observer.  I’m not the field research type of guy, prefering to watch animals from the comfort of my sofa.  But if you’ve read my blog, you know I like to paddle about in a canoe so I’ve recently been up close to wildlife more than ever before in my life.

A snake sunning on a log I found on one of my trips.

A snake sunning on a log I found on one of my trips.

I’ve seen some weird things, such as muskrats diving in deep pools and blue herons skimming the water in front of my boat.  I’ve tipped over in snake infested waters and have been scared out of my wits by large fish jumping next to the canoe.  I’ve developed a healthy respect for wildlife and the world we share with it.

In the 4 years I’ve been paddling, I’ve never gone looking for anything.  Well, occasionally a snake or two, but I’ve been focused entirely on the trip and not the sights.  But something has been brewing in the back of my mind and I finally acted on it.

There have been rumors of alligators living successfully in North Alabama for a while.  Most biologists will tell you that it isn’t possible for Alligators to survive our occassionally harsh winters and lack of suitable habitat.  Yet sightings continue, including a recently captured gator in DeKalb County this year and a gator found in a pond in Morgan County last year.

Ultimately it was a post to Loren Coleman’s blog, Cryptomundo, that prompted me to action.  Coleman is one of the premier cryptozoologists, and he writes on all things weird and wonderful.  He posted about out of place gators found around North America, and it included the following:

On Friday, June 5, 2009, The DeKalb County Animal Adoption Center in Alabama got quite a surprise when someone dropped off an alligator (above). Director Leslie Johnson told the local paper it’s the first exotic animal the center has received.

“A man brought it in the back of his truck,” Johnson said. “He said he found it on U.S. 11, and that’s all we know.”

Johnson said she is unsure where the 2-foot gator came from. Little River Superintendent John Bundy said it is unlikely the gator is from the area. State Lake Supervisor Jack Turner said there are gators native to central and South Alabama but not North Alabama.

“It’s a bit too far north and a bit too high in altitude for alligators in North Alabama,” Turner said. Turner said the reports of alligators in North Alabama are sporadic and there is no reason for him to believe there is a population of the reptiles in the area. Lt. Michael Casalini with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said if alligators were breeding in DeKalb County, there would be more sightings.

–Loren Coleman, Cryptomundo

Is State Lake Supervisor Jack Turner correct?  Perhaps, but there are plenty of sightings in Madison and Morgan county indicating that there may be a breeding population there.  And there is at least one KNOWN alligator living wild in North Alabama in Madison County.

“Stumpy” lives on Redstone Arsenal, the area’s primary employer.  Stumpy crawls out onto one of the test ranges at the army base and gets his picture taken now and again.  He’s a big fellow, and missing part of his tail, hence the name.  If you work on post, you’ll see his picture in the Redstone Rocket now and again.

So if Stumpy is real, why can’t these other sightings be real?  Where would a breeding population of Alligators live in North Alabama?

If the rumors are true, the perfect place exists between Huntsville and Decatur, in the Wheeler Federal Wildlife Refuge.  If you visit there page, you won’t find alligators listed among the regular inhabitants, but buried on the FAQ’s page is this little tidbit:

Although seldom seen, American alligators do inhabit the Refuge. In the 1970’s, the alligator population had been reduced drastically, so 50 alligators were released here in an effort to help restore the species which at that time was federally listed as threatened. An estimated 40-50 alligators currently inhabit Wheeler NWR and at least one active nest was located during the summer of 2001.

—Wheeler Federal Wildlife Refuge website

My First Trip Gator Hunting in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

My First Trip Gator Hunting in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

An active nest in 2001?  Now since 1980, we’ve had several harsh winters.  And yet the population has stayed stable?  I’m not sure I buy this.  In fact, I believe, with nothing to back me up, that the population is larger than this and that they are breeding successfully.  Our summers are warm enough, our winters are typically mild enough and the American Alligator can survive up to two years without food, and can go dormant for long periods of time without moving, a sort of hibernation.

If you see this rig running around North Alabama, it isn't a clown car.  That's me looking for gators!

If you see this rig running around North Alabama, it isn't a clown car. That's me looking for gators!

Now I’m not suggesting that the refuge is teeming with alligators, but I do think the population is growing and spreading.  And besides, no one around here believes the alligator stories.  Everyone looks at me like I’m nuts when I mention the possibility of seeing a alligator from my canoe in North Alabama.

Well this is my birth month, and the presents came a little early.  I got a new paddle and a waterproof digital camera.  I’ve got a GPS system, thanks to my nifty iPhone, and it all seems to have come together.  I could go look for these gators on my own, take a picture, record the GPS data and possibly find a nest.  Or two.  Or three.  Prove that the Gators are growing.

So this past Sunday I started the project.  I went out to Arrowhead Landing, put my canoe in the water, grabbed my new paddle, and headed out in search of alligator.  But I made a lot of mistakes, most of them before I ever put the canoe in the water.  So while I had a wonderful paddle, I didn’t turn up any alligators at all.  Well, one possibility but that’s another story.

Stay tuned for an update on the first trip out and about on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.