The Econ has not been kind to me this week. After failing earlier in an attempt to paddle the upper stretch, I returned this morning for the lower segment, which is 11-miles and runs from Snow Hill Road to State Road 46, a short ways down the St. Johns River from where the Econ flows into it.
The put-in at Snow Hill Road is very nice, with gravel entries on either side of the road and under the bridge.
Despite some rain during the week, the water level was still very low when I arrived, so low that the little dam under the bridge was visible.
Water level and debris had been the problem when I tried to paddle the upper segment, but I decided to try anyway. The current water level had been okay for paddling the middle segment that runs through the Little Big Econ State Forest, so I figured it was worth a try.
Because the shore of the put-in below the little dam is mostly rock and concrete for erosion control, I put in above the dam and "shot the rapids" — this is Florida, we take what we can get.
Shortly after taking off, only a few minutes down river, I come to a tree mostly blocking the way, but it’s been down a while and previous paddlers have cleared some of it near the left bank and there’s about six or eight feet of clear water on that side.
As I get closer, I see that there’s a stump dead center of this cleared space and it looks over a foot across, so I start pondering how to get by it; is my better track going to be on the left near shore or on the right toward open water? With the current pushing me toward the gap, I look down river to see what’s next and choose my line … then I notice something and have a new thing to ponder:
Why does a stump need eyes?
This is, indeed, a riddle … a quandary, even, that I puzzle over as the stump slowly sinks out of sight.
I stop paddling as the current takes me through the gap and I look down.
Under two, maybe three, feet of tea-colored water, half a paddle-length from the edge of my boat, is an eat-me category alligator. (Actually, from my perspective at the time, he looks more like he’s in the Betty White’s Cow category.)
He’s not as big as my boat, a 16.5′ Tarpon, but he’s bigger than most of my boat, so my heart’s racing a bit.
Now, intellectually, I know that he doesn’t want to hurt me and the reason he’s down on the bottom is so I won’t see him and will leave him alone. I know this … but fresh in my mind at the time is this message from over on the Green Wave about a gator surfacing and putting four holes in the bow of 14.5′ Perception at Alexander Springs.
I’m sure the gator in that incident wasn’t looking to hurt anyone, he just got startled and wanted to get away, so he lashed out at what he thought was the threat and then retreated.
So here I am floating by my gator today, trying ever so hard not to appear threatening (or tasty). In fact, I’m thinking to myself: "Hello, Mr. Alligator — this is just a big, blue log floating innocently down the river; soon it will be gone and you can go on about your business. Pay no attention to that mammal on top of the log, he tastes bad and is high in cholesterol."
Once past, I breathe a sigh of relief and round the next bend, glad to put him behind me. As I round the bend, I startle a deer drinking at the shoreline. She stares at me for a split-second, then bounds off into the brush. And it’s at this point that I remember I have a camera, so I head for the beach where the deer was drinking, tie up my kayak and walk back along the shoreline (keeping some distance from the actual water) until I find the alligator again — he’d drifted a bit downstream from where I first saw him. He’s still submerged, but is visible in the pictures:
As I get back in the boat and start paddling again, I begin to think:
Narrow river + shallow water + large alligators + solo paddler = ?
What do these things add up to? Stupid people doing stupid things.
See, I have no doubt at all that I’ve been on the water with gators that big before … many times. I’ve probably paddled right over them. The difference here is that the water’s not deep enough and the river’s not wide enough for the gator to get far enough from me for him to feel safe … and that’s when he’s going to hurt me, when he thinks I’m a threat and he can’t get away.
I’m barely into this trip and I’m thinking about another eleven miles of narrow, shallow water … what’s the likelihood in these conditions that I’ll be paddling hard and deep to get around some obstruction and whack one of these guys in the head with my paddle? Or that I’ll be unable to see below the surface ahead of me due to the sun’s glare and wind up running into one? Do I like these odds?
So, since one of my life-goals is to not be the guy on the six o’clock news story that everyone else in town shakes their head and mutters "dumb ass" about, I decide this isn’t the right time to take this trip. On another day, when there’s more water and maybe another paddler, I’ll be back.
At the time, though, I have another problem. Ahead of me is eleven miles of shallow, narrow water with an unknown number of large alligators … behind me might only be a few hundred yards of paddling, but I know exactly what’s in the very shallow, very narrow river.
I start paddling back, keeping a watchful eye out … no gator. I pull onto the bank a couple times so I can walk ahead and scout the water … no gator. I get past the area that I first saw him in … no gator. I get to within view of the dam … no gator. I get through the gap in the dam, under the Snow Hill Road bridge and up to the beach … no gator.
So the question in my mind for the rest of the day: I didn’t see him, so how close to the bottom of my boat was he when I went right over him?