When people first visit our pocket swamp, one of the initial things they ask is if we ever have alligators in the swamp. In summer during the rainy season, both the upper and lower swamp areas are full of water- so it is a natural assumption. But, I have only had two encounters with an alligator actually in our yard, and this goes back to my childhood in the 60’s when I spent most of my free time either exploring the swamp or poking around in the river.
At one point in the late 1990’s my mom and our closest next door neighbors kept saying they heard an alligator in the lower swamp. I knew this wasn’t probable, but borrowed some chest high waders (the mud in the swamp is at least 2 feet deep, and the water over about a foot or so), took a big metal pole and waded in. I almost got stuck a few times, and I did almost step on a snapping turtle- but no alligator. After listening to it one night, I determined it was pig frogs. Very anticlimactic.
Mostly, we see alligators from a distance in the river during spring, when the guys are out hunting for new territory and single females. Even then it is infrequent, as the Hillsborough River in our area is brackish (varying degrees of salinity) and although they will travel through salt water, they prefer fresh water. Another reason we don’t see them in our back yard at the river is because our bank is made up of limestone rock and chunks of cement- I’ve always heard that alligators don’t like climbing up rocks.
My two brushes with the prehistoric beasts both happened after a huge gulley washer (storm) which coincided with a very high tide and flooding. In both cases, the river flooded our property almost to the house, with a good foot of water over the bank at the river. The first one was late at night- a huge storm front kicked up by a diminished hurricane Frances, August 2004, coinciding with a high tide and flooding. At about 11pm, I put on my rubber boots, took a big flash light and waded down the path to the river just to check it out. The river was a torrent, and I waded over to where the stream empties into the river to see if our bridge was still there. As I approached, I suddenly heard a lot of splashing, not the ambient sounds I was already hearing from the rushing water, rain and wind. When I got near- I shone my flashlight and beheld a rather large alligator who had apparently wedged himself in the rocky stream bed head-first under the bridge (which was a very heavy metal grate) to ride out the roiling current and storm. I watched in amazement, and not a little glee- apparently in this situation alligators don’t back up easily. He bucked and bumped- finally got himself disengaged and turned around and disappeared into the dark roiling river. I stood there a while bemused, shining my flashlight around and then started wondering where he went. Looked down at my knee high waders, with the water almost to the top- looked back at the river and decided it was time to skedaddle. Yes, I really do wish I’d had a video camera with me.
In June 2007, a fairly equivalent situation- big storm surge overnight with flooding. I, of course, had to go check it out in the morning. Everything was soaked, the swamp was full and the paths flooded. I waded into the center- a slight rise between the lower and upper wetland areas, and spotted a baby alligator- just about two feet long. It was probably a yearling and maybe got separated during the storm from its mom. I ran to the house, grabbed my camera and just barely managed to track it down again and take a few photographs before it got away. Little alligators are very fast. Naturally, I really wanted to catch it- yes I know, you should not catch or molest alligators, but it was so cute and just at the perfect size to hold.
There are three photographs below- two of the baby alligator and another one showing more recent flooding on the path. After seeing the baby alligator, I always check out the swamp when the river floods over the bank, but no more chance encounters with these amazing critters. I always hold out hope!