Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”

Have you ever had an amber alert go off on your phone at an inopportune moment?

In my case, this occurred about two-thirds of the way through a twelve-mile nature walk in a Florida swamp, just a few feet away from an eight-foot alligator that lay half-blocking the path. Luckily, the screeching sound that emanated from my shorts pocket—second in obnoxiousness only to the infamous buzz of a dial-up modem, and exponentially more startling—sent me reeling in the correct direction, that is, along the path and away from the alligator. Though my heart nearly jumped out of my chest, the alligator remained unfazed, content to continue sun bathing as if nothing had happened.

That afternoon, my wife and I found ourselves tiptoeing stealthily around slumbering alligators seven or eight more times. Besides sneaking by the gators, our only other option was to wait for them to move off the path, which could have taken hours. Since we did not relish the idea of getting stuck in the swamp after dark, we pressed on at each obstacle.

I initially resisted the impulse to take a video of our hasty dashes past these reptilian hurdles, held back by macabre thoughts of how terrible it would be if an alligator actually attacked Mary Catherine while I stood helpless, phone in hand! Eventually, though, I succumbed to my millennial urge to document all things notable with my phone.

In sum, we spotted exactly one hundred reptilian friends that day at the Bird Rookery Swamp. Yes, we counted, and yes, I am aware that a nice round number makes the story less credible. Be assured, however, that if I were making it up, I would surely settle on a more believable and arbitrary number, like ninety-seven or one hundred and two. 

Visiting the nature preserve, one enters an extraordinary half-forest, half-swamp ecosystem. In our two visits to the swamp, we have seen white-tailed deer, red-shouldered hawks, swallow-tail kites, turtles, wading birds of all sorts, and, of course, alligators. As for flora, bald cypress trees dominate the swamp floor, with “knees” that shoot out from the surrounding ground to provide the trees with stability when the area experiences flooding. Lush, supersized ferns make their homes on the bulbous trunks of the cypress trees, while air plants form on the nodes of their trunks and branches.

The trails in the swamp, which lie on top of old tram roads once used for logging, are small raised berms that separate the path from open swamp on either side. In most places, the trail was about six feet wide, enough space to feel safe and allow one to scan the swamp for gators and other wildlife.

Despite the ostensible peril presented by the path-blocking alligators described above, there were two to three miles of the trail that narrowed with tall grass on either side that posed more danger. The grass easily camouflaged and hid any gators that were lying along the path and, several times, we nearly stumbled right onto one. After a few close calls, we understood the reason for the trailhead sign warning visitors to keep dogs and small children away from the path’s edge. 

For these narrow stretches, we adopted a motto of constant vigilance. The last thing we wanted to do was spook an alligator and provoke a response. Since I’m a foot taller and able to see over her head, I walked several paces behind Mary Catherine, and the two of us kept up a constant scan—alternating our gaze along the path’s edge, down at our feet, out ahead, left to right, and so on. It felt like we were dystopian, cyber-security street sweepers, though rather than harnessing our surveillance spotlights to catch rulebreakers out past curfew, we were on high-alert for reptilian life forms. We breathed deep sighs of relief when at length the trail widened.

At another section, the path was broken up by small streams from flooded swamp pools that required us to take off our shoes to wade ankle-deep through water. Here, we did exercise patience, waiting for the nearby alligators to swim a safe distance away before attempting any crossings, lest our splashing attract unwanted attention.

Though alligators are a natural fit for this month’s theme of monsters, I believe they get a bad rap. Despite focusing on the dangers of our walk, the Bird Rookery Swamp receives dozens of hikers, bikers, and nature enthusiasts each day and, to my knowledge, all without incident. In fact, between 1948 and 2017, there have only been 401 unprovoked alligator attacks in Florida, with just 24 fatalities. Estimates put one’s chances of being attacked at 1 in 3.2 million. It’s evidence that humans and alligators—and more broadly, humans and the natural world—can live in harmony if we treat each other with respect and caution. Or, as Mary Catherine put it after our hike: “Alligators are simply misunderstood creatures. They just want to bask in the sun like the rest of us.” 


  1. Luke L

    Quite the adventure! Thanks for sharing the story. It was fun to imagine walking along, trying not to provoke any alligator, especially reading about the tall grass.

    • Chad

      Thanks for reading, Luke!

  2. Kyric Koning

    Well, they can enjoy their sun for all I care! I still probably wouldn’t go hiking there. Mad props to you, though. This nature journal will have to suffice. 🙂


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