July 12, 2021
Since the pandemic began, I’ve been canoeing regularly. When I’m in town, I’m on the water three times a week. I’ve gone from two canoes to five, somehow imagining family and friends out on the water with me on some occasion, no matter how unlikely. I paddle regularly on a bayou hardly a mile into Mississippi, just past the Pearl River border that marks this eastern edge of Louisiana near the Mississippi Sound of the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve now traversed the same stretch of water hundreds of times, and, shockingly, it’s never gotten boring. Every trip is different. The water level and currents change. There’s wind at my back or in my face. Birds come and go, egrets, herons, ducks, and more. Duckweed chokes the bayou or clumps up in slits cutting in and out of the main waterway. Iris bloom in the spring, and water lilies come out in the summer. The water roils sometimes with a red fish fins or mullets jump, ignoring the frogs croaking in season. Nutria swim to the banks or dive deeply in the winter, when I come around a bend.
All of this is fascinating, but even as I move my stroke from stern to starboard, my eyes are always peeled on the water ahead searching for movement and ripples in the water. I’m surprised to discover with my western roots, that I’ve become fascinated by alligators. I know the bayou if full of them, but sometimes it’s weeks before I’ll see one, usually in the pre-dawn or dusk. One large female swam out of the duckweed into the bayou once not ten feet from the dock. Another time in the winter, as I came around a bend a large male had been sunning on the bank and once, I was noticed, slithered into the water. I’ve paddled once behind a gator swimming heading ahead of me in my same direction who didn’t dive under until I was only a stroke behind. Recently, one stayed near the bank and never moved as I paddled by, keeping its eyes above the water to watch me as I passed. Early on this bayou, I once looked into the water as I dipped my paddle, and it was so clear, I could see the gator looking up at me and almost hit it as I passed. We aren’t afraid of each other exactly, but we’re wary for sure. They see me as an annoyance perhaps, while I regard them with caution and curiosity.
Recently, I finally gave in and ordered a book about their habitat and biology. Now, I’m even more impressed. I’m also more interested in where they den near my route. I wonder if my first sighting recently of one swimming hear the Highway 90 bridge meant that the gator had recently been forced to find a new piece of habitat, until older and stronger to contend with others. I’ll resist oversharing my newfound knowledge about how they eat, the wonders of their jaws, the speed at which they swim, but this is a warning, I may not be able to resist for long. Alligators are the wonderous kings of the bayou. They will be heard. And, I’m looking and listening for them differently now.