(My mother and I have an understanding: I don’t tell her about the things I’m going to do that she would find unacceptably risky, until after I do them. After, she says, is fine. This is one of those times. )
Getting to know my partner, Travis, was like peeling a never-ending onion. Just when you think you’ve stripped off the last layer, another one comes loose. Five years on, and this still happens. But one of the most interesting things I learned about him early on is that he’s been studying herpetology since the tender age of seven. He can identify any snake put in front of him, almost any turtle, and is throughly versed in reptile care and physiology. He’s cared for many different snakes, lizards and turtles in his life, including our rosy boa and our elderly bearded dragon.
When we’d been together for a couple of years we toured Florida together, paddling the Peace River, kayaking in the Keys and camping in the Everglades. It was his first time in Florida, let alone the Glades, and he was in reptile heaven from the beginning. Paddling our canoe on the Peace, we lost count of the alligators in the first hour, somewhere in the twenties. After two years together, we’d already developed a routine in canoes: I sit in the bow with the camera, and he paddles and steers the boats toward the wildlife. Including alligators.
Once you’ve spent any time paddling in Florida rivers — or actually any time in Florida anywhere at all — alligators become just another part of the scenery. They’re not particularly hungry for people, anyway. They lay all over the place near the visitor centers in Everglades National Park. The list of people killed by alligators is not nonexistent, but nor is it long. Crocodiles have a much deadlier record.
After we got done on the Peace River, we headed down to the Everglades to photograph more birds and gators. One morning, we came upon a canal where some wood storks were hanging out. We hung out on a platform used for water level testing for a long time, watching the storks and observing the water society.
Something kept catching our eye in the canal, a kind of repetitive disturbance in the water. We watched it for awhile, and noticed that alligators would approach, examine the turbulent water, and then move away. New gators would come and repeat the process. I looked through my long lens while Trav looked through the monocular.
“It’s a turtle,” he said. I tripped the shutter.
“Why isn’t it swimming away from the gators?” he wondered out loud.
“Maybe it’s just a bad ass turtle with an attitude,” I suggested unhelpfully.
Travis looked more carefully into the monocular.
“Jen,” he said. “It’s stuck on something.”
He hopped off the platform and approached the bank.
“Uh, have you noticed the gators?” I asked.
“It’s caught on FISHING LINE,” he said with disgust, lowering the monocular. He started picking through vegetation on the bank, heading toward the turtle. “I think I can get it, though. The line is caught on a tree.” He paused for a moment. “Should I let nature take its course or should I do something?’ He glanced out at the gators.
“Well, strictly speaking, fishing line isn’t exactly natural,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said, and started back toward the bank.
It was at this point that I reconciled myself to the fact that we were going to save this turtle, gators notwithstanding.
“Wait a minute,” I sighed. I got our big ten-inch survival knife and hopped off the platform to follow him. “I’m not going to let you get eaten by a gator while I just stand there,” I said. “Not that this knife will stop that from happening, of course. But at least I won’t be standing there like an idiot.”
We inched along the muddy bank, bit by bit, until Travis could snake one arm through the foliage and grab the fishing line, by standing on one foot and leaning forward over the canal. Swamp yoga.
“The fishing line is wrapped around its flipper, which is half missing and scarred over,” he reported. “This guy has been stuck for a long time.”
He tugged on the line gently. The splashing resumed, this time with more intensity. The gators across the canal perked up.
“You’re generating some interest over there,” I warned.
“It’s pretty well stuck. Gimme the knife,” he said. I handed it over. But before he could cut it, the line snapped, and the turtle lurched forward and disappeared fully underwater and away from the gators, for what must have been the first time in many days.
“Good enough,” he said, and we scrambled up the muddy bank.
We hung around for awhile after that, photographing more wood storks. And as we did, we heard a tremendous crashing in the brush near the bank. We turned to look, and saw a large gator emerge from the canal, cross the road, and flop noisily into the opposite canal.
They look smaller in the water.
*The title refers to this, and also to the new Sturgill Simpson song I’m listening to on endless loop.