Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Clark Island Gator

I step out of my old red pickup and hardly notice the door's squeal or the crunching of small seashells under my boots. Nor do I notice the squadrons of wading birds prodding the nearby mud flats. In a few moments I’ll grab my binoculars and study the wild menagerie, but not yet. My first task on this hot July morning—a ritual evolved over sixteen years of guiding tours—is to study the sky and the water. I need to check paddling conditions to determine this day’s route.

Leading tours in this quiet corner of Florida’s Big Bend, just north of Cedar Key, has one distinct advantage over other coastal areasoptions. With countless barrier islands and large swaths of salt marshes we are able to paddle in a greater range of weather conditions than most other parts of the Gulf Coast.

In ideal weather, we can venture off shore, crossing mile-wide spans of open water to reach great birding sites on a few isolated islands. On smoldering mid-summer days when afternoon squalls are likely, we’ll stick to the near-shore islands, stopping to explore the wrack on sandy white beaches or maybe hike into the scruffy interior of an island in search of interesting wildlife or Indian middens. If an early breeze is already churning white-caps by launch-time, we’ll keep to inside passages, enjoying the calm water in protected bays and marshes.

This morning, the signs are mixed. On the drive in, clear, blue skies had promised an idyllic day. But as I step onto the beach, a stiff west breeze buffets my face. I cling to the brim of my hat and watch the breeze pester the nearby forest, rattling palm fronds and causing the Spanish moss to swirl in the oak boughs. There's only one option today. We’ll have to keep our route behind the islands, setting a course for the secluded tidal lagoon known as Preacher’s Hole.

Fishermen know Preachers Hole as a place for full-figured lunkers. But for me, the real attraction is its seclusion. Without a map, only seasoned locals know the narrow passage slicing between Raleigh and Clark Islands. While this wouldn't have been my first choice of routes on this day, it’s not a bad one. Best of all, it means we’ll be visiting my friend Felder Tiggs. *

It’s a strange irony that paddlers seek places where they are least likely to encounter other humans. And yet, some of the most memorable events on our tours involve people we meet. But, it can’t be just any person. They must be entertaining (whether they mean to be or not). Naked Ed, for instance, only has to hang out (okay, I could have used a better choice of words) at his palm-thatch hut at Lily Springs and he’s guaranteed a steady stream of giddy visitors. As his name implies, Ed rarely wears more than eye-glasses and a grin. And that’s what people find so amusing. Felder Tiggs has other gifts.
Until recently, Felder owned Clark Island, one of the low, palm and oak shrouded islands that crowd this remote corner of the Gulf. It’s an attractive little island, but not much different from the scores of other islands in the area. What sets it apart is its location alongside the narrow entrance into Preacher’s Hole, a nearly land-locked tidal lagoon with an exceptionally deep sink near one edge. It’s a “honey-hole” known to many local fishermen.
When Felder first bought Clark Island, he hoped to make it a paddler’s retreat. He talked of camp sites and maybe even some cabins. He’d treat bigger groups to an in-the-rough banquet of wild Florida cuisine of oysters and fresh fish. It was a fine plan. But the paddlers never came, not in numbers that could be considered "commercial."  With their interests geared more toward the sugar-sand beaches and good birding spots of the outer islands, few people ventured eastward across Clarks Bay to the Hole.
On those occasions when I steered a tour group to Preachers Hole, Clark Island was usually quiet. Sometimes there would be a few fishermen camping among the oaks. If we were lucky, we’d spot Felder hard at work. He was always glad to see us. Abandoning his labors, he’d climb down to the oyster shell beach and help everyone out of their boats. With his deep southern drawl, handsome, weather-worn face and the ever-present pistol strapped to his side, he made a memorable first impression.
Eager to tout the natural beauty of his island, Felder would take us for a hike. Our first stop was the back marsh, a shallow, 10-acre basin thick with needle rush and cord grass. From there we’d enter the welcome shade of a low, wind-sculpted coastal hammock forest. Weaving our way beneath gnarled scrub oaks and pines, Felder and I became a team—him telling great stories about what had been happening on the island, and me pausing occasionally for any teaching moments we happened upon.
After a mile of scrub oaks and coontie, we’d arrive at “the sink”, a surprisingly large, 10 ft deep sinkhole located in a densely shaded oak/myrtle forest near the islands center. The sink was the highlight of the tour, partly because it was an interesting natural feature and freshwater oasis for wildlife, but also because the remains of a huge alligator rested on the bottom.

When it was alive, Felder frequently spied this gator moving between the islands. It grew fat on raccoons, rodents, fish, birds and anything else it could sink its teeth into. The sink hole oasis on Clark Island was a favored haunt. Then, one day Felder found the gator dead.
In the months that followed, the rotting corpse of the gator became the highlight of Felder’s impromptu tours. With each successive visit to the sink hole, the corpse was in a further state of decay. To say it stunk would be a gross (very gross) understatement. But, being a Southern gentleman ever-eager to accommodate his guests, Felder would always climb down into the sink, and pry open the gaping maw to illustrate what a fine large animal it had been. It was entertainment at its best—interesting and disgusting at the same time—and everyone loved it! (proving, once again, that beauty is in the eye of the nose-holder!). To this day, when I see someone who was on one of those tours, their face beams like a school kid’s as they recount the story of Felder Tiggs and the Clark Island Gator to their friends.

One day, a few months after my latest visit with Felder, I returned to Adventure Outpost after a day on Withlacoochee River. My worker came out of the store with an excited look on his face. “Lars,” he said, “an old guy came by with something for you that you've gotta see.” I went in and there, lying on the front counter was a huge alligator skull. “He said you knew this gator and thought you might want this skull.” To this day, that skull hangs on the wall in the front room of Adventure Outpost—a constant reminder of a good friend and a great place.
*  UPDATE - This is a true story. However, “Felder Tiggs” is a fictitious name (a composite of some other locals) I used until I got permission from him to use his real name (as you can imagine, he can be hard to track down). Since that time, I have seen him and shown him this story and he generously gave me permission to use his name. I can now give due credit to my good friend (and interesting character), Pat Westmoreland. Pat, by the way, was also the source of the authentic dugout Indian canoe we have on display at Adventure Outpost. He obtained it from We Wa Indians in Nicaragua when he was down there working with them doing.....well, that's another story