The startled alligator thrashed in the water, went under and surfaced about 15 feet in front of our canoe, swimming as though, for some reason, it was afraid of us.
We never got a clear view of its entire body. But judging from the wake it created (like a johnboat's) and from the size of its head (like the most massive oak log ever wrestled into a fireplace), it was the biggest wild alligator I'd ever seen — big enough, though we knew the chances of this happening were very slim, to kill us.
And on the stretch of the Withlacoochee River my son and I paddled on Saturday, it fit right in.
You may remember my long-ago announcement that I planned to canoe the entire length of the river with my oldest son, that we started with a wild trip near the source in the Green Swamp and a month later took a much more civilized journey north through Hernando County to the Trail's End campground, just north of State Road 48 in Citrus County.
Then came a two-year hiatus caused by my teenage son's reluctance to be stranded for hours with his dad in a 15-foot canoe and by long periods when parts of the river all but disappeared due to the drought.
Well, it's back now, as you can see from this graph — tinyurl.com/9mxucjd — of the river's flow at the Croom gauge in eastern Hernando. It popped up to above-normal levels after Tropical Storm Debby in June, and, with the steady rains that have fallen since, has stayed there. So, I was able to convince my son that this was our chance to see the river in full flow.
The next stretch on our list, 12 miles from Trail's End to State Road 44 in central Citrus, turned out to be ideal for this purpose. Skirting the eastern edge of the Tsala Apopka chain of lakes, it can sometimes feel like a stagnant, elongated lake itself. But it didn't feel that way Saturday, with a flow of more than 800 cubic feet of water per second. It felt like a major subtropical artery.
The surging current carried big rafts of vegetation — water lettuce, tangles of what looked like aquatic crab grass, environmentally disastrous but spectacular purple water hyacinths.
Usually, people say the Withlacoochee is the color of tea. On Saturday, it was brown, even muddy, the way rivers are when they are big and powerful enough to carry away chunks of landscape.
Doubt its awesome fertility? At every stop beneath the shade of cypresses, we saw bright green tree frogs clinging to branches. At just about every bend, we startled a heron — tricolored, little blue or great blue.
The constant screech of limpkins on the banks would have made a perfect soundtrack for a nature documentary or a Tarzan movie. And it was easy to forget, during the first half of the trip, that the river cuts through a state of more than 18 million people. In all this space, on all this open water, we saw three of them.
That changed when we got close to Wysong Dam, a few miles south of SR 44, where the limpkins' status as the loudest thing on the river was easily eclipsed by airboats swarming around our canoe and darn near swamping it.
I understand the appeal of going fast, being out on the water and feeling the spray and the wind.
I don't understand the fun of a deafening buzz that guarantees no close-up views of wildlife, ever. I don't understand the pleasure in not just consuming but guzzling fossil fuels.
So, along with the hot sun and humidity that were starting to wear on us, the noise and the exhaust fumes made us glad to see, just east of the SR 44 bridge, the boat ramp where I had stowed a bike three hours earlier.
While my son waited an hour or two with a book (and I wonder why he's never been crazy about these trips), I rode back to Trail's End.
In the rain, by the way. It was a continuation of the wettest summer in years, a resounding end to the drought I reported on this spring with another trip — to formerly wet caves that had gone bone dry.
I've gotten a lot of ribbing for this, from online commenters and even co-workers. After storms, they say, why don't you go back to the caves now?
My answer is that, unfortunately, they'll be dry again soon enough. If recent weather patterns hold, the drought will return sooner than we like.
That's why I think this, and say it to my son, when the river is flush: Enjoy it while you can.
Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter @ddewitttimes.