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No wild hogs, no gators, no luck

Woke up about 6:30 at a friend's Citrus County home last Saturday morning and spent some time in the Florida room just watching wildlife in the heavily wooded backyard.

Off in the distance I saw something I thought might be one of the two things I've always wanted to see since moving to Florida about five years ago.

I thought I'd seen a wild hog.

Ever since my days at the University of Missouri I've wanted to see one. It was there that a football player from Sarasota named Dick Chapura (he would later play for the Chicago Bears) wowed whoever was up to listening with his stories about hunting wild hogs back home.

When my friend awoke, I reported the sighting and anxiously awaited confirmation. Instead, I was dealt a groggy dose of early-morning reality.

"It was probably the neighbor's dog," I was told.

I'd seen a pup, not a pig, and still my quest goes unfulfilled.

Last Wednesday, I thought I might see the other thing I've always wanted to see since moving to Florida: an alligator, at home and in the flesh.

Now I've seen plenty of alligators before, but not without paying admission. I've even seen them in the Everglades, but I don't think staring at well-behaved gators along with a dozen New York tourists really counts as the in-the-wild chance encounter for which I was hoping.

For five years now, Times photographer Olie Stonerook has been trying to talk me into taking a boat ride with him on the Weeki Wachee River.

Finally, Olie pushed the right button. He told me to pack a sandwich, meet him on the public boat ramp at Rogers Park, and keep a watchful eye on the banks of the Weeki Wachee.

The Weeki Wachee twists and turns for about eight miles, from the Gulf of Mexico to Weeki Wachee Spring near the water-park attraction at State Road 50 and U.S. 19 in northwest Hernando County.

If I was lucky, Olie told me, we could wave hello to the 10-foot gator whose hole is tucked off a bend in the river. Maybe we'd even see some of his relatives, and at least one of my wildlife quests would be realized.

So we stepped into Olie's 14-foot johnboat, Grandpa's Toy, and set off on a mission.

Two mating-mallards and six turtles-on-a-log later, I was getting anxious.

"Wait until we get out of civilization," Olie told me.

I trusted him, and with good reason.

The river is Olie's own personal snapshot, a friend he has come to love after spending about 25 years together.

With tales about property owners and developers along the river to explanations of why it's so shallow in some areas and countless-feet deep in others, Olie can take you all the way to the spring and back with an oral history of the river that deserves to be printed and bound.

And he'll be quick to tell you how you can discover the river yourself:

You can rent a canoe (cost ranges from $12 for three hours to $20 for the day) or small boat ($30-$40) from Weeki Wachee Marina (596-2852), or a canoe from Smiley's (across from Rogers Park). Weekends are overcrowded, but water traffic is sparse during the week.

Along the way Wednesday, with a quick whisper and a reach for his camera, Olie had my eyes constantly darting from owls to osprey to raccoons along the shore.

On this day, though, there were no alligators to be spotted.

But that's okay.

I may have been 0-for-2 on the week for hogs and gators, but there will be other opportunities.

And hopefully, I won't wait another five years to take my chances.

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