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Cold-blooded charmers

When friends and relatives visit Florida, I never take them to Disney World or Busch Gardens or other themed attractions. They're too _ how do you say it? _ jejune for my tastes. I take them to Myakka River State Park to look for alligators.

I am a Florida guy, and Florida guys know you can't go wrong showing off a big alligator with lots of teeth. About 45 minutes south of Greater Tampa Bay by interstate and rural road, tucked into the vanishing countryside of Sarasota County, Myakka has more alligators than you can poke a stick at.

But leave your stick at home.

Years ago, I tried poking a very long one at a very large alligator that had decided, rather thoughtlessly, to block a popular hiking path near the lake. I imagined all kinds of horrific things happening, such as careless cyclists piling up as they struck the alligator or farsighted hikers' being devoured one by one.

Like Don Quixote astride Rocinante, me and my stick felt the need to be heroes. I banged the stick on the ground, then poked the alligator in the tail. Rising on its haunches with some alacrity, the annoyed gator opened its trapdoor of a maw and let out the basso profundo hiss of all time. It was a hiss from the age of dinosaurs, a warning from Florida primeval. If that alligator preferred blisters on its claws to swimming in a perfectly good lake, who was I, modest Florida boy, to argue? I retreated.

Fortunately, most of the alligators at Myakka River State Park prefer the water. So that's where I take snowbirds interested in experiencing authentic Florida. Sometimes we simply take a hike along the river and look for gators. If members of my tour are brave, we might paddle a canoe. If we're feeling lazy, we look for Dick Fredlund.

Dick knows a lot about alligators, and he's also the captain of the Myakka Maiden, the park's 52-foot, tourist-friendly airboat. If he can't find you an alligator, even on a nippy day, nobody can.

Betwixt the jaws

I suppose there are people who take alligators for granted. After all, we see them routinely around golf course ponds and urban creeks. A few unlucky souls over the years have even discovered them lurking beneath the low-dive in their swimming pools.

But for me, alligators are never a cliche. I enjoy them wherever and whenever, yet nothing is more exciting than encountering an alligator in the wild. There, the gator is the king.

I find it useful to look at alligators with old eyes. I like imagining the French explorer Jacques Le Moyne traipsing through the Land of Flowers looking for adventure in 1565. I imagine that he is impressed by the New World's lush vegetation and awesome beaches. Then, sacre bleu! When he gets sight of an angry Alligator mississippiensis he grabs his pencil and goes to work. His rendition is our first known picture of an alligator. He shows six robust Indians cramming a small tree into the gullet of a gator that looks big enough to swallow St. George's dragon. Sure, Le Moyne was probably exaggerating. But a big alligator does that to Florida visitors.

William Bartram, North America's first travel writer of note, took a boat ride down Florida's St. Johns River in 1774 when the alligators were ravenous. I am sure his quill pen was trembling as he wrote.

"I have seen an alligator take out of the water several great fish at a time, and just squeeze them betwixt his jaws, while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them. The horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapour issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful."

When you see a big alligator up close, you can't help thinking about being squeezed betwixt its jaws. Fortunately, it happens infrequently. Millions of Floridians swim in lakes, rivers and springs every year and only about a dozen of us get nipped. Since the state started keeping records in 1948 there have been just 13 fatal attacks.

It has never happened at Myakka. That's probably because swimming is prohibited. But hikers are advised to pay attention while strolling near the water. A few years ago Paula Benshoff, park naturalist, was working on the edge of the lake. Glancing at the shallow water between her feet, she noticed the snout of a 12-foot alligator that had sneaked up on her.

Standing on her tiptoes, she raised a pole high above her head. "Then I shouted, with the loudest, deepest voice I could muster, "Get out of here!' " she wrote in her biography of the park, Myakka. "The gator turned and, with a tremendous splash, bolted at lightning speed back to the center of the river."

Man's law, now nature's

Dick Fredlund doesn't talk with an Aussie accent like that popular TV reptile man. But he's got a sense of humor. "Your alligator has 80 teeth," he tells people. "They must spend a fortune on toothpaste."

Over the years he has become a gator expert despite disadvantages that include only a short tenure as a Florida resident.

At 62, Fredlund is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a Vietnam vet. He was a patent attorney and later worked at the Department of Energy. Seven years ago he retired to Sarasota, pronounced himself bored and got a job piloting the Myakka Maiden. Four times a day he and other captains take tourists by the boatload into the lake to look for the park's most celebrated megafauna.

"Everybody wants to see the alligators," he says.

This time of year, the 70-seat boat is filled to capacity from the first tour at 10 a.m. to the last tour at 2:30 p.m. Smart gator watchers arrive at the park early, drive to the concession office at the lake and book reservations. Seats cost $8 for adults and $5 for kids. It's cheaper than Disney World, and it's no fantasy.

In the winter, I like taking the afternoon tour. Cold-blooded reptiles, sluggish or hiding on crisp mornings, wake up after a few hours of sun. In the distance, they patrol the 1,000-acre lake like aircraft carriers. That's okay, but I want to see them up close.

Fredlund points the Myakka Maiden at the far side of the lake and steps on the gas. We scoot past herons and egrets at 8 mph.

"If you're an alligator," Fredlund tells us, "life doesn't get better than this." Myakka is a fast-food restaurant for alligators. They feed on 25 species of fish, nine species of snakes and seven species of turtle. They eat wading birds like popcorn. If a mammal comes to the water to drink at the wrong place, hide your eyes. Years ago I saw a gator ambush a thirsty wild hog. R.I.P., Porky Pig.

As we approach the far shoreline, Fredlund cuts the engine to a whisper. Alligators line the bank like sun-baked beachgoers behind the Don CeSar. Aboard the Myakka Maiden, tourists stand and do what tourists are required to do. The noise you just heard was the shutters of 70 cameras.

Some alligators play hard to get and slink off the bank toward deep water. But not Gargantua, as I immediately dub him. He lies on the bank, defiant, almost daring us to come closer. I estimate his length at 25 feet. Okay, I am under the spell of the alligator. He's probably closer to 12. Big enough.

On the way in, we can't help but notice the anglers. At Myakka, they fish from boats, but a good many just wade into the lake. It's easier to sneak up on a bass when you wade. Of course, when you wade, it is easier for an alligator to sneak up on you.

"Alligators have a brain the size of a walnut," Dick Fredlund tells us. "But I think wade fisherman must have a brain the size of a peanut. What are they thinking?"

About the cover:

Dick Fredlund captains the Myakka Maiden along Upper Myakka Lake at Myakka State Park in Sarasota. Times photograph by Chris Zuppa.

AT A GLANCE

Myakka River State Park offers 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. A 7-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. More than 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior. Birding, canoeing, cycling, fishing and wildlife observation are all popular. It is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year, and is 9 miles east of I-75 in Sarasota County on State Road 72. Park admission is $5 per vehicle for up to eight people. Boat tours are $8 for adults, $5 for children. For more information about boat tours, call (941) 377-5797. For more information on the park, go to www.floridastateparks.org/myakkariver.

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