Monday, July 5, 2010

Thanks for the Alligators, Walt

We’ve been trying to come up with things to do for my brother during his visit that do not involve going to a theme park. Theme parks are very popular with tourists in Central Florida, but in the summer they can be brutally hot and crowded. Worse, people aren’t very imaginative, so they feel a sense of obligation to go to the expensive corporate-owned theme parks, which have huge marketing budgets to attract tourists from all over the world. These gigantic tourist traps suck up the available tourist dollars and leave nothing for locally-owned businesses or attractions.

So I took my brother to do something I’ve wanted to do since I moved to Florida in 1995: an airboat ride on Lake Jesup, which is widely regarded as the most alligator-infested lake in Central Florida.

For those of you who might not know about airboats, they are wide, flat-bottomed boats (usually aluminum) with a big automotive or aircraft engine spinning an aircraft-like propeller mounted above the water on the back of the boat. The thrust of the propeller drives the boat forward, and it’s capable of travelling at high speed, through an inch of water, or even across dry land, if necessary. This makes them ideal for swampy or marshy areas.

Here we are on the boat.


And here’s the boat captain, who sits just in front of the huge, loud propeller.


We left the dock as a scary-looking storm gathered on the opposite shore of the lake.


This was both good and bad. It was good because the heavy cloud cover kept the temperature down, with no chance of sunburn. We found out why it was bad a little later.

The captain pushed off from the dock (airboats don’t have reverse), and we slid out into the lake. We hugged the shore for a short distance, and then the captain swung the boat to the left, facing a small channel about 5 feet wide. I couldn’t believe he was going to try and squeeze our big airboat through that gap, but the boat slipped in like magic, into a little hidden backwater channel. If you look closely, you can see a heron, startled by our arrival.


The captain gunned the engine and nimbly spun the boat 90 degrees on its axis, and then motored slowly through the meandering channel. We saw several small alligators and annoyed some more birds, before emerging from the vegetation into the main body of the lake. The captain hit the throttle, and we sped quickly across the surface of the lake, our teeth clacking as we jittered over the washboard-like waves.

On the other side of the lake, we cruised through some more small channels, and saw several alligators.



The captain then told us something I didn’t know. When DisneyWorld was constructed in the late sixties, any alligators that were found had to be relocated, so they dumped them all in Lake Jesup.

As we returned from our trip, two veils of rain descended from the clouds in front of us. The airboat captain sped forward, attempting to thread the needle between them, but the two curtains closed on us as we headed for shore. When you’re travelling at 35 or 40 miles an hour, raindrops feel like someone is throwing nuts and bolts at your face. The captain stopped the boat and grabbed some tarps from a hatch. We covered ourselves and made it back to the dock, soaked from the rain, but giddy from the experience.


Chris said... life vests???

burton said...

I find the theme in most theme parks is...."Wait in line, fatty." -Demetri Martin