Photos : Jamie Ross / Riley
Contributor James Ross shares a recent adventure enjoying a gator tour with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours in Florida
Gator hunting in Florida? Okay, I admit it’s not really hunting when you are armed only with a camera. But that is how I like it.
Alligators, which seem to be everywhere in Florida, are maybe not as gentle and docile as the state’s native manatees, but they’re a big draw for tourists in the Sunshine State. You certainly don’t want to go on a “Swimming with the Gators” tour. Rather, you want to skulk around the alligator’s backwater habitat in a swift and versatile airboat, an extraordinary vehicle that can navigate places where normal watercraft can’t go.
There is no engine dragging behind it, so you can race through fields of water hyacinths and under the thick canopy of moss-covered cypress trees. It’s stealthy enough to creep into dense swamps to sneak up on a resting gator, but powered by a massive propeller, it can also fly flat out across wide-open lakes, which is handy in case the alligator decides he wants to eat you.
Finding Florida Gators with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours
I strap on the earmuffs to protect myself from the roar of the engine and brace myself for an outing with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours into the backwaters of the Withlacoochee River. The Withlacoochee offers about 83 miles of navigable waterway, but that is misleading because air-powered craft can go places where conventional powerboats dare not venture.
This iconic Florida river starts off narrow and shallow, ideal for canoeing, but 30 miles downstream the river opens up into wide Everglades, and that’s where the airboats rule. In its upper reaches, the Withlacoochee is stained dark from the tannic acid leaching from the surrounding cypress foliage. Downstream the water runs crystal clear in spots because of natural springs underneath.
On route, we pass through hardwood forest, cypress swamps, pine woods, palmetto scrub brush, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh. On this sunny afternoon, we see many alligators warming themselves on the banks. The bird life is also amazing, with herons, egrets, red-tail hawks, osprey and eagles taking flight at our approach.
The Wysong Dam
At the end of our run is the Wysong Dam. A ramp is built alongside the dam to allow airboats to propel themselves out of the water in some kind of James Bond maneuver, hopefully setting down safely on the other side. Thankfully this is not part of today’s tour, so our captain opens it up for a wild ride home.
Airboat touring companies were once found mostly around Everglades National Park in the south, but now a plethora of them offer wilderness tours throughout the headwaters of the Everglades system in central Florida.
Learn more about Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours at www.wildbillsairboattour.com.
Contributor James Ross is a travel writer and columnist, and author of the books Cottage Daze and Still in a Daze at the Cottage. He lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.
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Contributor James Ross shares his recent adventure enjoying a gator tour with Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours in Florida