BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: Charleston, SC

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One of the things that was on the very top of my ‘must see’ list for our first trek into the Deep South was to see an alligator up close in the wild.

Being from Colorado I’ve been privileged to get up close to deer, elk, moose, eagles and bears, but I’ve never gotten to see an alligator other than in a zoo – which doesn’t count.

I shared my intentions with my son-in-law Dave, who cocked his head to one side, gave me the ‘seriously – why?’ face, patted me on the head and simply looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Assuming that this was naturally on everyone’s ‘must see’ list, I felt baffled at his response.  Dave grew up in New Orleans, though, and feels that if he never sees one of those ‘evil monsters’ again that would be just fine.  I also think he felt that once I’d had the experience, I would come to know how silly and naïve I had been.

Not giving Dave’s reaction a second thought I pressed on toward the goal.

We planned a visit into the beautiful city of Charleston, SC, stopping on the outskirts to visit the Francis Beidler Forest and Nature Conservatory.  The forest was established by the National Audubon Society in 1974 and has become vital to helping educate the public about the importance of the swamps to both the local ecosystem and to the health of our planet.

It was also my first Gator Spotting Opportunity!

We spent a lovely morning at the Beidler Forest where we learned that swamps are where the fossil fuel, coal is formed, what swamp knees are, and that swamps are vital for controlling floods and purifying local water sources.  It is a beautiful place full of unusual plants, trees and creatures, and I look forward to another visit.

What I didn’t see, however, was a Gator.

From the Beidler Forest we headed into Charleston proper, which is one of my favorite cities in the South.  The port of Charleston was founded in 1620 and sits on a bay of the Atlantic Ocean.  Here you will find horse-drawn carriages, giant Spanish Oak trees, grand pastel antebellum houses, and cobblestoned streets that lead you to many historic homes- some of which you may tour.

We made our way to White Point Garden (or Battery Park) that sits at the city’s tip from where you can see Ft Sumter (where the first shots of the Civil War were fired), enjoy an incredible view of the Atlantic Ocean, and start a walking tour of some of the most magnificent homes in the United States.

I didn’t actually expect to see a Gator at the park downtown, which of course, I did not.

It was then on to the lovely Magnolia Plantation.  There are a number of plantations to choose from in Charleston, but this one had me with the gorgeous pictures of magnolias in bloom on their website (and a lake that just might be home to a gator), so off we went.  We’ll have to give this one another try in spring when the magnolias are actually in bloom!  The gardens were still a treat to see in September, though, and we learned a great deal about the plantation’s history and the crops that established the South.  We toured the house, the gardens and enjoyed the view of the lake from the bridge.

But still no gators.

Having decided to fully enjoy our day in Charleston and not be bummed about my lack of gator sightings, we made our way to the Audubon Swamp Garden.  We walked and walked, being a little proud of how much we now knew about swamps. We could now identify many of the plants, trees, and wildlife that existed there, and I pretended to not be holding out for a glimpse of my elusive prey.  We enjoyed our walk along the path around the lake.

And then…there he was!  My first gator-in-the-wild!

I was SO excited!  I first spotted the humps of his back as he swam up to a small ramp located in the middle of the lake.  At first I thought that is was possibly a floating stick (I had obviously been deceived already so I was skeptical), but as he climbed up onto the ramp there was no mistaking!  This monster had to have been at least 2 feet long, and although I had to view him through the telephoto lens of my camera, I was thrilled to finally get to see this demon reptile with my own two eyes.  I watched, frozen with anticipation as he approached a small turtle on the edge of his ramp.  Knowing I was about to see an encounter that would probably not fare well for the turtle, I waited with camera ready.  Then I waited some more.  And a few minutes more after that.  It took me a bit to realize that this baby gator was probably not up for attacking a full grown turtle and had decided instead to nap in the sun.

Oh well, at least I’d seen a gator – even though it was a little one from a great (and safe) distance!  Satisfied, I began putting my camera away when I spotted Eddie backing away from me and trying to convey some sort of message to me in whispers and hand motions.

“What?” I hollered as an enormous tail brushed against my shin, and I found myself staring into the face of a massive alligator in the process of showing me his dental work.

I’d like to think that my new friend was as frightened of me as I was of him, but I would be wrong.

I snapped a quick picture as I made my escape back up the trail, praying that everything I’d heard about how fast gators could run on dry land was a myth.  I watched as he slithered into the water and never looked back to make sure he stayed there.

Eddie chuckled at my screams as we both learned how fast we could actually run facing backwards and tripping over each other.  Despite the intensity and fear of my first encounter, however, I still have a little romance going on with gators.

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I guess I’d gotten what I’d wished for…

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