Gator Hookers and the Questionable Shrimp

Jan 14

After some of us spent the better part of a day praising the Earth’s beauty and vowing to never again forsake it for kayaks and the open waters, we woke up to the thrill of a “free day”. Earlhamites diverged into two groups and therefore journeys due to separate interests.
The first group decided to take their curiosity to Loop Road where the trailhead to Gator Hook Trail began. The allure or fright of Gator Hook, depending on who you asked, was the immersion it offered with a trail that necessitated wading through knee-deep waters.
The trail began with limestone, most complete with some incredible solution holes, and incredible views on either side of tall grass marsh. As we walked through, we observed an impressive amount of gator… trails. Flattened grass on either side of the path suggested passage of alligators, but we were unable to confirm with a sighting. Soon, the trail led us into the entrance of a wooded area. From here, the growth of cypress knees on the trail controlled our gaze by forcing us to keep an eye on the ground ahead of us. Because of this, we were able to see and identify some beautiful organisms, including a small garter snake, a trove of ferns, a carabid, and many wading birds. Upon encountering the first unavoidable pool of water, some squealed with glee, some with contempt, and some with the realization that we were, in fact, a long way from the plush accommodations of Tall Timbers. The water was cold and crystal clear, giving a clear view into the wood, stone and growth that lay beneath the surface. As we continued down the path, off-topic conversations transitioned to quiet hiking, with the exception of the “Squeak! Squeak!” of Slim Jim’s (Nathen) sandals.
Pretty soon, the water welcomed us and we entered a sensational cypress swamp. As we traversed and trudged through the trail, we saw loads of bromeliads, particularly cardinal air plants, all up and down the cypress trees. The most disconcerting find in the wetland was a tie between a poison ivy plant which opened our eyes to the reality that there was poison ivy everywhere and a fresh boot track obviously laid down by the resident skunk ape as a red herring. After some time hiking the trail became less and less maintained and we decided that, although there was no clear indication, we had passed the furthest point of the trail.
On the way back, we walked with purpose and took a brief pause to see if staying still for a few minutes would bring any wildlife closer to us. We succeeded tremendously, and the mosquitoes that immediately began ravaging us caused us to continue at a brisk and hand-waving pace. Finally, on the way out, a massive python disguised as a small branch cost Charlie his ambition to lead and a pair of underpants. Overall, the wet hike proved to be a memorable experience and a great use of a free day.
The second group tired from our journeys, to and from, and our stay on the island decided that instead of a hike it was time for a day of rest. We set out with intentions of becoming tourists for the day and enjoying our time as so many other visitors do. We set out for Marco Island.
The first destination of the day was a location reported to have had burrowing owls. As we pulled up to the site we all confused to houses. Just like any street the road were lined with mailboxes and driveways, and while the mailboxes were very fun, being in the shapes of pelicans, manatees and dolphins, we were disappointed to realize that this was not where we would find our owls. We turned to leave and noticed something. The lot on the corner didn’t have a house on it, but it did have a few small sections of grass were roped off, and each roped off section contained small pile of dirt, an owl burrow.
With a new hope of owls, took the chance to stop for some truly tourist activities. First we found a local coffee shop for iced coffee and croissants. As we sat on the patio to enjoy, we considered what the other group must be up to, whatever their hike was like it could not be as pleasant as sitting in the sun with coffee and croissants. We took our touristy trek through some of the neighboring shops looking through everything from swimsuits to sunglasses. By the time we got back to the van we were ready to find some owls.
This time we were prepared. We knew what we were looking for. As we turned down new streets, we spotted more and more roped off sections until one of them contained a mound of dirt a good bit taller than the others, a mound that turned its head as we turned down the street. There were shouts of joy and excitement. Everyone had their binoculars pointed out the windows of the van at the bird who stood guard of its burrow just across the street. Pictures were taken, cuteness was appreciated, and we had accomplished the biggest goals of the day.
It was time for a break. We headed to the beach. Everyone was excited to do their own thing at the beach. Josh headed straight for the observation tower with camera and binoculars in hand, Sophia patrolled the beach in search of shells, and Nathan searched the water for anything and everything marine biology. We could tell that the local wildlife was used to getting fed by humans when a snowy egret approached us, seemingly looking for food and when we didn’t provide any stood within arm’s reach of another woman. This stay at the beach was made far more pleasant knowing that at any point in time we could leave the sand behind. We did just that after deciding it was well past time for lunch.
After a meal of Chipotle and Starbucks, we had just enough light left in the day to stop at an ebird hotspot. As we pulled up we notice a few other cars, and just down the trail are several other people with binoculars and cameras pointing out at a field filled with different species of birds. The egrets, herons, and white ibises we had seen countless times along our trip stood alongside limpkins, black-bellied whistling ducks, and roseate spoonbills. The most exciting was the snail kite, which we first noticed perched on a pole, but also got to watch as it swooped down to catch one of its signature snails. Truly a successful day for birding and tourist things alike.
When we reconvened as one big group, we unwound and let the sun set over the tree line. Afterwards, we set out once again, this time all of us went to Loop Road armed with high powered flashlights to see what lurked in the waters and woods at nighttime. Some highlights from this excursion included: disturbing a barred owl mid-bowel-movement, seeing trees full of white ibis and yellow-crowned night herons fishing, spotting a wild Deere (John Deere, that is), and spotting the reflection of multiple gators both above and underwater. Once we got back to camp at Skunkape, Chris cooked up various assortments of “hot dogs” and the group enjoyed these dawgs along with a diverse array of potato salads and chips. Overall, it was a full day and we all went to bed in our tents, hammocks, and vans happy.

  • Charlie Burton, Senior and Abby Shuck, Junior
Posted on January 19, 2022 02:56 AM by crsmithant crsmithant


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