Camping with Alligators, Wild Boars and Bobcats at Myakka River in Florida

The winter sun was already setting over a grove of lavish sand pines in central Florida. In my mind, I was still debating whether I should h...

The winter sun was already setting over a grove of lavish sand pines in central Florida. In my mind, I was still debating whether I should head to my wilderness camping at Myakka State Forest or spend the night in my rental SUV. “There is only one alligator living in a pond and she rarely makes any appearance”, a lady helping with my camping reservation on the phone cheerfully told me a few weeks prior. On the one hand, I’m going to be alone in this unfamiliar forest with big reptiles and who knows what else roving around my campsite. What’s more, it’s supposed to be pretty chilly at night - Florida too gets a fair share of cold winter weather. And finally, I don’t even know how long it will take to get to my campsite, so the possibility of pitching my new tent in the darkness is real. On the other hand, I brought my backpack with all my gear all the way from Canada, skipped my lunch and sped on the Interstate-75 so I can get here before the sunset. So am I going to pass on this opportunity?
No way. The overnight parking fee is paid in full, the backpack perfectly hugs my waist, and I’m ready to go. The next 20 minutes on a flat dirt road could seem boring if I was not rushing, almost jogging, occasionally taking pictures of native palmettos illuminated by a mercilessly setting reddish sun. I’m making my first turn left and I’m already half-way through according to the map on my phone.
But what’s laying ahead is a bit concerning: a family of wild boars foraging truffles right on my trail. I remember that boars can be aggressive and cause serious injuries with their tusks, especially a mother fearing for her offsprings. But I also know that a boar, like any other wild animal, is not a trouble-maker and would be more likely to escape given the opportunity. So as soon as they saw me, I stopped, made eye contact with the largest boar (I guess it was a mother) and waited. She stared at me for a second or two, grunted unhappily and jumped into the bushes on my right. The rest of the family followed. I moved cautiously, my knees still shaking. Little did I know that it would not be the last time I got an adrenaline surge that day. As I approached the place where the boar family was harvesting nutritious mushrooms just a minute ago, I heard some rustle on my left. More boars? I trampled - more rustle. Trampled again and the three tiny piglets swiftly crossed the trail to unite with their family.
I reached my final destination at twilight. I still had time to pitch my tent and appreciate the lovely campsite with an unlovely name, the Watering Hole, before everything would be covered in complete darkness. The site could easily fit a dozen medium-sized tents and had everything you would ever need in a backcountry: a good picnic table, a firepit with a grill grate, enough cut wood to spend a few hours by a bonfire, and of course - a complete solitude and the best views of the pond and Florida’s primeval forest.
As soon as I finished a stroopwafel with tomato juice from my connecting flight, I spotted a dog-size unknown animal that came to my campsite out of the woods. I genuinely freaked out, quickly pulled a branch from a pile of firewood, and jumped on the table. It definitely wasn’t a boar or a bear, didn’t have a furry tail like a coyote or a fox, was probably too small for a panther. Or maybe it was one of those critically endangered native panthers? I had no idea which made me feel even more insecure. The animal was completely ignoring me and was going about its business as I was trying to guess what the hell it was. It didn’t even look at me and continued sniffing something in the grass. After I threatened it with a stick and my loud voice, it unhurriedly disappeared in the bushes and I never saw it again. Next morning, I learned from a park brochure that it was a bobcat, apparently a pretty widespread feral cat in Florida and completely harmless for people. Good kitty!
What else was hiding in the woods that night? I didn’t want to know, so I took my stick and went straight to my snug tent. The key is not to bring anything inside that smells like food, otherwise it can attract a curious and hungry animal. I hung my backpack on a branch of a pine tree nearby, a measure that would discourage most animals. Racoons and bears could still make it though, but I had to hope for the best as I had no rope.
Those who ever camped know that a tent gives you a sense of protection. You can still hear every murmur or noise which is perfectly ok. What’s not ok is if something is scratching your tent from the outside. A mouse? A gecko? Or maybe a boar, an alligator or that creature I just saw? Whatever it was and however small it could have been, I smacked on my tent a few times and the strange scratching ceased. After about 10 minutes, I fell asleep like a baby as I was too tired to stay awake after my long journey from Canada and such memorable wildlife encounters.
What I experienced the next morning was well worth the hassle the night before: a picture-perfect sunrise over a foggy pond. I didn’t see but could clearly imagine my neighbour-alligator laying on a forest glade at the opposite side of the pond, unable to move until he would soak up enough sun warmth. Unlike him, I was full of energy after eating another stroopwafel from my perfectly intact backpack and was ready to go on my next adventure. This time I was heading to the Deep Hole at Myakka River State Park, a place where dozens of alligators like to congregate and hunt. Stay tuned for my next article.

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