Swamp Writer: Football and the Gator

One of the main adventures at the camp is a ride down Chicory Bayou. Besides Mallard Fork and the entrance off Raft River, this is the only possible way out of Chuckfee Bay. I say possible because there are times when it is so narrow and shallow and choked with swamp grass that you don’t think there’s any way to navigate its mile-long snaking path to Grand Bay.

The journey from one end of Chicory to the other reminds me of the Jungle Cruise at Disney World. In fact, we sometimes refer to this outing as “taking the Jungle Cruise.” Bass boats can’t get in there, only small jon boats like my own. The water is typically clear and tea colored over the waving swamp grass. Bass and bream and mullet corral at the bow of the boat. I’ve seen more wild hogs on this bayou than any place else in the swamp. They stare at you in disbelief as if they’ve never seen a man. In the spring, the banks are so loud with frogs and baby alligators that it makes me wonder if the bayou might not be the nursery for the entire ecosystem. Navigating the bayou is such a challenge that anyone who has skill for it gets bragging rights. Unfortunately, Steve never developed this skill. I think his problem lay with the fact that his boat was bigger than ours and underpowered. Regardless, he regularly requested that we take his boat on the journey.

Finesse is the key to navigating Chicory. You cannot bull your way through the grass and muck. You must keep the foot of your motor in the narrow channels. But if you stray and your propeller wraps grass like a fork in spaghetti, you must stop. You can only get your boat out by quick thrusts in reverse.

Steve’s technique was to hammer down and when stuck, hammer down more. After continuously overheating his motor, bending his aluminum propellers, and running out of gas, I thought he would learn that you can’t strong-arm Chicory. But Steve is hard-headed. His solution was to purchase a case of plastic propeller blades, something I’d never seen before. One of his friends highly recommended them. Supposedly, he could swap them like tires at NASCAR and slice his way to Grand Bay. As I predicted, it didn’t work. I still have one of the propellers on the wall in the camp. It is bladeless and smooth like a toilet paper roll.

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We would return from Chicory and tie up our boats, still hot and steaming and pasted with grass and mud. We usually had a big crew in those days, six or seven of us at times, not counting the occasional cooler full of live alligators we’d plucked from the grass and brought back for entertainment.

One evening in the early fall, we returned from a Jungle Cruise and lugged the cooler onto the screen porch. With us was an ex-football player from the University of Alabama. He was loud, obnoxious and wet from at least one slip into the swamp. Sometimes newcomers to the Delta get like that when they realize they haven’t had so much freedom since they were children. Toss in boats and a jungle full of animals. Show them how to grab alligators behind the neck and act like Steve Irwin. It was more than Football, we’ll call him, could handle.

Once I turned on the country music and we settled into chairs on the porch, Football began to grow weary of leading the charge. His voice was hoarse, his wounds from falling were throbbing and drinking more beer was only weighing him down. He sat next to the cooler, pulled out a small alligator, and began to sympathize with it. He called it “Little Gaita.” Over and over and over again. He was oblivious to everyone around him. All of his sins suddenly heavy. He put his hand up to the alligator’s mouth and began to stroke its nose. With a quick pop of its head, Little Gaita clamped down between Football’s thumb and forefinger. Football leaped from his chair and screamed like a girl. The alligator dropped to the floor and scampered into the corner. Football looked at his hand and then held it out to me. An arc of teeth marks like a hundred pinpricks circled the top of his hand. “He bit me!” Football said in disbelief. “The alligator bit me!”

“You’ll be okay, ” I said.

He looked at his hand again. “But it stings!”

The rest of the group was laughing. A few were trying to retrieve the alligator from the corner, using a dishrag for protection. “It’s hardly anything at all, ” I said to Football.

“Do you have somethin’ I can put on it?”

“Don’t be a wuss.”

“Come on, man! I just got bit by an alligator.”

I was truly weary of Football that night. I shook my head and went inside. Football followed. I got a can of insect repellant off the bar and gripped it so that the label was covered. Football held out his hand, and I made two generous passes over it.

“Whoa!” he yelled. “That stings!”

“Means it’s workin’.”

He studied the hand. Looked back at me. “Thanks, ” he said.

It’s all mental skills when it comes to alligators.

text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer

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