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MarshBunny Notes
The St. Johns River The Intracoastal and Beyond
Boating Safety
or, "Do you have to be crazy to go out there in a small boat?"

A reader wrote to me saying he had recently moved to Florida but had concerns about taking his kayak out amongst the snakes and alligators and other dangers of the marsh. I felt guilty that some of my stories may have caused some of his concern, because it's really not all that bad. Face it, if a goofball like myself can survive and enjoy going out in the marsh there's no reason why anyone else can't!

Not to say there aren't real dangers - this isn't Disney World, and the snakes and alligators are real. You simply need to keep your eyes and ears open and take care of your own safety.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the more exciting stories make better reading. You ever try to make a good story out of an uneventful day? Boring! For the purposes of this website, we shall try to keep the stories interesting. Don't take them too seriously!

The second thing to keep in mind is that I've been on the river for many, many years and am still here to lie...er, tell about it.

Unless you have allergic reactions to stinging insects, the biggest worries on the river are weather, other boaters, snakes, and alligators...in that order. Here are a few tips to help you safely cope with the main dangers on the river:

LightningWEATHER: Protect yourself from the heat. Use sunblock, a hat, sun glasses and drink lots of water. Learn the symptoms of heat exhaustion and take steps to cool down if you get over heated.

Also learn to watch for approaching storms. Getting caught in the rain is one thing, but you don't want to be caught crossing a large lake in the middle of a lightning storm.

If I am caught on the far side of a lake with a storm coming I go around the edge rather than crossing the middle. If the weather gets too rough for further travel I pull up under some low willow trees and put up a tarp and wait for it to pass.

AirboatBOATERS: Being in a small, quiet boat you need to keep an eye out for other boaters. Luckily, airboaters can be heard a good ways off, as can fast motorboats.

If you go on airboat trails you should put a flag on your boat - maybe a good idea to have one anyway, just to increase your visibility.

The advantage to being in a small boat is that you can duck into a small space (like between trees) for shelter.

SnakeSNAKES: There are a few poisonous snakes in the marsh...rattlers, pigmie rattlers, water moccasins and cottonmouths...but only the cottonmouths are really aggressive. Most snakes will gladly take off in the opposite direction. (Once again, keep in mind that I have been on the river a long time and I have only 3 confirmed sightings of a cottonmouth - and only one of those was being aggressive.)

Keep your eyes open. Often you will not see a full "snake" at first view, so watch for movement on top of the water (particularly if something is moving against the current), or in the trees. Learn to identify the Snake Bird so you don't freak out thinking it's a snake when it's really only a bird.

When you pull up under trees look up into the branches to make sure a snake isn't draped on the branch overhead waiting to drop into your boat. If you get out on land to walk around, make lots of noise and keep your eyes open. Know where you are putting your feet!

If you do encounter a poisonous snake, retreat. As rapidly as possible. Non-poisonous snakes - either ignore them or just chuck a stick or shell towards them to encourage them to move along out of your way.

Cottonmouth snake photo used with permission of Gene Ott

Gator on bankALLIGATORS: Really the least of your worries. As you can tell from some of my photos, I get pretty close to them. Then again I have a little 6 hp engine to help me make my getaway.

Most of the time you will see a gator's head on the water and he will silently sink out of sight as you approach. If you want to make sure he does, just beat on the side of your boat to make noise.

Of course, my theory is that I would rather see the gator and know where is is than to worry he might accidentally come up underneath me and tip me over. (Again, years on the river and it's never happened to me.)

If you startle a gator on the bank he will rush into the water with a great thrashing of his tail. He is not coming after you, he's just wanting to scare you into backing off long enough for him to get into the water and make his escape. Just make sure you leave him room to run. A gator's mouth may be full of teeth, but his tail is one huge muscle and you don't want him to accidentally hit your boat with it.

So long as you follow a few simple safety rules and treat the alligator with respect you won't have any problems.

The biggest rule is DON'T MESS WITH THEM DURING MATING SEASON (May - July). With the exception of a mother protecting her young, this is the only time they get aggressive. (I'm sure I don't need to tell you not to mess with an alligators nest, right?)

Animated alligatorWhen the water is up high enough to go on all the trails, the likelyhood of running into gators or snakes is low. They have enough water to go where ever they want, and don't need to stay where people go. You do have to keep an eye out for other boaters and the weather, but I still feel safer out in the marsh that I do at the Mall.

Get that kayak out of the garage and go exploring!

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