May 25, 2015

United States

Swamp fun in Florida

Enjoy a surreal ride througha unique landscape

You'll catch glimpses of alligators on the airboat ride.

You'll catch glimpses of alligators on the airboat ride.

Captain Jon Fricchione propels the airboat to full speed and pops in some chewing tobacco.

Even at age 22 our captain is a Central Florida good ol' boy.

Handler Cody Morgan shows off Fluffy the metre-long alligator at Boggy Creek Airboat Rides.

Handler Cody Morgan shows off Fluffy the metre-long alligator at Boggy Creek Airboat Rides.

The 17-passenger airboats that Boggy Creek Airboat Rides uses can easily navigate shallow swamp or wide open water.

The 17-passenger airboats that Boggy Creek Airboat Rides uses can easily navigate shallow swamp or wide open water.

Captain Jon Fricchione.

Captain Jon Fricchione.

He also seems to fit all our stereotypes of someone who lives in the headwaters of the Everglades. He pilots an airboat, is a wealth of knowledge on alligators and talks in a disarming drawl.

"I'm Central Florida born and bred, yes sir," says Fricchione.

As such he's the perfect guide for our quintessentially Florida experience at Boggy Creek Airboat Rides on East Lake Tohepekaliga.

With my 11-year-old daughter Grace, the day trip into the swamp was a break from playing at nearby Disney World.

In fact, Boggy Creek positions itself as the closest place to Disney to catch an airboat and spend some time in the state's all natural theme park.

Airboats are a marvellous piece of machinery perfectly suited to Florida's swamps.

Instead of a propeller in the water like most boats, true to their name airboats use a giant fan in a cage at the back of the boat to propel the vessel using air.

A modified car motor (in the case of the boat we rode a 450 horsepower big block Chevrolet) drives the fan and the vessel is steered via rudders like an airplane.

With no propeller in the water the boat skims across the surface and can manoeuvre over the shallows and through reeds and lily pads.

As such we enjoy a surreal ride through a unique land and waterscape.

Fricchione also turns out to be quite the comedian.

He uses the pre-ride safety demonstration to tell us: "If you fall out of the boat just stand up. We'll never be in water deeper than your waist."

He's also vague on his promises of what we'll see on the ride.

"I'm gonna try to find you as much wildlife as possible," says Fricchione.

"But since they are wild and not on the payroll I can't guarantee you nothin', especially gators."

Turns out the captain is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

Before long he slows down the boat for us to see giant painted turtles lazing on logs.

Flocks of ducks scatter to get out of our path and we see the elegant bird of prey called the snail kite both soaring overhead and sitting patiently in trees.

Slowing through a dense reedy stretch we spot two gators.

There's no splashing in the water or gnashing of teeth.

The gators simply and stealthy swim slowly away from the boat and our excited chatter.

After trolling through the reeds, lily pads and floating mud pads populated by Carolina willow trees we take to the open lake for a final rush at top speed of 60 km/h.

Soon back at the dock we're gabbing about what a blast we've had and how we now can't wait to meet a gator up close.

That gator is Fluffy, clearly someone had irony on their mind when they named him, and he's the post-airboat ride entertainment at Boggy Creek.

The metre-long reptile is quite the hit.

Grace is literally prancing with excitement to get a hold of her first gator.

"Who wants to be front of the line," asks gator-handler Cody Morgan.

"I will," chirps Grace quickly.

So Morgan nonchalantly passes over the gator with only scant instructions to hold it with two hands, one under his front legs and one at the base of his tail.

Not following his own directions, Morgan has been swaying around gripping Fluffy with only one hand on his belly.

Grace beams with pride as the cameras click to capture the moment.

After all she's up close and personal with one of the most fearsome creatures from the wild.

But Fluffy actually doesn't look or act very scary.

His mouth is pragmatically secured with black electrical tape and he doesn't flail or swipe at people with his nasty-looking claws.

He stays calm while being passed around and even closes his eyes like a grateful dog when you rub his forehead.

Perhaps Fluffy senses that he's one lucky little gator.

He's part of a posse of 4,000 rescued reptiles at Gator Adventure Productions' nearby sanctuary.

"We buy alligators that would otherwise be killed at farms at the age of three for leather and meat," explained Morgan.

"And then we use some of them for education like we are here at Boggy Creek. Selling the photos we take of tourists with our gators helps raise money for the sanctuary and our partners that work on gator conservation."

So we eagerly pay the US$20 for two photos of us holding Fluffy.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 A1

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