Charleston, SC

Visiting trails, swamps and dodging gators in Cypress Gardens

Rene Cizio

In Cypress Gardens in Charleston, I realized the city has an alligator infestation. I'm exaggerating, of course, but I was surprised by how often I saw them. Aside from a few signs that say, “Beware of alligators” near watery areas, they don’t even really acknowledge it. In Louisana, finding alligators is sold as a tour, but in Charleston, they're barely mentioned.

It wasn’t until I was in Cypress Gardens that I realized how prevalent alligators were in these parts.

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Rene Cizio

CYPRESS GARDENS

The Cypress Gardens are about 40 minutes outside of Charleston, on mainly swampy, marshy land where there used to be plantations.

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Rene Cizio

It costs $10 to tour the property, and once inside, rowboats are included if you’d like to get in the water. To us, not from the south, the “beware of alligator” signs keep us from getting anywhere near the water. This is how you can tell where people grew up. Some of them (southerners) hopped right in those boats because gators don’t bother them any more than a stray alley cat would.

The walking trails are plentiful, so I opted to skip the boat and walk. The well-paved trails wind their way around the 170 acres of manicured ponds and lagoons. There were tall bald cypress and tupelo trees that sprung from the dark, still water while pink, red and white azaleas bloomed along the paths with fat bees buzzing in and out.

Occasionally, the inky black of the water was broken by the swampy green algae, oversized turtles and, sometimes, a small alligator. There were footbridges, gazebos and the further back I went, the larger the gators became. I was reassured in my choice to forgo the boat, though I’m less afraid of them now than I used to be.

I AIN’T AFRAID OF NO GATOR

A few weeks prior, while touring a plantation, I had to walk in between two ponds filled with – I counted five gators – and turned around. There was no way I intended to walk through the middle of that, but now, three weeks and dozens of alligators later, I, like a good southerner, am becoming immune to their presence.

As I walk, I note alligators sitting on the sides of the swamps, sunning themselves like teenagers on spring break. A few were pretty large, but aside from ensuring I do not go stumbling blindly on top of one, I don’t need to worry about them too much, despite what Looney Tunes had me believing as a child. They are pretty lazy for the most part, especially in the winter.

I’m learning they really are harmless if you don't approach them, and now I can walk right past them without a care. It’s strange how you can become accustomed to almost anything. Who would have thought walking alongside a wild alligator would cease to bother me? Surely not me.

BEWARE OF ALLIGATORS ON TRAIL

But, as usual, I’m about to discover I’ve overestimated myself again.

Once I got to the rear of the property, an unpaved, narrow trail went further back. I haven’t had any good hiking recently, so it appealed to me. A sign read, “Caution, alligators and other animals can be on the trails and surrounding areas. Stay at a safe distance.” At the bottom, there is a silhouette of an alligator looking, in my opinion, ready to spring.

What world is this? I wondered, not for the first time, where a sign like this exists? In the relative safety of the Midwest, if there were an alligator within 50 miles, we would stay in our homes and lock the doors. But here, “stay at a safe distance” while alone in a swamp seems enough. And what, pray tell, is a safe distance? The sign maker gives no indication.

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Rene Cizio

If provoked, do you know an alligator can run up to 30 miles per hour? I do because I looked it up just in case I needed that information. They can also jump six feet high. Think about that while you’re keeping a “safe distance.”

Still, I know I’m going just as crazy as the guy making these signs because after seeing two people take the trail, I waited a few minutes and followed them. I figured at least someone would be within screaming distance and that would have to be good enough.

THE ALLIGATOR TRAIL OF TEARS

I knew almost immediately that I should turn around, but I didn’t. The “trail” was nothing more than a few thin boards going through the swamp. The alligators wouldn’t be “on the trail” – I would be walking in their swamp. If I got my leg bit off, nobody in this world would defend me. “What did you think would happen when you walked through an alligator-infested swamp on nothing but a thin board?” they would ask my dead body.

As I walked, the water was a mere two feet away from either side of me at any given time; I tried to walk quickly but still paid attention without paying too much attention. I didn’t want to misstep and bump into a gator, but I also didn’t want to see any right next to me because then I would start running; it was a vicious cycle.

By the time I was halfway through, I was stressed out – not the result you want from a nice summer hike – still, I had no choice but to keep going. I was in it, and the only way out was through, so I kept up as fast as possible without being careless. All that bravado about “getting used to alligators” was a bald-faced lie. I’m scared witless of alligators.

IT’S LIKE THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT WITH ALLIGATORS

It was about 80 degrees, and the sunlight filtered prettily through the cypress gardens. Birds of all types I’ve never heard and couldn’t place called out to each other and I’d have liked to have stopped to look at them, but I kept my eyes focused on my feet, except when I darted them occasionally to watch for any large, dark scaly monsters.

I’d caught up to the couple I’d seen enter before me. They stopped to take a picture of something. A big mama gator was sunning herself right off the side of the trail.

“Whew, I’m sure glad I saw you two before I saw her,” I said. (If an alligator ever attacks, it’s likely a female protecting her offspring.)

ALLIGATORS, IT TURNS OUT, ARE MOSTLY HARMLESS

I passed several more gators and, despite all my carrying on, they could have cared less. By then, even I only cared a little. I think maybe I really am starting to get used to them now. It’s crazy how, with enough proximity, you can adapt to just about anything. Maybe that’s why nobody in Charleston mentioned the gators. It’s like me mentioning that we have alley cats in the Midwest. Why bother?

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