Swampland Adventures

To my knowledge, no black bear tour exists in New Hampshire. Dear New Hampshire Office of Travel and Tourism, get on that.

Really. Grab a bunch of tourists, put them in a vehicle — preferably open on all sides — give them some delicious-smelling edible goodies and plop them out in bear country. I estimate you’ll be raking it in, hand over fist, from death-defying tourists in no time.

Of course, that’s nuts. For many reasons, chief of which I assume is that tourists returning home missing a few, um, parts is just bad PR. Though I find it doubtful any sensible bear would have anything to do with such a scheme. The only bear I ever saw was more of a fuzzy blur as it turned tail and ran. Scary.

So then, why is it that Florida — the state I once thought of, nose in the brisk air of my rugged and wild New England state, as filled with only retirees and spring breakers — does pretty much the same thing with its scaly inhabitants?

On a recent trip to the Sunshine State, I found myself at Billie Swamp Safari. Unafraid, after all I’ve hiked and camped — overnight, mind you — in both the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I boldly took my seat on the outside edge of a fan boat.

Soon after whizzing through the masses of waving green water plants and dripping moss, the engine stopped with only a slightly ominous thunk. Now, drawled our guide perched, in my opinion not at all wisely, on the bow of the boat, we’re not allowed to feed the alligators. Good rule, I thought. Don’t give the leftover dinosaurs any more reason to associate you with food, other than the fact that to them, you’re — well — food.

But, he added, that doesn’t mean we can’t feed the fish. Before I could pop out a fluorescent yellow earplug (fan boats are louder than you’d think) to make sure I heard that correctly, he’d tossed a bucket of food pellets into the water.

Hmm. We all looked warily at the muddy water, waiting for something to happen. Something didn’t take long.

First, the fish went berserk over the pellets. Then the alligators, as in a least half a dozen, started gliding silently towards the boat. You see, our guide said proudly, as though telling me little Johnny can already count to 20 and recite the alphabet, they can leap “quick as lightening” up to two-thirds of their body length out of the water. When the water is mere inches away from your person, that little nugget of information is, to put it mildly, alarming.

One gator, who was disturbingly not impressed with the pellets or the roiling fish, swam close enough to brush his body against the side of the boat. My side of the boat. I surreptitiously glanced at the other nine people in the boat, you know, just in case. Yes, I thought, I can definitely swim faster than some. No need to be fastest — just not last.

“Um, there’s an alligator,” the guy behind me helpfully understated.

“Huh,” grunted the guide distractedly, and poked it with a stick, albeit a very long one, but still, a stick. Jaws opened, the thing hissed, and I was all but in the lap of the guy next to me before I realized it was swimming away.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them,” clichéd the guide, unadvisedly turning his back on the alligator he just antagonized. Somehow I doubted him. More likely we’re just harder work than pellets and fish.

Inquisitive boars came running to the shore sniffing for pellets of their own. I kept waiting — in a sort of suspended state of sick fascination and hope — for a gator to catch himself a nice pork dinner. It didn’t happen, but the mere fact that a scene previously only glimpsed through half averted eyes on the Discovery Channel could occur just feet away was all part of the fun.

Yes, fun. Fun in the way horror movies are fun. It’s that knife edge of anticipation that makes you involuntarily grab your neighbor, scootch a little further into your seat, cover your eyes with splayed fingers. You don’t want to see, after all, you’re too civilized to enjoy blood and guts — but you’ll look anyway and when you do it’s a delicious ripple of tingles up the spine.

So, until New Hampshire gets on this “poke a bear with a stick knife-edge of anticipation” trip, I’ll be on the evening moose tour. NH

Erica Thoits, assistant editor of New Hampshire Magazine, participated in a summer press tour of the Ft. Lauderdale region of Florida and returned with a tan and this “What I Did on My Vacation” report.