Updated on April 15, 2022
When my grandparents called to tell me they were going to be escaping the Wisconsin winter and spending a few weeks at a resort in sunny Orlando, FL—and I was welcome to join—I wasn’t going to miss the chance. I also knew I wasn’t going to be right next door to our damn good bass and alligator guide Mr. Randy without paying him a visit over in Kissimmee. We booked our flights, gave Randy a call, and started counting down the days until we could check out what Central Florida’s waters are all about.
Once I escaped the chaos that is the Orlando airport, I quickly maxed out my calorie count with my Grandma’s homemade cooking that I missed dearly. Before any of us could get settled, we loaded up the cooler and set out to see Randy and our guide for the evening, Bobby. The great thing about Lake Tohopekaliga is that it’s only about 20 minutes from Orlando, which makes it a short drive and a great chance to take in views of the Everglades headwaters. As you head south, the bright lights and noise of the rides and crowds fade away in a slow transition to trees covered in Spanish moss surrounded by picturesque swamp land.
Randy and Bobby offer a variety of trips on this chain of lakes including bass fishing, bow fishing, and more. We chose to take the eco tour to learn about the local flora and fauna, especially the alligators. There aren’t too many alligators in Wisconsin, so we were excited and a little wary to meet these dinosaurs up close and personal. I grew up watching Steve Irwin, so I had the right training for the experience.
We met Randy and Bobby right where they said they’d be, and they had the airboat ready to go. Our excitement only grew as we got to know them. They played the role of Southern Gentlemen to a T, and the boats, shop, and outfit are well maintained, so I knew we were in for a good time. Bobby helped us get the cooler in the boat, passed out ear protection, and went over our game plan. Then he fired up the fan, and away we went as Randy waved us off from the dock.
Bobby started by taking us for a spin around the lake to show us all the local wildlife. Though I’ve spent plenty of time on the water, this was an entirely new experience. Bobby knew every part of the giant lake like the back of his hand and explained to us all the different types of lilies, grasses, fish, snails, and birds.
One of the biggest highlights was watching the snail kites. Snail kites are small raptors that are endangered in the state of Florida, but Parks and Wildlife have been working to recover their numbers. Now, Lake Tohopekaliga has the largest population in the state. Bobby also explained how the lake itself is one of the most important pieces of the Everglades. It’s actually the headwaters of the Everglades, meaning that all of the water that feeds through the entire ecosystem starts right there.
After getting our fill of bird watching and information from the Encyclopedia Bobby, we took off to our sunset spot. Floating through the lilies, we pulled up to a grass flat to take in the scenic sunset. The sky was painted with every color in its palette, and snail kites danced through the sky. As we sipped our beer and soaked it all in, Bobby and my family started trading fishing stories.
We were a few tales in before Bobby unleashed a whopper on us. Pulling out his phone, he showed us a picture of what looked like a 50 foot, 10,000 pound alligator they caught in the lake last year. Well, at least that’s what it looked like to me. As it started to turn dark, the mood shifted as the peaceful waters started to feel a little spooky, knowing there were monsters bigger than my car lurking through the lily pads. Though we felt pretty confident in Bobby’s Crocodile Dundee skills, we still slid away from the edge of the boat.
Bobby hit the lights, threw on his head lamp, and away we went to gatortown. As we pulled up, Bobby turned off the lights and explained how he can spot the alligators using the headlamp. Apparently when you shine the light on an alligator, their eyes light up bright red. As if they couldn’t get more creepy.
It didn’t take long for Bobby to spot the first gator. We rode up to it, flipped on the lights, and the rest of us tried to figure out just what he was pointing at. Alligator’s camouflage should be an inspiration to deer hunters around the country, because that gator was nearly invisible. But once we saw him, it was unmistakable. There was a real life alligator right next to our boat. He was just a yearling though, so not as intimidating as I thought, but could definitely take your toe as a snack.
After that, the hearts were pounding and excitement was unleashed as Bobby scanned the lake with his headlamp—it lit up like a Christmas tree. Red eyes were glaring back at us from pretty much everywhere, and we rode around checking out gators of all shapes and sizes. Some slunked away from us, wondering what we were doing in their swamp. Others were a bit more feisty and came a little closer. Most of the gators just stayed put and trusted their camo.
After getting our fill of Jurassic Park, we headed in. Bobby pulled us right up to the dock where we stepped off, shook his hand, and headed on our way back to the resort. For the entire ride back, and while we sat around the fire shortly after, no one could stop talking about the experience. In my grandma’s words, “It was just the right amount of beauty, scary, and excitement.”
Central Florida has an amazing ecosystem that’s critically important to the surrounding area. This swamp land is full of inspiring scenery, interesting wildlife, huge spans of water that feed the Everglades (and plenty of alligators). Mr. Randy and Mr. Bobby were an absolute pleasure to meet and know far more than you could ever learn from Wikipedia. I thank them for giving me and my family a great time and adventure. We’ll definitely be back, and we're already looking forward to it.