I received a call at 5:00 a.m. on a cool, crisp Sunday morning, saying that five gators were on the lines, and I had better get down to Delacroix as quickly as I could. Instantly I was up, dressing, texting to get a sub to cover my fitness classes that day, arranging the photographer to meet us at the dock, and brewing coffee for the drive. The boy, however, was not moving as quickly. In truth, he resembled more of a zombie. He was compliant, but definitely not as exuberant as I was. Nevertheless, in moments we were in the car, headed to our next Mom & Boy adventure: alligator hunting with Paw Paw’s Pirogues in Delacroix, Louisiana.
To say the entire experience was out of my comfort zone is an understatement. When I spoke with Errol Dennis, owner and builder of Paw Paw’s Pirogues, he asked if I had ever been hunting or fishing. I had to admit that I had never caught, shot, stabbed or otherwise killed anything from nature in my life. I had no idea what my reactions would be. I only knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I would not pass up for anything. So when I arrived at the boat slip and was handed a pair of hip boots and a camouflage hat, I put them on like I knew what I was doing, climbed into the flatboat, and headed out to the marshes where the gator lines had been set.
The boat ride out proved to be one of the most valuable experiences of the adventure. On an absolutely beautiful, clear morning, with the wind in my hair and the sun in my face, I sat spellbound, listening to a wise, weathered man tell his stories from over 50 years on this island in southern Louisiana, about the culture, heritage, and history of the area, and how it has changed since Hurricane Katrina. He described with great detail the erosion that has taken place and how it affects the landowners and their livelihood. He also recounted with a bit of sadness how mostly sport fishermen, rather than natives of the island, now own camps in Delacroix. “Most of the people who were raised here live inland now. We simply did not have the money to rebuild here after Katrina washed it all away, especially with the new 14’-high building requirements.”
The only thing that remains of Errol Dennis’ original home is the brick stairs that once led to the front door. As we approached the first cane pole, we could see that our prey was in the water, holding the line taut. It was decided that Errol’s son, Errol Jr., and I would get into a pirogue to get close enough to the gator to pull him up to the surface, where Errol Jr. could then shoot him. Allow me to mention that getting into a pirogue from a flat boat is no easy task, especially while wearing hip boots. However, I was eager to get close. So, from the front of the rocking pirogue, I began to slowly pull the line toward me until the head emerged from the water. We could tell it was about 7’ long, and the alligator was literally inches from my hands, calmly watching me for several moments. I was every bit as terrified as I was fascinated. What a powerful, amazing creature! After quite a bit of thrashing, rolling, and pulling, which nearly jerked me out of the pirogue numerous times, Errol Jr. finally got a good shot, and instantly, the gator was motionless.
The only thing left to do at that point was get the lifeless, heavy body into the pirogue. My hands were holding firmly to its body as we headed back toward the flat boat, and I was able to feel and examine the rough exterior and the soft underbelly of this most exquisite, ancient creature. I knew I could not have had that experience if the gator were alive, so I appreciated the moment thoroughly. Once we were back in the flatboat, with the pirogue and the gator on board, I asked the circle of hunters if anyone felt any remorse. Scott, Errol’s second son, explained the system of allocating tags to hunters, and the science that goes into maintaining balance in the ecosystem of the marshlands. This was enough for me. This, and of course the knowledge that I had just come face to face with a monster powerful enough to destroy me in seconds.
As we rode between the different lines, Errol took the opportunity to explain the design of Paw Paw’s Pirogues, and how they differ from anything else you can get on the market today. He has been designing them himself since he was a young boy, from the pirogues originally made from cypress to the fiberglass now used. His pirogues are more expensive than other companies, but their time-tested design has proven their worth, over and over. For more information check out their website at www.pawpawspirogues.com. On the way to the last gator of the day, I began to be aware for the first time that the boy had not really taken part in any of this adventure. He had chosen to remain in the boat while I had pulled in three more gators, ranging from 7’ to 9’. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in participating in any of it, which was a first for our adventures. But anyone who has had a thirteen-year-old boy knows that if he wants to remain in the boat, there’s no forcing otherwise. The last gator was on land, and it was the largest and most threatening of the day. Everyone chose to get out of the boat to get a closer look, even the photographer, and even the boy. Surrounded by all of us, the gator began to rise up and hiss, a sound that caused everyone to back away slowly.
There was much argument between Paw Paw and his two sons as to which gun should be used, where everyone should stand, who should hold the line, etc. At one point, I turned to Scott and asked directly, “Why do the two of you argue with your dad? Hasn’t he been doing this much longer than you guys?” His immediate response was this: “Because he has trained us far beyond his own knowledge.” I could have spent an hour pondering that statement, but the sudden hissing and snapping brought us back to the task at hand, and once a decision was finally made, it was done. It is difficult to know which of my experiences on this adventure were the most powerful and which will stay with me longest. One thing I know for certain, when my hands were wrapped around the rib cage of the first alligator, and I felt the last twitches of its struggle for life ebb away, I was awed and forever changed, in ways I will be learning about for months to come. I had a unique experience on this adventure as well, with Matthew. When we got in the car to go home, he suddenly “woke up” because he had gotten to his cell phone and found out his friends were all meeting up that afternoon. He looked at me for the first time all day and said, excitedly,
“Hey, Mom! Can you bring me to the marina to meet my friends?” It turns out, most of the day he had been pondering what he was missing by not being with them. I was angry far beyond what I could describe here, but I sat in silence for a long time. When I finally spoke, I taught him about the importance of being PRESENT in each moment, about not missing the gifts we are being given each day because we are “pouting” about something else. About appreciating moments that can never happen again in our lifetimes, like alligator hunting or time together in the marshlands of Louisiana with Paw Paw Errol Dennis, instead of dwelling on what we might be missing somewhere else, when we cannot possibly know whether that would have even been fun or beneficial.
I ended the lecture by saying, very definitively, “Boy, you have lost something today that you can never get back. It may not mean much to you right now, but it will one day.” He is a very sensitive child by nature and was definitely affected by the conversation. He said simply, “I’m sorry, Mom.” It wasn’t until after he got out of the car that I realized I could have been talking to myself the whole time. This is a huge life lesson for me, for Matthew, and perhaps for everyone.