CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Guatemala > My Fear of Crocodiles

STORY FROM GUATEMALA

My Fear of Crocodiles

5/26/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

On the 26th we woke up at 4:45, quite late for a 5AM departure. A man who had served in the Guatemalan navy warned us as we left that there are big crocodiles in the canal. He told us to be careful as they can be aggressive and they have been known to attack canoes. As we started paddling out across the Rio Dulce with a dark threatening sky moving just above us, I felt anxious. Those serious words from the man kept repeating themselves in the back of my mind. Be cautious with the crocodiles. Normally only motorized wooden canoes go through the canal. I started questioning my route planning and thought maybe we should go around the point as I had originally planned, but then I figured that I would have to face my fear of crocodiles sooner or later. The storm passed without breaking on us. After paddling for four hours we covered the 14 miles across the bay to Graciosa. The current, which gave us such hard time when we paddled from Belize, made our day very easy.

In Graciosa we only found a few thatch houses with beautiful thatched decks over the water. We set our mosquito nets for the night and spent the day resting in the shade. People were friendly and brought us mangos. I climbed a coconut tree and got us some delicious green coconuts. We bought some tortillas and asked the locals about the direction to the canals and the crocodiles. They confirmed what we were told. Large crocodiles live in the canal, especially at the mouth. On the other hand they said that the crocs were not aggressive. My thoughts were: "Sure not aggressive to a wooden boat coming full speed with an engine. But we’re in narrow unstable, fabric kayaks, touching the water and we can’t out-paddle a crocodile who might decide we would make a good snack." I fell asleep with crocodiles haunting my thoughts.

Among all animals, crocodiles scare me the most. I freedive with sharks, I pet tarantulas, catch snakes, play with scorpions, and I want to pet lions and tigers, but I’ve always been afraid of crocodiles. For the first time tonight I remembered that when I was a kid, the only nightmares that woke me up were when I was being eaten by a giant crocodile. Today I don’t believe in nightmares, but thinking of facing a crocodile in the water remains something I have a hard time with. I just don’t see how one could fend off a charging crocodile. Sharks aren’t brave, snakes and tarantulas are usually not aggressive, but crocodiles seemed to be the most efficient killing machines. I remembered seeing documentaries in Africa where large animals would jump out of the water and quickly kill animals as powerful as a buffalo. They can run faster than Carl Lewis, they swim much faster than we can paddle and they can jump much higher than we could climb a tree in a few seconds. Crocodiles in some ways remain my nightmares.

Facing Fear

5/27/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

On the 27th, we had a late start. People told us it would only take an hour or an hour and a half to paddle to the canal and then the rest would be in the shade. Knowing that crocs feed mostly at night, dusk, or dawn, we decided on a later start even though it would be much warmer.

Luke and I talked about our strategies to fend off aggressive crocodiles and help each other if attacked. We put our spearguns on deck with the tips unscrewed. Those blunt ended spear shafts would be to fend off the aggressor and if really attacked would be used in the eyes. We also put on deck our machetes as a last resort. I also pulled out the flare gun. First we would try a flare, a questionable tactic as they had gotten damp a few times in the past year. The next step would be to push them off with our paddles, then would come the spear guns and as a last resort the machetes and diving knife. We would defend our lives ferociously. We knew that there would be no danger as long as crocodiles remained sleeping on shore, but if they entered the water, our first course of action would be to paddle together as fast as possible. If one of us lagged behind, the other one would wait and together we would face them.

When we left at 7:30 the sun was already high and the temperature hot. After an hour and half of paddling under the heat across a small bay and into a small lagoon, we found the entrance of the canal. It was like a stream with trunks blocking most of the river that forced us to duck. In many places trees which had fallen in the water had been cut with a chainsaw. The river swirled around like a snake and got narrower and narrower. We armed our flaregun, and spearguns. I was paddling first looking everywhere to anticipate a sudden attack. Luke was following so close behind me he was ramming me each time I stopped paddling. I was facing my phobia and I think that I dragged Luke into it as well.

As the river got narrower, suddenly lots of splashing happened just in front of me. It spooked us. We thought maybe small crocs were feeding on fish. All we could see was the water being strongly agitated, and then everything returned to a silence which felt almost too heavy. We quickly paddled through the water that had been agitated. A minute later, it happened again behind Luke, then in front of me, then on the side. We were looking all around but just couldn't see anything. Later we were able to clearly identify schools of fish. Reassured, we felt safer at least for the time being.

As we paddled more, the fish disappeared and we squeezed through narrow channels in floating carpets of thick grass and roots. It was narrow enough that we couldn't put our paddles in the water. We had to push on the grass which slowly sank under the pressure of our paddles. The river kept snaking its way through the swamp, sometimes opening to a few feet wide, sometimes narrowing to where only a few inches of clearance for the kayaks remained. Fruit trees I had never seen before  hung over the water with large brown fruit pods. Wild orchids grew on the riverbanks. Egrets were easily approached in our silent kayaks. This river was beautiful.

We were lost in nature away from all civilization until suddenly we heard an outboard motor roaring. We pulled out to the side just before one of those narrow channels through the floating grass. The motor canoe cut through. The grass spread out a little to let the canoe through, then eased back over the water. We saw 3 canoes going through during our crossing. Without daily traffic keeping these channels clear, we probably couldn't paddle through this dense floating vegetation. The presence of the motor boats reassured us. For the few minutes after their passage there would be no risk of seeing any crocs in the water.

The shade we had been promised wasn't always there. From 10 AM we started to suffer a lot from the sun and heat. Around 11:30 we pulled out at the first place with hard soil, an abandoned settlement where we were instantly attacked by clouds of mosquitoes and sandflies. That's when the third canoe went by. We stopped him and asked him how much longer it was to the ocean. He reassured us we were close. He left and then came back to tell us to take the left branch of the river. The right one goes back into the mountains. We paddled and found the Y in the river. It's good he told us because there was no current and the main branch seemed to be the right one.

As we paddled a little more we started hearing the waves. I put the flare gun back into its dry box and secured the speargun better on deck. We were told the waves were very big and that most of the large crocodiles lived at the mouth of the river. Anxiously we put on our sprayskirts hoping not to capsize in the middle of crocodile-infested water. A second branch appeared, we took the left one guided by the sound of the waves.

The ocean appeared in front of us with a sandy spit ahead protecting us from the waves. No crocs in sight we decided to pull out on the sand spit to check the waves. As we paddled closer we saw the few thatch houses which make up the settlement of San Francisco. We had arrived after 5 hours of paddling in the heat through the English canal.

The waves didn't seem very big. We swam in the ocean, happy to be back in the waves for the first time since Baja. Locals were friendly and let us camp on their beach. They told us that because of the daily motor boats, crocodiles only come out at night. Even the kids bathed in the river there. They told us that Montagua River at the border of Honduras also had crocodiles but it wasn't a problem because the regular boats kept them away. On the other hand in smaller rivers where boats rarely go, the beasts are considered very aggressive and dangerous. People asked us where we were going. When we told them they looked at our kayaks and said: "In the morning the waves are much bigger, you won't be able to get through with these". We thought: No problem, we prefer the waves to the crocodiles or armed bandits.


Read more about crocodiles, don't miss Jean-Philippe's July entry July 99 - Dispelling the Crocodile Myth . Dont forget to use your back key to return to the May Journal. There is more to read:

View Photos from the story: July 99 - Dispelling the Crocodile Myth

Alligators: Alligator 1 ; Alligator 2Catching by Hand 1 ; Catching by Hand 2 ; Alligator 3 ; Catching with a lasso 1 ; Lasso 2 ; JP holding it 1 ; JP holding it 2 ; JP showing the tail ; Alligator 4 ; Alligator 5

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