While the River Valley still boasts of woodlands and plains with wildlife abounding, our home region is a far and primal cry from the fauna-filled wilderness it once was. Prior to Euro-American settlement, elk, American bison, red wolves, and mountain lions roamed the forested hills and prairies here. Though we’re a few hundred miles southeast of their known historic range, I’d imagine a stray grizzly or two wandered down the Arkansas River in search of new territory. And in the river sloughs, backwaters, and oxbows, lurked an even more ancient beast of terror and wonder.
Nowadays, you’ve got to travel a good bit to view elk and bison. The red wolves are long gone, pushed to their last holds in the dense forests of Appalachia. Mountain lions in Arkansas are more myth than flesh and blood, but a few still trek through the Natural State every now and then. The mighty grizzly is corralled, stranded on virtual islands in the western U.S. on land that we haven’t figured out how to effectively exploit just yet.
But that old one in the river, the armor-plated relic whose base forms emerged while dinosaurs ruled the planet is still here. Alligators still live among us. In fact, a few live within the city limits of Russellville. This is old news to many of you. Or maybe confirmation of a local not-quite urban legend.
I don’t think anyone is sure about how many live in town, but Russellville isn’t the only River Valley home of wild gators. They’re scattered in pockets all around. I’ve personally viewed a few in various locations. And more than 20 years ago, I had an up-close encounter with a six-footer in a farm pond I regularly fished.
After following me around the pond at a distance for an hour or more, the juvenile archosaur finally worked up the nerve to make a lunge at one of the chunky largemouth bass I’d been catching. I skidded the fish to the bank, barely beyond those vice-like jaws, and the gator slammed on its brakes as clouds of silt billowed up from the pond’s bottom.
After unhooking the bass, I tossed it back in the water far from the alligator. And then we, the gator and I, simply observed one another. While humans share some basic brain functions with reptiles, I surely can’t speak to what was on its mind and won’t offer even the feeblest attempt to understand the perspective of a creature whose lineage runs older than the oak trees.
But I know the thoughts of that modern primate holding a fishing pole trended toward wonder. Even back then I knew that the bottomless black of those primeval eyes held secrets that I would always be too young to understand.