Many have tried but few have succeeded to get a glimpse of an alligator near Decatur, but Glenn Mitchell and her daughter, Lily Mitchell, saw two Monday near the Point Mallard Park walking trail.
The sighting was also near where the swimming leg of the 19th Wet Dog Triathlon will take place Saturday.
The Mitchells were on the north end of the trail, at the 1½-mile marker, along the Tennessee River when the teenager spotted an alligator between 9 and 9:15 a.m. in the cattails.
“At first I thought it was a log and then I saw its nostrils,” Lily Mitchell said. “It was really close.”
Her mom couldn’t see the alligator and admitted she thought “it was just a 14-year-old seeing things.”
They finished their walk and returned to the spot. This time mother and daughter both saw an alligator.
“It wasn’t the same alligator,” Lily Mitchell said. “This one was smaller.”
While Glenn Mitchell used her cellphone to get a video of the smaller gator, Lily Mitchell said she saw the larger alligator “flip its tail up” and swim into the water. Mom was unable to get the larger gator on video.
“It was scary. I’ve never seen an alligator in person that wasn’t behind some screen. This will be something I talk about when we return to school,” the Decatur High freshman said.
Glenn Mitchell said she’s been walking for years on the Point Mallard trails. She and her two daughters often paddle board in backwaters of the river in the refuge off Alabama 67.
“I’ll probably sell my paddle board,” Glenn Mitchell said. “We often paddle with my youngest daughter (Zoe) on the front of my board and Lily has her own board. It would not be good if we’re out there and we run into an alligator.”
Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake said he notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of the alligator sightings after seeing the video. He did not see the alligators on Monday.
“I’ve looked for alligators for years,” Lake said. “I fish the refuge and, after all of that time working at Point Mallard (more than 20 years), I’ve still never seen one.”
An organizer of the Wet Dog Triathlon said race officials were aware of the alligator sighting but still plan to hold the event’s swimming leg in the area of the river behind the Point Mallard Aquatic Center beach.
Leah Brown, CEO of the nonprofit Mosaic Mentoring of North Alabama, which benefits from the triathlon, said she had been in contact Monday with federal and local wildlife experts.
“They have all assured me that we don’t have anything to worry about as far as the alligator goes,” Brown said. “They are very skittish.”
She said the Morgan County Rescue Squad will have its big boat, kayaks and possibly other watercraft in the area for the race, which will have about 200 participants. Not only will the watercraft deter wildlife, she said, but there will be “hundreds of pairs of eyes” monitoring the 400-meter swim.
She said using Point Mallard’s Olympic pool for the swimming leg is an option, but it would be “crowded.”
After the swim, which begins at 7 a.m. Saturday, the triathletes race 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) on bicycles and finish with a 5K (3.1 miles) run.
According to published news reports, in the summer of 1979, the U.S. Department of Interior, acting on a request from Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge staff, transplanted 55 alligators, from 1 to 7 feet in length, from southern Louisiana to the refuge waters. It was an attempt to curtail the beaver population and to give the threatened species a safe haven.
Six months later, then-U.S. Rep. Ronnie Flippo, R-Florence, ordered the alligators removed, calling the Interior Department’s actions “irresponsible.”
He said the reptiles were moved to the refuge without going through proper procedures or holding public hearings on the matter. Flippo reportedly said Morgan County residents were threatened by the existence of alligators in the Flint Creek and Tennessee River waters.
In March, 78-year-old Kenneth Stuart posted signs warning people that alligators are in the refuge.
Refuge officials gave him permission to post the warning signs. They said there has never been an incident in which a person was injured or killed by an alligator on the refuge.