Deciding to walk a different trail near the Chattahoochee River resulted in a surprise alligator encounter for one local couple over the Memorial Day weekend.
Jeremy Heiser, a Dallas resident, said he and his girlfriend were looking for rocks along a stream bed on a trail off Windy Hill Road just east of Paces Ferry Road, something they usually like to do on another nearby trail.
When Heiser tried to fetch a bottle out of the water, an 8- to 10-foot-long “something” caught his eye.
“I don’t know why, but I turned and looked to the right,” he said. “He was only about 10 feet away when I first saw him. I jumped back and said a few words I can’t repeat.”
Heiser, 42, said his first thought was that the gator probably shouldn’t be there. Since then, he learned from media reports the animal has been in the area for quite a while.
“That’s kind of his home,” he said. “It’s not something you see every day, and I’d say if you get the chance, just enjoy it.”
Tim Bemisderfer, acting chief of planning and natural resources for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, said the alligator has been a known entity in the park for the last five or six years.
“He’s more recently taken up residence in the Columns Drive area and near Cochran Shoals,” he said.
Bemisderfer said there was an unsuccessful effort to capture the alligator about four years ago, and since then, he’s taken up residence in the wetland areas of the park.
“Alligators are pretty smart,” he said. “Once they escape a trap, they become pretty wary of being trapped again. They are almost impossible to catch again a second time.”
Bemisderfer said as long as the alligator doesn’t threaten visitors or become a nuisance, park officials will allow him to co-exist with the area wildlife.
“As far as alligators can be, he’s harmless if people leave him alone,” Bemisderfer said. “He’s typically shy when it comes to contact with people. He’s not very aggressive at all that we know of.”
No one is quite sure how he got there, but both Bemisderfer and Rick Lavender, a spokesman with Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said it’s likely the alligator was released into the area illegally.
“We have had alligators migrate up to as north as Fayetteville recently,” Lavender said. “But more than likely, when we see them turn up in Lake Lanier or the Chattahoochee north of Atlanta, we’re looking at some kind of release situation.”
Bemisderfer said the last time someone spotted the alligator, the only sighting reported in the river this year, was in April.
“He’s been turning up but has not been causing a whole lot of trouble,” Bemisderfer said.
Visitors are cautioned by several warning signs along the walking trails to keep a safe distance from the alligator, never try to approach it or feed it and keep pets on a leash. Bemisderfer said people are also encouraged to call if they spot the alligator, to help authorities keep track of his movements.
Lavender said if the alligator does begin to pose any threats to people on the trail the Georgia DNR would certainly help remove it.
Heiser said he went back Monday to where he first saw the gator and found its footprints, which were about the size of his hand.
He also noticed a man nearby walking his dog off-leash who he warned of the nearby predator.
“I just wanted to let people know,” he said. “I would have never guessed there was an alligator that big in the area.”
Heiser said he thought it was fair to let the alligator live in the river as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s not to say the encounter didn’t cause him to think twice while combing the creeks for stones.
“It was memorable, that’s for sure,” Heiser said.