Up close with nature on an airboat ride

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I never had an opportunity to go for an airboat ride. My hometown has three rivers, which I got to enjoy on the occasional ride on the Gateway Clipper or while kayaking. Airboats are a little harder to find, generally limited to swampy environments in Florida, Louisiana and parts of Texas.

I found my way south of Orlando, Fla., driving to Wild Willy’s Airboat Tours on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga.

I got paired up with Captain Jim Roche, who has five years of experience driving airboats after retiring from the Coast Guard, and the Duus family from Norway. Adele, Roddy and their three children were experiencing their first visit to Florida. Although they enjoyed their time in the theme parks, they wanted to see some alligators in the wild and get up close with nature.

Credit: Patrick Connolly

Credit: Patrick Connolly

They certainly got their wish. The tour allowed us to get a glimpse of a variety of birds, some interesting bugs, lots of different plant life and, of course, a few close-up alligator sightings.

“The parks are fun and it’s one thing, but this is also very fun and nice to see,” Adele said. “We can’t do this in Norway. We wanted to see the things that were really different from Norway. We don’t see alligators except in parks.”

Visitors regularly come from places as far away as Dubai, China and Denmark with a desire to see alligators and a fascination with the airboat itself, Captain Jim said. That’s part of what makes his job so interesting and worthwhile.

“You never know who you’re going to get until you walk in and we get our list,” Roche said. “Whether the wildlife is different, the people I get on the boat are different, every tour is something different.”

One of the distinct advantages of an airboat is that it can go where others can’t. Grass or lilies can get caught in the propellers of most other boats, but airboats have the freedom to cruise right over obstacles in the water.

Although it gets loud on the boat, there’s a sense of serenity out on the water. I loved the rush of the wind, the mist spraying across the boat and the feeling of being away from it all.

“The big draw is the fact that we can go out at any point and actually disappear from chaos and confusion,” Roche said. “Once we get out there, it’s just us and the wilderness.”

In my conversation with Captain Jim, I wondered what keeps him going with this job. I wondered why he wakes up every day and keeps coming back for more.

In addition to meeting folks from around the world, he had a simple answer.

“My office,” Roche said, gesturing out toward the beautiful expanse of Lake Tohopekaliga.

For a one-hour airboat ride, an adult ticket costs around $55 and a child (ages 3-10) ticket is about $50, both after taxes and fees. Infants ages 0-2 can ride for free. Tickets and more information can be found at their website.

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