Idaho entrepreneur raises alligators along the Snake River
- What to Bring
A pair of dark eyes silently slides above the water revealing the scaly green head of an alligator. Just a few feet away, another creepily crawls onto dry land absorbing the last rays of the falling sun.
But I'm not on some far off safari in Africa. I'm in Idaho, the potato state. But maybe that's not so odd. The Snake River is home to more oddities than meets the eye.
Before I found alligators, I found a traveler who'll hit golf balls wherever he finds open space. Before I found alligators, I found people who jump bridges for fun and state troopers who know what they're doing and wave to them as they drive by. And I found a woman, working in a mobile home off state highway 30, bored by frequent requests for alligator information; she nonchalantly handed me a piece of paper labeled "Directions to the Catfish and Alligator Farm" and blurted, "We get people coming in and asking for directions so much that we made up this to make it easier."
I stopped at a visitor's center near the Perrine Memorial Bridge towering over Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls. "Is there an alligator farm nearby?" I asked one of the volunteers. An elderly man with glasses stared blankly back. "Ah, alligators. I don't know of any alligators around here. I think there was a place, but they went out of business a few years ago," he said. If the visitors center had no idea the whereabouts of alligators then it must be a rumor I thought. Little did I know what other oddities I would find in my search for exotic reptiles.
People walk up and down the bridge, the longest in the Western United States, snapping photos as cars zoom by. Below, a stone wall lines the precipice high above the water with clumps of sage brush pushing out from underneath the rocks. "We stop anywhere it's cool to hit a golf ball," says Jacques Plante, standing atop the wall facing South, clutching a golf club.
En route from Washigton to Utah, he's turned many a place into a free, impromptu driving range, including this spot, spanning a 1,500-feet-wide canyon above the Snake River, 486 feet below. "It breaks up the monotony of driving," he adds. He swings. The ball whizzes into a white dot, arcing over the river to fall, splashing silently, far below.
Unaware of falling golf balls, a group of kayaks, tiny red, green and blue dashes, slowly move up the river painting strokes of white in the dark blue before them. Nearby, a group of helmet-wearing people with backpacks cluster near the iron railing. The backpacks are parachutes. The bridge has become a B.A.S.E. jumping hot spot as one of the only places where jumps can be made everyday legally.
Peter Konrad drove 750 miles from Denver to jump the bridge. "It's the only place I've jumped lately that has state troopers that wave as they go by," he says. He straddles over the railing, holds his already open shoot above his head and jumps, screaming. The chute catches wind and glides safely to the rocky shore beneath.
About eight miles off highway 30 in the small town of Hagerman, sits a small sign in red letters, reading "Alligators" with a long red arrow pointing toward a chain-linked fence. Leo Ray began raising alligators in 1994. "We've never really given tours. We set this up so the people could come in and give themselves a self-guided tour without interfering with the operation of the farm." A tall Oklahoman native, Ray came to Idaho in 1971 to raise a variety of warm water fish in the geothermal waters of the Snake. He even heats his home, built right over the river, from the water.
With 7000 pounds of dead fish a day and 15 million pounds of waste, Ray was looking for something to eliminate the problem. "I was looking for some way to make a profit on it and with the development of the alligator industry it proved to be a good garbage disposal," he said. With water temperatures between 80 and 90 degrees, Ray could get a four-foot long gator in a year and a 6-foot in two. "The feed was free and the heat was free. They're an animal that doesn't require a lot of care. We spend less than two hours a day taking care of them."
With a local restaurant in Hagerman using between 30-40 pounds of gator meat per week (Ray says alligator meat tastes like something in between fish and chicken) and Gucci buying gator skins for purses, Ray had found a good alternative crop perfect for the Snake River.
We walked through brush and over puddles of water. "Be careful not to step on any of them. They like to hide in here," Ray said. Not ten feet away, a group of gators floats in formation. Another walks on shore following the setting sun's rays. "In the winter, they'll sit out in the snow and move with the sun like a sundial," Ray said. Alligators sunning themselves in the snow. Only in Idaho.
- What to Bring