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Alligator Tales

It is late autumn afternoon and the light has started to fade. A great-winged raptor circles lazily above bruise-purple Machado Lake. At the swampy perimeter, all tule and water primrose and sedge, 10,000 tiny flies disappear down the throats of a thousand tiny frogs, who dart and skittle through the watery dark. Little crawfish scoot through the shallows. Big, white wading birds pick through the shadows on the opposite shore, and above the whine of traffic and the distant thrum of giant harbor cranes, the delicate counterpoint of birdcall and the hum of hatchling mosquitoes etches the still, moist air. The frogs begin to sing.

Like most people in Los Angeles, I first learned about the C-shaped Machado Lake, and the surrounding Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, through Reggie, the cagey alligator whose presence here has obsessed local newspapers since early summer.

Earlier in the day, local teenagers were heard bellowing, “Yo, Reggie!” and it was not unusual to see skillfully thrown tortillas, reportedly one of the alligator’s favorite foods, skim the lake’s surface. If you show up at the right time of day, you can see wandering vendors selling Reggie shirts and alligator dolls to the visitors who come to gawk at the lake. I have never managed to catch sight of the alligator, either during the afternoon or at that point in early evening when its eyes are said to glow red from its hiding place in the shallows. So far, Reggie has managed to elude wranglers from Colorado, Florida and Louisiana, and looking at the thicket of water primrose, it is easy to see why.

Machado Lake is a peculiar place. It may be the major remaining wetland in this part of California, but it drains a large area of extremely industrial property, and the waters of the lake are polluted with DDT, ammonia, copper, PCBs and lead. Before Reggie, the lake was probably most famous for a 2002 outbreak of botulism that killed most of the ducks and coots that nested there. At least some of the abundant mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. The willow forest at the top end of the park is home to dozens of homeless men, and the parking lots and streets bordering the park are full of old campers and battered automobiles that probably house many more. Nobody has swum or boated in the lake for years, even before the alligator.

The lake, a stranded oxbow of the Los Angeles River, was once named Bixby Slough after the family who owned much of the land around Long Beach, and renamed Harbor Lake when the area was transformed into a park, and 20 years ago recovered its original name, in honor of a member of the baronial Sepulveda family whose adobe overlooked it from a nearby knoll. If you gaze across the lake, artfully positioning your head to blot out the surrounding hospital, golf course and oil storage facilities, you could be in a Southern California that ceased to exist more than a century ago, a place of coastal marshes, willow forests and swarming ducks.

The Southern California primeval, a minute-and-a-half off the Harbor Freeway, and an alligator too. What more could an Angeleno want?


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