Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022

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Covering 10,360 square kilometres of subtropical wetlands, the Everglades is undergoing a massive restoration plan to counter pollution.

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Swamped in the Everglades

Tired of happy shiny amusement parks? Explore the Sunshine State's mysterious backcountry instead

On a sunny morning last March, in Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades, a panther was on the prowl. It may have been looking for something to eat — a mouse, a hare, a white-tailed deer — or hoping to mate with one of the 160 or so Florida panthers still left on earth.

What it found instead was a man on a Ducatti Superbike. As the panther tried to cross the Tamiami Trail, the highway that runs from Tampa to Miami and cuts through the Everglades, it was hit head-on by the man.

The man broke several bones and later sued the state, claiming that the solar-powered wildlife warning system didn’t work. The panther got up and disappeared into the cypress forest; no one knows what happened to it.

The chance encounter was bad luck for both, but also an allegory for the Everglades, where the mingling of man and nature has not always gone well. Covering over 10360 square kilometres of subtropical wetlands, the Everglades ecosystem has suffered over two centuries of man-made damage, from drainage and phosphorus pollution to the recent appearance of the Burmese python.

Despite an ongoing and troubled $7.8-billion restoration plan — the most expensive ecological repair project in history — the situation is still touch and go, with developers and the agricultural industry fighting ecologists and conservationists in a never-ending battle over regulations and money.

But for the visitor driving on the Tamiami Trail, the Everglades still seems a vast expanse of mangrove swamps, cypress forests and sawgrass marshes, with herons flying overhead and alligators lurking below. It looks peaceful and pristine, especially compared to the density and traffic snarl of Miami. And just off the road there is a lot that is intriguing, from the frontier history to activities that range from the alarming (swamp buggy tours and airboat rides) to the more eco-friendly (hiking, kayaking). On a recent trip to Florida, I decided to give all of those activities a try.

Bugging out

First up was the swamp buggy tour. While it may seem incongruous to enjoy nature while sitting high atop a massive gas-powered vehicle that bumps down a trail on balloon tires, advocates say it is the best, and sometimes only, way to navigate the deep mud of the cypress swamps. I went on a four-hour ride with Chris Hancock, recommended by the Friends of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge.

Hancock is a fifth-generation Gladesman (his great-grandfather was one of the first guides at the Everglades National Park). His company, C&G, is one of four operators that are allowed into the preserve. As I left the Tamiami Trail and drove up Turner River Road to meet him at the departure point, I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife, and indeed saw hare (swamp bunnies, as they are called), numerous deer and a couple of mid-sized alligators sunning themselves roadside. I climbed aboard the swamp buggy and, with Chris at the wheel, we headed off down the Concho Billie trail deep into the swamp.

Chris explained that the trip covers 13 kilometres as the crow flies, but 19 to 24 kilometres with all the zigs and zags. Though swamp buggy races are a popular attraction in south Florida, our buggy moved slowly through the water and mud, past hardwood hammocks, palmettas and pines, with Chris pointing out the flora — airplants, orchids — and keeping an eye out for fauna. On this day, we saw only birds, but it is not uncommon to see squirrel, deer, otter, the occasional black bear and, if you are very lucky, the elusive Florida panther.

A highlight of Chris’s swamp buggy tour is a stop at a cypress dome, where the trees are higher and there is a canopy. Under the canopy there are often rare plants and usually an alligator that has claimed the dome pond as its residence. Chris said that other animals are attracted to the dome by the water, joking that “they come for a drink but stay for lunch.” Riders get off the buggy and wade to the dome, but on our day the water was too high, meaning the gators might be wandering from the dome, and there might be venomous snakes, like the cottonmouth water moccasin. So we stayed on the buggy.

The four hours passed quickly, and Chris was a knowledgeable guide who had his own questions — “Do y’all have guns up there in Canada? How about Fox News? I don’t think I could exist without Fox News” — that I did my best to answer.

At the end, I asked Chris to explain the difference between his swamp buggy tour and the many airboat rides advertised in the area. “My tour is meant to be slow and educational,” he said. “The airboat is a thrill ride.”

Aboard an airboat

Said thrill ride was next on my agenda. I went to a large establishment on the Tamiami Trail called Wooten’s, which has a massive American flag at the entrance and a sign boasting that it has been “World Famous Since 1953.” Airboats, which glide over the water and grass, and are very loud, are not allowed in the wilderness areas, so operators set up nearby.

For my ride, a large man with a nametag that read “Captain Tommy” ushered us aboard, and after he offered us headphones to block the noise, we slowly set off. In a few minutes we passed a drifting, apparently tame alligator, and then Captain Tommy gunned the engine and the thrill ride was on. After half an hour of swooshing and circling through the sawgrass, and observing a few more tame alligators, the ride was over.

Wooten’s also offers a 45-minute swamp buggy ride, as well as an area that is billed as an “animal sanctuary” but is really an old-school zoo, with regional animals — turtles, deers, a panther — cooped up in small enclosures. There are also two Siberian tigers, who looked like they would rather be in Siberia, and a big pond with dozens of alligators. Daily shows involve a man with a large stick and a bucket of chickens getting the alligators to do tricks. Combined with the heat and the bugs, the animal sanctuary is not for the faint at heart.

Paddling and hiking

The next day, having had my fill of engine-driven exploration, I decided to try paddling and walking. In the morning, I went on a four-hour kayaking trip down the East River, a 10-minute drive from Everglades City. Our guide, a 50-year-old Michigan transplant named Troy, led five of us through the twists and turns of the mangrove swamps, past trees filled with birds — anhingas, ibis, an osprey or two — into mangrove tunnels where spiders dwell and the air is humid and stifling.

Word of warning: if you go kayaking in a swamp and head into a mangrove tunnel, watch out for your sunglasses. Though Troy had suggested we leave them behind, I had them on top of my hat. When I hit a low branch in a mangrove tunnel, getting stuck, getting in fact nearly swamped, my sunglasses fell off my hat and into the shallow but dark water. I was about to get out of the kayak when Troy yelled: “No! Stay in the boat! There is an alligator nearby!” So there at the bottom of the swamp a pair of Maui Jim Volcano remain.

Feeling rejuvenated after the kayak trip, I hit the hiking trails in the afternoon. I didn’t have enough time to go on a lengthy hike, but did spend an hour on the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, which is just off the Tamiami. The boardwalk is about a kilometre long, with interpretive signs, and leads into the Fakahatchee Strand, the largest bald cypress/royal palm swamp forest in the world. A short ways down the road is the Marsh Trail, which has a tower with a telescope to spy cormorants and wood storks. There are longer trails in the area, including, on the west side of Big Cypress, the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which goes 2300 kilometres north to Pensacola Beach.

Outlaws and drug runners

The final stop on my Everglades whirlwind tour was Smallwood Store, a historic brown wooden structure that doubles as a museum and souvenir shop. Built in 1906, it’s in Chokoloskee, an island just south of Everglades City that is the largest of the Ten Thousand Islands. The original owner of the store was Ted Smallwood, who sold supplies and traded with the Seminole Indians. Smallwood, who died in 1951, figures into the legend of Edgar Watson, a notorious outlaw and killer (famed female outlaw Belle Star was supposedly one of his victims) who met his own demise at the hands of an angry mob in front of the store. Smallwood was a friend of Watson’s and tried to protect him from the mob.

Watson’s tale was eventually fictionalized in a book, Killing Mister Watson, by acclaimed author Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard). And if that’s not enough history, Ted Smallwood was also the great-great-grandfather of Chris Hancock of C&G’s Swamp Buggy Tours, who lives not far from the store.

With a $3 entry fee, the store — jampacked with all types of memorabilia, including a disturbingly lifelike mannequin of Ted himself — is worth a visit, and from the deck in the back you can see where the Ten Thousand Islands stretch out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Which, by the way, is where the drugs used to come in. In 1983, Chokoloskee and Everglades City made international news when 200 of the town’s citizens — shrimpers, stone crabbers, fishermen, a local sheriff, a retired Florida Supreme Court Justice, and many more — were arrested for importing marijuana. Two planes were seized, along with boats, $5 million in assets and 500,000 pounds of pot. Many of those arrested, who are out of jail now, still live in the area. But that is another story, and my time in the Everglades had run out.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Showing 1 comments

  1. On December 17, 2012, Jeff said:
    Aloha Alistair, I enjoyed everything in your article except for the swampy Maui Jim's. I would be happy to set you up with a new pair. Send me an email with your colour preference and a mailing address and you'll have a pair for another adventure. Mahalo, Jeff

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