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Exploring Florida's Everglades

On a journey through America’s largest wetlands,T+L rediscovers a wild terrain filled with mangroves, crab shacks, and 12-foot alligators.

By Tom Austin

For a kid growing up in the overly manicured Miami suburbs of the 1970’s, the Everglades were a jolt of fear and freedom—a vast expanse of subtropical wetlands made for mischief. It was here I had my first taste of whiskey brewed in backwoods stills, while riding around in an airboat with a half-crazy old-dog Gladesman. Then as now, the Tamiami Trail, a 275-mile road between Miami and Naples and on up to Tampa, offered easy access to this wonderland. Nothing is more freeing than that first glimpse of the Glades along the trail, those endless watery savannas framed by an eternal sky bleached nearly white by the leering sun.

It took 13 years (1915–28) to hack out the almost culvert-free road, which effectively dammed up the sheet of shallow water that had always flowed uninterrupted from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Overnight, the Glades were thrown into an ecological tailspin: without a flowing stream, the wetlands south of the trail become too dry, and saltwater intrudes and damages the area’s freshwater habitats. To help restore the balance, the National Park Service broke ground last year on a one-mile-long bridging project (that will eventually be supplemented with 5 1/2 more miles). According to Michael Grunwald, a Miami-based Time magazine senior correspondent and author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, the Tamiami Trail bridging project is a start. “Restoring a more natural flow of water will help the Everglades,” he says. The recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill has brought renewed attention to Florida’s natural world, and there’s hope that the U.S. government will now do more for the Glades.

Despite constant threats, the Glades endure and still retain otherworldly tableaux that are as eerily art-directed as the dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History: crystal-clear eddies flanked by bonsai-like trees appear to have been arranged by fussy landscape architects; egrets and roseate spoonbills stare balefully at one another as if an unfortunate conversational lull had descended upon a cocktail party. Along with being a unesco World Heritage site, the region is as rich, variegated, and weird as America itself—full of eccentric characters and big enough for all manner of dreams.

Driving west along the Tamiami Trail, I come across the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, which is dedicated to the study of a seven-foot-tall swamp creature with an odor problem. At command central, owner David Shealy, who claims to have seen the Skunk Ape three times, points to a blurry 1997 photo of the skulking animal and, hinting at the dark traditions of the Glades, says to me: “There’s lots of things that go on down here that outsiders don’t know about.” To fund his mission, the gift shop sells alligator-foot-shaped back-scratchers and includes an impolitic mini-zoo with Nile monitor lizards and Burmese pythons: monster snakes are often abandoned in the Glades by bored owners; one recently made headlines when it died in an attempt to swallow an alligator.

A few miles up the road is Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, outfitted with rockers and pure charm, and the glorified shed that houses the seven-by-eight-foot Ochopee Post Office—billed as America’s smallest. Nearby, I find theFakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, featured in Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief and the subsequent movie Adaptation. Throughout the year, biologist Mike Owen conducts guided swamp walks through a 20-mile-long slough filled with a million bald cypress trees, 7,000 royal palms, tropical ferns, bromeliads, otters, Everglades mink, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, the occasional bald eagle, and, of course, delicate ghost orchids. This is a cacophony of natural order and visual chaos, and not a landscape to trifle with: on a recent tour, a sixtysomething woman told a story about how months beforehand she had wandered in alone for a casual stroll in flip-flops and, within minutes, got lost for two days without water, food, or a tent to ward off the mosquitoes.

From the Fakahatchee, it’s a 10-minute drive to Everglades City, roughly 30 miles southeast of Naples. The town is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the nearby Ten Thousand Islands, a dense, mangrove-filled archipelago along the coast. The islands have always been manna to the locals, who segued from fishing and stone-crabbing in the 1800’s to rum-running and drug smuggling in the 20th century. Indeed, the DEA arrested nearly the entire adult male population back in 1983. These days, the mostly reformed city is the unofficial capital of the Glades and is recasting itself as the next Key West, with winks to its tumultuous past. The island retreat of Totch Brown—the late pioneer Gladesman, media darling, and pot smuggler—is now a featured attraction on airboat tours, as is the island of Edgar “Bloody” Watson, a sugarcane farmer turned alleged murderer from the 1800’s who was immortalized in Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson. In 1910, a mob gunned Watson down at Ted Smallwood’s store, on nearby Chokoloskee Island; the spot is now the Ole Indian Trading Post & Museum.

Then again, the working dock of City Seafood is still authentic and funky as hell, filled with patrons chucking the shells of just-eaten stone crabs into the water. And at the Camellia Street Grill, the down-home dishes are made with homegrown herbs and Willie Nelson wannabes saw away at “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Crabbers” during dinner. Down the road, Ivey House hotel has a modern, eco-lodge vibe with guided kayaking tours and membership to the Society for Ethical Ecotourism, but the 1864 Rod & Gun Club nearby is still the hotel that time and tourism forgot. It’s an Everglades remake of The Shining with hanging alligator skins, stuffed bobcats, and narcoleptic front desk clerks.

On or off the Tamiami Trail, the Everglades have remained wild at heart. Florida was the last state to get fences: cattle were controlled with dogs and cracking whips, the genesis of the term Florida Cracker. In Indiantown, a half-hour drive from Lake Okeechobee, the 80-year-old Iris Wall, a fifth-generation Cracker, runs the curious Seminole Inn and a nearby ranch with cattle, horses, and a restaurant featuring tasty frog’s legs and fried green tomatoes. The hotel was built, along with most of Indiantown, by Solomon Davies Warfield: part of the lobby is dedicated to his iconic niece, Wallis Warfield, who hosted the opening night gala in 1926, a decade or so before becoming the Duchess of Windsor.

And yet, this is also a land of old-line Gladesmen, attuned, like snail kites, to the natural rhythms of swamps. For feasts, they chop down sabal palm trees and cut out the heart for “swamp cabbage,” fresh hearts of palm that are boiled or sautéed. Hunting is often done at night, a tribal rite that can always go wrong, especially when dealing with wild boars and vengeful alligators.

Every moment of primal joy the Glades brought me as a kid comes flooding back at the Swamp Buggy Racesoutside Naples, a ceremonial ritual of mud and supercharged engines. Swamp buggies are cheap, jury-rigged affairs of old truck parts and giant tractor tires that have been used for hunting for years. On the racing circuit, they morph into bellowing dinosaurs charging down the straightaway. At the end of the day, the anointed Swamp Buggy Queen, dressed in a gown and tiara, jumps into the cold, muddy water. It’s a splendidly absurd finale to the rich terrain that is the Glades. “This is swamp culture,” one contented fan says. “This is the real America.”