Big Cypress Swamp: A Watery Wilderness
By Terry Conway
Call it America’s Amazon. A place of immense natural beauty with orchid species and bromeliads (air plants) everywhere. Stillness and serenity reign.
The Big Cypress National Preserve is a mosaic of open sawgrass prairies, lush cypress stands, and pine islands, comprising nearly 730,000 acres. The flow of its freshwaters support the rich marine estuaries that serve as nurseries for life along Florida’s southwest coast. Known as “Big Cypress Swamp,” it was designated as a national preserve in 1974.
In this rugged terrain native tribes outfoxed military intruders and “drain-the-swamp” developers thrived for years. From the late 19th century through the 1960s, it was the site of the world’s largest cypress-logging industry until most of the trees were cut down. Government entities stepped in and snapped up parcels of lands. “Big” refers not to the new-growth trees but to the swamp, jutting into the north edge of Everglades National Park like a jigsaw-puzzle piece.
Today, nearly half of the swamp makes up this national preserve. The watery wilderness is devoted to recreation as well as to research and preservation. Compared with Everglades National Park, the preserve is less developed and hosts fewer visitors which makes it superb for naturalists, birders, and hikers who prefer to see more wildlife than people.
Sightings of black bears, alligators, white-tailed deer, cottontail and marsh rabbits, ospreys, and armadillos are common in the early morning and late afternoon. Although the endangered panther numbers have increased in recent years, fewer than 100 cats remain in the state, with 35 in Big Cypress. Manatees can be seen swimming in here during the winter months. Bird varieties include wood storks, Florida sandhill cranes, and egrets, and on the higher ground, songbirds like grosbeaks and cardinals.
Plan a visit from late November through early April. It’s the best time for a visit due to cooler temperatures, dry weather, and more availability of free ranger-led swamp walks (reservations required) as well as other exploratory programs. Combine a scenic drive with the ranger program.
One of the most remote roads in the Sunshine State, Loop Road passes through what once was the town of Pinecrest that gained fame for its raucous bar and dance club, the Gator Hook Lodge. In the bar’s waning years in the 1970s, Pinecrest resident and fiddler Ervin T. Rouse often performed. Rouse was best known for writing the bluegrass fiddle anthem “Orange Blossom Special.”
Walking the pathway between thin cypress trees you will see various species of Florida subtropical plants, especially endangered native orchids and ferns – both tiny and large. You’ll find more than 50 species of orchids native to South Florida forests. Instead of having its roots in the soil, orchids wrap around a cypress tree to stay securely in place.
You will find the air plants up and down trees, on the trunks, and woven into the branches, many with colorful flowers. Pulling in filtered sunlight through the canopy, bromeliads are self-sufficient using other plants only for support, funneling rainfall and dew by spreading their leaves. The accumulated water provides a habitat for aquatic insects, small tree frogs, and lizards. Birds drink from these areas and search for insects, while snakes are attracted by the frogs and lizards.
However, Big Cypress Swamp offers much more than a hike in the park. Book an airboat adventure. These ungainly machines consist of light aluminum skiffs powered by muscular aircraft or automotive engines mounted on the back, above the water line. The engine spins a large propeller at high speed. Perched on a tall seat in front of the caged engine and propeller, the pilot steers the boat with a pair of rudders mounted behind the engine to catch the high winds blowing backwards.
Since 1953, the Wooten team in Ochopee has shared the wonders of this slice of untouched Florida with guests. In fact, most of the people who work here are fourth or fifth generation, and understand this unique environment and its rare beauty. Plan on at least two hours to fully experience the destination. You will hear all about and meet some of the local gators, wild pigs and other wildlife that roam the area.
The revved engine gives off a deafening roar (riders are offered sound-muffling ear protectors), and the boat skims at high speed like a car on a vast, rain-soaked tarmac. When the pilot turns left, the boat skids sideways without losing any speed. Then, for thrills, the pilot may suddenly shoot down a narrow alley lined with mangrove trees, or slide over some exposed ground and back into the water on the other side.
A practical means of transportation once off the main road, the Swamp Buggy has been around for almost 100 years and has been an essential tool in these wilderness areas. It has been said that the big-tire buggies are as important to Florida as the cow pony is to the west. Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventures is an authorized Big Cypress National Preserve outfitter. Options include half- and full-day rumbling romps through the swamps in a six-person, all-terrain vehicle outfitted with tractor tires and an elevated viewing platform.
The Ivey House B&B is a family-run tropical inn in nearby Everglades City that serves a hearty breakfast in its Ghost Orchid Grill. Fondly known as The Last Frontier, it is touted as the “Stone Crab Capital of the U.S.” Stone crab season runs from October 15th thru May 15th and you enjoy the claws as an appetizer or main course at a local restaurants, or purchase them by the pound at the docks.
The sunsets in Big Cypress Swamp sometimes light up the western horizon in a mighty red glow and the starry, starry nights are magnificent. As the late evening rolls on you might be entertained by the rich baritone hooting of the soulful brown eye barred owl. Listen for the frightful wail of a Florida panther that roam the swamp. They’re out there somewhere.