If, in the name of progress, we want to destroy everything beautiful in our world, and contaminate the air we breathe, and the water we drink, then we are in trouble.
~Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in response to critics saying that conservationists were trying to halt progress in Florida by preserving Big Cypress Swamp
Big Cypress National Preserve was once called the Western Everglades, and was originally supposed to be part of the national park, but was removed from protection before the park was created in 1947. An elevation difference of 1 to 2 feet makes Big Cypress a vastly different ecosystem than the river of grass of much of the eastern portion of Everglades National Park. Big Cypress is home to deep water cypress sloughs and strands (linear cypress islands) and is underlain more by peat than the limestone deposits more common in much of the park. The result is more of a “swamp feel” than the open grass prairies we experienced on our first two days in Florida.
It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out about the contentious history of the effort to preserve what is now Big Cypress National Preserve, the first national preserve in the United States. After the virgin cypress were essentially logged out throughout much of the region in the 1930’s and 40’s, the area was proposed as part of Everglades National Park. But, when the park was created, the lands encompassing Big Cypress were excluded. More controversy erupted in 1968, when plans were unveiled to create a huge jetport (what would have been the largest airport in the world) in part of Big Cypress. Conservationists joined the fight and the struggle went back and forth until the creation of the 720,000+ acre preserve in 1974.
When planning the trip a few months ago, I learned about some unique lodging in an in-holding in Big Cypress – the cabins at the Big Cypress Gallery of famed landscape photographer, Clyde Butcher. I have been aware of Clyde’s images for many years and he really is the Ansel Adams of the swamp. He is also an ardent conservationist, and has done a great deal to bring the beauty and plight of the region to the public’s attention. When I found out he had lodging in Big Cypress, I couldn’t resist booking it. In addition to the wonderful accommodations and surrounding property, he offers guided swamp walks for a fee. Though it is a bit pricey, I am glad we did it. Our guide, Scott, is a wonderful person (as were all the staff we met) and very knowledgeable about the plants and animals of Big Cypress. The swamp walks usually take a couple of hours. You walk with a sturdy hiking stick (they provide those) on a flooded trail behind the lodging that passes through a variety of habitats, including swamp, prairie edge, and dwarf cypress stands. There was both excitement and some slight apprehension when we began the hike, and I particularly liked Scott’s answer to the question, “how deep does it get”? He said this winter has been unusually wet, so the deepest part was 38 inches. Nothing like a precise answer! Of course, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall, so the deep water comes a little farther up on our bodies than it does on his.
We walked at a slow pace, taking in all the sights, and sounds, that the swamp had to offer. The grunting calls of pig frogs were particularly evident here as they were elsewhere on our trip. And the diversity of plant life is amazing!
At one point, the trail opened up into a mix of small cypress trees and grasses. Many of these trees are surprisingly old, stunted due to growing on the porous limestone bedrock of this particular part of Big Cypress. We saw relatively few animals until we got right to the end of the trail.
There, in a small pond behind one of the cabins, was a large female alligator (maybe 7 ft+ in length), along with several of her babies and a few 1 and 2 year old gators. She came over to greet us as we stepped out of the swamp onto dry ground, and hissed loudly to let us know we should not disturb her youngsters. Not to worry, we gave them a wide berth.
Gators have a toothy grin when viewed through binoculars or a telephoto lens, enough so that you respect their space…
and shouldn’t need to be reminded with signage:) We did all wonder what it must be like to live next to such large reptiles. I will admit, I scanned the surroundings with my flashlight more than usual when I went outside at night.
Neotropical migrant birds are beginning to appear in South Florida (and should be here in NC soon, if not already). On a short walk at our lodging, I saw Northern Parula Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warblers, and several Ovenbirds.
Our first full morning in Big Cypress was spent with Shurr Adventures on their sunrise kayak tour on the Turner River Paddle Trail. I had picked this group since they were highly rated online, and I saw they do Yellowstone tours in the summer (how could I go wrong with that combo?). It turned out to be a great choice. The kayaks were very stable, with comfortable seats, and the guide was very personable and knowledgeable. The morning started out foggy, and we saw, and heard, lots of wildlife.
All sorts of bird life was active that morning, and the kayaks allowed us to get close to several species. When we headed south of the put-in point, we even got a pretty good view of one of my target species, a limpkin (unfortunately it was in thick vegetation , so not the best photo op).
Florida is awash in exotic invasive species, both plant and animal. While paddling the Turner River, we were introduced to one of the more recent invaders, the island apple snail. Believed to have been introduced by releases from the exotic pet trade, this, and a few other species of exotic apple snail, are creating real concern for scientists in the Everglades. The native Florida apple snail, Pomacea paludosa, is much smaller than this invader, and is the primary food source for the endangered snail kite. The larger size, fecundity, and voracious appetite of the invader snail, P. insularum, is cause for concern, both in terms of altering the wetlands plant community, and out-competing the native species of snail, with potentially disastrous results for the kite.
During our stay, I found one egg mass of a native apple snail, but we saw many egg masses of the invader, especially in the Big Cypress Swamp area.
When we headed south of the Tamiami Trail in our kayaks, the plant community changed from a cattail fringed swamp forest to an expanse of red mangrove tunnels. Kayaking through the mangroves turned out to be a lot easier than paddling a canoe through them, like we had done at Nine Mile Pond, but you did need to break down the longer kayak paddle to avoid catching it on every prop root. After finishing our morning trip, we returned to Clyde Butcher’s place for some rest and exploration. I drove out to scout our route for our final day in the area (a dirt and paved thoroughfare called the Loop Road), and came across all sorts of birds and a seemingly endless supply of alligators. If you have the time, I recommend the Loop Road as a leisurely pathway to observe some of the scenery and critters of Big Cypress. The entire wild region was a great way to relax before heading back to the hectic pace of Miami for our flight home. Below are some more images of our time in Big Cypress. I look forward to a return visit in the near future.