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Ways to the Glades

Exploring the wetland by foot, airboat, canoe, and more, dispelling myths along the way

Tour operator Jack Shealy negotiates the “river of grass’’ on a skiff just large enough for two people and a cooler. Tour operator Jack Shealy negotiates the “river of grass’’ on a skiff just large enough for two people and a cooler. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe
)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. - As we slogged waist-deep into a soup of black water, the Cypress dome closed in, a wet garden of epiphytes and silvered tree trunks so magical, I almost forgot the cottonmouth water moccasins lurking out of sight.

“It’s not dangerous?’’ a young Quebecer said as an alligator 30 feet away slithered closer beneath the water to check us out.

“Yes, it is,’’ said Graham Mitchell, our guide. “But less dangerous than driving a car.’’

Myth: Alligators hunt humans as food.

Reality: Alligators are afraid of humans but may attack under duress.

So began the unraveling of my misconceptions about the Florida Everglades, starting with what and where they are.

“It’s about water,’’ said Mark Kraus of the Everglades Restoration Foundation. “The Everglades are wetlands that historically flowed from the Kissimmee River near Orlando into Florida Bay.’’ Although agriculture and development have shrunk them, the Glades are still gigantic: “Everglades National Park is only a fraction. Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary are also the Everglades, preserved under different agencies and names,’’ Kraus said.

With over 3 million acres, how do travelers take it in? Most see the Glades on high-speed “CSI: Miami’’-style airboat rides lasting half a day. Wanting to feel the awe, I found operators to help me get my feet wet. Literally.

Mitchell leads tours for Everglades International Hostel, where “Never safe, always fun’’ is the motto. The hostel, located in a pulsing, Latino-Afro-Caribbean neighborhood of Florida City, is a haven of gardens and rambling rooms behind pink stucco walls. The expedition includes a wet walk, lunch, and overview by land and canoe of the national park’s habitats, from freshwater prairies to mangrove-fringed Florida Bay. The thrill of our day: an 8-foot Eastern diamondback coiled and rattling within snapshot distance. The pathos: an obscure plaque remembering Guy Bradley, an Audubon game warden killed in 1905 by plume hunters when great egret feathers sold for $30 an ounce.

Myth: The only way to see the park is from the boardwalks or your car.

Reality: The park is open 24/7, 365 days, and with local knowledge you can go anywhere.

“It’s one of the safest environments you can walk in the world. I’ve never even gotten a tick,’’ a snowy-haired Clyde Butcher assured as we followed him into the swamp behind his gallery and home. The self-taught photographer, featured in Ken Burns’s series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,’’ came to Ochopee, home of North America’s smallest post office, from California and a career as an architect. When Big Cypress Swamp was designated a national preserve, the Butchers were grandfathered into paradise. But all wasn’t well.

“One day I took my color work to the dump, watched the machine run over it, and went into the woods,’’ the photographer said, recalling his abrupt shift to black-and-white film after his son died in a car accident. Traipsing the Glades with his Deardorff camera gave Butcher solace. Today, he spends as much time stumping for his beloved wetlands as for his photographs, sharing the love through the gallery’s winter swamp walks. As he segued from lime rock mining (“The only reason we can’t stop developing Florida is greed.’’) to the life-giving yellowish blobs swirling around our knees (“Periphyton, my favorite thing in the Glades. It’s the heart of everything.’’), he interjected, “You don’t need that bug spray.’’

Myth: The Everglades is a mosquito-infested swamp.

Reality: B ladderwort, a carnivorous water plant, is the natural mosquito repellent here. In four days I didn’t get a bite.

Dawn comes to the Tamiami Trail with a balloon of light lifting above prairies of marsh. I turned off at Monroe Station, pulled on my dad’s snake-bite-proof boots stuffed with socks, and marched confidently down Loop Road. The 25-mile circuit is highly recommended for drive-by wildlife viewing or for hiking with an intrepid group of friends.

“Alone? Trust me, you’ll walk for 10 minutes, get scared, and turn back,’’ park staffer Vic Enger predicted. Drivers have reported gators napping on this roadbed. I lasted about an hour before proving Enger right.

Myt h: Wildlife is everywhere. You’ll see 50 gators in 10 minutes.

Reality: Wildlife is everywhere but not always visible. In dry season you’ll see gators as they gather near scarce water sources. During the wet season, wildlife spread over millions of acres.

Trail Lakes Campground is 15 minutes from the Loop and a world from Butcher’s gallery. Its owners, the Shealys, are an old Everglades family belonging to the unsung breed known as Florida Crackers. With a skiff, a pole, and his new company, Everglades Adventure Tours, Jack Shealy, 26, is an ambassador of Glades culture.

“Before airboats, Gladesmen used to pole through the Everglades hunting and fishing,’’ Shealy said as he used a pole to leverage us through waves of saw grass stretching to the horizon. Our boat was a sliver big enough for two people and a cooler: shaped like the old-time skiffs, but light enough to launch from locations rich in orchids, birds, and Everglades lore. In straw hat and bare feet, Shealy pointed out abandoned gator nests and pathways of white-tailed deer all around us. It was as close to being Gladesmen as we could get.

Myth: Saw grass is impenetrable. Its teeth will cut you to shreds .

Reality: Brushed in the opposite direction it will. “Go with the grain’’ is the rule when wading through saw grass.

In the early 1900s, Chief Charlie Tigertail was a pole-boating king, running a dugout canoe up and down the Ten Thousand Islands, trading animal skins for wares. From the whoosh of Shealy’s poled skiff to the roar of a Chevy engine-powered airboat, I went planing over Shark River Slough with the chief’s great grandson John Tigertail.

Tigertail’s tribe, the Miccosukee, is among the ancestral inhabitants of the Everglades, who still hunt, fish, and farm here. Around the 1940s they began wrestling alligators for tourists. Now Tigertail, who works with the Miccosukee Wildlife Unit, gives small, private ecotours.

“We’re riding Area 3A, a 189,000-acre conservation area,’’ Tigertail said as we swerved around an island where a small dock came into view. “This is one of my family’s tree hammocks. Growing up, the food on our table came from the land. I can see the difference in my lifetime as buildings push the wildlife out.’’

We stopped to see a sanctuary Tigertail created where he brings “nuisance’’ alligators - as he put it, “animals considered pests by the humans who displace them’’ - that otherwise would end up as show wrestlers or meat. Holding a willow stick to his throat, Tigertail made a barking sound: A small gator clambered onto the dock toward him. This was no ordinary airboat tour.

Myth: Alligators are always prowling for prey.

Reality: Alligators generally eat once a week but can go for months without food. If Shealy and Tigertail are founts of local knowledge, Mike Owen is the Dr. Science of the Glades. A biologist at Fakahatchee Strand State Park, he crows with discovery, chortles with laughter, and gets contagiously excited over cypress knees (root forms poking above the water) and snail kites (endangered raptors that feed on apple snails) in a nonstop stream of inspired eco-consciousness on the Strand’s swamp walks. “There,’’ he raised a long measuring stick to a wisp frailer than a pine needle protruding from a tree. “A ghost orchid.’’ We forgot the mystery water that was up to our thighs. All crowded close and cameras flashed. It was the very spot where Owen and fellow staffers found collector John Laroche poaching rare orchids, a case that launched Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.’’

Myth: The Ghost Orchid is named for its white flower.

Reality: The “ghost’’ in this orchid is its leafless form and chlorophyll-filled roots that make it practically invisible 52 weeks a year. When it blooms, the flowers look like an apparition suspended in mid-air. “At first, people see a flat, almost featureless terrain. After three hours they walk away awestruck,’’ kayak outfitter Charles Wright said in Chokoloskee, the epicenter of author Peter Matthiessen’s “Killing Mister Watson,’’ on the Glades’ western rim. Every local I met over 30 years old had wistful memories of a Florida like this, where terra firma vaporizes into the Ten Thousand Islands of bone-white sand beaches flocked with Calusa Indian artifacts and shells. Most had mixed hopes for the Everglades’ restoration. “The most ambitious environmental rescue ever attempted by man’’ is how Richard Grosso, Everglades Law Center counsel, described the 30-year super-project approved by Congress in 2000; not because of the science, which is well understood, but because of the choices. A near total silence explodes with the flap of 300 wading bird wings. “It changes lives,’’ said Wright. Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Florida City and Everglades City are the Everglades’ east and west outposts, connected by the Tamiami Trail (US 41).

What to do

Everglades International Hostel tours

800-372-3874

www.evergladeshostel.com

From $80.

Big Cypress Gallery swamp walks

239-695-2428

www.clydebutcher.com

From $75.

Everglades Adventure Tours

501-745-8056

www.evergladesadventuretours.com

Pole boating from $89.

John Tigertail private airboat tours

305-439-2745

From $50.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve swamp walk

239-695-1023

www.friendsoffakahatchee.org

$50.

Shurr Adventures

239-695-2576

www.shurradventures.net

Full day $110.

Where to stay

Everglades International Hostel

20 SW 2nd Ave., Florida City

www.evergladeshostel.com

From $25 a night.

Swamp Cottage

52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee

239-695-2428

Orchid-draped aerie behind Clyde Butcher Gallery, $300 a night.

Captain’s Table Lodge

102 E. Broadway, Everglades City

239-695-4211

www.captainstablehotel.com

From $75 a night.

Where to eat

Camellia Street Grill

208 Camellia St., Everglades City

239-695-2003

Lunch $6.95-$15.95, dinner $12.95-$19.95.

Robert Is Here

19200 SW 344th St., Homestead

305-246-1592

www.robertishere.com/fruit_stand.html

Tropical smoothies, $5.

Gold Prague Cafe & Bakery

1380 N. Krome Ave., Florida City

305-247-5005

www.goldpraguecafe.com

Lunch (soup/panini/chips) $7.99.

J.T.’s Island Grill and Gallery

238 Mamie Road, Chokoloskee

239-695-3633

Lunch $5-$9.