I’m a Florida native, and loving all things “Florida” requires very little effort. But try as I might, I could never fully understand Florida’s Everglades.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around this broad expanse of land, or is it water? A river of grass, or a swamp? I also couldn’t figure out how to get “up close and personal” with this huge and ecologically complex national park. I’ve traveled across it – much like a tourist, sightseeing along the Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41), the original roadway traversing the Everglades, and on Alligator Alley, now the southernmost part of Interstate 75. I’ve skimmed over its shallow waterways in an airboat, flown above it and even biked and hiked in Everglades National Park. On one trip I even tasted native “fry bread.” But I never could find my comfort zone in the big swamp.
But that was all before I “mucked about” in the Big Cypress National Preserve. This unusual trek became a most delightful experience, and my personal connection and key to unlocking one of Florida’s most enigmatic beauties.
The Big Cypress National Preserve is a biologically diverse ecosystem, actually distinct from the Everglades ecosystem, but both are commonly referred to as the Everglades. The Big Cypress became designated as a preserve in the 1970s and its 729,000 acres became protected. At that time resident Miccosukee and Seminole native tribes were also granted permanent rights to the land. The Preserve is known for both its flora and fauna which includes the Florida panther and black bear, and of course, the Florida alligator, plus a wide assortment of birds and protected wildlife.
Covered in fresh water and dotted with dense hammocks of Bald Cypress trees, the Big Cypress swamp is essentially a slow moving river gently running towards the Florida coast, emptying into the prolific coastal estuaries which serve as nurseries for Florida’s marine life. It is a place of immense natural beauty and relative isolation from Florida’s developed areas.
Along the Tamiami Trail, between Naples and Miami, in the middle of the Everglades, is an art gallery. It is one of only a few businesses along the seemingly endless roadway. And it is where the renowned photographer, Clyde Butcher, showcases his fine art photography. It was also the location where I began my adventure.
If you haven’t heard of the famous photographer Clyde Butcher, who specializes in black & white fine art images, then you are in for a treat. Put simply, Clyde is a gifted artist who gained fame photographing natural Florida in black and white and displaying his work in enormous wall-filling prints. He has been called Florida’s Ansel Adams. He and his wife Niki frequently trek through beautiful, stunning and often remote areas of the state, photographing the stillness and beauty of natural Florida. Once you’ve viewed his work, you’ll appreciate the state with an entirely new perspective.
After years of spending time in the Big Cypress and Everglades, Clyde and his family wanted to share their love and appreciation of the area. But they also had another goal. They were committed to dispelling the scary stories and myths about the Everglades by helping visitors gain an appreciation of this fragile environment in a very personal way. So they devised a walking tour of the area and the “Muck About” was born.
The walk is a very special eco-friendly adventure directly behind Clyde’s gallery in the Big Cypress Swamp. He owns 13 acres of property and he and his staff have been conducting tours behind the gallery for more than 20 years.
And just to reassure you: No one, on any of the treks over those many years, has been hurt, died or bitten by a snake – or eaten by an alligator.
So, let’s get another creepy factoid out of the way. The water is clear, not mucky (except when too many people stir up the bottom), nor buggy, or full of snakes and alligators. It’s cool, pristine and quiet. Primordial.
The day of the walk, our swamp guide, Brian, also a photographer, gives us a briefing about what to expect on the adventure, adding a few simple rules. Rule # 1: Keep your walking stick (resembling a long broom handle) in front, so you don’t trip over hidden and submerged cypress roots, and Rule #2: Don’t touch the trees so as not to harm the green mossy lichen. Lastly, the water depth will be up to your knees and on a few occasions, rise to your thighs.
As you take your first step into the cool water, your mind will naturally imagine creepy crawlies, but with each step, and by following your trusted leader, you’ll get increasingly comfortable and acclimated to a world of new discoveries. Walking the pathway between thin cypress trees will begin your mission of letting go of the worry and taking in the beauty, while absorbing your surroundings. Stillness and serenity rein. You’ll gradually get why you are doing this and become mesmerized.
You’ll notice air plants (bromeliads) everywhere – up and down trees, on the trunks, in the branches, large and small, some with colorful flowers. The blue sky seen through a mosaic of cypress branches frames the subdued colors of the preserve. Brian points out various species of Florida subtropical plants, birds and wildlife… and especially endangered native orchids and ferns – both tiny and large. A spider hangs on the side of trees and we collectively gaze at the tiny insect as we pass.
Through the walk, it was not difficult to visualize how, throughout Florida history, indigenous people outfoxed military intruders, hunters and drain-the-swamp developers here. The Big Cypress is a complex web with a natural simplicity.
It’s sublime, still and serene.
After the walk, I realized that I understood the Big Cypress and Everglades much better than before. I had received a hydrology lesson and learned how the water flow through the Everglades is vital to life. I also became aware of the fragility of the nature around us while gaining new perspective and respect for one of Florida’s most concealed secrets.
I hope you get a chance to unlock this treasure. It’s truly one of Florida’s crown jewels.
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If You Go
Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery gives tours from October through March and is located at 52388 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee.
Visiting the Everglades & More Swamp Walks
There are more places I recommend visiting if you are in the Everglades. Also, if you want to try more swamp walks, I have added them, too.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. For swamp walks (the 1st & 3rd Saturdays of the month) visit the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand. If you can get a tour with the park biologist Mike Owen, you are in for a treat.
Big Cypress Visitors Center. This is a super Visitor Center with some excellent displays to get an overview of the Swamp and Everglades. Daily park walks begin November 23rd.
Everglades National Park. Ranger led walks can be found on their website.
For authentic lodging, I recommend the Everglades Rod & Gun Club, located in Everglades City. It’s rustic and historical.
For some authentic Florida food, and located in the Everglades, is Joanie’s Blue Crab Café. She is known for the crab soup and fry bread.