Adventure Guide: Fakahatchee Strand | Three Places to Get Swamped
I'm waist-deep in swamp water, trudging past monster cypress trees and dangling webs of Spanish moss, ducking under pond apple branches festooned with air plants, craning my neck at royal palms rising above the canopy like telephone poles. Up ahead is a gap through this vegetable chaos, a shadowy tunnel to the next bedroom-size clearing where an undiscovered orchid or hissing cottonmouth may be waiting. My slogging partner, Kincaid Mills, a rock climber who's a bit out of his element, is standing on the trail behind me, dripping and mud-caked. "Check it out," he says, flipping over a blanched turtle shell with his walking stick. That's when it dawns on me. This is where we spotted a five-foot-long (1.5-meter-long) alligator earlier today. I scan the bourbon-colored water for telltale ripples and take some deliberate steps back to dry land.
Deep inside southern Florida's 85,000-acre (34,398-hectare) Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, home to the largest linear swamp in the world and the largest concentration of orchids in the country, the practice of slogging has been elevated to an art form.
A Slogger Is Born
Mucking about in a swamp may seem like the kind of thing you do to throw bloodhounds off your scent. But around here, as Kincaid and I are beginning to discover, a slogger is born innocently enough. You're driving down the road and see some water in the woods. It's way too overgrown to navigate by boat, but you just have to see it up close. You gingerly set foot in the cool water. A few steps later, you're in the shade of the woods, keeping an eye out for swamp things. You chicken out after 50 feet (15 meters). But next time, you venture farther.
Pretty soon, you're carrying a waterproof notebook and pen, a compass, and a walking stick to fling off snakes. You develop your own distinctive call—ka koo, ka koo—to let slogging partners know where you are. You learn that, for the most part, alligators won't bother you as long as you stay upright (the flutter of swimming hands and feet can be mistaken for fish), and that cottonmouths aren't typically found resting on the swamp floor. You trade slogging jokes. ("I almost fell out of a tree but the humidity caught me," or "I couldn't hear you, so I had to throw a rock to make a hole through the mosquitoes.") You come to see that exploring a dense swamp is like exploring the mansion of an eccentric pack rat, where each room is crammed with amazing swag.
The Fakahatchee Strand is a fertile 18-mile-long (29-kilometer) valley only three to five miles (four to eight kilometers) wide and filled with hundreds of long, narrow sloughs. Seasonal rains inundate it; a canopy of cypress and mixed hardwood shields it from wind; and a 6,000-year-old carpet of peat draws moisture from the aquifer, keeping it wet year-round. The result is a tropical outpost in an otherwise temperate region and, famously, a haven for more than 40 species of orchid, some from across the globe.
Dustlike orchid seeds travel here by the trillions, blowing in from the Caribbean by way of hurricanes or across the Atlantic on trade winds originating in Africa. They alight, grow, and flower on branches or in the notches of fallen trees. And in this soupy, overgrown wilderness, it can be years before they are discovered, if ever.
The strand is also home to some fascinating and fearsome creatures: moths with six-inch (15-centimeter) tongues, ferns the size of humans, spiders that prey on small fish, birds whose call so resembles a woman shrieking that visitors have been prompted to notify the local sheriff.
Biologists have been slogging the Fakahatchee since the 1880s. But it wasn't until the 1950s, when the preserve started showing up on road maps, that the general public became aware of the place. Pioneering sloggers, like retired Florida Atlantic University botanist Dan Austin, recall curious tourists driving in here with wide eyes and then promptly turning around. In 1974 the area was made a state preserve, and today, close to a thousand people a year take guided tours through the mire. Many others go it on their own.
"People are learning that swamps aren't something to be afraid of," says Mike Owen, park biologist at Fakahatchee, who has lead slogs through the swamp for more than ten years. "They're amazingly beautiful and very important."
Come fall, when the mosquitoes and temperatures subside, sloggers wade in. High water is receding, large numbers of orchids are blooming, and guided day trips offered by the preserve begin for the season. Some visitors are orchid aficionados, but an increasing number simply come for the enchantment of a long hard slog.
Approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers) of trails run through the Fakahatchee, the vestige of a railroad system used to haul out bald cypress trees in the 1940s. Numbered gates at trailheads along dusty, potholed Janes Scenic Drive serve as reference points for hikers and sloggers alike.
The locations of truly rare plants are closely guarded secrets here. Guides take visitors on circuitous routes to see ghost orchids, the rare flowers featured in Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief (set in the Fakahatchee) that grow wild only here and in Cuba. The most sought-after spot, however, is the fabled Cathedral: a 300-yard-wide (274-meter-wide) clearing between two trails filled with thousands of exotic flowers. It's reputed to be a hard half-day's slog to get there, but those in the know won't divulge its location. Gone are the days when flowers were harvested by the truckload, but poachers still exist. Owen had a ghost orchid stolen last July, and a thief was recently arrested and charged with peddling endangered Fakahatchee orchids on eBay.
On our jaunt today, we've seen a range of visitors: a birding couple dressed in matching khakis and head nets; a 250-pound (113-kilogram) Native American man strolling the 2,000-foot (610-meter) boardwalk, jamming to tunes on his Walkman; an orchid enthusiast with a homemade trail map in one hand and binoculars in the other.
We've also seen toothsome long-nose gar, feral hogs, deer sloshing through the woods, and a great blue heron plucking fish from some shallows. Did we see orchids? Yes. Where? Well, some things about the Fakahatchee are best left unsaid.
Adventure Guide: Fakahatchee Strand
Getting There: Delta has flights to Naples Municipal Airport ($453; www.delta.com). Rent a car at the airport ($44 a day; www.dollar.com) and drive 30 miles (48 kilometers) southeast to Everglades City, your base camp. The ranger station is four miles north, in Copeland.
Lodging: Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, and Mick Jagger all found repose on the palm-fringed veranda at rustic Rod & Gun Lodge ($125; www.florida-secrets.com) in Everglades City.
Dining: Don't miss the gator nuggets at landmark Joanie's Blue Crab Café (+1 239 695 2682), in nearby Ochopee.
Gear: A map, a compass (or GPS unit), old sneakers, and a walking stick are your only slogging essentials.
Outfitter: From November to February, four-hour guided slogs are led by Fakahatchee park rangers ($40 suggested donation; www.floridastateparks.org). Swamp maps are available at the visitors center.
Soaking It Up
Three prime places to get swamped
You can't just go splashing about in any old wetland: Fragile plant systems, deep water, and park rules can keep you trailbound. But if you want to wade in, there's ample slogging to be found at these locations around the country.
1. Metro Muck
Pinelands, New Jersey
The New Jersey Pinelands Reserve (www.nps.gov/pine), a million-acre mosaic of farmland, forests, and marshes, is rife with cedar swamps to explore. Among the biggest is Great Swamp, roughly three square miles of slogger's paradise found inside Wharton State Forest, where mature cedars loom larger than life beyond the banks of the Mullica River. Just watch your step. Quaking bogs abound, and you may end up stuck in the muck instead of traipsing through it.
Swamp Things: Carnivorous pitcher plants, rare orchids, copperheads, black bears, otters.
The Paddle: Ply the brown waters of the Mullica River for 35 miles (56 kilometers) from headwater to marshlands. Highlights include river narrows thick with pines, picnic-perfect sandy banks, and wide-open, grassy wetlands.
The Guide: Adams Canoe Rental (www.adamscanoerental.com) in Atsion offers a range of paddling trips and rents kayaks ($40 a day) and canoes ($60 a day).
2. Ohio River Bayou
Cache River State Natural Area, Illinois
Billed as "a Southern swamp at the northern tip of its range," southern
Illinois' 14,314-acre (5,792-hectare) Cache River State Natural Area (www.dnr.state.il.us) boasts 18 miles (29 kilometers) of trails. But who needs 'em? Wade in at Buttonland Swamp and admire the profusion of bald cypresses, some more than a thousand years old.
Swamp Things: Bird-voiced tree frogs, needlenose gar.
The Paddle: Hit the Cache River's six-mile (10 kilometer) water trail, whittled away eons ago by glacial floodwater from the Ohio River.
The Guide: Peddles and Paddles leads day trips ($25 per person, minimum five people; www.peddlesandpaddlesinc.com).
3. Lone Star Quagmire
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
Big Thicket (www.nps.gov/bith), a nine-unit, 90,000-acre (36,421-hectare) holding in eastern Texas with six water corridors, is a crossroads of four ecological zones: eastern hardwoods, arid Southwest, midwestern prairie, and southern wetlands. In its Lance Rosier Unit, hearty souls can make a 12-mile (19-kilometer) slog through open savanna and deep forest (and around Little Pine Island Bayou by way of the appropriately named Bridge to Nowhere). Shorter slogs can be found at the Neches Bottom and Jack Gore Baygall Unit, where cypress knees grow six feet (1.8 meters) high.
Swamp Things: Feral hogs, deer, carnivorous plants.
The Paddle: Stroke 20 miles (32 kilometers) down Village Creek from one end of the preserve to the other.
The Guide: Eastex Canoe Trails ($14 a day; www.eastexcanoes.com) will put a boat on the water for you.
Photograph by James Shadle
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