It doesn't take much orientation to see why more than 800,000 visitors came to Big Cypress National Preserve in 2009. When my husband, our granddaughter, Hannah, and I visited the preserve during the just-passed Christmas holidays, all we had to do was look at the drama happening outside the visitor center.
There on the boardwalk in front of the visitor center we leaned over the railing to watch a cormorant with a catfish in its mouth. The fish was still very much alive, struggling to free itself. It wiggled and flapped but the bird had it clamped tight in its mouth.
But the cormorant had its own trouble. The bird was struggling to hold onto the fish while egrets and other cormorants approached and wanted to share its booty. Maybe the cormorant couldn't just swallow the fish whole. But it didn't want to put it down and take the chance of a competing bird swooping it up. Finally, the cormorant flew away with the wriggling fish.
What's In A Name?
Big Cypress is named for its large expanse of land (720,000 acres), not its large trees. In fact, most of its cypresses are of the dwarf pond variety, not the massive trees I saw at Congaree National Park. The land became a preserve in 1974 to protect the waters of the Everglades. Ecologically, it’s considered an extension of Everglades National Park along with Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve , made famous by the 2002 movie Adaptation with Meryl Streep.
The preserve is trisected by two east-west roads. Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) is a four-lane road without an alligator in sight. Drivers have little chance to see anything through a big fence on the side of the road. The Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, gives visitors access to all the outdoor activities in the preserve. The road (from Miami to Tampa) was completed in 1928. Soon after, major logging started in the Big Cypress Swamp; great bald cypress trees were turned into coffins, gutters, and pickle barrels.
At the visitor center, the preserve film highlights the endangered Florida panther. Only about 10 years ago the Florida panther population was estimated to number just between 30 and 50. Texas cougars, another subspecies of panther, then were brought in to mate with the Florida panther to increase the gene pool. Now there are about 100 animals and they are all considered Florida panthers. Along with being considered perhaps the most endangered mammal in North America, Florida panthers are an "umbrella species." By protecting them, many other species -- such as black bears -- will also benefit.
The Everglades Association is the cooperating association that runs the bookstores in Big Cypress along with the three National Parks in South Florida: Everglades, Dry Tortugas, and Biscayne. The park store must have had a run on Junior Ranger books because when we asked for one, the sales clerk told me that "we only have them in Spanish and Creole. We've run out of the English language books."
Walking Into the Landscape
I suggested to the ranger that she give Hannah some alternative challenge so she could work on a Junior Ranger badge. When Hannah visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this past summer, we took her to several sections of the park and she really earned her badge. Here, without a booklet, the ranger told her to find five things: cypress trees, sawgrass, bromeliads (air plants), insects, and water.
We saw all those elements when we took a three-mile hike from the visitor center on the Florida Trail. This National Scenic Trail goes more than 1,500 miles across the state of Florida from Big Cypress to Gulf Islands National Seashore at the western end of the Florida panhandle. But first I had to fill out a backcountry permit. If you plan to walk more than a mile, you need a backcountry permit.
The trail was lined with slash pines, a long-needle pine commonly found in the swamps. Cypress trees with their characteristic knees were everywhere, as were cabbage palms, the Florida state tree. The land was full of sawgrass -- long, sharp-edged grass that inspired the phrase "river of grass." We found a few late-blooming flowers, the light violet glades lobelia, and tiny white asters.
Each mile of trail is marked off by a brown carsonite sign showing location coordinates and the altitude - here it was 28 feet. I don't think my Garmin hiking GPS could register such a low altitude. The trail is so flat that even a five-foot elevation change gave you a different perspective
It's so much easier to see animals here than in the mountains. The system of canals that parallels the roadways attracts wildlife. In winter, animals have less cover and all animals gravitate toward water. Large birds are easy to spot: great blue herons, wood stork, cormorant, tricolored herons, black vulture, little blue heron, moorhen, and cattle egret. We saw several turtles and an iguana. But all those animals pale before an alligator.
The literature said that the H.P. Williams Roadside Park was a good place to see alligators and it didn't disappoint. From the boardwalk, we could see large alligators lazing about in the swampy water held in a canal tied into the Turner River; with a quick look, you might think they were floating logs. Past the boardwalk on Turner River Road smaller alligators sunned themselves half out of the water and in the grass. During the dry season, alligators eat only once a week.
Big Cypress is not Everglades National Park. As befitting a preserve, hunting and off-road vehicles are allowed with a permit. Much has been written about the controversy of allowing more ORVs in the preserve.
The preserve also has commercial businesses, private communities, hunting cabins and the smallest operating post office in the United States. The small community of Ochopee lies within the preserve and every community needs a post office. The current building became a post office in 1953 after a fire burned the general store and post office. The lone postal clerk also sells Trailways bus tickets and keeps busy with stamp collectors who seek out the postmark.
While we were there, the Miccosukee Indians were holding their annual arts festival just outside the preserve. They had put up signs advertising the festival at regular intervals on the road, something I could not imagine being allowed in a national park.
Big Cypress -- A Backdrop for Clyde Butcher
Big Cypress boasts another treasure that Everglades National Park doesn't have - Clyde Butcher.
This 68-year-old photographer has been called the Ansel Adams of Big Cypress. His gallery, a quarter-mile east of the visitor center on U.S. 41, shows marvelous black-and-white photographs taken with large-format cameras. He's built a system in his darkroom that can handle up to 12 X 20 negatives. He and his wife moved here in 1992 and soon opened the gallery. Clyde takes visitors on swamp walks.
Until recently, they lived on the property behind the gallery. Now that they've moved to Venice, Florida, they rent out their two cottages to tourists wanting a very quiet vacation. What a wonderful retreat that would be.