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The vast forest of dwarf cypresses, pines and hardwood hammocks of the Florida Everglades has long intrigued my retired wife and I who have often vacationed in the Sunshine State. We had traversed County Road 94, better known as Loop Road Scenic Drive, a quiet dirt road off the Tamiami Trail, and planned to return for an in-depth guided tour of the area, in search of a little more than typical Florida. roadside attraction.

On our last trip at the end of January, we left Pine Ridge Road in Naples for an adventure in the Everglades, traveling 48 miles inland where we found Captain Steve and his swamp buggies at the bottom of the national reserve. by Big Cypress. Steve is a sixth-generation Glades man (the family has lived in the Everglades since the 1870s) who loves the Big Cypress National Preserve, the largest subtropical swamp in the United States. Steve’s great-grandfather, Captain Charlie Boggess, was the first to organize a trip to Everglades National Park.

Mark G and Captain Steve somewhere in the middle of the Big Cypress Swamp. Photos courtesy of Mark Gunderman.

Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventure is powered by a six-person all-terrain vehicle with tractor tires and an elevated viewing platform. We were lucky enough to have a 3.5 hour private tour of the 1.5 million acre wetland. We arrived just after a frost warning. Big Cypress was calm, peaceful and serene; a small glimpse of what heaven on earth could look like.

Captain Steve is a physically large man; he is cheerful, charismatic and a natural storyteller. His outgoing nature invites a day of lunch and socializing. Steve explained to us that he stopped at any time to take pictures or quickly jumped out of the buggy to walk around and get a closer look at any unusual aspect of a particular habitat. Being a professional Captain Steve not only shared wonderful experiences but made sure we had bug spray, sunscreen and binoculars.

Steve started the tour by explaining that although Florida is experiencing tremendous population growth and urban development, Big Cypress remains a wilderness, inhospitable and mysterious, home to countless tooth-and-claw creatures. The exotic waterscape features a delicate landscape with open vistas of grass, pine forests and dense hardwood islands. The marsh is a rich and varied biological reserve.

We came across a large tree that exhibited distorted growth and a distinctive curvature in a vertical plane. Steve identified it as a directional tree or marker tree. Historically, these unique trees were commonly referred to as Indian Trail Trees. Proponents of the trail tree tradition claim that these unique shapes were modified by Native Americans and used to mark trails, river crossings, or significant places. Native Americans bent young trees into shapes not found in nature, such as right angles. Curved shafts were originally saplings that were intentionally bent in the correct direction for precise trail navigation. The bend of the shaft was secured with objects such as sinew, bark, rawhide, or vines. Alternatively, young trees were weighted with earth or rocks.

The native Indian marker or directional tree featured a distinctive curvature in a vertical plane.

At the start of the tour, Captain Steve pointed out that there was still cut wood from the days of the cypress logging. When the timber industry began operating in the area, it built railroads and cut down and transported most of the old trees from the cypress ecosystem. Jerome and Copeland were lumber towns, and Jerome’s sawmill was once one of the most productive in the United States. During the 1940s, loggers cut and finished 100,000 board feet every day. The Lee Cypress Railroad, built in the 1920s, carried cypresses for more than 40 years, ending in the 1950s. When conservationists became concerned about the Big Cypress in the late 1960s, it had already been exploited. About three hundred and sixty million board feet of cypress were extracted from the Big Cypress before it became a reserve.

Steve filled us in on the fascinating Big Cypress waders. The Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret and White Ibis are the birds most frequently seen in the marsh. Another bird that caught our attention was the prehistoric-looking Anhinga, present here in large numbers. Anhinga has a minimal layer of oil that repels water. The oil allows them to be less buoyant and more adept at diving and catching prey. To dry off after fishing, they must bask in the sun on high perches with their wings spread.

American alligators are commonly seen on the reserve during the dry winter seasons when water is scarce. We observed an eleven foot basking in a canal and baby alligators near an alligator cave. Other reptiles in the swamp that can be seen include whitemouth and rattlesnakes, skinks, geckos, turtles, and lizards.

Cypresses in winter.

Steve informed us that Big Cypress is home to 35 species of mammals, the most popular being the Florida panther, black bear, and manatee. An endangered species since 1967, about 150 panthers live on Big Cypress. Panthers are strictly carnivorous, with white-tailed deer and feral hogs making up the bulk of their diet. They will also hunt smaller animals such as raccoons, rabbits, armadillos, birds, and young alligators. Male black bears can weigh up to 450 pounds and are omnivorous. Their diet consists of plants, insects and scavenged meat. Manatees, Florida’s most beloved mammals, can live in fresh, salt or brackish water and reside in springs, rivers, estuaries and coastal areas of Florida. Manatees spend eight hours a day eating aquatic plants. Adult manatees are about 9 to 10 feet long, and females can weigh an average of 1,000 pounds.

The swamp buggy adventure is not, generally speaking, a wildlife safari. This is more of an in-depth look at the dramatic landscapes of Big Cypress habitats. Captain Steve introduced each fascinating habitat as the tour traveled through them.

The cypress swamps are dominated by bald cypress trees. Many types of woody plants are found here. On the trunks and branches of cypress trees grow epiphytes or air plants. Steve said epiphytes attach themselves to other living plants, in this case cypresses. Instead of having their roots in the ground, they wrap around the cypress to stay firmly in place. Well-known epiphytes of Tall Cypress are bromeliads and orchids. Epiphytes use photosynthesis to create their own food and obtain moisture from humidity, such as fog and rain.

Cypress trees grow in water-filled solution holes which are depressions in limestone bedrock. The roots of the cypress are able to pierce the bedrock and grow there. In a cypress dome, taller trees grow in deeper water and smaller trees grow along the edge in shallower water. The center of the domes has no trees and ponds are often found there. This type of open dome invites alligator flag plant and coastal plain willow that can tolerate deeper water. Since these deeper solution holes almost always hold water year-round, they provide an important refuge for alligators.

The Pinelands are mostly dwarf palms, South Florida slash pines, and mixed grasses. Pine slash is very fire tolerant. The Pinelands are part of a stable community and depend on fire to help remove grasses, shrubs and other trees that will crowd out the slash pine over time and eventually alter the habitat. Pine slash is a very hard wood and extremely resistant to termites. This made it a highly sought-after wood for home construction, leading to the logging of ancient trees in Florida. Steve said the term “cut” comes from the practice of early woodworkers extracting its sap by cutting slash marks into the trunk, draining the sap from the cuts and using it to make turpentine.

The morning landscape reveals dwarf palms and Florida pines.

Cypress grasslands are dominated by ground cover such as muhly grass or saw grass. Dwarf bald cypresses are common in these grasslands but rarely reach a large size. This is partly because the limestone cap rock which is a common component of substrates here is close to the ground surface and inhibits the establishment and growth of cypresses. The Prairies usually burn once in a five-year period. Without fire, woody plants would push out grassland plant species. Steve said this will in turn cause grassland mammals and birds to lose their habitat.

Hardwood hammocks sit on slightly elevated bedrock areas. Hammocks look a bit like a rainforest due to the rich diversity of ferns, epiphytes, lichens, and vines that grow in their sheltered interior. There are also oaks, wild tamarind, cabbage palms, maple and saw palmetto. The densest part of a hardwood hammock is in the canopy, making it difficult for plants at ground level to find enough light to grow. The Florida panther likes to bask in the shade of tall trees during the day and the Florida black bear likes to forage for saw palmetto berries and bog kale hearts of palm.

Estuaries and mangroves are located along the southwest edges of the reserve, where fresh water from the marsh meets salt water from the Gulf of Mexico. Estuaries are very productive ecosystems. They are often referred to as the “nurseries of the sea” because marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees give birth to their young here. The dead leaves of the mangroves are decomposed in the water and form debris. The debris breaks down and becomes nutrients and food for thousands of organisms. The roots of the red mangrove retain and lock in nutrients, making it a safe haven for all types of sea creatures, such as shrimp, crabs, snails, and small fish. Steve believes that marine fish such as snook, trout, mullet, trevally, grouper, redfish, silver perch, spot, catfish and spiny lobster also depend on this area for food.

The marsh is an ever-changing environment that experiences dramatically fluctuating water levels. The relaxed drive through this pristine otherworld enriched our connection with nature and helped us better understand the unique and sometimes misunderstood ecosystem. The delightful and educational tour ended in the early afternoon and before we exchanged goodbyes, the captain provided us with great recommendations for other tours and restaurants in the Big Cypress area of ​​Everglades City.