Sunday, April 1, 2007

Gators in the Night

Every once in a while I get to do something that I've always wanted to do. Something that I've built up in my mind AND the experience actually lives up to the expectation. And really, who wouldn't want to wander nearly a mile into a gator infested cypress swamp in the middle of the Everglades with nothing but the light of the moon to lead the way?

Every day that I take a full day trip for the Everglades Day Safari we go to the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. It's a 20,000 acre preserve near the west coast that is known for Ghost Orchids, Florida Panthers and the Seminole Indians whose village "guards" the entrance. MaLe and I were heading back from Miami and drove across Tamiami Trail, the first road built across the Everglades. We took a detour down the Loop Road, an historic old dirt road that always promises good wildlife. It didn't fail tonight, providing White-tailed Deer, Pig Frogs, Whip-poor-wills and a 4 foot Water Moccasin that I thought was just a stick in the road. I straddled it doing 40 and by the time I turned around, it had slithered off into the night.

Further west on Tamiami Trail we passed signs - Panther Crossing - and then spotted this. The signs are real. There are panthers out here - maybe 80-100, but this was unreal, a 15-foot tall fabrication for a roadside zoo in the swamp. At around 9:30 pm, with the full moon on the rise, we stopped at the Fakahatchee Strand State Park parking area next to one of the many Seminole villages along the Tamiami Trail. (Click for map - The village appears at the bottom near a small pond. We walked out to the smaller pond at the top of the map. )Here was the entrance to the park, with a few hundred feet of limestone gravel walkway along a well vegetated canal leading to an 8/10 mile boardwalk out to a gator hole. I warned MaLe to step in the well lit areas. We know that snakes are out a night and gators feed at night too and live in the canal. So tread carefully. (I didn't tell her about the gators in the canal, so she is finding out as she reads this.) The Moon Flowers were blooming. Each flower - blooming only once and never again.

We passed the fenced in Seminole village, palm-thatched roofs peeking over the top, air conditioners humming along with crickets. By the time we made it to the boardwalk, most of the blood had been squeezed out of my hand. MaLe insisted she WAS terrified AND that was ok. Fear serves a purpose. My only concern was the first pool before the boardwalk, but we had made it past without incident. I've never heard of a bobcat attack and although we had found fresh scat on the boardwalk just days ago, I wasn't worried. With diaphanous moonbeams casting shadows of cypress on the boardwalk, we wandered further towards the gator hole, fireflies twinkling and diving, whip-poor-wills whistling in the distance.

The boardwalk was built out to a "gator hole" where mama gator lives and raises baby gators year after year. She's a lock on the daily tours, but without flashlights we would be hard pressed to locate her down among the Fire Flag leaves and mud. We took a photo, hoping for a glimpse of something stirring in the swamp and couldn't have been happier to catch the amorous response of dozens of fireflies and the white, glowing pairs of eyes of 3 small gators. Mama was no doubt near by. Our walk back out was no less magical. Here we were, 30 miles from city lights, tip toeing through the backyard of a few dozen Indians and listening to the cries of short-eared owls and the restless chirps of hundreds of crickets. I've always wanted to do this.


  1. Ohhhhh...I can ONLY imagine what our Mommy would say!! I am fairly certain she would make you promise that you would NEVER take a trek at night like this again. Didn't our Mother teach you anything about DANGER!

  2. She taught me to do dangerous things and then tell her afterwards.