The dry marl prairie took on a golden color in the early evening, as if each stalk of grass was glowing from within. The light made everything look rapturously beautiful. Vivid green reeds poked from a swampy pool. We swung wide, but egrets, so crisply white they appeared starched and bleached, interrupted their still work to flap noisily to a scraggly cypress.
As we hiked further, husks of crayfish and empty snail shells dotted the powdery gray soil, reminders that for a time each year that ground became the bottom of a shallow sweetwater sea. As the sun dropped, darkening the honey-colored radiance to red peach, it was hard not to find wonder in the endless changeability of Big Cypress.
Past a final band of cabbage palm, David Denham, our 68-year-old leader, called an end to our first day hiking across Big Cypress National Preserve. Ten tired men, most in their 50s and 60s, quietly set up 10 little man caves on the prairie. Eleven miles in unseasonable heat had been draining. Soon there were 10 camp stoves preparing 10 just-add-water dinners. As the stars came out, the group re-gathered around a fire.
The bachelor camping was by chance. Anyone can join the Florida Trail Association, and any member with reasonable experience is welcome to participate in the annual February traverse of the preserve, which is sponsored by the Happy Hoofers, Broward County’s chapter of the association.
For many, the four-day immersion in swamp, sawgrass and cypress domes is a one-time bucket-list adventure.
Though his rumpled grandfatherly appearance is more Don Quixote than King Arthur, for Denham, these trips are effectively a quest. He has led the traverse for the past eight years. “When we started this, it was all exploration,” he said. “We’ve refined it from there.” While he’s never taken the exact same route twice, he aims to turn his “conceptual trail” into a permanent, marked segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs some 1,400 miles from the Everglades to Pensacola.
Denham has been poking around Florida’s public lands since he arrived in the state for graduate school in 1968. Once Big Cypress National Preserve was established in 1974, it became one of his favorite haunts. The preserve has grown to 729,000 acres, in part through additions from a land swap in 1996. The route we followed covered 51 miles moving from west to east mostly through those “Addition Lands.”
In February 2012, we gathered in a parking area beside SR 29. Denham’s pickup with 219,000 miles on the odometer is the perfect vehicle to leave at remote trail heads. No one would consider stealing it, though it could easily be taken for abandoned the moment it comes to a stop. After introductions, we began walking along a raised dirt road. In the still-cool morning, frogs called and insects chirred. Catfish flopped in dark still swamp water. Twice my heart jumped to my throat when black racer snakes exploded into motion at my feet.
“This land has been logged, ranched, and drilled. It still grows back strong,” Denham said. “We’re entering an area that has been closed to ORV [off road vehicle] use. You’ll see how its wilderness character has sprung back.” Soon thereafter, everyone froze when a mother black bear and two cubs emerged from the brush 50 yards ahead. She stood on her hind legs sniffing and peering at our group before herding her charges around a bend and out of sight. It was a remarkable sighting. Members of the group had started their days in Miami and Naples and by afternoon were watching wild bears.