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Swamp and sawgrass: Immersion in the Everglades

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.

Perhaps carried by residual adrenaline from the bear sighting, we plunged into the brush and emerged unscathed on open prairie. We had settled into single file on a narrow track when Denham nearly stepped on a coral snake. Mike Duplak, the second in line, and the snake both lunged. The snake smacked into his bare leg.

Thankfully, it didn’t bite, and slithered off leaving Duplak uninjured. From a distance, we verified its “red touches yellow, kills a fellow” pattern, confirming its poisonous identity. By the time we made camp, we felt fully immersed in the wilds of Florida.

Hiking rhythm

Our days had a rhythm. While there wasn’t a rush, neither was it leisurely. We started hiking around 8 a.m. We stopped by 6 p.m. Along the way, we took generous breaks in shady spots. The moderate pace and easy company made the physically demanding trip pleasurable.

In effect, the entire experience was curated, and Denham was the docent of Big Cypress. As we reached the Sunniland pipeline, he explained it was built for the first oil well in Florida. At other times he pointed out remnants of cracker cowboy camps, canals dug by walking dredges and the area where Billy Bowlegs lived at the start of the Third Seminole War.

The route took us through pine flats, hardwood hammocks and cypress domes. Some sections were so overgrown it was hard to see a few yards ahead while the raised roads beside canals gave us long views of prairie and forest. We saw deer and wood stork, rattlesnakes and lubbers.

When we missed a cutoff, we gathered around Google Earth printouts, but in effect Denham was the map. Rather than backtrack he reflowed the multitude of possibilities in his head. “We’re up to Plan C,” Denham said. “All this to keep our feet dry — a worthwhile endeavor in my eyes.” If crossing a swamp weren’t enough of a challenge, Denham strives to find a way through the maze that doesn’t get his feet wet.

Dick Ward has been on countless hikes with Denham. “I get out here and all the stress falls away,” he said. “I’ve had a taste for new things lately. It was time to get out of my box of so many square miles around the house.”

At one point, Ward got up on his tip toes to peer through the brush at a basking alligator. After looking for some time he silently resumed hiking. That quiet eagerness to simply see what was to be seen gave the trip a feeling of young boys out discovering. That sort of innocence was all the more poignant when the men acknowledged realities that included cancer treatments and unexpected second careers to supplement underfunded retirements.

Our second night out, we camped beside a palmetto stand. The evening’s entertainment was a silent fireworks display as fireflies of many colors celebrated an unnamed occasion.

Early the next morning I had wandered off on my own when a flock of ibis passed over me just 20 feet up. Most were gliding. They were close enough that I could hear the whoosh of air on feathers. Two were flapping, which had an almost percussive sound. It struck me as a moment John Cage, the composer who challenged so many definitions of music, might have appreciated.

The youngest and fittest member of the group wisely pared everything he needed for four days into a backpack that weighed less than 15 pounds. Using a carefully calibrated system developed while hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, Duplak ate only select colors of M&Ms each day. His spartan snacks were supplemented with stories of near-mythic stops for meals, including swimming across the flooded Kennebec River in Maine, soon after Hurricane Irene had passed through, in order to reach a microbrewery.

By the end of the third day we had covered 40 miles. The sky was a cloudy turmoil. The bluster of an impending front brought a breeze, but many of us were dragging. Even Denham acknowledged, “I don’t want to go an extra step if I don’t have to.”

Stop in Looneyville

Our final night was spent on the outskirts of Looneyville. The quirky inholding has a mix of grandfathered houses, camps and trailers. Even though it wasn’t supposed to be open, Denham warned that the dirt track beside our camp saw some off-road-vehicle use.

Sure enough, the growl of an engine signaled an approaching four-wheeler. We cleared out of the way, but the skinny young man driving and woman sitting behind him, jerked to a halt. “You nearly scared me to death,” he said before riding on.

A few minutes later, he circled back. Stopping right in front of us, and with a hint of aggression that can come from being confronted with the shockingly unfamiliar, he asked “Are you environmentalists?” Our various answers were mostly lost under the engine noise.

“Words matter,” Denham said, after they departed. “Environmentalist is a bad word to a lot of people. If anything, I say conservationist. It has the same root as conservative.”

With nightfall, the mosquitoes arrived. We continued talking for a time, but rain showers sent all to bed before 9. The precipitation cooled things, but still I didn’t need to zip up the sleeping bag.

On our final day, we hobbled along, sore and stinky. Denham showed a sense of humor about himself and his wildland rambling. Referring to Florida’s fabled and smelly, Bigfoot-esque monster, he remarked, “I haven’t seen a Skunk Ape, but people looking for them have seen me.”

We left the backcountry close to the Miccosukee Service Plaza off Alligator Alley. It was an abrupt shift from quiet to the noise and bustle by the highway. In the afternoon heat everyone eagerly bought cold beverages and called to arrange carpools back to our vehicles.

Our route had paralleled I-75. Later, driving the familiar stretch of highway that cuts through Big Cypress, I saw it in a different way. I understood what lay beyond the fences and the canals. Having walked that land I had a sense of ownership, an admiration for and desire to conserve the place. I wondered: If I got all that after four days, what does David Denham feel?