Big Cypress swamp tromp a big hit with South Florida visitors

Two couples from opposite ends of the U.S. stood hip deep in the cool, fresh waters of the Big Cypress swamp recently as tour guide Cecile “C” Pratte identified some of what surely must have seemed like strange plants decorating the watery forest.

Pratte showed the couples a handful of yucky-looking periphyton — spongy, greenish-white algae that keeps the marsh hydrated during the dry season and exudes a pleasant, mild fragrance of Pine-Sol. She held out a stringy wreath of bladderwort, a flowering plant that devours mosquito larvae, and pointed out strangler figs — woody vines that entwine various trees and feed off them.

But what most interested the tourists — Doug and Lori Peterson of Boise, Idaho, and Rubia and Joe Galui of Salem, Mass. — was the possibility of seeing alligators.

“What do you do if you seen one?” the visitors asked Pratte.

She explained that the reptiles are normally very shy of humans and tend to retreat upon encountering them. But if a gator stands its ground, she said, it’s best to give it a wide berth.

The tourists nodded uncertainly but showed no inclination to bail out of the swamp tromp. Leaning on walking sticks, they followed Pratte deeper into the shaded marsh.

The Petersons and Galuis were the first customers of the 2014 season of guided swamp walks conducted out of the Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery on Tamiami Trail, 35 miles west of Miami. Butcher, the acclaimed black-and-white nature photographer, used to conduct impromptu hikes for visitors after he and wife Niki bought the property in 1992. But at age 72, Butcher spends most of his time at the couple’s Venice, Fla., gallery and no longer leads the Big Cypress walks.

Today the Butchers have a small cadre of guides who escort tour groups of up to 10 for 45-minute, introductory hikes and longer 1½-hour tours in the gallery’s lush, leafy backyard. Guests can rent the Butchers’ former residence behind the gallery. (Visit www.clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com or call 239-695-2428 for reservations.)

On the walk with Pratte, the guests didn’t encounter any gators, although something mysterious splashed and skittered away from a partially-sunken log as they approached. With water levels at late-season highs, the reptiles had plenty of territory to feed and rest and didn’t need to hang out in that particular area. But a fox squirrel greeted the group just before they entered the water and a red-shouldered hawk flew down and alighted on a tree limb to check them out.

“I heard a noise as I was walking past and turned around and there it was,” Lori Peterson said.

Plenty of tree trunks were decorated by the delicate greenery of various orchid species, but the only one with flowers was a beautiful, white “ladies-of-the-night” next to the gallery’s driveway. The visitors marveled at dwarf cypress sprouting from the swamp’s limestone floor that Pratte said could be 700 years old.

“In the slough, there’s more detritus and it grows larger,” Pratte explained.

No one spotted any snakes, but Pratte pointed out various hollow stumps where she had seen snakes — non-venomous ones — resting in the past.

With the small, avid group, Pratte took longer than the usual 90 minutes to tour the swamp. Arriving back at the starting point, the guests hosed down their muddy shoes and changed clothes.

“I never would have done this by myself,” Joe Galui told the guide.

His wife, Rubia, was ready for round two.

“Let’s go back out this afternoon,” she said.