Category Archives: Everglades

Other Towns in Central Florida Offer Out-of-the-Ordinary Entertainment

Central Florida, From Fisheating Creek to the Brighton Seminole Reservation

We drove around Lake Okeechobee, enjoying the expansive views of the leading edge of the Florida Everglades. The sky is big in Florida, and the swamp stretches for mile after desolate mile, broken only by a cluster of live oaks or staked out individually by independent palm trees, whose round heads and lack of branches look very much like landscaped lollypops from a distance. The weather was clearing, but clouds still hung over the land like a dark umbrella bent on betrayal and we drove in and out of rain.

The larger towns in this part of central Florida have the usual chain motels, but most lodging offerings consist of RVs or trailers, some quite weary looking. Campers who don’t mind roughing it will have no trouble finding suitable lodging, but those looking for a little more comfort will have to dig a little deeper. We did find a few cabins. The most inviting were cozy log cabins with peaked roofs in a small enclave. One of the owners rents two of his units, #9 and #17, for around $500 per week. If you’re interested, call Abe at 561-234-0277. A future visit will most assuredly include a week at the Lake Okeechobee Resort in Pahokee. It is the only place with accommodations directly on the lake.

We made a stop at Fisheating Creek where I told my husband the story of my great-great grandmother who was taken (along with her kids) to Fort Myers by Union soldiers trying to flush out my great-great-grandfather who was aiding Confederate soldiers by bringing them cattle. She became disgusted with camp conditions and threatened to whip the soldier who tried to stop her from leaving. She went to her brother’s place on Fisheating Creek and stayed there until the War of Northern Aggression was over. I think I would have liked my great-great-grandmother. :)

The Seminole Indian Reservation in Brighton was a disappointment. No museum, no shopping, just gambling. The room was dark, filled with slot machines that flashed neon colors, and full of cigarette smoke. Once off the reservation, we stopped at a roadside stand and bought swamp cabbage. I look forward to breaking the trunk open and cooking up a pot of swamp cabbage, which tastes a lot like asparagus.

Brighton Seminole Reservation

Most of the central Florida towns around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee offer airboat rides. Since the weather was bad the weekend of our visit, we decided against it, but if you’ve never been, I strongly encourage you to try it out. Most tours last about an hour, the cost is in the $30 to $40 range (per person) and includes picture stops. Airboat rides are exciting and fun, but not scary.

Lake Okeechobee: a Hidden Treasure

You Can’t See Lake Okeechobee From the Road

Lake Okeechobee would have probably been a lot more fun had we not visited during the last slap of Tropical Storm Andrea’s outermost feeder bands. Our stay at the Hampton Inn Okeechobee was reasonably priced, but I found the hard bed uncomfortable. The air conditioning unit kicked on and off, rather than the usual racket all night long and the bathroom had a great shower.

We enjoyed our fried catfish lunch at the Lodge at the River, which offers “Sharpies” (the entire fish, heads, bones, and all) or just the catfish filets. We chose the latter and enjoyed it very much.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake (730 square miles) that is entirely within the United States. Mostly what you see from the road is the Hoover Dike, a twenty-foot high berm, or levee, on one side and sugar cane on the other side of the road (sometimes corn…how can they grow corn in FL when I can’t?). This is the legacy of the Army Corps of Engineers, who, back when ideas like land stewardship and environmental responsibility were unheard of, “improved” the land for farmers and ranchers by draining the wetlands and straightening the surrounding rivers from their usual meandering course into straight line canals, forever affecting the natural ebb and flow of the Everglades.

We finally figured out the “Scenic Trail” signs indicated lake access to the other side of the levee. The top of the 140 mile long levee that protects the surrounding communities allows bikers and hikers a great view of the lake. Driving up the berm and making blind turns (and I DO mean your car is tilted skyward and you cannot see over your hood) reminded me, once again, of why I am not a mountain girl.

However, once you get over the levee, you aren’t quite there, yet, since the only way to access the lake is by canal…in other words, you take a waterway to get to the water! If you look at these pictures, you can see how the two are separated:

Lake Okeechobee #1

The water hyacinth, an invasive species, chokes the shallow lake of nutrients and oxygen and is an on-going problem for the area. The alligators, however, love them because they provide cover for the hunting reptiles.

Lake Okeechobee #2

Lake Okeechobee #3

Boating, fishing, and hunting in season are popular here.

Lake Okeechobee #4

Alligators, bears, and otters are a common sight, as are osprey and eagles’ nests, high atop light poles and trees. Some sights were amusing. At one point, a baby alligator escaped the lake and a big, burly man stopped his car in the middle of the road, got out and grabbed the reptile by the middle, right behind its head, and carried it to a ditch, while it wiggled and fought him the whole way. He was laughing his head off, looking as if he was having the time of his life. The man, not the gator. The gator was furious. His wife walked back to the car, shaking her head. We were going in the other direction and didn’t get stopped in time to take a picture. Apparently, this is not a terribly unusual occurrence down by the levee, as they seemed to take it in stride.

Lake Okeechobee #10

 

 

Alligators in the Everglades

I managed a few pictures that capture the vast area, but nothing really does it justice. I felt (and was) very small in the middle of acre upon acre of saw grass and mud flats and a few inches of water. We were 8 miles from where the ValueJet plane went down. The boat captain told us that some parts just got sucked right into the mud, never to be seen again. If I’d gotten out of the boat, the water would have been less than knee deep, but I would have sunk in up to my thighs.

Everglades Airboat Ride

Our boat captain teased the little alligator at the dock.

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Then he took us to meet Tiny. He knows Tiny is a female (sexing an alligator requires an internal exam) because there is a bigger gator in the same pond and if Tiny were male, the bigger alligator would have driven it off.

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This is the bigger gator:

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His name is Rambo.

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He’s been in a recent fight. His back leg is injured, but is healing. Scientists are quite interested in this ability to heal in fetid waters.

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The boat captain would hold out his hand and as the alligator rose its head up, the captain would rap his fingers on the top of its snout and the alligator would open it’s mouth.

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“Rambo’s” head was inches away from my knee when I snapped this picture. They seemed almost tame. I still don’t trust them, but I wasn’t afraid. See that black line that runs back from his eye? That’s his ear. Oh, and they hiss.

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It was kind of creepy the way they’d circle the boat.

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And then slip underneath.

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Only to appear again. This time in the front of the boat. I may have lost sight of them, but they never took their eyes off me. Not once.

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Florida is the only state where the American crocodile still exists. You can tell the difference between alligators and crocodiles by the shape of their snouts. The alligator’s snout is rounded while the crocodile’s snout is elongated. Neither one have tongues.

Most of the eggs in this alligator nest will be eaten by surrounding wildlife, some before hatching.

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Of those that make it, the eggs at the top of the mound will be male and at the bottom of the mound, the emerging baby gators will be female. Temperature decides the sex, the hotter the egg, male, the colder the egg, female. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyway, the baby gators still aren’t out of the woods, er, swamp, yet. Predatory birds, raccoons, other alligators, yes, even the one that fathered them (talk about life cycle!), pick off unwary babies. Mother gator does what she can for about a year. After that, it’s every gator for him/herself.

That attitude of independence seems to have bubbled over into all of South Florida’s denizens, as we were about to discover during our trip to Key West, but that’s another post for another day. Later, Gators!

An Airboat Ride in the Everglades

An Airboat Ride in the Everglades

When it comes to finding out-of-the-way corners in Florida, it doesn’t get much more secluded than the Everglades and the best way to find those spots is to treat yourself to an airboat ride. You’ll find numerous charter companies along the highway as you drive US 41, better known as the “Tamiami Trail” along the coastline south of Naples, but I suggest you curve inland, where the highway becomes known as “Alligator Alley”, cutting through Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, and catching your ride at the Seminole reservation for a more authentic experience.

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The airboats are fascinating. We rode in a flat bottom boat, a skiff that had two rows of seats bolted to the bottom. Behind the seats, the boat captain sat on an elevated seat. The engine was located beneath his seat and it ran a huge caged fan directly behind the captain.

Airboat #2

I’m not much of a dare devil, but wasn’t nervous about riding in the airboat, and truly, it was no different than skimming across the lake in a speed boat, except that it banked more sharply and the spray was quite high, adding to the excitement.

Skimming the Swamp

Since everything mechanical is located above the waterline, the boat can glide along on mere inches of water, a good thing when drought conditions hit the area hard. I was amazed at some of the places we made it through, such as this narrow passageway!

Airboat Ride

Walking Trees

Notice the waterline on the Mangrove roots below. When the fresh water dries up, salt water moves in. Mangroves (those are Red Mangroves, to be precise) get rid of the excess salt in their diet through the leaves, turning them yellow in the process.

Mangroves

The Seminoles called them “Walking Trees”. Mangroves regenerate by dropping their green pods (actually long seeds with roots on the bottom and a fully formed, tiny mangrove at the top) in the water below and the pods are carried away by the current. The seedpod is so perfectly balanced that it drops into the water in an upright position and remains that way as it is washed downstream. If it gets tipped over, it rights itself. When something finally stops it, the pod immediately roots, thus continuing the process. Easy to see how Indians would interpret this as “walking”!

Mangroves #2

I tried to capture the way the boat would bank real fast around the bends in the waterway and spray would rise up above my head, curving away back into the water, but all the pictures came out looking like I was just holding the camera wrong and the water’s spray just looks…well, not very interesting. I should take an online photography course on nature. There must be a trick in how to photograph those moments. Then again, how do you photograph touch? Like trying to make one sense do the job of the other. Still, I try. Mostly with words, though.