Another beautiful sunny day with the temperature in the mid-70’s. Time to go exploring in the Big Cypress National Preserve in southern Florida!
Big Cypress refers not to the tree but to the size of the swamp, over 2,400 square miles in subtropical Florida. This is a land of sandy islands, slash pine, mixed hardwood hammock (tree islands), prairies, cypress domes and strands, marshes, and estuarine mangrove forests. Its beauty beckons numerous visitors into the knee-deep water. Air plants, both bromeliads and orchids, perch on the cypress and hammock trees like strange bird nests.
Big Cypress is about one-third covered with cypress trees, mostly the dwarf pond cypress variety. Broad belts of them edge wet prairies, line the sloughs where deeper water prevails, and dot the horizon like hills on a vast plain. The great bald cypresses are nearly gone. Today’s few remaining giants embody antiquity; some are 600 to 700 years old. Their bulbous bases flare downward and outward to root systems loosely locked in rich, wet organic peat. Their girths outstretch the combined embrace of four adults. Thankfully, these hovering giants are now protected from exploitation, from those who would harvest them and turn their wood into commercial products.
Sixty inches of rain fall in an average year, beginning as clouds stacked up over the Gulf of Mexico. The rain falls every afternoon during a season of thunderstorms that usually begins each year in May. The rains flood Big Cypress before flowing slowly to the south through Everglades National Park. It is a slow drainage upon which creatures great and small depend. The land slopes only two inches per mile to the Gulf of Mexico, causing a delayed drainage of the wet season’s watery bounty. The gradual drainage extends the wet season by two to three full months after the rains taper off in October. The swamp provides vital water for several southwest Florida cities.
Our first stop was to the Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery, located 1.5 miles west of the Midway Campground on US-41. Clyde Butcher and his wife have lived at this location for the past 16 years taking extraordinary landscape pictures, on black and white film, of the Big Cypress swamp. He captures these landscapes on film using 8x10", 11x14" or 12x20" view camera. The large format camera allows him to express in elaborate detail the beauty of the landscape. Clyde’s photography has been exhibited in museums in the United States and Europe. His photographs sell for several hundreds of dollars for a size 8 inch x 10 inch print up to $125,000 for a size 5 foot x 8 foot print.
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is immediately immersed in and surrounded by immense black and white landscape photographs mounted on the walls. The serene beauty and artistic detail of these photographs draws the visitor into the scene as though they are entering an out-of-body experience into the actual landscape itself. Words alone cannot adequately describe the artistic quality of Clyde Butcher’s photographs. We felt privileged to have witnessed this wonderful display of the artist’s photography.
Upon our departure, we purchased one of his many books of photographs; Big Cypress Swamp: The Western Everglades. This book cost $40.00 and contained many of the same photographs that were mounted on the walls in the gallery.
Our next stop was at the W. P. Williams Roadside Park located on the north side of US-41 at Turner River Road (FL-839). The canal forms a large shallow water pond approximately four feet deep by thirty feet wide at this location. The water is crystal clear with lush green vegetation that provides a scenic underwater wonderland for fish, alligators, turtles, snakes and water birds. The pond is bordered by a dense mangrove forest on one side and a nicely landscaped picnic area on the other side. This is the perfect spot for a visitor to have a picnic while observing a wonderfully scenic wildlife habitat.
Our next stop took us to the Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center located on the south side of US-41 at Seagrape Drive. Behind the visitor center is a very large pond fed from the water flowing south through the Big Cypress swamp. A boardwalk, approximately 50 yards in length, runs along one side of the pond providing a safe and close-up viewing area for the visitors. A park ranger provides very informative on-site lectures on the wildlife that inhabit this area. We were fortunate on this visit to view a manatee grazing on the vegetation in this nutrient rich pond environment. A short distance away was an alligator floating near the surface of the water, seemingly oblivious to the mammoth-size mammal invading his space.
We decided our next stop would be to Everglades City for a late afternoon lunch. The entrance into the city is on FL-29 south of US-41. This is a small town of 459 residents with a mixed housing and entertainment environment. There are elevated and non-elevated single family homes, some very nice and some not so nice. There are a few condos and motels, waterfront restaurants and airboat ride operators. On our tour of the town we discovered a beautifully landscaped RV Resort (Everglades Isles) that is probably a private ownership community. There was also a boat dock located adjacent to the property. Most of the sites were vacant and those that were not vacant were occupied by very expensive, upscale motorhomes.
As we continued our tour of the town searching for a restaurant, we stopped to chat with a couple that had just come out of a restaurant we had just passed. We solicited their recommendation for good restaurants in the area. They informed us that most of the restaurants were casual style; meaning you placed your order with the cashier and picked your order up when your number was called. Seating was usually at picnic-style tables. They directed us to the City Seafood Restaurant, which they said was the number one rated restaurant on Trip Advisor.
City Seafood was just around the corner from our location. It occupied two buildings, one was the restaurant and the other was their retail seafood store. It was 4:00 p.m., the parking lot was full (always a good sign from our many years of dining out) so the decision was made. In we go! We were not disappointed. I ordered the fried grouper sandwich ala carte and Sharon ordered the fried grouper finger basket, which came with french fries. We seated ourselves at a picnic table facing the water and enjoyed our deliciously prepared grouper. While we ate, we were treated to the sight of numerous boats, cabin cruisers and commercial fishing boats, moored at the dock. In addition, airboats were transporting passengers through the Big Cypress swamp, the roar from their aircraft engines penetrating the surrounding airspace.
We returned to our campsite at the Midway Campground in the Big Cypress National Preserve, content from a full day of wonderful exploration.
Tomorrow another adventure begins.