Four Innocents Crotch-Deep in the Fakahatchee Strand

Sweet talking our way into the Sunshine State

We'd gone to Florida to stay with an uncle. He's the director of a botanical gardens down there and he lives in on one of them retirement golf course compounds with several miles of high walls running all the way around it and a guard at the gate. The average age of the inhabitants (and the guards at the gate) of this particular compound was death minus an episode of The Golden Girls, give or take. When we, a car full of bright-eyed Canadians whose average age was grad student, pulled up to the gate in our rented Prius, Eddie, the guard, was skeptical and wasn't buying any of my smooth talk:

"What's you name?"
"Uh... the name is under Ja..."
"No, YOUR name?"
"Uh... Morgan."
"Milton what?"
Scans list.
"Sorry, no one here by that name."
"We are here to visit our uncle--Brian H___."
"Brian H___."
Scans list.
"You're not on the list. Let me phone Mr. H___ and check." (I once smooth talked my way into a concert using the same tactic of confused innocence, but Eddie was having none of it).
Several awkward moments of Eddie glaring at us suspicious young people in our silly Prius while the phone rings.
"No answer."
"Uh... Here's a cell phone number we have for him," handing him a folded piece of paper strewn with flight itineraries, rental car discount codes, and Uncle's phone numbers. Eddie takes the paper and starts dialing.
Several awkward moments of Eddie glarring at us suspicious young people in our ridiculous Prius while the phone rings.
"No answer."
Eddie dials the next number on the list.
"Wait over there," he points to the purgatory parking spot, "while I try this other number," he's getting concerned about the line up of Lexuses and Cadillac DeVilles growing behind us. The plutocrats will not stand for a Prius holding up the works! But before the gates swing open Uncle Brian picks up on the other end.
"Hello Mr. H___. There are some people claiming they know you... Oh... Okay... Ah, yes! Here it is."
Eddie hangs up the phone and hands us an envelope and a parking pass, "First left. Enjoy your visit." (The next time I see Eddie he called me "Buddy" the difference a parking pass makes!)

Wine, dine, sun, shine...

We'd gone to Florida for the same reason everyone in that compound had. For sun, for sand, for sea, for shellfish, for outlet malls and Super Targets, for golf courses and sunburns. To wine, to dine, to sit by the pool by the ocean and sip margaritas and Arnold Palmers (half-lemonade and half-iced tea). While our ladies shopped the Historian-Lawyer and I sat in the food court and talked about what a strange place this was. We couldn't discern any real industry that would cause such a place to begin, other than retirement. The Historian-Lawyer thinks it was a Confederate general who bought a bunch of land for the wealthy from the north-end of the South to winter in. It wasn't coal mines, fisheries, farms, or auto plants that built this city. It was loafers, high pants, and early dinners.

And we got what we came for. There was wining, and fine dining. There was golf, and sandy beaches at sunset. There was an entire day spent pool-side sipping on margaritas and Arnold Palmers, working on our sunburns. There was lunch at the Yacht Club after a guided tour of the Botanical Gardens (beautiful by the way). There was luxurious motorboats driven cautiously through manatee habitats (careful not to wake them, har har) to public beachs on mangrove island bird preserves littered with working class Floridians smoking cigarettes, drinking light domestic beer, and listening to Garth Brooks while bobbing with the current. But the trip turned from great to bloody brilliant in a slow moment after the sun went down and the lights had gone out at the compound.

"So is there anything particular you guys would like to do while here?"
Shopping. Lounging by the pool. Wining. Dining.
"Well, I'd like to see some Everglades. I really like the movie Adaptation, and flying in I saw some swamp from the plane window. I wouldn't mind seeing that."
"You like Adaptation? Really? I got an email today, at work, I might be able to get us on a swamp walk if you're interested."
"A swamp walk?"
A swamp walk?
"Yeah, I know a guy, um... Mike... Mike something, who takes people on swamp walks."
"A swamp walk!" My face lit up.
The others', not so much. They'd come for wining, dining, pooling, bobbing, shopping. There was nothing in Swamp Walk that hinted at any of that.
But they came around.
"You are going to need to buy some cheap shoes you don't mind getting wet. And wear long sleeves and long pants. And wear big hats and lots of sunscreen. And bug spray, lots and lots of bug spray. It's going to be hot. And sunny. And muggy. It's going to be hell."
Swamp walk?

Swamp Walk

When you are talked into going on a swamp walk while on vacation you think walking trails, guided tours, boardwalk rope bridges. At the worst we envisioned slippery stones for skipping across with the slightest chance of miscalibration resulting in damp toes. Boy were we wrong.

We got up early to the sound of a thousand creaky old arthritic old-timers rising with the sun and were on the road in our rented golf cart, wearing our new cheap, brightly coloured canvas shoes, long sleeves, long pants, big hats, sunscreen, and bug spray, lots and lots of bug spray, before any of us had thought we'd be getting up the entire trip. We were on vacation. We'd come to wine and dine and lounge and sleep in.

Swamp walk?

Into the breech (not the beach)

We drove an hour on a maze of wide streets, interstates, state highways, and county roads. Stopping momentarily to ask the county sheriff digging through a dumpster marked with a spray-painted sign "Junk", in front of a burnt-out trailer with a spray-painted sign "crack-heads keep out", for directions to the ranger station. "Git back on that road and go that way a mile," the sheriff waved us on, barely looking up from the treasure trove of junk he was crotch deep in. Looking for evidence or a bargain. To serve and protect.

The ranger station was right where the sheriff said it would be. But the ranger wasn't there yet. So we loitered in the parking lot with the other swamp walkers. We must have stuck out like untanned Canadian sore thumbs because they approached us with suspicion: "Hello there, who are you? What are you doing here?" Luckily Uncle knew some of them and introduced us as learned and interested nieces and nephews. Otherwise the vultures that circled overhead, swooping now and then to grab a mouthful of the squashed gator on Highway 29, would be swooping now and then for us, because this was an exclusive swamp walk.

It was clear as the crowd began to form that this wasn't a swamp walk as we had envisioned it, some sort of quasi-eduacational tour for tourists paid for by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Board. We were the only tourists. Everyone else was at most a botanist or biologist for the parks department or the Army Corps of Engineers and at least a keen enthusiast who swamp walks every chance they got. One of the enthusiasts mentioned something about a friend falling in and hypothermia. It's Florida. Puh-leaze!

The ranger arrived, not just any ranger, but super hero Ranger Mike. A real hero and a real life approximation of Ace Ventura had he been a legitimate scientist and not a pet detective. Expecting a safety orientation and full briefing on what we might see in the swamp Mike enthusiastically explained for all the uninitiated enthusiasts and the four Canadian tourists what the Fakahatchee Strand State Park Preserve was and why it was so awesome. Something about being a large swamp full of flora and fauna. One of the botanist-biologists passed around a pen and scrap of paper for us to write our names and phone numbers on. Where were the liability waivers in the case of hypothermia, drowning, eaten by gators, or shot by poachers? Where was our safety orientation? Get in your golf cart and follow us into the swamp.

We drove for 20 minutes on Jane's Memorial Scenic Route. Which is a pothole riddled, overgrown dirt road that, Ranger Mike tells us later, used to be a rail line for logging when they cut down all the trees in the swamp to build ships for the war and Coke crates afterwards. At the first break in the trees along the side of the road the botanists, biologists and enthusiasts in their Jeeps and pick-up trucks, and the four Canadian tourists and their uncle in their rented Toyota Prius park. We get out and look up and down both sides of the road looking for a well-marked trail head, perhaps the universal sign of the hiking trail--the stick man holding a stick, striding purposefully within a permissive circle. We didn't find anything like this. Instead we were given a 5 foot length of PVC pipe, our walking sticks, and told to follow the handful of botanists, biologists and enthusiasts further down the road.

Florida gators

With still no sign of a civilized, maintained, safe walking trail Ranger Mike stops us by a culvert that runs beneath the road so the swamp water can flow from one side to the other. Finally, a safety tip. "You've got to watch culverts like this one. These are great places for poppa gators to hide, it gives them good shade. Also watch for places like this," he pokes his pole into the pool of bottomless water at the end of the culvert," places where you can't see the bottom of the water are also great places for gators to hide."

Gators? Really? Gators? The four Canadian tourists all took a step back from the edge of the road. Those things can jump up and grab you. We've all seen the Discovery Channel "When Animals Attack" specials. They could grab you right off the edge of a pothole riddled, overgrown dirt road in the middle of the Fakahatchee Strand. They could chew you right in two. We've seen Adaptation!

Having saved his charges from unwittingly stepping into a gator den Ranger Mike takes a healthy three or four more paces down the road, a good and safe 12 feet, at least, and says, "we'll go in here," he says, pointing to the tepid pool of stagnant brown water, "see, you can see the bottom." And to the shock and amazement of the four Canadian tourists in their bright but cheap new canvas shoes, skinny jeans, yoga pants, and golf khakis, Ranger Mike hopped right in the friggin' swamp, up to his knees.

Seeing Ranger Mike, followed by one botanist/biologists/enthusiast after another jump in the swamp we, the four Canadian tourists, begin shooting each other horrified looks. Gators! Swamp walk! In the swamp! Not near the swamp! Not around the swamp! Not on a nice board walk built by the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Tourism through the swamp but at a safe distance from gators! We've seen Adaptation! We know what happens when you wade in the swamp poaching orchids. For the first time this vacation death has become a concern. Until now our biggest concerns were heat stroke, sunburns, and Target being out of the floral print shirt we like.

Everyone into the gator-infested swamp!

I plunge a toe into the swamp like you would a boiling bathtub. That is if your bathtub boiled with gators. The bottom was squishy, Ranger Mike would later explain that the Fakahatchee Strand is a 19-mile long, 6-mile wide gouge in the limestone that for 6,000 years has been filling with leaves dropped from trees. The squish, he assures us, is not gators or the remains of swamp walkers past, but 6,000 years worth of leaf remains.

I find my footing and decide to try dipping my other toe. As I do this I swing my useless walking stick out of the way, it's proving to me more of a pain in the ass than anything. I never did understand why hikers insisted on carrying sticks everywhere they go. Is it a fashion statement? Some sort of primitive phallic symbol of masculinity? Perhaps to fend of bears or gators? As my second foot squishes into the dead leaves I wobble and just as I reach for the nearest rare, endangered tree to win back my balance Ranger Mike reminds us: "Use your sticks for balance, and try not to grab on to the trees, a lot of them are covered with poison ivy, like this one," pointing the tree I am reaching for.

From that point on I don't know who walked who through the swamp, me or my stick. I do know that when it was all over my shoulders were sore from leaning on that 5-foot length of PVC pipe.

Photo by Liz Cavaliere
Not so bad

The day on the road was scorching hot. We were prepared, Uncle told us it'd be hell out there in the sun and the heat and the bugs and our long sleeves, long pants, and big hats. Florida, we've found, is hotter than hell--all day, everyday. But the swamp was not. The water was refreshing, not frigid, the canopy makes it shady. And thanks of El Nino and its unusually wet winter causing an unusually high water level at this time of year there remain all sorts of swamp life that feast on the mosquito larva in the water. So, apart from the odd Deer Fly chomping chunks our of our hands, the swamp is relatively bugless and absolutely mosquitoless. Apart from the heart stopping fear and paranoia and constant wave of sublime awe, the time spent in the swamp is the most comfortable, temperature-wise, time we'll spend in Florida.

Ranger Mike: Our Hero!

For the next two-and-a-half hours Ranger Mike regales us with tales from the swamp. Educates us on Bromeliads and Epiphytes, on the "seasonally fluctuating water levels" that drives all life in the swamp. Muses on biology ("if you are alive you are a biologist.") And like most philosophy found in unlikely places espoused by unlikely philosophers, his message is as profound as his love for this swamp, of all things, is unbound.

As the group reveled at a tiny, unspectacular orchid in full bloom as if it were the holy grail, the feeling that this was something special we were apart of became undeniable. It felt like the squish of 6,000 year old dead leaves between your toes in your cheap, brightly coloured, canvas shoes. And it was all thanks to Ranger Mike. We were fascinated by what he showed us, by what he would extend his extendable walking/measuring stick to point out, measure, note in his yellow notebook, because he was fascinated and fascinating and it was infectious. When you are in the swamp with Ranger Mike, you love the swamp as he does because he shows it to you as he sees it. The 6,000 years of dead leaves on the dirty ground, the dead fall, the logging carnage, the stumps he calls knees, and all the other obstacles that I am sure the gators had arranged to trip you up and make you dinner (Ranger Mike doesn't call dead fall dead fall or sticks sticks or knees knees (or stumps), he calls it all, as he proudly tells us, "topography." As in, "watch out for the topography over here, careful you don't trip and fall in.").

Ranger Mike's partner (she calls him Moe, but I never found out what he calls her) finds a spider as big as your hand and we all marvel at it and take grainy photos with our cell phones, and a few feet away one of the botanists finds snail eggs, and a different biologist discovers a giant Bromeliad, and one of the enthusiasts points to a Strangler Fig that is in the process of ensnaring itself around a Cyprus, but they catch themselves and call it a Tree Hugger Fig as Ranger Mike encouraged us earlier because they are epiphytes too and they aren't strangling the Cyprus but hugging it, and the two will live happily ever after. And amidst this intellectual and sensual overload Ranger Mike stops in front of a tree with a bush growing out of its crotch and says: "I have a story about this one here."

The Orchid Thief

He goes on to tell us the story that had got us into the swamp in the first place. Adaptation is loosely based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, which is the story of John Laroche who was busted for poaching endangered orchids out of this very swamp in the early 1990s. It was Ranger Mike who had busted him. It was Ranger Mike who got the poached orchids back. It was Ranger Mike who took the dying poached orchids back into the swamp and re-planted them in the crotches of trees. It was this orchid he'd stopped us all in front of that was the last remaining of the 86 plants Laroche had poached. And he told us the story.

He told us the story of how Laroche wanted to get rich by mass producing the rarest orchid of them all, the Ghost Orchid, and how Laroche had used a legal loophole to try and get away with it by having native Americans, who were allowed to harvest endangered plants for cultural or religious purposes, collect the plants he'd point to. He told us how Laroche claimed that this would be ultimately helpful in stopping poaching because the courts would close the loophole and he'd mass produce the Ghost and people wouldn't need to poach it anymore. How Laroche claimed he was a conservationist. How the lawyers nailed him finally because Laroche had had the native Americans cut the branches of the common trees the endangered orchids were attached to and how that wasn't allowed.

He then went on to tell us the story of how Susan Orlean was only interested in the story and not the truth. You felt his pain and hurt feelings, all these years later, when he told of how Orlean claimed to be taking poetic licence in claiming Ranger Mike cruised the swamp with loaded guns and an army of machete wielding inmates. "I call that another "L" word," he told us, "lying." It hurt Ranger Mike's feelings not merely because Orlean's "licence" was an attack on him as a biologist, conservationist, philosopher, keeper of the swamp, and all-around good guy. But because it was an attack on the swamp itself that compounded the earlier attacks by Laroche. An attack on the swamp was an attack on Ranger Mike.

His story was cut short by one of the ninny enthusiasts asking some completely uninteresting question about the plant itself. I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear his take of the film, as ridiculous as it is. But I didn't want to ask Ranger Mike for fear of poking at an old wound. I just assume that he would approve of the skewering that Orlean takes in the film.

Photo by Liz Cavaliere
We've seen a Ghost

If you've seen Adaptation you've seen the Ghost, and you'll know a little about how it is the rarest and most beautiful of all orchids. Later on the ride home Uncle tells me about how there is a Ghost that blooms every few years nearer to town that can be seen from a proper boardwalk for tourists, and when it does it is front page news. After two hours of splashing and squishing around in the swamp. After dozens of pictures of giant spiders and giant Bromeliads. After gawking in amazement at unspectacular orchids. As if on cue, Ranger Mike shows us a Ghost.

A Ghost takes several-teen years to mature and the one he shows us is young. It doesn't really look like anything to any of us and several enthusiasts have to point it out to us. Really, all it is is the confluence of several liquorice rope looking roots that are gnarled around a tree branch. There are no leaves, and certainly no flowers. There won't be any for years. Ooooh, the Ghost! Big whup.

Make that Ghosts

But then, as if on cue, Ranger Mike extends his extendable walking/measuring stick and points out a much bigger Ghost high above our heads. This one is much more noticeable and gives away a clue to what make these little gnarls of liquorice rope roots so spectacular. Ranger Mike talks up the rarity of these plants as we stare, mouths agape, up at it. There have only been 300-and-some Ghosts recorded in the swamp in all the years he's been on the case, most of them had long since died or been poached, we were the fortunate few who have seen them, blooming or not.

Just then one of the enthusiast botanist biologists pointed to a gnarl of roots way up on a nearby tree. There is a clamour, excited hollering, "holy cowsing." Ranger Mike confirms that this is an unconfirmed, discovered-for-the-first-time-on-this-very-walk, Ghost. And what is more, what is MUCH more, is that the thing has a seed pod. They can bloom once a year, but have seed pods much less often, he tells us. It is like winning the lottery twice for a Ghost to start growing from amongst the millions of seeds it releases and then to be pollinated to produce a seed pod. I wouldn't turn down $42 million to do it again, but there was the electric feeling of winning the lottery running through that swamp amongst the botanists, biologists, enthusiasts and the four Canadian tourists as Ranger Mike recorded the occasion in his little yellow notebook.

Getting out alive

Like any well executed event the best was saved for last. After marvelling at the Ghost for a few minutes the group moved on and wound its way back out of the swamp, emerging back on scorching Jane's Memorial Scenic Drive drenched in brown swamp water from the crotch down, squishing in our cheap, colourful, canvas shoes grinning like idiots at all the glory we had found in the swamp thanks to Ranger Mike. And, as any good tourist would, while the remainder of the group crawled out of the swamp we got a group photo of us four Canadian tourists, our Uncle, and our newest super hero Ranger Mike.

Photo by Liz Cavaliere


We squished back to our rented golf cart a few minutes up the hot road, peeled off our sticky pants and squishy shoes and threw them in the trunk, and set off back to civilization and wining, dining, lounging, shopping. But, before we got more than 2 minutes down the road someone in the back seat yelled "GATOR!" and I stomped on the brakes and hopped out to go back and investigate. I'd completely forgotten the Discovery channel lesson, it was a swamp creature like me, I wanted to compare notes on Bromeliads with it as it floated at the mouth of a culvert. Surely moments before it was about to chew me in two, the same voice in the back seat yelled at me to comeback, so I did before I could come to my senses long enough to snap a picture. Had we seen the gator on our way into the swamp, we told one another, there was no way we would have gone in. (On the way home we stopped at a tourist information centre and walked along the well-maintained board walk to a pond rife with gators so we could snap a few pictures.)


The next day was Mother's Day and the Country Club Compound where Uncle lived was having a fancy buffet meal. There was a strict dress code, pants, shirts, shoes, all of those material trappings of the retired plutocracy. I had packed light and the only pants I had were the same ones I had worn in the swamp the day before. The dead leaf and gator shit residue had mostly washed out, and it was with great pride that I dined amongst the former tycoons in their comfortable twilight compound buffet, complete with sweet potatoes and marshmallows, the delicacy of Cold War America, in my swamp pants and a too-big country club loner jacket that reeked of retired tycoon B.O.

Fakahatchee 1 – Affluence 0.

Photo by Liz Cavaliere
Photo by Liz Cavaliere
Photo by Liz Cavaliere


dkchristi said...

It's unfortunate that the only view most have of the Everglades comes from The Orchid Thief. Susan Orlean also never saw a ghost orchid in the wild.

There's a serene and accessible swamp experience that is still mystical, magical and wonderful, the real Everglades without slogging through water and fighting off swamp angels and alligators.

Inspired by the blooming of the ghost orchid on her birthday in 2007, novelist D. K. Christi wrote Ghost Orchid, a mystery about photographers searching for the perfect subject in the perfect light and caught in the aura of the mystical ghost orchid, high in the cypress canopy at Corkscrew Swamp.

NPR reviews praises Ghost Orchid for the beauty of the Everglades that shines through on every page; the ghost orchid the heart and soul of the story; the environment the main character. Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary at the edge of the Everglades is totally accessible and the most magnificent ghost orchid, up to 20 blooms a season, is visible from the boardwalk with the naked eye and even better through a scope.

Pick up a copy of Ghost Orchid at the Corkscrew Swamp gift shop, Southwest Florida B&N and all online print and email stores. It's a great gift, a memento of a visit to the Everglades and a guide to a walk to see the magical ghost orchid of Corkscrew Swamp, the ghost orchid viewed every day of its blooming for three years by D. K. Christi. www.dkchristi.com

ilexcassine said...

Come on already - this is funny! And if you are going to get serious about details Corkscrew Swamp isn't even in the Everglades - it is about 50 miles west of the River of Grass.

This is a wonderful recounting of the breaking down of walls - the first between urban dwellers and nature - and the second between country club dining and gator poop, Uncle

Anonymous said...

@dkchristi: Really? Shameless self-promo on the back of someone else's story.

dkchristi said...

Many visitors do not know that Susan Orlean never saw a ghost orchid, they just know of her fame. Also, they do not know that there is a pristine swamp experience with 600 year old cypress trees at the "edge of the Everglades" where the wood cutting stopped decades ago and the land was preserved and is totally accessible by a great boardwalk. That information is in Ghost Orchid by D. K. Christi that brings a whole new audience to appreciate the beauty of the Everglades and the magic and mystery of its endangered plants and animals - by taking a walk on the boardwalk and viewing its wonders. Yes, shameless self-promotion because it benefits a place I love, an Everglades experience for the less hardy that is full of wonder at every step.