the swamp at Big Cypress, with trees in the background and water in the foreground

Big Cypress: Snakes, Swamps, and Staying the Night

a mall purple flower in the swamp at Big Cypress
Big Cypress is vast, but the beauty can be smaller than your pinky fingernail.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

At the start of this year, I said I wanted to take more Florida road trips in 2024. This worked out well, because for my birthday, El Cap arranged a swamp walk and two-night stay in Big Cypress. Specially, at Clyde Butcher’s place, where they not only offer swamp walks, but bungalows where you can stay.

A few weeks ago, we set out, cutting across Florida on US 41 (one of my favorite stretches), arriving later than we’d hoped. If you’ve driven across US 41 from Naples to Miami (or the other way around), you’ve passed Clyde Butcher’s gallery. It’s a relatively small outpost in a relatively vast expanse of swamp, and while I’ve often stopped to drool over his gorgeous black-and-white, better-than-anything-Ansel-Adams-ever-did landscapes, I had no idea that, right behind this gallery was a hidden place to stay in the middle of the swamp.

The Bungalows at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

A screened porch looking out Into Big Cypress Swamp
This is as civilized as it gets here, and that’s OK with me.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

But here we were, at one of three available places to stay inside Big Cypress at Clyde Butcher’s property. (They have two bungalows and a two-bedroom cottage for public lodging.) As the sun set and we lugged our stuff into the bungalow, the twilight gave way to black skies that reminded me we were utterly and completely in the wilderness.

Our bungalow was a one-bedroom mobile home, and it had everything we needed: full kitchen, screened porch (because, well, mosquitoes), comfortable furniture, and, in essence, all the comforts of home.

Except, of course, we weren’t at home. We were in the swamp.

The Swamp

As excited as I was to spend a couple of nights in Big Cypress, I also had a significant amount of fear about the swamp walk. My last swamp walk in Big Cypress, led by a National Park Service ranger, did not go as planned. I came way too close for comfort with a juvenile cottonmouth — as in, I was about to put my foot down on it when the ranger stopped me. I appreciated that ranger immensely in that moment, but honestly, only for that moment, because after a spell it became apparent he couldn’t find his way out of the swamp.

Our two-hour hike lasted about an hour longer than it should have, and ended with us trudging through neck-deep water in a canal to get back to the road. For those of you who drive US 41 in this area and, as I do, play “count the gators in the canal”, well, I think that gives you a sense of why this was not the ideal exit.

a dry cypress swamp with greenery on the ground. It's almost completely hidden, but at the lower left there's a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin.
While it looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures from the ’90s, there is, indeed, a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin in this photo.
Photo by an incredibly shaken Cathy Salustri

But this was different. It was the middle of winter and would be super-dry, right?

Turns out Florida’s having a pretty wet winter.

The Swamp Walk at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

Our guide, Scott, told us the swamp walk would take us through waist-high water.  I asked about snakes and explained I’d had a less-than-favorable experience on my last swamp walk. He assured me that the snakes don’t love to hang out in the water, and as long as we paid attention near the banks, we should be fine.

I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning, I walked around the edge of one paved road that circled the inside of the compound. Leggy birds picked through the swamp in the middle of the road; sunlight and dew illuminated the bromeliads and spider webs in the trees. A smaller gator basked in the sun on the banks near the cottage.

a female gator on the banks of a swamp in Big Cypress
You know the saying: “If mama gator ain’t happy…”
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Right. Scott told me she kept to herself and didn’t present a problem. She’d raised a clutch of hatchlings, and all but one — Crouton — had left the area. He mused that perhaps Crouton would one day be the bull gator who took the place of the gator he called Loose Screw, or Snaggle Tooth.

I didn’t think too much about that except to take him at his word, because we were about to step off the road and into the swamp. Despite my fear — which at this point was growing — I wanted to do this. You can’t write about Florida from the paved road, I reminded myself. 

And so we waded into the wilderness.

For the next two hours, it was wild and glorious and mesmerizing. Scott pointed out tiny plants, their medicinal uses, and what purpose they serve. He showed us fish-eating spiders and talked about how he had to work to keep invasive plants out of the area. We saw cypress and pop ash and more plants than I’ll ever hope to remember. My hiking shoes lost their soles halfway through the walk, and I was so mesmerized I didn’t realize it until I went to take them off after the walk (fortunately, we’d seen two soles floating and Scott grabbed them up to throw them out, so we didn’t add any trash to the swamp.)

Somewhere during the walk, I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that, but I remembered why I am most myself when I am out in the wild, be it on water or in a swamp or near a beach. When we left the next day, I was already thinking about the next adventure.

Which is as it should be.

If You Go: Big Cypress Swamp Walks and Lodging

Clyde Butcher no longer leads the tours, but they’re amazing. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to explore the Everglades on a visceral level.

Swamp Eco-Tour at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. $125. Reservations required.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

Lodging at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. Bungalows start at $425/night; cottage starts at $550. Each have a two-night minimum.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

a man in a woman standing in waist-deep water in a swamp.
10/10, highly recommend.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

Oh, and About Loose Screw/Snaggletooth at Big Cypress

I should mention that Loose Screw (aka Snaggletooth) is something of a unique alligator — as far as we know. Scott explained Loose Screw kept the area free from other gators. I didn’t ask how. But Scott lives there, has lived there for more than a decade, and, when he showed me this video he’d taken of the Loose Screw, I could see why other gators might not want to infringe on his territory.

 

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A post shared by Scott Randolph (@randolph.333)

Yeah.

But that’s what’s amazing about this gator: That’s a hand-held camera, and it’s not the only video of the gator approaching Scott. He told us the gator seems to find him when he’s working in the swamp. He doesn’t feed the gator, doesn’t touch the gator, but the gator, nonetheless, finds him. Sometimes he stretches out and suns himself next to Scott as he works. Other times he finds him and leaves.

Contact Cathy Salustri

You can reach me at cathysalustri@gmail.com, on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe to my monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.