Tag Archives: Explore Florida

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

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.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular: A Podcast for Keys Fans

a pickup truck that's been bedazzled, Florida-keys style.
Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular — bonus podcast content for Florida Keys fans!
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Do you love podcasts? Do you love the Florida Keys? Do you already listen to the Florida Spectacular podcast, co-hosted by me and Rick Kilby?

Well, then, this is your lucky Thursday. Why? Because, as of today, Florida Keys historian Brad Bertelli and I have a biweekly podcast about the Florida Keys.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast.

It’s no secret I love the Florida Keys.

One of the things I struggled with when I started visiting the Florida Keys regularly? Finding non-touristy things to do. Oh, yes, I swam with a sea lion (something I loved, but feel bad about now) and yes, I’ve eaten at Margaritaville. But… those things aren’t really the Florida Keys I love.

The Florida Keys really opened up to me after I met Brad Bertelli in 2015, when a stroke of serendipity sent me to the Florida Keys to get interviewed by a Canadian television station. At the time, Brad worked for a Florida Keys museum, I didn’t have this website, and my book was not-yet published. Brad, already a published author, was really nice to an unknown Florida writer. Throughout the years, we became friends as well as colleagues. (When my book, Florida Spectacular, comes out later this year, you’ll read one of my favorite Brad stories in the introduction.) During the pandemic, Brad and I had virtual cocktails for people playing the Florida Keys home game (which was everyone, really).

Photo of Brad Bertelli, co-host of Florida Keys Spectacular podcast. A bald-ish man with black frame glasses, smiling at the camera. Man is wearing a white tee.
There’s no better co-host for the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast than Brad Bertelli.
Photo courtesy Brad Bertelli.

Today, Brad has a few more books, a column about Florida Keys history in Keys Weekly, and a Facebook group about Florida Keys history that has more followers than a small town.

A few years back, I started the Florida Spectacular podcast.

The show has gone through several iterations. Right now we hit a sweet spot. Rick Kilby (another amazing Florida author) co-hosts. Rick and I have a lot of fun taking listeners across Florida every week. We talk about history, environment, and, of course, things to do in each part of Florida.

While Rick spends a lot of time traveling the state, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the Florida Keys as I do. And, honestly, there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State than Key West, Florida Bay, and the upper and middle keys. It’s a different world, honestly.

Which is why it makes sense to have a different podcast. Every Thursday, Brad holds court at Robbie’s in Islamorada. Anyone who wants to talk Florida Keys history can hang out with him, ask history questions, or share memories. I found myself, as I so often do, in the Florida Keys recently, so I found Brad at Robbie’s, bought him a beer, and told him I had a proposition. Why not take his knowledge about the Florida Keys and create an off-shoot of the Florida Spectacular podcast? This one would be only for Keys fans, and we’d cover everything from where to buy sandwiches for a picnic lunch at Windley Key (Episode 1) to the original route of the Oversea Highway (Episode 2).

Brad was all in immediately. While I plowed my way through a piece of fish at the Hungry Tarpon, we planned. Back home, the planning continued. Brad taped a commercial. Brad drafted some scripts. We chose topics. And, finally, today, the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast goes live.

Subscribe to Florida Keys Spectacular today and support us!

Florida Keys Spectacular is bonus content, available to anyone who supports the podcast at the $5/month level. For that $5, you get two episodes a month. Each one will take a deep dive into the Florida Keys. We’ll give you Florida Keys history, suggestions on things to do, and the ability to see the Florida Keys like a local does. No podcast explores the Florida Keys like we do. Take a listen — you won’t be disappointed!

I’d love to do the Sally Struthers thing and say, “for the cost of a cup of coffee” but, well, inflation. Also, aside from Joffrey’s, some of my favorite coffee in Florida is Baby’s Coffee, and since it’s a bit of a drive to Baby’s, it costs me a whole lot more than $5 to get a cup (but so worth it!).

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz at night, with yellow light from inside the arches of the brick building
Winter Park memories and Casa Feliz were both on the docket on a recent road trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

At 21, I moved into my first non-dormitory apartment in Winter Park. The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment reminded me a lot of the one in Barefoot in the Park. It oozed charm.

Much like the apartment in Barefoot in the Park, that charm, I learned, took fortitude. The apartment had a gas stove, which terrified me, wood floors which weren’t exactly even, and a flea infestation.

A three-story apartment building in Winter Park
My first apartment ever. The part of the building that looks like an afterthought? That was the master bedroom.
Cathy Salustri

I loved it until I couldn’t anymore. I had a one-hour commute to my part-time job (Walt Disney World) and a one-hour commute to college classes (at UCF). Orlando, as the saying goes, is an hour from Orlando.

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

Now, 30 years later, I can look back at what a mess 21-year-old Cathy was and laugh. Enough time has passed, too, that I can look back on yay life in Winter Park with fondness and nostalgia.

A 1930s-era brick mansion in Winter Park
Casa Feliz in Winter Park.
Cathy-Salustri

So, when my podcast co-host Rick Kilby asked me to come to Winter Park to give a talk at Casa Feliz, I happily said yes and set to work researching WPA architecture in Central Florida. My research about the WPA in Florida deals mostly with the CCC and Federal One, but I really wanted to take a road trip to Winter Park. I anticipated walking with my Winter Park memories and, later, a talk at Casa Feliz.

After a nightmarish drive on I-4 (have I mentioned how much I do not like the Eisenhower Interstate System?), I rolled into Winter Park with a couple of hours to spare before my talk. I parked at Casa Feliz and set to strolling. My first stop? My old apartment building, El Cortez.

Winter Park’s El Cortez Looks About the Same

a sign that reads "History Property – All Grills are Prohibited on Property" in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
I had no idea my first apartment was considered historic.
Cathy-Salustri

From the outside, it didn’t look as though any time had passed, other than the addition of a sign calling the property “historic.” I can only assume the owners consider the building historic because it dates to 1923, not because I once lived here.

The entrance to an apartment building in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
While exploring Winter Park, I wandered over to my first grown-up living rom. Pictured: the view of the living room. The air conditioner may be new, but not much else looks to have changed.
Cathy Salustri

I didn’t get a good look at anything but the outside, but I did enjoy seeing the building again and remembering the good parts of being 21. I hadn’t thought about my neighbors, Ashley and Stuart, in probably 29 years or so. While I know they broke up, but I have no idea what happened to either of them. We were all so young and stupid together, and Winter Park was a great place to be young and stupid: A smaller, seemingly safer version of Orlando, with more charm (there’s that word again), a sushi restaurant within walking distance (I’d be shocked to learn it’s the same owners, but today it’s called Umi Japanese Fusion – “fusion” was not a food word 30 years ago – and if you want real history, here’s where I first ate sushi.)

a plate of stuffed cabbage in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
The stuffed cabbage at Winter Park’s Bosphorous is worth the trip.
Cathy-Salustri

With not enough time to spare to head to the Polasek or walk around the Rollins campus, I headed to Bosphourous, where I feasted on baba ganoush and stuffed cabbage. I sat at a sidewalk table, sipped my wine, and enjoyed the calm buzz of Winter Park’s downtown as it swirled around me.

A Talk at Casa Feliz

At Casa Feliz, a mansion moved from the lake to save it from demolition, I gave my talk. After the talk, I met some lovely people, and packed it all up to head home. As I made my way back home – this time over somewhat less crowded roads, I reflected on the changes in Winter Park’s downtown over the past three decades. It’s a little, for lack of a better word, bougie-r than it felt in 1993, but it still has that charm and, even though someone thought plunking down a Pottery Barn in the historic downtown was an excellent idea, Winter Park remains a special Florida place.

Want More Florida Adventures?

Find Cathy  on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe Cathy Salustri’s monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.