Tag Archives: Florida travel

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.

Submarines, Sand, and Sandpipers

The best state park ever? Maybe.

My fascination with Fort Clinch – which I started to write about when I sang the praises of the maligned sandspur – has to do with many things, probably too long for a single blog post, but I’m going to try.

In September, we did a cross-Florida road trip, which we completely did not plan in advance. Instead, we looked for last-minute campsites a day or three in advance (I freely admit this is not for everyone.) We lucked out toward the end of our trip and scored a few nights at Fort Clinch State Park.

Sign for Fort Clinch State Park, which reads "Fort Clinch Reconstruction  and construction of roads buildings and grounds was performed by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1420, 1937-1042."
Built by Roosevelt’s Tree Army.
Cathy Salustri

I’d traveled through Fort Clinch while working on “Backroads of Paradise“, but I’d never spent the night. My friend, Jon Kile (who has a pretty nifty website where he writes about his own travels), married a woman from the area, so they’ve been there a time or two, and his rhapsodizing about the park made me think we needed to visit.

Fort Clinch, one of Florida’s first state parks, started life as – big shock here – fort. In the 1730s – when Florida belonged to Spain – the earliest work on a fort started, but only a century or so later, shortly after Florida joined the US, did construction begin on the fort as we see it today. After the Civil War – I’m shortcutting a lot of history here because I assume that’s not exactly why you’re here, but if you have more history questions, check out Fort Clinch’s abbreviated history on the park’s website – the US abandoned the fort, sealing an almost-certain fate of demolition by neglect.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s tree army – the Civilian Conservation Corps – set to work turning the empty fort into one of our state’s first state parks. CCC workers performed backbreaking work – including removing wheelbarrows filled with random debris from inside the fort.

At the edge of Florida (you can see Georgia from the campsites on the beach), the park represents some of the best of Florida’s state parks.

The view from our campsite – and this wasn’t even close to the best view.
Cathy Salustri

When we camped, we scored a beachside campground, so as soon as we settled in, I headed to the beach to check it out. I’ve seen lots of stuff on Florida beaches, but I was not prepared for this:

Yes, that’s a submarine. Surfacing.
Cathy Salustri

At first, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t seeing a whale, but right whales don’t have a fin on top of them. Also, they’re large, but not that large. Apparently, subs surface in this area to get to the naval base, and I’d happened along one. (Note to self: bring telephoto lens and camera on beach strolls)

After that, the deer and the gopher tortoises and sandpipers… well, OK, they were all still pretty cool. I found a gopher tortoise strolling through the dunes…

Out for a morning stroll.
Cathy Salustri

…and even saw a baby one (I know I’m supposed to write “juvenile” but they’re so damn cute) at the Fort.

Of course, the fort itself has some pretty amazing sights, not the least of which is its architecture. We had a great talk about the history of the fort – and the suspicion that, at least for a time, one of Florida’s Black CCC companies (Jim Crow Florida and all, the Black men who worked for the CCC all had to go to the Myakka location) may have visited the park and worked there – with historian Frank Ofeldt, who wore a period military uniform but thankfully didn’t do that dreadful thing where he pretended it was 1860 (pet peeve: historians who like to pretend to be from the time they study.)

I took about 500 photos of the fort’s interior, but this one’s my favorite.
Cathy Salustri

Back on the beach, we found we had a friend at sunset for a couple of nights. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it was the same bird every night – they could have all talked about the weird lady with blue toes and come by, one by one, to see aforementioned toes. Other than that, though, the beach was pretty much deserted.

If there’s a better place in Florida, I haven’t found it yet.

Of course, I say that at almost every beach, and I’m determined to keep looking.

Why I hate Private Campgrounds

Alternate title: Why I only camp on public land

Last fall, I gave a talk about Florida’s public lands. While this involved some research, I’ve done the bulk of the work traveling – and camping – throughout Florida. Of all the times I’ve camped in Florida (not counting trips where I was invited and couldn’t bend people to my will), I can count the number of times I’ve stayed at a privately run campground on one hand: Twice. Once at a KOA in Tallahassee, and once at Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park, run by the Port Authority.

Make that three times. In September, we stayed at a Thousand Trails campground in Clermont. We had some simple, yet compelling reasons: We wanted a campground that would get us closer to the north end of the state, we wanted to stay somewhere with sewer hookups at the site, I wanted to stay somewhere with decent wifi so I could get some work done, and it was free. When we bought our Viking travel trailer from Lazy Days in March, it came with a free one-year membership to Thousand Trails. Thousand Trails campgrounds aren’t exactly the most back-to-nature campgrounds you’ll find in Florida; actually, quite the opposite. 

However, it met – on paper – all of our needs, so there we stayed. We made a reservation, pulled to the gate, and drove around to select our site. We found one with three bars of wifi, a small tree for shade, and not too many neighbors. While many of our state parks offer privacy via an abundance of vegetation, not so much at private campgrounds, because apparently the name of the game is to squeeze as many campers into their RV “resort” as possible. 

And these resorts are popular. They offer line dancing, karaoke, food trucks, and kids activities. Those first two things are part of a recurring nightmare I have when I’m stressed, so clearly I’m not the target audience here, but clearly the campground checks all the right boxes for many people. As we attempted to explore the campground over the next few days, we saw countless signs of more land getting plumbed for more campsites, more greenery getting cleared for grass. 

I don’t fault the campground staff, who were lovely. I admit I loved swimming laps in the pools. the My only complaint about the amenities? The paid wifi boasted all the reliability of a 1995 dialup modem. But we had a few days to recharge, and I could get decent wifi at the clubhouse, where I was able to tape my weekly episode of The Florida Spectacular, clear out my inbox, and submit a few articles to clients. 

Black and Tan coonhound sniffing a gopher tortoise
This was the extent of the wildlife we saw while camping at Thousand Trails. Apparently they built the entire campground on a gopher tortoise habitat. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Barry did glimpse a gopher tortoise one morning, and we saw several trios of sandhill cranes (when it comes to birds that are my height or taller, these are far and away my favorites), but beyond that, that, the Thousand Trails Orlando stood in stark contrast to the past few weeks’ worth of waterfront or middle-of-forests campsites we’d enjoyed: one barren spat of land built on scrub, which I always tell people is something like the desert, Florida-style. For September, it wasn’t unbearable – but we’re Floridians. We slept with the windows open and the fan on, but by 9 a.m. our A/C unit hummed along with the other campers throughout the park.

The last full day of our stay, Barry said he’d found something I’d probably want to see. With Calypso as my bowsprit and Banyan running alongside Barry, we biked to the back section of the park, the one that warned it had no wifi and so we hadn’t bothered to check out the sites there. 

Once we biked passed the rows of RVs bleaching in the scrubby September sun and rolled downhill into Section D, the whole park changed. Trees lined the roadways and offered each site privacy. Instead of gravel or paved pads, the trailers and campers rested on grassy areas. Had we realized the wifi in the barren hellscape where we parked for the past three nights would be so awful, we wouldn’t have thought twice about checking out this wi-fi-less section (as it turns out, I had the same cell reception there as I did the rest of the park, we would have checked out this area and definitely stayed here. 

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part I was yet to see: A dog park.

Saw palmetto and pine trees in the woods.
The dog park was the nicest part of the park, in terms of nature.

Now, the literature all said the campground had a dog park, but given how… barren the rest of the campground was, I’d sort of written it off almost immediately. That was a mistake, because this is perhaps one of the nicest dog parks I’ve seen. Aside from a bench and some comfy patio furniture, the park set aside the nicest area of the property for a dog park. Pine trees shaded the fenced area; to one side, we saw a grassy, tree-lined clearing and, to the other, Lake Hancock. The dogs sniffed and rested and rolled and sniffed some more. As for me? I spent my time staring at what may be some of the last unspoiled privately owned bits of central Florida.

In the distance, we heard bulldozers.