Day 46: Collier-Seminole State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve

Road Miles: 180

Total: 5159.6

Trail Miles: 0

Total: 114.9

Sites: Collier-Seminole State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve

Locals: El Prez & Swamp Ape

When I had agreed to visit my college roommate, *then* looked at a map and saw how deep into Florida she was, I decided to try to find some more local guides to see other public lands spots while I was in the area. Jess ‘Swamp Ape’ Karcher’s fabulous outdoor and wildlife photography from Florida regularly appears in my feeds, so I hit him up to see if he was interested. He agreed, saying that he and his friend Ralph ‘El Prez’ Duharte of the Florida Hiking Syndicate would take me to the swamp.

Wait, what? Syndicate? Swamp?? It all sounded so ominous. I only knew these guys through social media; I’d never actually met either of them. “Holy crap, I’m gonna die,” I thought.┬áSo, you know, for me, making good choices is more of a goal than a regular practice…

With that, I said my farewells to Miss Lib-R-T and family, asked her to file a missing person report if she didn’t hear from me in the next day or two, and headed west to meet the Syndicate and hopefully not die. After a circuitous route that took me past the south shore of Lake Okeechobee (which unfortunately you can’t see from the road) and through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, I finally arrived at Collier-Seminole State Park, where we were going to base. I stopped at the campground entry booth, and a friendly lady poked her head out the window. I told her I was supposed to meet some people, but wasn’t sure where to go.

“Oh! Your friends said you’d be here soon. They just got here about half an hour ago.” She handed me a parking tag that was already filled in with my stay info, and directed me to site 25. I tried to give her some money, but she waved me off. “It’s all taken care of. Enjoy your visit!”

I pulled up to 25, where two tents were pitched next to a SUV, but I didn’t see any people. No Syndicate. I got out of the van to look around, and Swamp Ape emerged from the clubhouse right across from the site as El Prez popped out of one of the tents. Warm greetings and hugs ensued, and I felt relieved. Neither of them struck me particularly like the ‘we’re taking you to the swamp but not back out of it’ type. Introductory pleasantries now out of the way, we almost immediately got down to the serious business of exploring. We piled into Swamp Ape’s ride, and embarked on what turned out to be an amazing series of adventures, more or less following an incredibly thoughtful and thorough itinerary they had devised in order to show me as much of the beauty, culture, and expanse of this wildest part of Florida as possible over the next 2 1/2 days.

Our first stops were in Ochopee, which is less a town than a few incidences of roadside human habitation carved out of Big Cypress. The post office here is the smallest in the United States – a tiny 7′ x 8′ structure that does more tourist business than anything, I suspect. The hours here are extremely limited. Still, I feel that the poor soul who is stuck working in this tiny tin hotbox during the summer should get some kind of bonus, or hazard pay, something. Because No. Way. Next, we dropped by the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, a quirky little hut with a thatched roof, and plenty of tourist trinkets for sale. I’m suspicious about the ‘Research’ portion of the business title: here I was, in the company of a Swamp Ape (must be related, right?), and there were no attempts to apprehend him, and also the actual Skunk Ape I know is currently peaceably residing in Virginia.. I bought a postcard anyway. I guess you have to be creative to make a living down here.

We got back onto US-41, the Tamiami Trail Scenic Highway, which is so named for its termini in Tampa to the west and Miami in the east. This road, one of the few in the entirety of south-central Florida, was an enormous infrastructure project in the early 20th century. I don’t know much about road construction, but I can imagine that creating a permanent road that bisects an enormous, frequently water-bound wilderness area would be challenging. We dipped into Big Cypress, where my guides showed me some of their favorite gator spots. I also learned the alternate term ‘murder logs,’ which is now how I always refer to gators, because ‘prehistoric death lizard’ seems too long. This was early May, and water sources had shrunk such that the murder logs were practically stacked right on top of each other in some of these tiny brown muddy puddles.

What does one do after exploring an area where murder logs wildly outnumber humans? Well, if you do not have any dietary restrictions (and I do not: my sole requirement is that the food must already be dead… I cannot afford to be picky), you go somewhere where you can eat some of their less-fortunate brethren! Of course that’s what you do. So, we headed down to Everglades City to hit up the Oyster House Restaurant, where I got to try gator for the first time, in the form of tacos. It was delicious. After we stuffed ourselves, we climbed up the observation tower next door, from which we could see miles and miles in every direction, a benefit of Florida’s flat terrain. Unfortunately, both Oyster House and the tower were badly damaged in Hurricane Irma, and are no longer open.

Another benefit of such a flat landscape is that the skies and sunsets here are incredible: you can see all the movement of the clouds, stars, skies, with no obstruction from hills or mountains, because there aren’t any. We went back into Big Cypress, taking a little-used back road, and parked pretty much in the middle of it to wander around. A ‘glass lizard’ I mistook for a skinny snake because they don’t have any legs was the only other traffic, not counting the cute little red-bellied turtles hiding in the grass to the sides. The wildlife here is spectacular. We watched the sun set in a blaze of orange and pink glory to the west as clouds gathered and morphed into a giant threatening blackness to the east. Looked like we were going to get wet soon.

We arrived back at the campground just in time for the mosquitoes, who were out in droves, and apparently starving. Still hot and muggy out, we high-tailed it into the clubhouse, with its fancy screens and fans, for relief until the dark darkness came, along with the rain, crazy, violent, pounding rain. Finally, we all made a break for our respective residences for the evening, all secretly planning to dirtbag it under a table in the clubhouse if the water drop got too crazy (tents can flood, and my van leaks). I opened my sole screened window, silently vowing to do something about that, because I was dying in there, yet still managed to pass out quickly and sleep the sleep of someone who has done quite a lot: survived my first day with the Syndicate!