Disabled Travel: Corkscrew Swamp, an Accessible Sanctuary in Southwest Florida
By Janet K. Keeler
Many say there are no seasons in Florida, but you’ll find distinct changes in landscape at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a Southwest Florida gem maintained by the Audubon Society. The rainy season brings more swampy land and animals, plus it connects the area with adjacent wetlands. The winter weather is so pleasant that you might find a traffic jam or two on the boardwalk. And the dry spring changes the landscape again, drying up some ponds. Small fish remain in their small worlds until the rains come again.
Corkscrew and the Everglades ecosystem can be enjoyed by traversing the 2.5-mile elevated boardwalk through pine flatwoods and then through the wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the world’s largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest at 700 acres. This watershed in the Western Everglades is 13,000 acres of natural Florida 15 miles east of Interstate 75 in Collier County and 45 miles northeast of Naples. Development is all around this oasis.
The visitor center has wheelchairs (and strollers) to loan and those who have their own will find the journey along Corkscrew’s boardwalk quite pleasant, if not utterly amazing. That’s how the visitor who captured the panther skittering across the boardwalk must have felt.
Guided walks and other programs such as swamp meditations and summer night tours are held regularly. As you start out along the boardwalk you’ll see a large chalkboard where visitors record what critters they have seen on their walks. Some silly stuff shows up (don’t think you’ll find an elephant) but the birds are plentiful…and real.
There are some special trees here, including the Rhett Green cypress named after the Audubon warden who stood guard in the forest in the early part of the 1900s to keep feather-raiders away from plucking the plumes off of egrets, herons and spoonbills. The Baker-Curry Landmark cypress honors John Baker and J. Arthur Curry who helped preserve the sanctuary and get it under the umbrella of the Audubon Society. Markers pinpoint the trees along the way.
As you traverse the boardwalk, watch for wildlife, above and below. The birds of Corkscrew include roseate spoonbills and several varieties of heron, egrets and ibis. Oh, and those hooting barred owls.
The biggest aviary star, though, is the threatened wood stork. There were once 150,000 wood storks in the southeastern United States. Today, that number has dwindled to about 10,000. Corkscrew has the largest wood story rookery in the nation.
Visitors who come to Corkscrew when the famed ghost orchid blooms, usually in the summer but sometimes earlier, also realize amazement. The legendary flower blooms some 60 feet (bring binoculars!) in the air, the plant clinging to an old-growth bald cypress tree. In 2014, Corkscrew’s ghost orchid had 40 blooms. You can stay updated on blooming progress through the sanctuary website. When it does bloom, naturalists set out spotting scopes for all to use.
Maybe more than anything else along the boardwalks, the ghost orchid has the power to amaze the crowds.