It had been quite a few years since I had last traveled down Highway 41 all the way through the Everglades, and even then – like most people – I barreled along straight and fast from Naples on my way to Miami. No time to stop, no time to see what was beyond the window of my air-conditioned vehicle – just a few quick glances of bright white herons contrasting sharply against thickets of mangroves. Blurs of sawgrass. Scattered clusters of Sabal Palms. That's pretty much it.
This time, I headed down to the Everglades to attend the semi-annual Clyde Butcher Muck-About, where finished photographic art and its inspiration share the same piece of land. The Big Cypress Gallery, Clyde and Niki Butcher's property – once the site of an orchid farm – is now both a treasury of some of Florida's most impressive landscape images and, during special events, an ecological learning center.
During the Muck-About, volunteers lead 1.5-hour walks into the swamp, giving visitors a taste of the Everglades. “You really can't get it from the highway,” says Clyde Butcher. “It's nice, but when you're immersed in it, it's a whole different thing – you're connected to it.”
Walking through the front doors of the Big Cypress Gallery, visitors are greeted by one of Clyde Butcher's massive 8 foot by 5 foot scenes from the swamp. With a photograph this size you have to scan with your eyes, side-to-side, up-and-down. There's no just looking straight on and taking the whole image in.
I felt as if I had been somehow transported deep into the Everglades, where no cars can possibly venture, and to a place that few people could find, and if they did find it, they surely couldn't find their way back again.
Inside, the walls of the gallery were covered with fantastic black and white images, some the size of the photograph that greeted me at the front entrance; others not much larger than a postcard. But all of these pictures packed a considerable wallop on my senses – the subject and composition behind them are phenomenal.
Clyde Butcher sits in the one of the back sections of the gallery, surrounded by his work, quickly taking bites of a sandwich between signing autographs and happily answering questions about exposure times, F-stop settings, composition – and by his responses I could clearly tell he absolutely enjoys sharing his craft with others. “I like to just point and shoot the things I see,” one admirer said. “Well, it gives you a good excuse to go outside!” Clyde Butcher responded.
Stepping into the Swamp
The main attraction, of course, were the swamp walks. Reservations are recommended, and weeks before, I had signed up and paid the $50 fee (of which $25 goes to help preserve the Everglades and includes a $25 gift certificate to the gallery). With every paying adult, a child under the age of 18 can get free admission.
After contemplating so many of Clyde Butcher's photographs inside the gallery, I was among the many who were trying to see the swamp through the lens of a camera, waiting for the clouds above to cooperate, and trying to snap that one special picture that would keep the Everglades in our memories forever.
“How deep will the water be?” asked one man.
“We'll be in about waist-deep water, so make sure you don't have anything in your pockets, like your car door-unlocker that you want to still work when we get back,” our group leader replied, being both serious and comedic at the same time.
Heeding his advice, I took my keys up to the check-in area, where they were placed in a brown paper bag, stapled shut, and filed in alphabetical order for easy locating on my return.
After seeing many walkers returning from their trek soaked to the waist, I understood why quick-dry clothing was the uniform of the day. Like most, I wore quick-dry nylon convertible hiking pants and an old pair of running shoes which I changed out of after the walks. The sole of my right shoe almost didn't make it, coming partially separated from the toe to the arch during the photograph walk. I spent the time in between with the sole threatening to pull completely off the bottom until I finally silenced its wet flop-flop-flop sounds with a few wraps of duct tape. With that out of the way, I was back in business and ready to get out into the water.
It's interesting how a situation can bring complete strangers together. Not that there was a disaster or any major obstacles, mind you; I was just intrigued how something as simple and basic as a walk in waist-deep water could have everyone watching out for one another. Statements like “there's a big root here” or “watch out for this spot, it's tricky” would pass from one member of the group to the next, until the instructions had reached the rear of the line. By the end, everyone was talking and laughing, taking in the sights, sounds and feel of the Everglades together.
Earlier in the day, when I was still inside the Big Cypress Gallery, I asked Clyde Butcher what he wanted people that attended the event to come away with. “A smile,” he stated, simply. “If there's a smile on a face, it means it was successful.”
Judging from the expressions I saw, I'd say the Muck-About was a huge success.
Make a Stay of It
At the end of it all, you don't have to leave. Clyde and Niki Butcher's Swamp Cottage gives you a chance to experience the Everglades as the Butchers have for about 12 years. It's a 13-acre property surrounded by a million acres of natural wilderness. Find our more at clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com/swamp-cottage.