White-tailed deer, alligators, egrets, cougars and Florida Cracker Cattle are all part of the scene on a swamp safari at Babcock Wilderness Adventures in Punta Gorda. I had the pleasure of immersing myself in doing this a few days ago, and highly recommend that anyone going through Southwest Florida set aside a few hours to take one of these tours.
My son and I boarded a swamp buggy at 10 a.m., and soon were transported to Old Florida by our excellent tour guide, Marilyn Williams. Babcock is part of the Crescent B Ranch, which was established nearly 100 years ago. This is among the largest privately held land holdings in Florida, more than 90,000 acres with an adjacent 74,000 acre conservancy that is now part of the state of Florida, and formally called the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area. Here's a list of the birds frequently seen in this wildlife-rich area.
Imagine this scale – at 124 square miles, it’s nearly six times the size of Manhattan. Originally part of a lumber operation, Babcock runs a multi-faceted ranch with cattle ranching, eco-tours, mining and extensive farming of sod and produce.
We saw so many animals, interesting plants and diverse eco-settings that it is hard to name them all. The ranch is in Charlotte and Lee Counties, and you’re likely to want to grab a paintbrush and a camera to capture the bony-kneed cypress swamp, open prairie, pine flat-woods and freshwater marsh.
My personal favorite was the trip through Telegraph Cypress Swamp. The swamp is a busy place although it inspires tranquility. The movement is subtle here so you have to listen and watch closely. From the gentle flow of the water to the bristle of the leaves, something’s always amiss (meaning nature is at work creating and cultivating.)
An interesting historical note is that the wires that run through this swamp (and for which it is named) were the ones that carried news of the sinking of the US Maine in Havana Harbor, which launched the Spanish-American War.
Our swamp buggy traversed a spill weir bridge, part of a water management system. Other times, we went through water that was nearly two feet deep. (It was touching the bottom of the second step into the buggy. From the windows (or the door), I had a clear view of the golden-reddish brown water typical to a cypress swamp. The hue is caused by the tannin in the trees. An oil released by the trees also causes the shimmer seen in photographs by Clyde Butcher and others.
Inside the swamp, a special treat awaited us -- two Southern cougars were in a pen. These magnificent creatures had once been pets, but upon release, were taken in by the Babcock Ranch. They live in a lovely, multi-level setting here, well cared for and safe. These are relatives of the Florida Panther, and some of them (not those at Babcock) are being bred with the endangered panther to increase the gene pool. I'm proud to carry a Save the Panther license plate on my own wheels, so seeing these cougars up close was a treat.
The Babcock Wilderness Adventure was priceless. After our tour, it was lunch time and we went to the Gator Shack without huge expectations (after all, we're in the middle of the wilderness here.) My son and I were delighted to have the most delicious chilli I’ve had in years here.
I've only been in a cypress swamp a few times in my life but have been a fan of this beautiful part of Florida since my field trips in grade school. Frankly, I've been gone too long and in the future, I will actively build cypress swamp outings into my schedule.
The swamp is indeed a magical place.