By Jeff Klinkenberg
I have never been menaced by an alligator, not once, in all the years I have waded through swamps, canoed along dark rivers, or skinny-dipped in glassy sloughs. They always give ground. But that hardly means I grin with delight when a big gator hisses and displays big teeth because I have foolishly drawn a little too close in my truck. In the Big Cypress section of the Everglades, sometimes I have to brake for alligators.
When I was a kid, and I wore a coonskin cap as an homage to Fess Parker in “Davy Crockett,” alligators didn’t block South Florida roads. We seldom saw them. They’d been hunted so hard, legally and illegally, that they tended to be wary. If I happened to see one while fishing for Everglades bream with my dad, I bragged to friends. Once the killing stopped, the gator population slithered back. In the 21st century, something like two million alligators inhabit Florida – about one for every 10 residents.
If you don’t see an alligator during an Everglades visit, especially when traveling through the Big Cypress, you’re doing something wrong.
From U.S. 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, the main road through the 720,000-acre wilderness, gators line canal banks like cold-blooded Lincoln Logs.
My favorite unpaved, alligator-infested Big Cypress byway loops 25 miles off the Tamiami Trail into the deep Everglades. Encountering a panther or a bear is always a possibility. But seeing a reptile is almost a sure thing.
As a dumb teen, as a member of what I think of fondly now as “The Boys Without Dates Club,’’ I hunted on the Loop Road for snakes, not to kill them, or even keep them, but for some weird, macho communion with nature.
We were smart enough to avoid the venomous cottonmouths, but otherwise we grabbed anything we could, almost always managing to be bitten or made smelly by an unpleasant defensive musk. Our hands stinking and dripping blood, we let our bounty go at day’s end. Still, our largesse didn’t help us with the girls, who for some reason failed to regard us in a romantic light.
The Loop Road was the Wild West then, home to poachers, moonshiners, druggies, and grizzled misanthropes who didn’t mind living without electricity, phone service or indoor plumbing. A highlight of those teen-aged snaking trips was a stop at the scariest bar in Florida, the Gator Hook, where a sign above the door declared “No Guns or Knives Allowed Inside.’’ It was less a warning than a suggestion.
After a vigorous morning of snaking, foolish Boys Without Dates visited the Gator Hook during daylight, when the bar was less dangerous, but still colorful, what with drunken men asleep on the floor. Ah, sweet adventure.
Alas, the federal government manages the Loop Road now. The bar is gone, as are many of the flamboyant characters who once inhabited the swamp. An exception is my friend Lucky Cole, now approaching his seventh decade with no sign of mellowing.
Lucky first hunted deer in the Big Cypress as a boy. Now he has his very own fort, which he often opens to visitors on Sundays fall through spring. Within its eight-foot walls is a kind of playground, full of mysterious boardwalks, antique tools, motorcycles, a gun range, and the only swimming pool found in the Big Cypress. A photographer, Lucky sometimes takes pictures of skinny-dipping women who cavort in that pool.
I like skinny-dipping as much as the next Everglades boy, which I might have mentioned before, but Lucky’s buxom swamp nymphs scare even me.
I’d rather mess with alligators, even ones that block the road. Sure enough, on the way home, I routinely hit the brakes. In a familiar ritual, an 11-footer musters a hiss out of the Mesozoic era and shows me teeth. Gargantua doesn’t bite my bumper as gators sometimes do, but creeps majestically off the Loop Road into the Big Cypress swamp.
When you go…
Big Cypress National Preserve
33100 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, FL 34141
Be sure to check out additional Everglades stories by Jeff Klinkenberg: visitflorida.com/en-us/everglades.html
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