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Florida Everglades

The Big Cypress: Adventures In A Vast Wilderness

by Kris Thoemke

The alarm, set for 4:15 a.m. never had to ring. Eager with anticipation, or perhaps out of consideration for my wife who didn't share my excitement of getting up in the early, early morning, I awoke well before the alarm's sound waves ever had a chance to shatter the night's silence. After a glass of juice and a muffin, the best breakfast available at that hour, I was on my way to a day of exploring the Big Cypress National Preserve.

The day began with a swamp buggy ride with Preserve biologist Deborah Jansen. We headed in a westerly direction from the Raccoon Point oil well fields. Our goal was to find, catch, and band one or two red cockaded woodpeckers. To be successful, Deb told me, we had to have a net over the woodpecker's hole before sunrise. The birds leave their night-time roost about sunrise and don't return until sunset.

With the swamp buggy's headlights piercing through an early morning haze, we bounced along an old swamp buggy trail that wound its way through a wet cypress slough to a patch of old growth pines where the birds nested.

Sunrise was about a half hour away so there was plenty of time to get the net in place. Our early start paid off; we netted the bird as it emerged for the day. The capture was part of a research program to monitor the endangered species' status in the Preserve. Scientists, by studying the movements of these birds, hope to learn the habits of the red cockaded woodpecker and help expand the bird's habitat.

When she finished weighing the woodpecker and banding it, Deb let me release the bird. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to handle a variety of wildlife. Moments like this are always special. Slowly I opened my hand until the bird was free to fly off. It sat there for a few seconds, ruffled its feathers and flew into a nearby pine. Once safely out of my grasp, the woodpecker scolded us with a flurry of bird chatter.

With the sun well up in the sky, we emerged from the swamp, rendezvoused with the park's helicopter, and lifted off. Only a few hundred feet in the air and with nothing but flat terrain below, you can begin to appreciate the size of the Preserve. Grassy marshes and cypress strands form a ribbon-like bands that run from horizon to horizon. Increasing altitude only reveals more of the same.

Throughout the area, we also saw circular patches of tall cypress trees that dominated the surrounding vegetation. At first glance they look like small round hills. Some have a dimple in the center which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be a small pond.

These domes, as they are called, are really low spots in the landscape. Here water stands year-round and the cypress tress grow taller than on the higher land surrounding them. A difference of less than a foot in the Big Cypress translates into the difference between a pine forest, marsh or a cypress dome. It is hard to convince your mind that the tall trees grow in the lowest places.

Seeing so much of the spectacular beauty of the Big Cypress in one day is a sobering reminder of how important it is to conserve this resource for future generations to appreciate.

Visiting the Big Cypress National Preserve

Most experience the Big Cypress National Preserve as they drive between the east and west coasts on US 41 or Interstate 75. The view, seen through the windows of a car going 55 or 70 miles per hour, is impressive but you won't get the feel for the Big Cypress unless you stop. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of those in-transent stop to see what the swamp has to offer.

If you want to learn more, the best place to stop is at the Oasis Visitor's Center located about 25 miles east of the US 41 and State Road 29 intersection. There are some displays, a videotape about the Preserve, and a small selection of books for sale.

From the visitor's center the more adventurous can hike a part of the Florida Trail. The hike, except during the driest months, is a wet hike. Those that attempt it see a small piece of the south Florida wilderness. Wet marshes and cypress sloughs stretch on as far as the eye can see. There is a great sense of being isolated from civilization.