Swamp Buggy continued…
Surely no panther in its right mind would stick around here with the noise of the swamp buggy coming through. “Surely not,” I say aloud, gripping the rails of the ladder down. But still, how recently might that panther—or any one of the 36 known to live within Big Cypress National Preserve—have passed through here? There are reasons we are riding in a swamp buggy, I want to remind the co-creator of my petite offspring. And so far, water on the road is not one of them.
By the time I reach the ground, they’ve also spotted the smaller tracks of a bobcat in the mud, but they pale next to the magnificence of the large cat tracks before us. Just as I’m thinking it’s a good time to get back up the ladder and make sure the engine still starts, Cliff offers, “Now, if you want to, we can make a cast of it.”
The kids blink.
“You know, a plaster cast? You can take it home and show your friends what a real Florida panther track looks like.”
“YEAH!” the kids gasp.
“Cool,” their dad grins.
“Well, okay!” their mom shouts loud enough to startle any wildlife within earshot.
Back up on the buggy, Cliff opens a bucket—the bucket I’d assumed was our emergency toilet—and produces a small mixing bowl, an old coffee can, and a spoon. “You guys ready for some water?” He flips open the ice chest and passes down water bottles for each of us as he cracks an extra open adds it to the mixing bowl. It’s already hot enough that we’re as tempted to guzzle the water as we are to dump it over our heads.
The kids crouch down to watch as Cliff meticulously fills the panther tracks with the batter-like plaster of Paris. We retreat to what little shade there is at the side of the buggy, the kids panting next to its tractor tires that are nearly the height of my son. Cliff finishes off a water bottle, then holds it up for all to see. “Do you know why they make water bottles like this?” he rubs a finger down the bumpy side of the plastic bottle. In one swift motion, the plastic bottle flattens between his hands, folding compactly at the ridges in the exhalation of an accordion. “That’s so it doesn’t take up so much room in the trash.”
I flinch a moment, expecting the kids to tell him he means “recycling,” but they are too busy finishing their waters so that they can smash their own bottles, too. Then I remember what I learned at our motel—the curbside recycling we take for granted at home still has not come to most parts of south Florida.
“Hey, you kids see that rock right over there?” Cliff points to a chalky white rock at the edge of the chalky white dirt road we stand on. “Go get a good look at it and tell me what you see.”
The kids scurry after the rock as I search my memory for what I may have learned about any dangerous insects in Big Cypress.
“Go on, pick it up.” The kids turn the rock over and stare a moment, “You see anything?”
They stare intensely until my eldest daughter looks up. “It looks like a seashell!”
Though we stand many miles from the Gulf and even farther from the Atlantic, Cliff explains, that wasn’t always the case. Words like “sandy limestone,” “cap rock,” and “Pleistocene era” spin around us as we leap to the realization that, yes, the kids are holding a prehistoric fossil in their hands.
“Ohmygosh, ohmygosh,” the big sister repeats.
“Can we take it home?” the little sister begs.
“I’m pretty sure that if we’re not supposed to take pine cones home from national parks, ancient fossils are off limits, too,” I sigh. “But we can definitely take a picture.” I zoom in and snap the photograph. “So…” I hesitate a moment, “Cliff, how did you know there was going to be a fossil under that rock?”
He shrugs, “Easy guess, ma’am. They’re in most of these rocks out here.”
With that, the kids disperse and begin picking up every sandy limestone rock they can see along the sides of the road. Sure enough,
“I found one, too!”
“Get a picture of this one, Mom!”
“Now stay together guys—and close to us!” I insist, reminding them of the panther and bobcat tracks.
Without being 100% certain our plaster casts are ready, no one’s willing to risk moving them. So we decide to move along and vow that we will not forget to stop and get them on the way back. With only two swamp buggies allowed at one time in this part of the preserve, and no sign of any other going out that morning, our plaster paws seem ominously safe.
Cliff starts the buggy, but after a chug and a chug and a spat it stops. “We’ll just give it a second here…” he clears his throat.
There it is again: nothing. I look at the road stretching back behind us, curving like a stream through the bald cypress. I realize I have no idea how many miles we’ve traveled since starting the journey in the swamp buggy.
I peel back the children’s sun hats, “You can let a little steam out now—we’ve got shade,” I glance up at the camouflage tarp, silently hoping circumstances won’t force us out from beneath its protective cover. “So about how deep does the water get in this part?” I ask.
“About one to two feet along here.” Cliff points to some bald cypress trees near the edge of the road. “You see those funny-looking roots by the trees?” Knobby roots flank the cypress, not growing down but rising up from the ground as if in defiance. “They call those tree knees. They grow like that so they can still get air even when the ground is covered in water.”
“Kind of like snorkels for trees?” I laugh.
Cliff turns the ignition again and with a chug and a chug and a spat the motor turns over and we lurch forward, rolling on through the bald cypress as they open up to another sweep of prairie grass. Gradually, a group of pond cypress comes into view.
Cliff shuts off the engine and reaches down for his stick. “You guys ready to go for a walk?”
My tribe hurries down the ladder behind him as I take a long drink of water, and then take a good long look around us. “Now be very quiet,” he whispers, “’cause you never know what you might get to see.”
His words in no way speed my descent. But the others are suddenly following him down a faint trail through dry prairie grass toward a forest of pond cypress. As I hurry to catch up, the ground beneath our feet gets softer and finally turns to mud.
Soon the wide-hipped cypress surround us and we’ve entered into a Seuss-like forest, where the trees appear animated enough to wobble off of their own free will. Bromeliads spike from them like scattered pom-poms sprouting scarlet tongues.
As we arrive at a small clearing among the trees, Cliff asks, “So what would you do if you found yourself lost out here in this heat—without an ice chest full of water bottles?” He nods, “Or a cellphone?” He grins, “Hell, they don’t work out here anyway.”
We look around us and can only shrug.
“Panic?” I offer.
“Climb a tree?” my eldest daughter asks.
“Lighter pine!” whispers my son.
“Watch this.” Cliff carefully inserts the end of his walking stick into the mud between us. He pushes and turns in a corkscrew motion until much of it has disappeared into the ground. With a quick pull up he releases the stick and points down, “There. You see that? Some of the cleanest, purist water in Florida—and it’s all just a little ways beneath our feet.”
The surface of the small hole glistens.
“Don’t forget that if you ever get lost out here in Big Cypress now, all right?” he taps my son’s shoulder.
“Okay,” he nods, still absorbing this significant survival tip.
As we walk deeper into the pond cypress, their ample bases grow wider still. I want to ask if we’re in a “dome,” but I’m not sure I like the reptilian implications of that terminology. Cliff stops suddenly and raises a finger, pointing through the trees.
Between layers of cypress and bromeliad, we see a deer, her gaze fixed upon us. A moment later, she turns and walks calmly away as if humans poking around the pond cypress are the least of her concerns.
Cliff reaches out to an eye-level epiphyte. “Watch,” he whispers. With a gentle pinch, he releases a cottony fuzz and sends it adrift with his breath. “Those are the seeds,” he whispers. “They travel on the breeze until they stick against the bark of another tree.”
We watch, giddy, as the seeds drift like tiny fairies through the air of this strange and wonder-filled world we’ve wandered into.
“Watch yourself there son,” Cliff inserts his walking stick between my son’s heels and the decaying gnarls of pond cypress knees behind him. We lean in for a close look as Cliff explains, “That’s where the snakes like to be.”
I scoop up my son in my arms and offer to carry him the rest of the way through the mud, but he will not have it. After all, he’s in kindergarten now, at the same school as his sisters.
“Well look here,” Cliff raises the walking stick and points just off to the side of us. “You see that track there?”
I quickly survey the distance to the swamp buggy—but I can no longer see it through the cypress trees.
“Right…there…” his walking stick makes a slow and graceful squiggle in the air, mimicking the serpentine smears on the wet earth below.
“A snake?” my husband asks not quietly.
“Yes, sir,” Cliff nods as if he expects we’ll find it as interesting as we did the panther tracks.
“Whoah,” a child whispers.
The impression in the mud is at least as wide as my arm.
“I think the kids are getting hungry,” I smile.
“Oh, sure,” he offers apologetically, “You guys ready for your lunch?”
Back in the elevated safety of the swamp buggy, we devour our peanut butter sandwiches, crunch away at our crisp apples, and dive into the party-size bag of of potato chips we’d packed along for our picnic. I can’t be sure if we are truly ravenous or just glad to be alive.
Cliff points over at a grouping of palm trees, “You see those there?”
Through a collective crunching: “Yeah.”
“That’s the sabal palm tree—the state tree of Florida.”
“Sabal?” I repeat, relieved to take up the topic of flora rather than fauna in the preserve.
“So the black bear…” he holds out a level tan hand toward the trees, “just love to climb up and, well, they smash up the top of the palm and rip out and eat the heart of the tree. Unfortunately, it kills the tree.”
I swallow my last bite of sandwich. “Bears?” Somehow, besides south Florida’s native panthers, alligators, crocodiles, and four species of venomous snakes, it had escaped me that bears also called the region home.
“Yes, ma’am. They can get up to about 8 feet tall out here. Anyway, when you see a sabal palm tree like that and one of them has the top all smashed in, you know that a bear’s climbed up there and enjoyed himself a good meal.” Cliff smiles and takes a last bite from his own sandwich.
I take a napkin to the peanut butter smear across my son’s cheek.
“The nice thing about it though,” he explains, “is how they all help each other. The deer, which eat the—you know, kids?”
“Prairie grass and stuff?”
“That’s right.” He nods. “And who eats the deer?”
“Yes, indeed.” He smiles. “And who cleans up when the panther can’t finish his meal?”
I smile, “The bear, of course.”
Cliff turns the swamp buggy around and we begin back down the same road in anticipation of our plaster cast panther tracks. But the mid-day heat is stifling. And the late night of jetlag-fueled visiting in our motel room–and early morning to follow–seem to be catching up with us as the swamp buggy hums and lulls us into a post-lunch coma.
Cliff slows the buggy and points to a “panther scratch” in the middle of the road. He explains how the panthers kick back a pile of tree needles and dirt, and then urinate on top to leave as a calling card.
“Was that there when we came out this morning?” I ask.
Cliff shrugs. “I don’t think so.”
We roll on past pines, then bald cypress, and I make note of a sabal palm tree–not smashed. In a shady patch, the buggy stops. “I have one more thing to show you,” Cliff grins as he picks up his walking stick.
My son sighs, collapsed over the near-empty sack of potato chips, his eyes half shut. “Can I just stay here?”
“What is it?” I ask Cliff.
“A giant breeder male.”
“Yes you can,” I answer my son. “He can wait here, can’t he?” I look around the buggy for signs of panthers or their clean-up crew.
“Sure, we’re not going too far.”
Just steps from the road, the mud deepens, sklooshing out around our shoes and threatening to hold one captive at any step. We’ve been instructed not to speak, but to watch Cliff’s hand signals for cues. I try to imagine how we will get a look at this giant breeder male without any viewing platforms, without any paths or fences, and without accidentally crossing paths with it. Cliff leads us deeper between the trees, a firm grip on his walking stick.
We’re already farther from the swamp buggy than I’d imagined we might go. I look back through the trees but can no longer see it, nor the blond little boy we left on it alone with a sack of potato chips.
The trees part and open up onto a pond draped over by shrubs and hemmed in by cattails. Cliff stops and we freeze behind him, our daughters bookended by parents who suddenly wonder what they’ve gotten their children–and themselves–into.
Cliff motions for us to stay back as he steps closer toward the water, scanning every bit of the pond he can see for signs of an enormous alligator. He steps back toward us, whispering, that he’d seen it in the same place twice already, but he’s not there now.
I look around us nervously, “So should we go?!”
He shakes his head and again motions for us to stay put while he ventures toward the water. He slowly inserts his walking stick into the pond and with a slow, rhythmic motion, he traces a silent invitation.
To our relief, there is no reply.
After a moment, he traces a different message, one with more of a rocking motion, side to side, and I remind myself to breathe.
We wait in silence, and he tries again, but nothing stirs in the pool except Cliff.
At last he turns toward us, clearly disappointed.
“That’s okay, I whisper,” ready to high-tail it back to the swamp buggy. “We’ve seen a lot out here today!”
He turns back a moment as if reconsidering the pond.
“And we still have to get our casts of the panther tracks!”
As we walk back through the trees, I pause a moment, seeing odd scratch-like markings in the mud and, in between them, a long sort of smear. “Is this some kind of track?” I ask, not certain if I should have whispered or yelled.
Cliff confirms it’s the marks from an alligator leaving the pond and, I note, traveling in the general direction of our swamp buggy.
“The giant breeder male?”
He gives a half-smile and shakes his head with a confident no. “Too small.”
Back at our rendezvous point, with plaster casts in hand, we bid our farewells to Cliff, who suddenly leans down toward the kids. “Did you learn anything out here today?”
“Yes!” they agree.
He smiles. “You know, every day, people drive by on the highway and look over here at the hammocks and the cypress domes thinking it’s scary. But now you’ve been out here, you’ve seen it for yourselves up close. And now you know it’s not so scary, now is it?”
The kids nod enthusiastically, “Nope!”
I just take a deep breath and smile, and I thank Cliff for the incredible day our family will never forget.
But as I walk back toward the rental car, I suddenly find myself wondering. After spending the better part of four hours feeling nervous about our surroundings, was it Big Cypress that I found so scary? Or was it the fears that I’d brought there with me? It took a swamp buggy–or the idea of one–to get us out into it, but did it take the swamp buggy to actually keep us safe once we were there? Clearly, we were in the habitat of creatures that had the potential to do us much harm, yet there wasn’t one that took any interest in our passing through or our presence–not even when we trod in their own footsteps.
I notice my firstborn lagging behind us, staring at the plaster cast in her hands. As I walk back toward her, she looks up at me and beams, “It’s real.”
I laugh softly, “That’s not real.”
“No, but the panther is.”
I may go down in history as the mom who never took her kids to Disney World, but I can live with that. Instead of the Magic Kingdom, we saw Florida’s magical kingdom. And instead of mouse ears, we returned home with a greater treasure by far: the tracks of a real Florida panther–and the story of the day our family found them.
If You Go:
We not only highly recommend our outfitter for this trip, Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy and Airboat Adventures (paid for on our own dime), but so does National Geographic! Call them to book your reservation and tell them Family Travel 411 inspired you. 🙂
On the web: http://captainstevesswampbuggyadventures.com
Toll free: 1-877 -871-5386
Get more information about Big Cypress National Preserve and tips for planning your visit at https://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm.
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