Swamp Buggy: A Tale of Family Adventure in Big Cypress National Preserve

by Shelly Rivoli
Big Cypress National Preserve with kids alligator

“Get those darn things off right now!” our driver grumbles over his shoulder.

My daughter, still confused by the breach in safety protocol, shoots me a worried look—her safety belt will not budge. Captain Cliff’s seat swivels around as he reaches out toward my firstborn, jabbing a calloused thumb into the stubborn square at the center of her abdomen. He rises from his seat to get a good look at each of us, making sure that no one in the swamp buggy is actually buckled to it.

“Now look,” he explains, “If there’s some kind of emergency comes up,” bronze arms rise like exclamation points protruding from camouflage, “if this here buggy catches fire or something, I want to be able to get you guys off of here quick!”

I peer down from my seat on the back row bench guessing the floor of the buggy is at least as far above the ground as I am tall—and, I imagine, with good reason.

Cliff sinks back into the driver’s seat and hollers, “You guys ready for this?”

My husband’s arms extend protectively around our three children seated at his sides. With a couple of spats and a chug we lurch forward toward the road that will take us from our rendezvous point into the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve. We’ve already driven a slow seven miles of dirt road on our own, along which the only other souls we saw were our first night heron (as confirmed by our laminated Birds of Coastal South Florida guide), alligators number seven and eight, and an unidentified serpent slithering over the road as my foot leapt from the gas pedal.

The swamp buggy crosses half-way over a canal, but then slows to stop. For some reason, the engine shuts off.

Cliff turns and asks quietly, “So where’d you say you’re from?”

“San Francisco,” the kids whisper back.

“San Francisco?” he asks in a hush. “And have you seen any alligators yet on your trip to Florida?”

“NINE!” they shout back, suddenly pointing to the water beside us. My son climbs onto his sisters for a better view.

“Good,” Cliff grins. In a courteous, quiet voice apparently reserved for large reptiles he explains, “Now there is your American alligator.” He walks toward the side of the swamp buggy and whispers, “Come on closer, you don’t have to stay in your seats.”

We gather at the railing, gazing down at the glistening crags of the foreboding island below. The children’s faces are alight.

American Alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve.
A small female American Alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Now who can tell me the differences between an alligator and a crocodile?”

It’s as if they’ve been waiting for someone to ask them this all their lives. Cliff nods, surprised but pleased, as the three siblings quickly exhaust the list. “That’s pretty good,” he grins. “But do you know how you can measure an alligator when all you can see are the bumps of his eyes and nose sticking up from the water?” They fall silent as he explains.

I give my husband a quick wink and he grins back in one of those rare moments when two parents feel they’ve done something very right by their children. A sigh of relief escapes me as I remember an awkward conversation with a friend just weeks earlier.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re flying your whole family all the way to Florida and you’re not taking your kids to Disney World?”

“Nope,” I offered with all the confidence I could muster. “I want to show them real Florida.

“And you don’t think they’re going to hold this against you—for the rest of their lives?”

There was laughter, including my own. But secretly, I still worried about the final outcome of our trip, particularly this 3-hour “swamp buggy tour” of Big Cypress National Preserve, the unsung neighbor of the Everglades. It might be everything my budding wildlife biologist and survival enthusiast children could hope for. Yet I knew in my gut the excursion still had potential for disaster.

Three hours riding in the swampland’s answer to a tundra buggy—without the polar bears? Would it just be too long? Too boring? Too hot? Or worse: Too buggy? And, as I’d confirmed by phone when making our non-refundable booking for five, with only a bucket for a bathroom?

“Now, so far, the alligators you’ve seen out there along the highway and canals are either the females or the juvenile males. This here is a small female.” In the surprisingly clear water, she almost appears to float on air. A school of fish encircles her motionless snout, oblivious to the proximity of their demise. “The giant breeder males,” Cliff continues, “are over on this side,” he gestures to the road ahead of us.

Giant breeder males?” I test the words aloud, stifling a laugh.

“Yes ma’am.” He adjusts his cap. “Hopefully we’ll get to see one today.”

With a spat-chug-spat, the swamp buggy engine fires up and we roll on past the canal, past the sign reading PERMIT REQUIRED, as Cliff tells us how the alligators we’ve already viewed from the platforms at the Everglades and Big Cypress Visitors Centers, and along the Tamiami Trail, were nowhere near the size of the ‘giant breeder males’ who would fight to the death—and even eat—any other male who came near him or the gator hole he currently occupied. And it’s these wet depressions, made deeper and wider by their resident gators, that give rise to the cypress domes, “Like that one there.” He points across a sweep of prairie grass to where a group of trees arcs against the Florida sky, the tallest trees growing at the center where the deepest water lies.

Family riding in a swamp buggy at Big Cypress National Preserve
Off we go in the swamp buggy into the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve.

“These giant breeder males,” he slows the buggy and turns to extend an illustrative arm, “are often around 15 feet long and sometimes bigger.” Cliff resumes swamp buggy cruise speed to somewhere around 10 miles per hour and grins over his shoulder at us, “You haven’t seen one that big yet, have you?”

I try to imagine a one-and-a-half story house turned on its side—with teeth and a tail. “Definitely not!” I shout from the back row bench.

Trees begin closing in on both sides of the buggy and ping-ping-pinging against the soldered pipes at our sides as we lean in to avoid the occasional whap of a too-long branch. Cypress boughs drag over our roof of camouflage tarp and flop down behind us as we pass through what feels like an arboreal car wash.

There are two types of cypress trees in Big Cypress National Preserve, Cliff points out, and we’ve arrived at a convergence of both. He shuts the engine off and reaches out past the railing to break off a sprig of each. His driver’s seat swivels toward us once again and he shows us the difference between the wild tangle of deep green pond cypress needles and the neat and orderly fine needles of the key lime-colored bald cypress. The pond cypress is evergreen. But each winter the bald cypress sloughs off its needles.

swamp buggy guide looking at cypress branches
Eye-level with the cypress boughs in Big Cypress National Preserve.
pond cypress needles shown left and bald cypress needles shown right.
A tale of two cypress: Pond cypress needles to the left and bald cypress needles to the right.

Cliff rises from his seat again and walks to the front corner of the swamp buggy where he snaps off a leafy twig, then ceremoniously smashes the leaves between his fingers. He holds fingers and leaf bits up to the kids: “Smell this.” The kids lean in eagerly. “What does that smell like to you?”

The kids shrug as he tears a few leaves from the twig and lets them each hold their own. “That there is a natural insect repellent.  So say you were out here when there’s more water on the ground like there is most of the year—not like this—and the bugs’re likely to make you crazy, you could smash some of these leaves and rub them on you.” He nods, “Problem solved.”

The kids tear at their leaves, rubbing them with great fervor against their necks and cheeks and the backs of their hands, the only parts left exposed beyond the insect-repellent-treated clothing I’d insisted they wear for the day.

That’s how the Indians could survive out here when just about nobody else could.”

The kids stare off between the trees a moment, as if expecting a tribe of Seminole or Miccosukee to suddenly materialize.

“So kids, do you know what the deadliest animal in the world is?”

The kids nod and shout, “Mosquitoes!”

Cliff grins and adjusts his cap, “That’s right—and they’ve sure got plenty of them out here.”

The children nod back in silence and continue staring out at the wilderness surrounding us. Not a building, not even a telephone pole is in sight.

“Now the other thing you can do with wax myrtle,” he begins stripping back the thin bark of his twig, “is to brush your teeth.” He rubs the thin white stick against a crack in his smile to demonstrate.

As the sun rises higher, the parched surface of the road becomes a near-blinding white. It’s a strange road–not exactly dirt, and though gravely in places, not gravel. To our left, a field of prairie grass and pine trees has Cliff’s full attention, and he slows to point to a mother deer and two fawns watching us roll by. A little farther down the road he stops.

“So, you know about the cypress domes now, but what we’ve also got out here in Big Cypress are the hammocks.”

“Hammocks?” the kids laugh.

“I love hammocks!” my younger daughter exclaims.

Cliff points to a pine hammock in the distance, the opposite of a cypress dome. He explains how a hammock is a raised area that continues to build on itself as debris from a group of trees collect beneath them. Over time it makes a small hill, and in the swampiest months of May through December, the island-like hammocks are an important last retreat for the land mammals. Naturally, this captive supply of fauna also makes the pine and hardwood hammocks all the more attractive to south Florida’s invading Burmese python—the population now thought to be around 100,000 between the Everglades and Big Cypress.

pine hammock in Big Cypress National Preserve
A young pine hammock in Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Trouble is,” Cliff explains, “the pythons don’t have any natural predators here,” the exception being an occasional giant breeder male alligator, he is sure to point out.

Otherwise, the American alligators don’t seem to be making a dent in the Burmese python population boom, and even a 30-hour duel documented by wildlife researchers between a 13-foot python and a 6-foot alligator ended in a draw. Though the python managed to finally swallow the exhausted alligator whole, as is its custom with prey, the alligator’s feet eventually broke through the python’s sides in protest. In the end, neither side lived to tell the tale.

Cliff points to a tall, dead tree at the center of the hammock, much taller than the others around it. He explains that the tallest pine trees are easy targets for lightening, and when they’re struck, the sap inside transforms into a highly flammable resin. “Lighter pine,” Cliff digs into his pocket and removes a splinter of wood, “is bug-proof.” While early Florida developers were anxious to harvest and build pest-proof houses with this  valuable lumber, they soon realized the folly of their ways. Lighter pine, sometimes called fatwood, ignites more easily and burns more intensely than regular wood–even when wet. When a pest-proof house caught fire, there was no way of putting it out.

A tall dead pine that was struck by lightning
A tall pine once struck by lightening is filled with fire-starting “lighter pine.”
Big Cypress guide demonstrates lighter pine
Our guide shows us how steadily and hot a splinter of lighter pine will burn.

Cliff explains that’s why lighter pine is the best campfire starter around, and any self-respecting survivalist would not leave home without a small piece. He pulls a cigarette lighter from the same pocket, “Even if you got lost out here in a storm, you could still make a fire with some of this,” the splinter flashes into flame as the kids sit up, startled but intrigued. “That’s lighter pine.”

The road becomes a strange mishmash of earthen blobs and chalk-like rocks. Palm trees appear, both short and tall, and there’s a sudden flash of scarlet among a new stand of bald cypress. Cliff shuts the engine off and turns to us. “What do you hear?”

We sit there a moment, the five of us looking at each other, then looking at Cliff.

It is ominously quiet. For a 720,000-acre preserve populated by wood stork, egrets, anhingas, ibis, assorted raptors, and several types of heron, you’d think at least one of them would have something to say.

“The wind?” my youngest daughter asks.

But there isn’t any wind, no breeze to be had in the heat. No leaves rustling. No branches creaking. It’s as if even the trees are holding their breath for some reason.

Cliff nods with a sudden grin and whispers, “Nothing.” He cackles, “I get some people out here from big cities and it’s the first time they’ve ever heard ‘nothing’ in their lives!” He steps toward the side of the swamp buggy and points to a cypress trunk beside us. “Now who can—”

“Epiphytes!” shout the kids.

“Good,” he nods at the kids.

“Is it a bromeliad?” I ask.

bromeliad in big cypress national preserve, Florida
Bromeliads bloom with wild abandon in Big Cypress National Preserve.

“And, good!” he nods at me. “Yes, those there are air plants.” And they’re suddenly on every cypress tree I can see—clumps of spikey leaves stuck to the crags and cracks of tree trunks like questionably placed bird nests. Cliff points out a dainty orchid also living on the tree nearest us–

“Orchids? Out here?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He explains that more than thirty types of orchids can be found in Big Cypress National Preserve, and proceeds to point out three we can see just from our current vantage point on the swamp buggy: two growing on trees and the third growing on the ground.

light purple orchids in Big Cypress National Preserve
Thirty-six orchid species can be found within Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Well, how about that…” Cliff leans over the rail of the swamp buggy. “Come take a look,” he whispers, the kids already ejecting from their bench. “Do you see it there?” He points.

Before I can get to the rail to look over, my husband whispers, “A track!” Just to the side of the road, where the ground is lower, softer, and still moist in spite of the heat, we see the traces of thick-toed pads from what could only be—

“A panther!” the kids squeal. They spot a companion track near it, just where the grass begins to thicken.

Florida panther tracks in Big Cypress National Preserve
There are only an estimated 100 – 180 Florida panthers still alive today. In spite of bounding back from near extinction in the 1990s, “death by car” remains their biggest … See Photo Gallery (digital downloads available)–> 

I squint toward the trees that the tracks point toward, but see nothing but cypress and bromeliad.

Cliff retrieves a long walking stick from the edge of the swamp buggy, which, when fully upright, is even taller than him. “You want to get down and take a closer look?”

Before I can absorb the fact that he is serious, the kids are scurrying down the ladder behind him and leaping from its last rung. My husband wastes no time following.

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.

Fossils are easily found in parts of Big Cypress National Preserve.
Fossils are easily found in parts of Big Cypress National Preserve.

“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,

“Another fossil!”

“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.

“That’s right.”

"Knees" appear to the left of these bald cypress. While many believe they help bring air to the trees in swampy conditions, it is still debated among scientists.
“Knees” appear to the left of these bald cypress. While many believe they help bring air to the trees in swampy conditions, it is still debated among scientists.

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.

Exploring among the pond cypress in Big Cypress National Preserve
Exploring among the pond cypress in Big Cypress National Preserve.

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.

Catching the gaze of a deer, but not its concern, as we explore Big Cypress on foot.
Catching the gaze of a deer, but not its concern, as we explore Big Cypress on foot.

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.

Seeds of the bromeliad ready for the breeze in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Seeds of the bromeliad ready for the breeze in Big Cypress National Preserve. See Photo Gallery (digital downloads available)–> 

“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?”

I flinch.

“The panther!”

“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.

Hoping to view a 'giant breeder male' American alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Hoping to view a ‘giant breeder male’ American alligator in Big Cypress National Preserve.

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.

One of the treasured plaster-cast panther tracks from our visit to Big Cypress National Preserve.
One of the treasured plaster-cast panther tracks from our visit to Big Cypress National Preserve.

See Full Photo Gallery (digital downloads available) –>

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: Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventures

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.

You might also like:

West of Key West: Tips for Your Day Trip to Dry Tortugas

History on the Rocks: Diving into the Key West Shipwreck Museum

If Cats Could Type in Key West: A Visit to the Hemingway Home Museum

Why South Florida Should Absolutely be on Your Family Travel Bucket List

Slide Show with Additional Photos from our Visit to Big Cypress

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