To some, the wetland ecosystem provided a sanctuary of sorts.
Miles away from noisy traffic and cluttered strip malls, a group of local residents waded through the serene water-filled trails of the Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve on Sunday.
“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” said Martha Nierste, 62, a retired teacher who moved to Southwest Florida five years ago.
Tour guide Charles O’Connor, 51, led them to a shaded area enclosed by massive cypress trees. “We call this the cathedral,” said O’Connor, a Lee County environmental teacher who has been giving tours of the 2,200-acre wetland for the past 10 years.
O’Connor pointed out a Resurrection Fern, a plant that can survive by shrinking during a drought and will grow again when watered. He told the group the most exotic animal in the preserve is a Basilisk lizard, a member of the iguana family that weighs about 300 grams and carries the nickname “Jesus Christ Lizard” for its ability to run across water.
“There’s all sorts of religious stuff going on here,” Becky Smith, 52, said with a laugh after realizing it was the seventh day of the week. “I guess it’s appropriate.”
Smith, a legal secretary from Fort Myers, stood in knee-deep water as oils from the fallen cypress seeds created stained-glass patterns on the water surface. Tours have been guided through the same sandy trail for the past 30 years, O’Connor said.
For others, the experience was less then tranquil.
The group was silent as they tried to spot wildlife while the cicada bugs released their high-pitched drone, a sound that faintly resembled a buzz saw.
“It’s eerie,” said Bill Akerly, 72, a retired dentist from Mississippi and member of the Friends of Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a nonprofit group that works to protect the slough and educate people about it.
Ackerly came on the guided tour through the slough after reading about it in the newspaper.
“They said it was a walk, they didn’t say it was a wet walk,” Akerly said as he trudged through the cool, dark water.
“He wasn’t kidding when he said ‘waist high.’”
After a recent rainfall water was plentiful in the preserve and most of the group held onto nearby tree trunks for support as they waded through the slough, a Lee County flowway that collects water runoff from a nearby watershed during heavy rains and empties it into the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.
While O’Connor has seen otters and rat snakes on previous tours, Sunday’s group spotted a blue heron, fresh snail eggs, and a tree where bears have left scratch marks during dryer months. The preserve is home to blue herons, anhingas, American alligators, raccoons, and red-shouldered hawks. River otters, bobcats, and white-tailed deer have also been seen.
The slough is nine miles long and one-third of a mile wide and was once owned by private developers until the land was preserved after a campaign by high school students in 1976.
Voters later approved a special tax to buy it and Lee County and the South Florida Water Management District own and manage the slough. Construction will start on a $1.8 million interpretative center for the preserve later this year. The building will serve as a welcome center and be paid for through tax dollars, private donations and impact fees.
The trek through water, which is sometimes waist-deep during the wet season, gives people a better understanding of why the wetlands are important, O’Connor said. The tour also serves as a gentle reminder of what Florida looked like before roads were paved and neighborhoods erected.
“Can you imagine this as a parking lot or a road,” O’Connor said.
As the group grew quiet and looked around at the lush trees, it was clear they could not.