The real Florida: Visitors to the Fakahatchee Strand get their feet wet on a swamp walk

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Janes Scenic Drive, Copeland, FL

What: To raise money for the renovation and maintenance of the boardwalk, the Friends of Fakahatchee is sponsoring a safari.

When: 1-7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27

Where: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, 137 Coastline Drive, Goodland, FL 34137

Cost: $125 per person includes donation and membership in Friends of Fakahatchee

What: Swamp Walks

When: 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the first, second, and third Saturday and last Tuesday of the month

Cost: $40 members, $50 non-members (includes membership), $15 accompanied child. Reservations required. 695-2905.

For more information: 695-2905, or visit www.friendsoffakahatchee.org.

— The Fakahatchee Strand does not give up its secrets easily.

First, you drive an hour east of Naples, to park headquarters off of State Road 29. Then, you bump along for miles on Janes Scenic Drive, to a point along the road that looks like all the others, with water standing on both sides amid thick vegetation.

Then, you step into the water.

On a recent Saturday, the weather outside was blustery and cool, but once under the canopy of cypress, oak, pond apple, and cabbage palms, the wind was gone and the air was pleasant. Even the water was an agreeable temperature.

A swamp walk in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is a chance to see the real Florida, a stretch of slowly flowing water largely unchanged from 50 years ago, or even 50,000. Less well known than the Everglades, Rookery Bay or the Corkscrew Sanctuary, Fakahatchee is a key component in the natural ecosystem of south Florida.

The Friends of Fakahatchee offers another, easier way to see the swamp, a boardwalk right off of US 41, seven miles west of the State Road 29 turnoff to Everglades City. The boardwalk gets 12,000 visitors a month during season, and is in dire need of repair.

To raise money for the renovation and maintenance of the boardwalk, the Friends of Fakahatchee is sponsoring an event on Saturday, Feb. 27, at the park headquarters in Copeland. For a donation of $125, the Safari will feature swamp buggy rides, nature walks, tram rides, birding and nature exhibits, and an appearance by renowned photographer Clyde Butcher. A “cracker dinner” and sunset bonfire will include a spit-roasted whole hog.

Swamp walks are offered to the public on the first, second, and third Saturday and last Tuesday of the month.

A recent swamp walk included 15 participants, plus three guides, on a four-hour trek along “paths” that were really no more than a very occasional ribbon tied to a tree.

The strand was logged for its cypress trees between 1945 and 1954, but an impressive growth of trees, including many towering cypresses, has grown up again. Wading through the spaces between them, roots, vines and submerged branches continually remind walkers to place their feet carefully, and keep tight hold of their walking sticks.

Master naturalist John Elting led the group, pointing out native and exotic plants and sharing tidbits of natural history. A board member of the Florida Audubon Society, Elting is the founding president of the Friends of Fakahatchee, and in a former life, an alumnus of investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.

Standing thigh-deep in the tea-colored water, he easily held the group’s attention as he expounded on the habits of the Florida alligator, and how to tell if one is hunting you or merely curious. The area also shelters panthers, black bears, minks, and Florida’s most unwelcome recent visitor, the Burmese python, Elting pointed out.

The reptiles made themselves scarce upon hearing 18 hikers blundering through the muck.

However, there was no shortage of orchids. The Fakahatchee Strand has the largest concentration and variety of orchids in North America, as well as other rare plants. Hikers have a chance to see the world’s rarest orchids in their natural habitat.

The guides were excited to find clamshell and dwarf butterfly orchids blooming, proving they had survived the freeze. With a flower larger than a peppercorn, but smaller than a pea, the dwarf butterfly orchid draws visitors from all over the world, said Bill Mesce, another guides, who lives next door to the strand.

They pointed out another star of the Fakahatchee, the ghost orchid, although it does not bloom until August.

Author Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” and “Adaptation,” the movie adapted from it, were based on true-life orchid poaching from the Fakahatchee Strand. Deep in the swamp, a two-hour slog off the dirt road, almost constantly through water, park rangers have had to set up surveillance cameras to deter would-be orchid thieves.

The profusion of orchids, bromeliads, and over 35,000 types of lichen thrive in the pristine environment of the Fakahatchee. Elting says the oxygen concentration in the swamp is the highest in the world.

“There’s more photosynthesis going on here than anywhere. Being in here is like taking a happy pill,” he said. “People get what I call the ‘Faka-habit.’ They say, ‘I’ve gotta get back there.’”

Unlike the Central American rainforests, Elting said, where the tree canopy can be hundreds of feet high, the orchids in the Fakahatchee are close enough to get a good look.

“Here, everything is right in front of you,” he said.

But the swamp walk is not for everyone, Elting said.

“It’s self-filtering. People who want to do this are pretty hardy,” he said.

Those who have made the effort say the Fakahatchee is like nothing else they’ve seen.

“It was fantastic, seeing all the plants, the bio-diversity,” said Jim Conner of Cape Coral. “The knowledge those guys have is really something, and they’re all volunteers.”

Dr. Caron Staples, a science teacher at Seacrest Country Day School in Naples, is a veteran of numerous natural Florida experiences.

“This was the best swamp walk ever, and I’ve done a lot of them,” she said. “Standing knee deep in the water, your senses come alive and everything becomes so clear. You realize that everything is indeed connected and interdependent.”

Carla Merrifield, visiting from western New York, said she loved being immersed in a green world.

“You’ve got to get out into it,” she said. “People who just drive through don’t understand what it’s all about.”

E-mail Lance Shearer at lances22@gmail.com.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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