Waking up in the Fakahatchee Strand takes some doing, but is well worth the effort. In the early morning, the stillness in the preserve, with all the sounds of civilization left behind, acts as a tonic for the soul. But getting there takes some help.
Most people don’t know beans about the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. For those who have experienced the nature preserve 30 miles east of Naples, what they know is the boardwalk that gives visitors a quick peek back into the swamp.
With a gator hole, towering cypress trees and air plants in the branches, the boardwalk is beautiful, but a stroll on it doesn’t begin to deliver the full sweep of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. With miles of cypress swamp, and broad vistas of prairie, the preserve takes up much of the area between Immokalee and Everglades City.
Jane’s Scenic Drive cuts through the preserve, allowing those willing to bounce around on a rough dirt road the opportunity to travel into the heart of the Fakahatchee. One thing not allowed, though, is camping in the preserve – unless you are grandfathered in.
When the state preserve was established, beginning in 1972, a few hunting camps owned by some Florida crackers were left in private hands, after all the surrounding land was transferred to state ownership. The owners of those camps, and their guests, are the only humans permitted to overnight in the park, which is established as a wildlife refuge, and managed to keep it in as close as possible to a natural state.
One of those camps belongs in part to Ray Carroll and his sister Cindy Carroll. They are partners in Carroll & Carroll Real Estate Appraisers and Consultants, and fourth-generation residents of Collier County. Ray is also president of the Friends of Fakahatchee, the citizens’ support group for the park.
Even the owners of the hunting camps are only allowed to drive straight into and back out from their camps, as “straight” as the rutted jeep trails, winding their way through the bogs, sloughs and cypress stands allow – and you better have a four-wheel drive vehicle, or preferably a swamp buggy, to ensure making it back.
But by special arrangement with park manager Renee Rau, Carroll and his guests were allowed to penetrate deep into the Fakahatchee. Accompanied by a park ranger, the party traveled along some of the laughingly-named “roads,” choked with undergrowth and cut by streams, that date back to the days when the area was largely stripped of its first-growth cypress timber, with the fallen trunks hauled off on a network of narrow-gauge railways built for the purpose. The rails of the railroad were removed long ago as the loggers moved through the area, but the roadbeds they built remain, and are now virtually the only way to access much of the Fakahatchee’s interior.
Traveling in “Pogo,” Ray’s antique 1953 custom-built swamp buggy, and a Polaris off-road vehicle manned by park ranger Jeff Kneisley, the half dozen travelers experienced the quiet thrill of realizing they were penetrating into areas where no people had been for perhaps years. The park wants to keep the roads open, and Kneissley and Ray Carroll had to stop often to wield machetes to cut away foliage blocking the path. Even after that, passengers had to duck under or push aside numerous branches attempting to come inside the vehicles.
Eventually, when the trail became impassable for vehicles, the group continued on foot, wading through the knee-deep water. Finds along the way included all the alligators you could ask for, including one dead one whose bones and teeth reclined at the water’s edge. The cypress trees have come back with vigor since being logged, and here and there, they were joined by orange trees, inadvertently planted by the long ago logging crews, for a welcome treat of wild citrus.
The naturalists were excited by finding guzmania or ribbon orchids, a leafless variety that, to the untutored eye, appears little more than an undersized pencil eraser on a vine. The Fakahatchee Strand is home to 44 species of native orchids, more than anywhere else in the country, and is known as the “orchid swamp.”
As the group headed back toward Jane’s Scenic Drive, along the trail called East Main Street, one traveler in the opposite direction was sighted – a black bear. When the humans halted, the bear continued down the road toward the group, but then turned off and pushed his way into the cypress forest.
Back in camp, the party discovered that there is roughing it, and then there is camping. The Carroll camp is built on the theory that being out in the wilderness doesn’t have to imply a lack of comfort. Tents are erected on top of wooden platforms with airbeds, and the amenities include a propane-powered hot shower, an open-air affair where one lathers off the day’s sweat and sunscreen surrounded by a screen of palmetto fronds, like something out of “South Pacific.”
Ray’s wife, Collier School Board member Pat Carroll, revealed herself as a master of the Dutch oven, joining Cindy Carroll to turn out hot cornbread and a peach cobbler baked over an open fire. The camp also boasts an enormous gas stove, and over the two nights in camp, the happy campers were treated to a classic, All-American menu heavy on camp favorites such as pancakes, bacon and eggs, beef stew and grilled steaks.
After turning in from talking and singing around the campfire, a walk out onto the prairie showed more stars than you can imagine in the sky overhead, with nothing but the tiny town of Copeland closer than 20 miles.
The Fakahatchee is a natural jewel worth preserving, which is the mission of the Friends group. To support the Friends of Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Inc., a 501(c)3 organization, go to www.friendsoffakahatchee.org, or for those seeking an easier spelling, www.orchidswamp.org.