Surrounded by our creature comforts, it can be almost unfathomable just how rugged and isolated life was for the pioneers who lived in this area just 100 years ago. There is an excursion boat, though, that can give you a hint.
The Friends of Fakahatchee runs an “Island Cruise” during the winter season, but only when the tide is high enough for the boat to get through, to Fakahatchee Island. Departing from the Everglades National Park ranger station between Chokoloskee and Everglades City last Wednesday, the Starfish threaded her way through the bays and narrow passages between the mangrove cays that make up the 10,000 Islands. Twenty-five souls set out, shades of Gilligan, on “a three-hour tour.”
The captain of the Starfish, a 45-foot aluminum open catamaran powered by twin outboards, pointed out the lockers where the lifejackets are stored, but advised passengers not to worry. The water is so shallow, he said, “all you have to do is stand up.” The captain, Terry Smallwood, is a piece of local history himself, a direct descendant of Ted Smallwood, whose Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee would have represented the closest link to civilization for the early settlers on Fakahatchee Island.
Those links were few for the fishing and subsistence farming families on the island. With no telephones, no radio, no roads within 50 miles, they were effectively shut off from the outside world. They didn’t even have a beach; Fakahatchee Island does not sit along the Gulf coast, as Indian Key and White Horse Key do. Presumably the outer barrier islands offered some shelter from the fury of hurricanes, which would have appeared with little warning.
The most poignant reminder of the bygone pioneers is the small cemetery near the center of the island. There are two types of headstones, commercially produced slabs of granite added decades after the fact, and the simple markers homemade from concrete or tabby mortar, and hand-inscribed with information on the deceased. Here is where, using one’s imagination, a visitor starts to picture the lives the settlers led.
If you go
Fakahatchee Island cruise
What:Final cruise of the year through the mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands to historic Fakahatchee Island. The island, once home to fishermen and farmers, offers fascinating hints of its former uses by Gladesmen and their families. Today the island is home to a varied and vibrant landscape brought to life by the naturalist who leads each tour.
When: Departs at 3 p.m., Saturday, March 30
Where: Everglades National Park Ranger Station
Reservations: Call Pam at (239) 695-1023, or online, go to www.orchidswamp.org and click on “events.”
One handmade tombstone memorializes James P. Daniels, Jr., who lived just from 1911 to 1913. While James Daniels, senior and his wife probably loved their firstborn son as much as any parents, they had few options when the toddler became sick. The nearest doctor would have been a journey of days by sailboat to Fort Myers or Key West.
In its heyday, enough families lived on Fakahatchee Island that Lee County provided a schoolteacher and a one-room school there in 1903. The island is roughly circular, with a half mile diameter, and elevations up to 16 feet, courtesy of the ancient Calusa mound builders. The more recent settlers raised squash, cowpeas, pineapples, papayas and cassava, and caught mullet in the waters, teeming with fish, that surrounded the island.
Walking the island, which has become overgrown in the intervening decades, the guests are cautioned to be careful, and with good reason. Another local plant, cultivated and used by settlers for cattle feed, the prickly pears have inch-long spines to deter predation and punish the unwary. Additional vegetation of note includes a profusion of gumbo limbo trees, the “tourist tree” nicknamed for its red, peeling bark, a variation on the aloe vera plant, and enormous, spreading “pencil trees,” which, according to guide and volunteer naturalist Patrick Higgins, can produce up to 50 barrels of oil per acre.
Progress brought an end to the settlement on Fakahatchee Island, said Marya Repko, Everglades City historian and author of “A Brief History of the Fakahatchee.” In 1928, the Tamiami Trail was completed, linking Everglades City to Naples, Miami and the rest of the world, and road transportation took over from the waterways. The school, said Repko, would have had 12 to 20 students, but records of that time are as primitive and remote as the islands themselves.
“There is no written history. People just settled there they didn’t bother with deeds or paperwork,” she said. The community flourished from about to 1885 to 1930. By the 1950s, the last settlers had moved away. But as the tombstones in the cemetery bear witness, many of the island’s residents selected to make it their final resting place, even after they relocated to the mainland.
Along with the history, the tour offers a wide-ranging look at the natural environment of the 10,000 Islands. Bottlenosed dolphins frolicked around the boat as it headed out, and several used the Starfish’s wake to catch a ride. Osprey, Everglades kites, a variety of egrets and herons actually the same bird, said Higgins and cormorants show themselves. On the way back to the dock, Captain Smallwood positions the boat upwind and upcurrent from a rookery island, and allows it to slowly drift past the roosting birds.
Warm weather, bringing mosquitoes and “no see ums” by the millions, puts an end to the Fakahatchee Island boat tours after the final excursion on March 30. To make reservations, call Pam at (239) 695-1023, or online, go to www.orchidswamp.org and click on “events.” The cost is $75, which supports the Friends of Fakahatchee. Tram tours in the park’s upland areas continue in April.
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New Fakahatchee tram ride announces April schedule
After carrying more than 300 passengers last month, the new “Ghost Rider” tram operated by the Friends of Fakahatchee has extended its service into April. The tram service is named in honor of the famous ghost orchid found in the park.
The 24-passenger tram frees visitors from having to concentrate on their driving to the exclusion of the features of the park. A naturalist leads each tour, describing the history of the Fakahatchee Strand and describing the plants, birds, and animals that thrive there. Several stops on each two hour tour will give passengers a chance to explore interesting aspects of the park.
“Our tour guide was fantastic,” said one recent rider. “He was so knowledgeable and informative. We learned so much about the history, culture and native environment of the area. We can’t thank him enough.”
“Ghost Rider” tram tours are $25 per person and advance reservations are required. The tram leaves from the ranger station at 137 Coastline Drive in Copeland, Fla., at 10 a.m. sharp. Passengers should arrive at 9:45 am. Tours are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays in April, through April 25. The dates are April 2, 4, 9, 11, 16, 18, 23, and 25. To make reservations, go to www.orchidswamp.org and click on “events.” To reserve by phone, call Pam at (239) 695-1023.
The entrance to Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is located on the west side of SR 29 approximately 14 miles south of the intersection of I-75 and SR 29.
Columnist Jeff Klinkenberg to speak at Friends of Fakahatchee annual meeting
St. Petersburg Times Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg will speak at the Friends of Fakahatchee annual meeting 5 p.m., Sunday, April 14. Klinkenberg writes about Florida culture in his column “Real Florida” and is the author of “Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.” His work has won numerous awards and has been published in Esquire, Outside, Travel and Leisure and Audubon.
“If Jeff Klinkenberg isn’t careful, he may give journalism a good name,” says author Carl Hiaasen. “He has a rare eye for marvelous detail, and an affectionate ear for those small, wise, bittersweet voices that tell the true story of Florida.”
The Friends of Fakahatchee meeting and dinner at the Everglades Seafood Depot at 102 Collier Avenue in Everglades City is open to the public. It begins at 5 p.m., April 14 with a cash bar, followed by a roast beef buffet dinner. Reservations are $30 per person for members and $40 for non-members. For telephone reservations, call (239) 695-2905. To reserve online, go to www.orchidswamp.org and click on “events.”
Deadline for reservations is Tuesday, April 9.