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Cars began pulling off U.S. Highway 41 onto the narrow crushed shell parking strip next to the Indian village about 20 minutes before the starting time for the tour.

Steve and Linda Koreny, two Florida master naturalists, greeted the visitors and checked names against the reservation list.

The couple volunteers with the Friends of Fakahatchee to lead tours of the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park.

Once everyone arrived, the guides gave a description of the tour that would traverse down a rock-covered “borrow” path (dirt borrowed from what is now a ditch) to the boardwalk as well as offered some safety tips.

“Be careful of the cypress knees along the path,” Linda said.

“Staying on the middle of the path is a good habit to develop,” Steve said. “If there is going to be anything (wildlife from the ditch), it will be on the sides.”

The tour group was headed for a shady, narrated stroll along the 2,220-foot boardwalk through one of the last remaining stands of virgin cypress trees in Florida to the alligator hole at its end.

Largest

Linda explained that Fakahatchee Strand is the largest strand swamp in the world. The swamp is 22 miles long, 5 miles at its widest and as much as 6 feet at its deepest.

The season and location within the strand determines whether the water is fresh or brackish, and the south end is a highly productive estuary eco-system.

“Florida is flat, but it has a limestone backbone to it,” she said. “A strand is a valley carved in limestone. If it were still, it would be a lake, but with a 2- to 4-inch descent, it has a flow although it is imperceptible.”

As the group passed twin cypress trees wrapped in the sculpture of a strangler fig reaching to the sky, Linda explained that the size of the trees don’t indicate their age.

The larger trees have more access to the water.

The moderating tropical microclimate caused by the moisture in Fakahatchee makes it a natural greenhouse, which is why it’s home to so many rare orchid and epiphyte (air plant) varieties.

Fakahatchee is the only place in the world where royal palms grow amid cypress trees.

Gator hole

The group took a seat on the benches at the end of the boardwalk overlooking the gator hole. A slight breeze at the treetops moved the palm fronds as if they were pom-poms in the breeze.

One tour guest commented about the sounds of the Tamiami Trail filtering back into the forest.

“If the U.S. 41 traffic sounds vanished, this is what old Florida would sound like,” he said.

“Yes,” Steve said, “but if it wasn't for U.S. 41, there would be no boardwalk here.”

The frogs didn’t seem to notice the traffic noise from the road as they dropped with plops into the water as an alligator lazily swam past.

The guided interpretive boardwalk tour is one of several types of programs offered by the Friends group during the season.

The programs range from a seated tram tour to the leisurely boardwalk stroll to strenuous swamp walks in the water.

The tram tours leave from the park’s ranger station just off Janes Scenic Drive, an 11-mile dirt road accessed from State Road 29 between U.S. 41 and I-75.

“In the tram tour, you’re riding on a wagon,” Linda said.

85,000 acres

“You don’t hear anything,” Steve said. “It’s in the middle of 85,000 acres in the middle of nowhere. We actually had a borrowed tram to start out with, but then the Friends were able to raise enough donations to buy a tram.”

The Friends of Fakahatchee is the citizen-support organization for the park. CSOs are a type of nonprofit group authorized by law to raise funds and accept gifts of money and property on behalf of the host parks.

Citizen-support organizations also help parks by increasing community awareness, recruiting volunteers and sponsoring or hosting programs.

The state will be undertaking improvements to the boardwalk site, such as better parking and a connector to the existing boardwalk, and the Friends are trying to raise $5 million for additional enhancements.

These would include an interpretive pavilion, signage and displays, an outdoor school program classroom, an overlook/rain shelter and a new elevated canopy walk.

“You never know what you’re going to hear or going to see here,” Linda said.” It’s wildlife and that’s the way they are, so come often and do many things. Bring binoculars and a camera, or drawing materials. We often see artists along the boardwalk.”

Connect with this writer: @Laura TichySmith (Twitter)

If you go

What: Friends of Fakahatchee events

Info: 695-1023, orchidswamp.org

Suggested: Sunscreen, sun hat, insect repellant, light jacket, closed-toe shoes, water bottle, camera, binoculars, other items as recommended on reservation page for specific events

Events

All events require reservations through the orchidswamp.org website.

*What: Naturalist-led Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk tour

When: 9-10:30 a.m. most Thursdays

Cost: $20

Where: Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, located on the north side of U.S. 41 about 17 miles east of the Naples intersection of US 41 and Collier Boulevard (no address — sign on south side of road points to small parking area when you arrive).

*What: Welcome back dinner with author Cesar Becerra

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13

Cost: $45

Where: Everglades Adventure Center, 102 Collier Ave., Everglades City

*What: Ghost Rider tram tour

When: 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. most Thursdays

Cost: $25

Where: Ranger station, 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland

*What: Tram tour and swamp walk

When: 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. most Tuesdays

Cost: $60

Where: Ranger station, 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland

*What: Swamp walk

When: 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. select Saturday and Thursdays

Cost: $80

Where: Ranger station, 137 Coastline Drive, Copeland

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