Winter 2002 Forward to a Friend



An aerial view of Chokoloskee and the Ten Thousand Islands.
Photo: John Apte/10,000 Islands Aero-Tours

A  T R E K  T H R O U G H

By Trish Riley

So you are one of the many millions who have made the pilgrimage to Orlando, and you think you’ve seen Florida? Unless you made that trip in the ’50s, chances are you haven’t seen what we like about our subtropical home – because it is mostly gone. But if you have time for a day’s drive out of Miami, we will give you a peek at yesteryear.

 

For example, the fishing village of Chokoloskee, home of Florida’s famous stone crabs, has changed a lot to those who grew up there, but it still seems about half a century behind the rest of the world, still safely hidden from the backhoes of tourism.

As we head west from Miami on U.S. 41, we see that much of southern Florida has been preserved, including the Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Designated a Scenic Highway, this section of U.S. 41 was completed in 1928 and is called the Tamiami Trail – Tampa to Miami. Before construction of the road, only the bravest of settlers – mostly fishermen, Native Americans and those seeking to escape from laws, society and convention – dared to live in these bug-ridden swamps.

dinner and an airboat ride

Coopertown is just one of the places where such delicacies as gator tail and frog legs provide a taste treat after an invigorating airboat tour of the wetlands. The attraction has been run by Jesse Kennon’s family since 1945, and he hopes to keep it just the way it is.

The Miccosukee Indian Village also offers airboats plus a museum, restaurant, souvenirs and alligator wrestling. At the end of the year the village hosts a weeklong Indian Arts Festival (305-223-8380).


Taking an airboat ride is one way to explore the wetlands.
Photo: Visit Florida

One of the trail’s cultural highlights is the Big Cypress Gallery (941-695-2428, www.clydebutcher.com), where photographer Clyde Butcher and his wife, Niki, exhibit the beautiful black-and-white photos of the Everglades that have made Clyde famous worldwide. The couple have lived in the Big Cypress Preserve for 10 years, recording its beauty with large-format cameras. Clyde sometimes wades waist-deep into the swamp waters to capture the perfect shot. “They swim right up to me now and then,” he said of the alligators abundant in the Everglades, holding his hands wide to indicate a big, open jaw, “but they always turn off. It gets the heart going, though, that’s for sure.” But the real thing the Butchers watch out for is lightning. Summer storms rise quickly over the Everglades, and the wide prairie of water can be dangerous.


Clyde Butcher created this black-and-white art print of
a moonrise deep in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Photo: Clyde Butcher

A few more old-fashioned roadside attractions dot the trail – a petting zoo, a picnic park, a more rewarding scenic route called Turner River Road and the country’s tiniest post office at Ochopee that looks more like a dollhouse than a federal office.

Everglades City was a trading post that evolved into a metropolis by mid-century. Alas, the town was wiped out by Hurricane Donna in 1960, pruning it back to its roots as a fishing village of just 500 residents, as it remains today.

getting back to nature

An outpost of the Everglades National Park offers boat tours of the Ten Thousand Islands, or you can rent a canoe or kayak to forge your own trail through the maze of tiny islands. Experienced adventurers may wish to inquire about the park’s Wilderness Trip Planner, which offers maps of primitive campsites – some mere wooden platforms above the water, others remote beaches. Call (941) 695-3311 for details.

Expect to see dolphins, manatees, alligators and eagles throughout the region, but beware: “Mosquitoes are just brutal in the summertime,” says fisherman Steve Burgess.


Alligators – young and old – are common sights near the Tamiami Trail.
Photo: Visit Florida

A three-mile causeway leads to Chokoloskee, a haven for fishermen. During stone crab season, Oct. 15-May 15, you can pick up a few dozen already steamed with garlic, butter and lemon for a picnic cruise or to eat at one of the tables that line the land bridge.

The crab claws are the culinary treat of the region, but the real treasure is the native history – start chatting with the locals to discover a wealth of fascinating tales. One of the best places to begin is at JT’s Island Grill and Gallery, a cafe, market, craft and history purveyor with its own memories of Willie Nelson playing guitar on the front steps with local friends Kris Kristofferson and Kate Moss dancing in the street.



Accommodations range from no-frills fish camp trailers to cabins and motels or bed and breakfasts.
Contact the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce, (800) 914-6355 or www.florida-everglades.com.