28 January 2012: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve

It was well after dark when we arrived at our destination, a small private inholding in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. A carload of friends from Tampa arrived and met us near the end of the route. We traveled on bikes, following a little road north from Janes Scenic Trail about 2.5 miles before it opened into a tiny clearing. I could see the silhouettes of wild-growing royal palms towering in the dark. Cypress knees stood in dark water off the road on both sides.

On the edge of a 2 acre lake was a tin shack with a porch and swing, a classic swamp hunting cabin. A good walkway led out to the lake, where yellow eyes drifted in the cutgrass and cattails. On the door was a plaque that read “Welcome to the Fakahatchee Hilton.” We bathed on the porch under cold water drawn from a well through an old green hand pump. We put on warm clean clothes as someone lit a campfire. We dragged out a grill and gorged on steaks and collard greens. Carlton sat near the fire with Suzie, who’d escaped law school long enough to travel with us for three days.

Our camphouse was simple, weather-beaten, swampy. It had a big porch on the front with a swing, and a balky screen door into a single room. The corrugated tin siding was streaked with rust. The owner said that in 1960 Hurricane Donna had blown the entire building back and left it lying at an angle to the rest of the clearing. He pointed out how one corner hung out over the swamp behind the house. A walkway had been erected around one corner to allow a person to get around the side without stepping into the swamp. They’d left it where the hurricane had put it.

The story of the connected landscape and connected water we’ve been following had added a dimension as we entered the flooded timber. There were big wild animals moving around somewhere near. I recalled reading my old advisor Dave Maehr’s panther book and his description of the Fakahatchee. The Florida black bear is common here. The night was still as we settled in to sleep. Somewhere in the night I woke and heard a pair of barred owls calling back and forth from a tree above the camphouse clearing, slipping into their bizarre laughter, their silhouettes bobbing rhythmically toward each other in the branches. In the night it felt like a far corner of the world.