The Korea Herald


Swamp vacation: Walk through water, muck reveals real Everglades

By 김후란

Published : May 27, 2011 - 18:22

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Stabbing my walking stick into the muck and sliding my feet forward, I waded into the swamp, one eye on the lookout for alligators, the other trying to spot the elusive orchids that draw so many people to South Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, a 100-square-mile state park that is home to one of the largest concentrations of native orchids in North America.

Towering trees formed a dense tropical canopy. Sunlight filtered through the branches. The vegetation was so thick and uniform ― a crosshatch of vines and palms ― that it seemed to barely part before closing in behind us.
Poachers have been known to steal rare orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand. Here, a security camera keeps watch over the swamp.(Chicago Tribune/MCT) Poachers have been known to steal rare orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand. Here, a security camera keeps watch over the swamp.(Chicago Tribune/MCT)

My first thought when wading into the cool, clear water: Was this a mistake? I had persuaded my husband to spend a weekend in the Everglades, arguing that we could have a nice vacation in what is, effectively, a swamp.

From the comfort of home, it had seemed like a good idea. We would take a canoe trip in Big Cypress National Preserve, with its expansive cypress forest; explore Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a chain of mangrove islands on the southwest coast, and ― the highlight of the trip ― take a swamp walk in the Fakahatchee, dubbed the “Amazon of North America” and made famous by the best-selling book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean.

But now, as I sloshed into the water, I had second thoughts. Would I be able to do this?

A guidebook listed alligators and venomous snakes as “special concerns,” something I hadn’t thought about when I booked the trip. “Be aware that cottonmouth moccasins are abundant in the Fakahatchee Swamp. It is wise to step with caution,” the book warned. “Cottonmouth moccasins are belligerent, meaning they often hold their ground when approached (they don’t ‘attack’ people), and they are well camouflaged. Stepping on one and being bitten is a serious medical emergency.”

“Great vacation,” my husband cracked sarcastically, as I read aloud from the guidebook.

Before we waded into the swamp, we’d been having a decent time. We’d driven out the day before from Miami. All along the Tamiami Trail, a two-lane highway that runs east-west from Miami to Naples along the northern edge of the Everglades National Park, we marveled at the scores of alligators sunning themselves by the side of the road. We took a canoe trip and paddled through mangrove tunnels. On a motor boat tour along the coast, two dolphins jumped and played in our boat’s wake.

That picture-perfect Florida wildlife experience (Alligators, check. Dolphins, check.) would have been enough for most people. But I wanted to see the real Everglades and to achieve that, I was convinced I needed to wade into the swamp.

Through Friends of the Fakahatchee, a nonprofit group that leads canoe trips and weekly walking tours, I connected with Bill Mesce, 63, a Vietnam veteran in Army fatigues and a safari hat who drove us in his 1968 Belgian military jeep on an old logging road into the interior of the preserve.

About five miles down the road, flanked on both sides by junglelike growth, he pulled over, helped us out of the jeep and walked us down a planked path that, leading into the dense thicket of vines and fallen trees, turned into dirt path, which turned into a flooded path, which eventually disappeared completely, so that we found ourselves plunging into thigh-deep water.

That was just about the time I started to get nervous.

Mesce explained how to stake our walking sticks into the ground for balance and then slowly slide one foot forward at a time, so as not to step into a hole or, worse, on an alligator. “They’re more afraid of you, than you are of them,” he called over his shoulder, as he slogged forward.

As we tromped along behind him, I was surprised to feel my fear give way. Except for the occasional call of the birds and the sounds of the water around us, the swamp was quiet. The water was clean and clear. Mesce claimed that you could drink it, though I wouldn’t have tried it myself.

If you looked closely, you could see that the water was moving slowly south; Mesce explained that the flow was what’s known as the “River of Grass,” a slow-moving river that flows southward, and forms the basis for the Everglades ecosystem.

True, it was a swamp. But it was hard not be charmed by its strange, wild beauty.

Two hours into our hike, Mesce excitedly pointed to a tiny green root structure clinging to the bark of a tree.

“This is the orchid that makes us famous,” he said. “This is the ghost orchid.” Mesce spoke with an awed reverence, as he described the plant that is so rare that its location is a secret.

Ghost orchids get their name because they have no leaves, only roots, and when they bloom, their flower seems to float in midair. To me, the ghost ― which was not blooming ― looked like a shriveled shoelace or a green piece of yarn. Unimpressive, to say the least.

But nearby, two gray security cameras attached to trees pointed toward the federally protected plant, capturing images of anyone who came too near. We felt a certain thrill with just being able to get close to such a rare, revered plant, and we took pictures of each other, smiling and pointing to its little green root.

We saw other orchids that day: ribbon orchids, jingle bell orchids and butterfly orchids. Those that were in bloom produced flowers so tiny and delicate that half the fun was just spotting them.

As we neared the end of our walk, I began thinking about returning to the Fakahatchee, maybe during the peak of orchid blooming season, between November and December. Mesce nodded and said plenty of visitors have the same reaction.

“It’s a wonderful place,” he said. “The more you learn about it, the more you want to explore. People call it the Faka-habit. If you catch it, you have to come back.”

By Colleen Mastony

(Chicago Tribune)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)