Copyright Vladimir Kagan, March 30, 1012
The Alligator Alley is not a secret. It is an 85 mile strip of four-lane concrete highway that effectively cuts Florida's Everglades into a North and South "swamp", except that the Everglades is NOT a swamp, its a river! In fact, it is the widest river in the world!
The terrible truth is that that swath of concrete virtually stops the flow of water southward and forces the river to drain through artificial canals Eastward and Westward! The Southern portion of the Everglades is gradually drying up while the Northern portion thrives with vast wildlife diversity. It is a monotonous drive at 70 miles per hour with ne'er a change of scenery for the next hour and a half. (I am slightly maligning the scenery as the flat lands eventually give way to miles of tamarind trees that conceal the Cyprus Swamps behind them). This area is duly designated as the Cyprus National Park. There are no through-roads North or South in the Everglades, only short incursions. To reach the Cyprus National Park, you must divert north or south for 20 miles (too far for us as we were heading home). We made several other stabs at exploring the hinterlands, but none were to be found. On one detour we were enticed by the name Snake Road, which promised a Seminole Indian Reservation and the Seminole Indian Museum… What we found instead was a vast swath of prairie land extending as far as the eye could see. Grazing on this land were hundreds Black Angus cattle. This was resurrected swampland, drained and turned into cattle ranches and presumably owned by our Native Americans, who were deeded this land a century earlier (as it was useless swamp land not a fit habitat for the white settlers.)
Seminole Indian Territory - drained swampland as far as the eye could see
However, if you really want to get some local flavor, drive off at any of the “Recreational Sites” that offer ramps for boat launching and an occasional raised viewing stands for visitors to gape at the alligators swimming freely down below. It’s the boat ramps you have to concentrate on. If you are lucky you might encounter some REAL Florida types not found at the beach or country club. These are the Swamp People who know the Everglades and what swims in it and inhabits its impenetrable marshy shores. (If you’ve ever read Carl Hiaasen and don’t mind the language, you will meet these delightful people in great depth.) They arrive in the late afternoon towing their airboats behind jalopies, jeeps and mobile homes. These are the folks who harvest the Everglades at dusk and night. They spear for frogs - giant bullfrogs - delicious to eat fried… any surplus can be sold locally for $8 per pound. They’re out there with their kids, wives and girlfriends. You must have a good ear to understand the local lingo, but they are friendly and willing to chat and educate you about their “playground”.
Air-boats are amazing: expensive toys at $30,000 –they are the closest thing to an airplane – noisy as all get out - steered with two giant airfoil rudders complete with trim tabs and turned with a joystick – speed is essential in order to maneuver the boat – they skims over the water and marsh grass leaving nothing behind but a quickly vanishing wake.
Does it scare the critter and Gators? “Hell no… they're used to it!”… Meeting these folks was the highlight of our cross-Florida trip… I hope that you get to do one soon.
Most of Florida once was useless wetlands before it was systematically drained and developed by the "Robber Barons" of the early 20th Century and perpetuated to this day by modern day developers. The routine was simple: Find a piece of wilderness - register your claim with the State - get permission to turn it into agricultural use. After all, farming is the backbone of this country... you cannot deny these good people their livelihood. This is a long-range project: it takes years to drain the land - kill off the fauna and flora that inhabit it. But it takes only a few years before this farmland becomes too valuable to farm; it is then easily converted it into human habitat - hang on a few caveats such as affordable housing and get financial support... and Bingo: you have a gated community.
There are vast tracks of land that have been converted to agriculture, The sugar industry is the worst transgressor…( did you know that you cannot buy imported sugar???). The Agriculture industry spews millions of gallons of phosphates into this delicate ecosystem yearly!
Only in response to the persistent cajoling of environmental groups, has the State of Florida together with the Federal Government finally taken the necessary steps to aggressively restore what's left of this National treasure.