Nov 18 2009

everglades, sanibel island and airboats

Published by at 5:15 pm under least photographed places,travel,visual concepts

Update: NPR’s Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan loves Randy Wayne White as much as I do. Listen to his interview of Randy.

On my recent ranch vacation I engaged in one of my guilty pleasure reading habits – I read the Randy Wayne White book “Everglades”.  I’m a bit behind in reading his Doc Ford series, his latest “Dead Silence” was released in March. (A recent NPR interview of Randy is available.) My favorite feature of the books is the location. They are set near where I used to live in Southwest Florida. The stilt house of Doc is set in Tarpon Bay on Sanibel Island. I lived and worked worked nearby at the Sanibel-Captiva Islander in the early 80′s.

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Cypress and palm trees at sunrise in Everglades National Park

Around that time Randy was writing a number of adventure articles for Outside Magazine and a fishing guide friend Capt. Mike Fuery arranged for me to meet Randy at his house in Everglades City. The plan was to enlist Randy in working with me on a feature on airboats in the Everglades. I had made a connection with a local Cracker that agreed to be my guide. At the first meeting I received a similar daredevil experience that James Tiger gave to Doc Ford in “Everglades”. My Cracker wanted to see how a mid-western suburban boy would handle some real airboat fun. He gunned the throttle full-bore and proceeded to drag race for about a quarter of a mile and then threw the airboat in a 180 degree slide before speeding back. I could tell he was a master pilot and personally I enjoyed the speed and passed my Snowbird test. Unfortunately he punctured his gas tank on his craft and my opportunity to work on the feature with Randy passed while I looked for another connection.

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Great white egrets on Sanibel Island

My opportunity to go out resurfaced the next season. I had moved down to Naples and Gulfshore Life Magazine and an ad sales rep made a airboat connection with a local pharmacist. This was a more more civilized experience even though I still didn’t quite know what to expect would happen on a weekend in the Everglades. Would we be sleeping in tents and sharing our sleeping bags with snakes and alligators?

The reality was much different. We ventured out in a convoy of 4 airboats to a cypress head island where there was a large dock and two story cabin. All the materials were transported out by airboats a weekend at a time. There was even a stove and refrigerator powered by propane. The land was officially in the National Park, but there was a grandfathered/gentleman’s agreement that allowed the improvements to remain. In exchange the park rangers were able to use the cabin as a dining hall or over-night bunk house on their long patrols in the Everglades.

We cruised through the sea of grass in the days and gigged frogs by headlamps at night. The birds were amazing and we were visited by alligators at the dock. My best memory was the lack of mosquitos. I expected to be swarmed the entire weekend, but the slowly moving water is not the best breeding ground for the pests.

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Cat-tail shadows on fire flag plant in the Six Mile Cypress Slough

You can find tourist boat rides along the Tamiami Trail. There are the big, easy to find 30 seater, bus-like contraptions that give you a small taste. But they are no where not as good as the smaller boats that more resemble a sports car. You can also find swamp buggy rides that will take you out as well. Anything that gets you out into the Everglades is a treat worth experiencing. The best time to visit anywhere in the area is in the Fall. This is after the rainy season and before the Winter chill and tourists arrive.

I would love to find a tour company that has a weekend, or multi-day trip that operates in the Everglades area so I could make the trip again. If you know of one please contact me or leave a comment.

Mark Harmel


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