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Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve

In Big Cypress' land of exotic plants and lurking alligators, swamps aren't such bad places after all.

by: Eric Seaborg

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Little Known Fact: The name "Big Cypress" refers not to the size of the trees, but to the size of the 2,400-square-mile swamp.

Shorts or long pants? That familiar hiker's dilemma faced us as we gazed up the portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail that snaked through Big Cypress Swamp. Temperatures in the 70s (it was mid-February) promised a sweat-soaked day. Definitely a shorts day. Then we noticed the razor-sharp edges of the sawgrass crowding the trail. Being hot and sweaty was preferable to being hot and sweaty and bloody, so we donned long pants and followed the orange blazes through Big Cypress National Preserve.

In summer we would have been facing a hard-to-navigate river of grass draining into Everglades National Park to the south. We opted for winter, though, because that's the dry season. White saline patches on the cracked soil marked where the water had evaporated.

The terrain was so open and flat ~ it takes water a full day to flow half a mile ~ that the only objects obstructing our view of the horizon were the cypress balds, two- to five-foot-high dimpled ridges that trap water and help support the luxurious growth. The walking was easy except where the karst limestone poked through the surface.

These formations, which hold South Florida's freshwater supplies in underground aquifers, looked like someone had tried to make sidewalks by burying blocks of Swiss cheese. The rock holes can grab your foot and twist your ankle, especially if water on the trail makes them hard to spot.

In this land without hills, the surroundings can change even when the ground rises or drops only a foot. Our campsite was on a "high island" marked by palms and shrubs. The day before, we'd crossed a strand, or slough, where the land dips, the water concentrates, and the vegetation thickens.

During our wanderings north from Oasis Ranger Station to Seven Mile Camp and beyond, we didn't see a soul, but we did encounter swamp buggy tracks. Big Cypress' "preserve" designation protects its natural values while permitting some of the traditional uses not allowed in national parks, such as hunting and four-wheeling. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. The day before we'd hiked eight miles through a section south of the ranger station that's closed to off-road vehicles. The area was pristine and there was a campsite halfway through.

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