The River of Grass;
a World of Adventure
Seldom am I impractical. My idea of adventure is going to Walmart during peak business hours. But about eleven years ago, my doctor told me that I wouldn’t live past fifty years old. June seventeenth of this year, I turned fifty-one. Time to do some of the things that I’ve wanted to do all my life. At the top of that list is riding an airboat! It didn’t matter where, I just wanted to ride one.
Then I saw an ad for airboat tours of The Everglades. Oh, how my adrenaline started surging throughout my body and mind. Feeling clearer than I had in years, and unable to think about anything but skittering across the waters of that huge swamp, I started my research. My fingers danced across my computer keys. I saved site after site, thinking this was just going to be another fantasy. After all, we are hardly wealthy. But excerpts from those sites wouldn’t leave my mind.
I checked out the prices of some of the nicer tours and found out that they weren’t that expensive. Around sixty dollars per adult, on average. Time to pull out the big guns—I hate long, guided tours. I like to strike out on my own when practical. My list of companies started dwindling, and I relaxed, knowing that I was justified in NOT fulfilling my life-long dream.
Wrong again. A few of these companies offer tours where their guests could wander around at their leisure. There’s just one itty, bitty catch. Their tours don’t just include airboat rides. Ever hear of a swamp buggy?
This was becoming too hard to resist. A twelve-foot high platform that rolls through mangrove forests and shallow waterways. The real Everglades was forming in my mind. Then a few tour companies advertised animal sanctuaries and I was hooked. The alligator shows were just an added bonus. It took about five minutes to draw my husband into my “fantasy” trip. One way or the other, we were going.
But this is where things get complicated. I have mobility issues and we take our grandson with us everywhere we go. I started making phone calls. A few told me that kids of all ages were welcome. But what about my issues? One company said their boats and buggies were wheelchair accessible. I’m not that far gone, but it was nice to know. I continued calling my now two company list and settled on the one closest to the West coast of Florida. After all, we didn’t want to cross the state unless absolutely necessary. The Glades covers the whole Southern tip of Florida. Thirty minutes of looking for discounted hotel rooms, during Florida’s tourist season, and our vacation was set.
Here’s my disclaimer: Wooten’s Airboat Tours (my chosen tour company) had no idea that I was going to write about this experience. I wanted the same treatment that everyone else was getting. None of us were disappointed.
I worried about the rain clouds that were rolling in from a storm closing in on Galveston, Texas. Texas isn’t that far from Florida if you’re crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Once that airboat started, there was no turning back. Had we made a mistake by bringing our grandson with us? Luck was still on our side and the clouds just shaded us from the sun.
Luck struck again. Our group turned out to be small; only about nine people, including the guide.
Our airboat guide, Captain Jake (That’s his real name.) started us at an easy idle, pointing out the various known alligators and their identifying marks and personalities—many of which he had names for—and their nests. A huge momma gator named Betty watched us closely. A few mangrove islands over, an even bigger male alligator seemed to be posing for pictures.
Once we were away from the alligator nesting grounds, the real fun started. Jake said that sometimes dolphins and manatees would play around the grassy water ways, but the wind was keeping them from the area. So we played with the airboat. The brackish water churned to brown foam as we cut donuts in the clearings. The boat skittered across the water, giving us a bumpy ride on the straightaways. A little girl, riding in the front seat, giggled as water sprayed on her. My grandson, Bradley, clung to his papa, as the boat sped up then came to a sudden stop. I found myself snapping random pictures, hoping some of them would be usable later on. No time to focus when you’re busy hanging on.
The next leg of the tour was the swamp buggy ride. For us, it was time to walk around and get our land legs back. No worries, another ride comes along every thirty minutes.
Once again, we were blessed with a small group. This time, I got the front seat. Our guide’s name was Captain Jim Bo. He started out by talking to Bradley and even posed for a picture with him. He joked with all the guests and answered our eager questions.
The buggy tour wasn’t as high-speed as the airboat, but it wasn’t without its attributes. An old Seminole hut was still standing from the eighteen hundreds sent my daydreaming mind back to a more dangerous time in the swamp. How did these people learn to survive under such harsh conditions? They weren’t indigenous to the area. They fled there after the white man ran them out of Georgia and North Florida. The nineteen fifties were marked by an alligator hunter’s camp that was still standing, including sun bleached alligator skulls and rusty tools. During that time, alligators were prized for their hides and meat, and feared for their hazards to livestock and people. A ban was placed on alligator hunting in the 1970’s because it nearly drove them to the point of extinction. By the nineteen-nineties the alligator made a comeback. It’s now legal to hunt them again, but alligator hunters must enter a kind of lottery in order to get permits. Only a lucky few are selected and the unfortunate ones don’t get their money back.
On the trail we saw two trees with bear claw marks. A subtle reminder of whose land this really is. Captain Jim Bo pointed out gator holes, and told us that alligators dig them in times of draught. Other animals quickly settle in and near them, providing food for the alligators. We saw wild orchids. I took a picture of one that was just starting to bloom. As we approached the end of the tour, a wild fawn jumped out of the bushes, catching us all by surprise. Her mother quickly awoke from her nap to check on her mischievous baby. Neither seemed to pay us much attention.
It was one of his dead snakes that brought the seriousness of the python problem to the Florida Wildlife Commission’s attention. They cut open the snake and found a 75 pound deer inside. These ravenous creatures have no natural predators in the United States, but can lay anywhere from 60 to 100 eggs at a time. With the mother snake coiled around her eggs for the entire incubation time, nothing is going to bother them. These snakes are upsetting Florida’s ecosystem and posing a threat to humans. Captain Jim Bo believes the problem is irreversible.
This is a technique developed by the Seminole for when a lone hunter encountered an alligator that he wanted to capture. By holding the alligator in this position, the hunter was able to reach for his rope, tie the gator's mouth shut and secure his feet behind his head. After that, it was a matter of bringing home the hunter's prize.
After the swamp buggy tour, we wondered around the zoo for a while. Unfortunately, it was getting hot by that time, so most of the animals were resting.
We were a few minutes late for the alligator wrestling demonstration, but managed to get a good spot. The alligator handler, Devin, demonstrated centuries’ old capturing techniques used by Seminole hunters. These days, these actions are performed mainly for the amusement of tourists. Back then, they were essential. Alligator meat only lasts a few hours once the animal is dead. The Seminoles learned to subdue the animal and kill it once they were close to home.
With my dream accomplished but not behind me, it’s time to return to my hotel for some much needed rest and a shower. I later found out that due to the population explosion going on in South Florida, more and more of the Everglades is being drained. That swamp is a vital part of Florida’s ecosystem. Not only is it the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist, but many animals such as the pink flamingo cannot live anywhere else in the world. I can only hope that this madness stops before it’s too late.
About the author, LF Gillis.
LF Gillis is a writer and novelist who is deeply connected to the great outdoors and nature. You will experience small-town southern states of American life through this author's beautiful writing. The most amazing thing is the way the characters in a Gillis novel interact, and the author's gift for showing the full depth of their feelings. The stories below are gripping and inspirational reads that I would highly recommend.
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