Alligators and Egrets: Florida without Mickey Mouse

First published in Florida Family

Tiny islands rose only inches above tea-colored water. They were dark with cypress, oak, maple, and palm trees. Tall grasses and ferns swayed in the gentle current. Small splashes marked where fish jumped from the water to catch passing insects. An osprey huddled on the branch of an overhanging tree, his dark feathers looking like a shawl spread over his white head and chest. A rustle in the growth marked where some small creature had spotted us and left – a fox, perhaps, or an alligator.

Our captain turned off the engine of the pontoon boat. There were no sounds but the quiet lapping of the water and the cries of birds.

“Right now, you are less than ten miles from the Magic Kingdom,” he said. “People think that Florida is white sandy beaches, condos, and Mickey Mouse, but this is the real Florida.”

Two hours south of Orlando’s theme parks, motels, and congested highways is the ‘natural’ Florida – the Everglades. Orchards filled with as many orange trees as cars in Disney World’s parking lot line the roads; alligators peacefully sun themselves in the marshes; eagles soar above the trees.

Exploring the northern reach of the Everglades is as easy as choosing how to do it. Families with kids middle-school age and older should head for Arcadia. It’s on the Peace River and is one of the most popular places in the state for canoeing. It’s not just that the waters are calm and shallow, making it easy for even the most novice canoeist. The riverbed and shore are also filled with fossils, so many that there are no restrictions against keeping whatever’s dug up. Shark’s teeth are as common as mosquitoes in a swamp. An average day’s paddle nets fragments of whale’s teeth, imprints of scallops and ferns in petrified mud, and pieces of bone. Our guide, a teenaged boy who lives along the river, showed a sliver of bone as small as an eyelash.

“It’s hollow inside,” he said. “It’s probably from a prehistoric bird.”

Fossils might not be all the canoeists find. The Peace River was so named because it marked the boundary between the white settlers and Seminole Indians. But before those days, it was a popular hiding place for pirates. Ships laden with Mexican gold sailed near the coastline on their way to Spain. The pirates would wait for the slow-moving treasure ships. When the ships approached, the pirates would attack. They often hid their treasure in the Everglades, but they did not always retrieve it. Once in a great while, it surfaces, to the delight of the finder.

Almost everyone who lives along the river has a few coins or the hilt of an old sword, but some people get luckier. A few years ago, a local fisherman hooked a heavy object shaped like a brick and covered with mud and barnacles. He tossed it into the back of his pick-up and forgot about it. When he finally cleaned it, he discovered that the ‘brick’ was an ingot of solid silver. He scurried back to his fishing hole and found 174 more of the trinkets.

Canoeists can spend an afternoon on the river or set up trips lasting several days. Camping is permitted almost anywhere along the river where the ground is high enough to prevent tents and equipment from getting waterlogged.

For families with younger children or who aren’t up to as much interaction as a canoe trip, a guided pontoon boat cruise is a good option.

DoSoto Marina, near Arcadia, is built on the site of one of the forts established to monitor Seminole activities during the Seminole Wars. It’s home port now to Captain Dennis Kirk, who takes his “River Cat” on daily two-hour cruises. Each trip is different, and he’s never sure what he and his passengers will see.

“This is not like Disney World. We don’t press a button and see something pop up. We don’t interfere with nature. We let the animals, fish, reptiles, and birds live as they do without human contact.”

Spotting alligators is high on everyone’s list, but the log-shaped mounds in the water are just that – logs. It’s a cool day, and Florida’s mascot is staying warm. Capt. Kirk (He’s heard all of the jokes, by the way) points out holes in the mud banks, and explains that these are alligator dens. When the weather gets cold, the reptiles burrow into the mud to stay warm. He figures the ‘gators are in there, watching The Weather Channel.

There’s still a lot to see. Turkey buzzards line the branches of bare-limbed trees, like extras in a Hitchcock movie. A Great Blue Heron stands motionless as a statue as the “River Cat” drifts past – ignoring us as he waits for an inattentive fish to swim too close. The quick ratcheting of a woodpecker has everyone searching through the trees until it’s spotted. Deer, otter, even the occasional small black bear sometimes make guest appearances.

The best way to see a lot of alligators up close is to take an airboat ride. A big engine and even bigger propeller power these vehicles. As many as six passengers sit in front of the driver as the boat flies over the marshes on a cushion of water at speeds up to 60 mph. The age limits on the airboats vary. Headphones are mandatory to protect hearing, and smiling is guaranteed to result in bugs in the teeth. Anybody in the front of the airboat is sure to get wet and muddy, too.

It’s worth it. That cushion of air gets the boats deep into the swamps where the alligators make their nests. These are the places where the baby alligators hatch and live for the first few months of their lives. Thirty or fifty of the baby alligators lie in the spongy grasses and mud, soaking up the sun and waiting for an unlucky minnow, insect, or other appetizer to pass by. Momma Gator is usually very near, watching the airboats and tourists very carefully. And they watch her, too! It’s a lot more exciting than even the best day spent with Mickey Mouse.

If You Go:
Canoe Outpost is the oldest outfitter on the river. For 30 years, the staff has worked with everyone from first-time paddlers to experienced expedition canoeists. They’re a good contact for canoe rental and lots of experienced information.

Canoe Safari is also in Arcadia and also offers canoe rentals and camping information. It’s not as old, but the staff is also knowledgeable and helpful. 800-262-1119.

DeSoto Marina: 9700 SW Riverview Circle, Arcadia, FL 800-308-7506
In addition to the pontoon cruises, Capt. Kirk has an ‘expedition’ canoe that can take up to 12 people for a guided tour of the river. It’s very similar to the boats used by the Seminoles and other Amerindians for trade and travel.

Nav-A-Gator Grill, also located at the Marina, is a family-friendly, very casual restaurant that’s as popular with the locals as with tourists. ‘Gator bites’ are on the menu, as well as grouper, burgers, and sandwiches. Saturday afternoons feature a sing-along with the honky-tonk piano. 800-3008-7506.

Bog “O” Airboat Tours, 622 Sabal Ave., Clewiston, FL 863-983-2037 offers airboats rides on Lake Okeechobee. Big gators are guaranteed, as well as an exhilarating race across the open water.

Silver Harbor Lodge in Lake Placid also offers airboat tours. The guides here enjoy in going into the marshes in search of wildlife and lots of baby ‘gators. 863-699-0035. This is about an hour north of Arcadia.