Seeking Alligators in the Florida Everglades

Swan is a Watertown, Mass., free-lance writer

The night was so dark I couldn't see the boat's bow in front of me.

An orange crescent moon reflected on the surface of the saw-grass lake and the sky glittered with stars, thrown across the darkness like fistfuls of diamonds.

The only sound was the rhythmic motion of the pole as the Indian guide pushed the skiff through the endless Everglades.

Something splashed off the port bow. Then another. And another.

I looked back to the guide but saw nothing. His voice whispered before I asked the question. "Only a garfish," he assured me. "They're jumping tonight."

Nodding in the darkness, I relaxed as if I knew it all the time.

"Probably a gator close about," he added.

Whoa! I sat up straight again and put my ears to the wind, which was as still as a tomb. But the only thing I heard was the motion of the pole in the water and the soft chuckle of the Miccosukee guide.

A True Adventure

Sound like fun? Well, it is. And more. It's a true adventure into the past of perhaps the most colorful (and one of the last) American frontiers.

From the Miami area you can choose a day trip to unusual sites or spend a couple of weeks cavorting with the locals, soaking up the rich ambiance of legends, sea and sun.

This is not a trip for the fainthearted, although there is a luxury class and if you want, you can spend a bundle. But all you really need is a car, a map and some imagination.

My first stop was the Miccosukee Village and Cultural Center, 37 miles west of Miami on U.S. 41, the old Tamiami Trail. The Southern Seminole tribe has re-created a working village that offers beautifully crafted Indian clothes and jewelry, along with guided tours of the grounds. Artisans work silently beneath the palmetto-thatched chickee huts, and there's a small but intriguing museum.

To appreciate the Florida Indians you must be aware of their history. By the 1880s most of the Seminole tribes had been systematically exterminated or "relocated" to the wastelands of western Oklahoma. The remaining 300 Seminoles disappeared into swamps and the Everglades. The Miccosukees of today are the descendants of those 300 people who so valiantly resisted oppression more than a hundred years ago.

Reminders of the Gulf

Even now there are reminders of the gulf between the past and present, like the sign posted at the entrance to the traditional village that requests visitors not to ask the craftspeople questions, as many of them do not speak English.

Yet there are plenty of opportunities to chat with tribe members. One of the best is the $6 airboat ride that takes you to an isolated hammock (island) camp. Our guide was a striking man of 18 who answered all our questions, accenting his replies with a shy, infectious smile.

But if you really want to discover the character of the area, the best way is to be one of the lucky few who can arrange for the overnight camping trips offered occasionally by experienced Indian guides. The solemn beauty of the midnight Glades is unforgettable, as are the legends told around the evening campfires.

For more information: Miccosukee Indian Tribe, P.O. Box 440021, Miami, Fla. 33144; phone (305) 223-8380.

No sortie to the Everglades is complete without a drive down notorious Loop Road. It's not marked, but take the first left after the locks, a short distance west of the village on U.S. 41.

A Swaggering Past

The shacks and "keep out" signs barely hint of the swaggering past. At the broken-down homestead of E. G. Guise, I stopped by a yellow concrete block structure with the words "Cold Drinks" in red letters, a mile or so on the right.

For a buck I sat, sipped an Orange Crush and listened to the stories that made this perhaps "the toughest road in the country."

"Yep," the old man said, lifting his battered hat with one hand and wiping off his round, bald head with the other. "Ain't no doubt it was surely wild in the ol' days. Still is, but not like back then."

The old man smiled and spat on the ground. The topic of conversation swung to how the state is forcing longtime residents out of the Glades. "Used to own over a hundred acres," the old man said with a sigh. "Now I'm down to this." He traced a bent finger around the littered compound.

"Half an acre is all they left me. Gotta lease on this, what they call a grandfather clause. I can stay, but when I'm gone, that's it. Only the Indians will be left.

"Ain't fair," he said. He spat again, then looked up with a faint twinkle in his eyes. "Maybe here, the Indians finally win."

The narrow road swings north toward U.S. 41. On both sides the swamp lay a few inches above sea level. I had the feeling that someone was watching me as a large, almost prehistoric shadow glided over the primeval landscape, then disappeared among the great egrets, the neoned purple gallinules and the other preening cranes and storks.

At the intersection of 41 I stopped at old Monroe Station for a home-cooked country meal and shot a few games of pool with more local characters.

'Changing Fast'

"The place is changing fast," said Suzie Lord, the friendly wife of the irascible owner, Bob. "My advice to people coming to the Glades?" she asked with a laugh. "See it now before they close the dang place down."

From Monroe Station you can continue west to the Gulf Coast or head back to Florida 997 South. Each way has its scenic pleasure, but the second one positions you for one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the country, the Florida Keys.

Just outside of Florida City, take a left at the Last Chance Saloon onto Card Sound Road. Besides missing all the traffic on U.S. 1, you are also in for a treat, especially around dusk on a Friday or Saturday night. They call it Alabama Jack's, and for someone looking for the local lowdown, this is the place.

From beneath the thatched roof that covers the patio, a five-piece country band called Gunsmoke was finishing its first set.

It's not uncommon to see more than a hundred "cloggers" kicking up their heels on the plywood floor that sways up and down with the weight of the dancers. At the end of the song, the fiddle player yelled into the microphone, "We ain't going nowhere, cowpeople, so just sit back and drink--big time!"

A cheer raised from the crowd. They reluctantly took their seats.

The owner, Phyllis Saque, came over to take my order. Everyone was in fine spirits, and before long she was sitting with me at the table. She waved to a handsome Latin man named John and he joined us, standing behind my host with his arm around her shoulder.

History is handed down in these parts by word of mouth, and everyone has something to say.

The site was originally a waiting room for Flagler's railroad, completed in 1912. After the hurricane of 1935 the place was abandoned until 1953 when Alabama Jack Stratham and his wife, Alice, established a fishing camp on the narrow strip owned by the county.

As business grew, so did the camp's reputation.

End of the Line

"This was a place people came to who didn't want to be found," said John, smiling. "This was the end of the line."

After the bridge was rebuilt in 1969 the pressure intensified from the Dade Unsafe Structures Board and land developers.

The ensuing Save Card Sound Movement was born, and finally the case was settled with a long-term lease for Alabama Jack's and the familiar "grandfather" arrangement for most of the squatters already there.

Phyllis bought the structure and the lease in 1981, after Jack died.

"They call us the town with no name," she says. "But we have a rich, colorful history. The people here fought floods, hurricanes, smugglers, developers. . . . This is our home. We're happy. No one's on unemployment. People take care of themselves."

"And each other," John added.

Phyllis looked up into his eyes and they smiled in a way you don't see much anymore. "I guess you could say one thing about us all," she told me proudly. "We're survivors."

And like the land itself, they are also the last of a special breed.

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