Heather Green drives with a camera on her lap. If something wild scampers across the highway or flies out of the trees, she won't be fumble-fingered with surprise. She remembers the time she encountered a crested caracara nibbling on a dead-on-the-road opossum. Click, click, click. She got the photo an instant before the rare falcon flew into the trees.
She lives near Lake Okeechobee and works at her husband's furniture business in Fort Myers. During her commute, she doesn't text her peeps or listen to Metallica. An optimist, she expects to see a deer in the next meadow or a barred owl in the oaks.
"In Florida," she says, "anything can happen."
Taking a good picture of a deer or an owl is harder than it sounds, but at least deer and owls are common. The photographer who blows her first shot knows she'll eventually get another chance.
Serious wildlife photographers, though, aim higher than that. They all dream about the one flesh-and-blood creature that is almost as spectral as a unicorn: the spectacularly camera-shy Florida panther.
It's possible that more people have won the lottery than seen a panther.
The chance of having your camera with you, and getting a focused, well-composed photograph when the panther shows its whiskers?
But like we said, Heather Green is an optimist.
Once they roamed all over the state. But when Heather was born near Fort Lauderdale in 1974, Florida panthers were all but gone, shot dead or crowded out by development. In fact, many biologists thought panthers were extinct.
It took a mountain lion expert from out West and his trained dogs to determine that Florida still had a few big cats left. Expensive science and the taxpayer purchase of Florida's wildest lands staved off what had seemed inevitable.
The state has about 120 panthers now, clinging to life in the southwest hinterlands. But most folks live their entire lives within panther territory and never see a big cat or its track.
Panthers, which sometimes measure 7 feet from nose to tail, are among the most skittish animals on the planet. They creep, they hunker, they hide in trees. Their prey — mostly deer, hogs and opossums — meet a quick end when they suffer that lethal neck bite. Panthers don't roar histrionically like lions, but mew and purr and whimper like pampered house cats. They lurk in the most out-of-the-way Florida places and avoid the unpleasant odor of humanity.
So pity the poor wildlife photographer who carries equipment into wild Florida with the express ambition to get a picture of a panther.
In January, Heather was reading blogs about Florida wildlife. Another photographer, she discovered, had actually seen a panther cross a swamp road in South Florida. The photographer failed to get a picture of the ghostly cat — as photographers inevitably do.
Heather called her husband.
"If we go down there," she told Mike, "maybe I'll get my picture of a panther."
Mike didn't say, "Are you nuts?"
He said, "Okay. We'll go to the Fakahatchee Strand."
• • •
Heather Green is one of those people who gushes about critters, especially her two Great Danes, Duchess and Earl, which enjoy the run of the house in Clewiston. Like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, she and Mike spend their weekends atop their beloved Appaloosas. When Heather took up serious photography five years ago, she practiced her techniques on Tatonka and Spotty.
She owns a series of Canon cameras. She owns lenses that could be telescopes. She tools around in a photographer-friendly four-wheel-drive Jeep with no roof. She studies nature guides, watches animal documentaries, listens closely to people who know more than she does. She is learning her warblers, those high-strung miniature songbirds that test the mettle of photographers everywhere. She wakes early and goes to bed late to get good pictures.
Once she was afraid of snakes, but she has trained herself to photograph them without flinching. Perhaps one day she will vanquish her fear of gigantic huntsman spiders that invade her home during rainy season. "They're so big you can hear their legs go clip-clopping down the hall," she says, sounding guilty. She will stop running from spiders and start taking their photographs.
Click, click, click.
• • •
The 21st century weighs heavily on the Florida panther. They require thousands of acres of wilderness. They don't have enough. So every few weeks we read about another road-kill panther. We hear about a bullet-ridden panther found dead in the woods after a spate of livestock predations. It's illegal to kill a panther, but it happens.
Perhaps the biggest enemy of the panther is another panther. Because space is at a premium, panthers — especially males — fight, often to the death. A mature panther will kill a younger male that competes for a mate.
The banished young male typically leaves the wilderness to find new territory. Some wander hundreds of miles, into North Florida, somehow staying out of human sight while they search in vain for a girlfriend. But there are no known female panthers living outside southwest Florida's wilderness. So the young males come back south and take their chances.
The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park may be the wildest stretch of wilderness left in the state. At 75,000 acres, it is tucked between Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and Picayune Strand State Forest. The nearest big city, Naples, lies 25 miles west. Copeland, a collection of shacks and trailers, is within walking distance of the Fakahatchee park office. Here, the Milky Way still glows at night.
Fakahatchee is a Miccosukee Indian word with several meanings, including "muddy water" and "river of vines." Starting about a century ago, loggers began sawing down the biggest cypress trees. But since then the cypress trees and the pond apples and the swamp maples and the royal palms and the rare ferns and the amazing orchids and the entangling vines and the astonishing creatures with wings and fur and fangs have reclaimed their world.
Alligators bellow from the placid ponds and cottonmouth water moccasins slither from stump to stump. Every year or so, some two-legged explorer gets lost while hoping to see one of the rarest plants on Earth, the ghost orchid.
On the map, the only access is known as Janes Memorial Scenic Drive. Unpaved and about 20 feet across, it is lined for 11 miles by perhaps the most beautiful yet daunting swamp in North America. Florida may have 19 million residents, prestigious art museums and institutions of higher learning, but in the Fakahatchee, time is going backward. If King Kong comes crashing through the trees, don't bother calling for help. At least my cell phone never works.
I've seen panthers in captivity, of course. Like virtually every wildlife photographer in Florida, I've snapped my share of panther photos at zoos. I am also among the few people who have seen a panther in the wild, though I don't brag about it. Seeing the panther wasn't a matter of my expertise or even luck. It was guaranteed.
In 1992, I was invited to write a story about a panther expedition in southwest Florida. The scientists intended to catch a few panthers that had been captured in the past. Those panthers wore radio collars that transmitted data about location and movement. Now it was time to replace the old collars with new ones.
Above us, a scientist in an airplane, listening to a radio receiver, located the collared panther and directed the rest of us, and some specially trained dogs, to the forest where the cat was hiding. As we approached, the panther escaped up a tree. A scientist fired a tranquilizer dart into the bewildered cat. After the panther fell asleep, scientists replaced the collar. When the panther woke, we watched it run away.
I can't lie: It was thrilling. But still it wasn't the same as seeing a wild panther during a hike or drive. Most panther biologists, in fact, have never seen a panther in a random event.
Unlike Heather Green, I'm not optimistic enough to think I'll ever be there when the rarest large mammal in North America steps onto a remote road.
Whenever I visit southwest Florida, I drive through the Fakahatchee Strand just in case a miracle wants to happen. In the Fakahatchee, there's always a chance.
I asked Heather Green if she'd take me along on her next trip. I wanted her to tell me what she saw on Jan. 2.
• • •
She looks like a swamp gal, in her boots and jeans and T-shirt and the raggedy ball cap under which she has stuffed an acre or two of strawberry blond hair. In the back of the Jeep she carries ice, Pepsi and her enormous husband, Mike, who could probably wrassle a bear if he wanted. In the Fakahatchee, a bear is a possibility.
Mike isn't a bashful fellow, but sometimes it is hard for him to complete a sentence once Heather starts talking. She talks about their dogs or horses or the time a barred owl flew over the road, about the otters that are the most playful creatures in the world, the pretty butterflies and the herons, about how she and Mike met two decades ago on the strip in downtown Fort Lauderdale, about their travels to Paris and Ireland, about how THEY'RE STILL IN LOVE, and yada yada yada.
She points the Jeep down Janes Memorial Scenic Drive, adjusts her Lady Gaga sunglasses and punches the gas. We can see the vultures floating above us through the open roof and hear the hawks sobbing invisibly from the treetops. Then we're driving through the swamp, where the limbs reach for us through the open windows like those angry apple trees in The Wizard of Oz.
Heather starts talking.
"That day was, I guess, the second time I'd ever been in the Fakahatchee. We got here in the late afternoon. We drove for, I don't know, about 10 minutes. Right, Mike?"
He grunts from the backseat.
"We, like, go around the bend. About 200 yards away I see what I think at first are two vultures in the middle of the road. I swing up my camera and look through the telescopic lens. TWO PANTHERS! My mind stops working, but I start shooting through the windshield. So click, click, click. Then the panthers are gone. Just gone. I look at the screen on my camera. Blurry pictures. Argh."
Photographers sometimes suffer from buck fever.
"We should have sat there and waited, but, you know, I was still excited. So I stepped on the gas. Within, I don't know, a couple of minutes, a black bear poked its head out of the swamp. Then it booked it across the road. In like a blink of the eye. I never even lifted my camera. I was in shock."
Goodbye, bear. So long, panthers.
"So, it's a little after 5 o'clock. The sun is going down. There's big-time shade. I mean, the whole road is in the shade. I adjust my camera for the low light and turn the Jeep around. We start moving, go around the bend. And there's another panther."
Oh, my God.
"I didn't know if it was a different panther or one of the ones from before. I just knew I had to get a better photo this time. Click, click, click. Again, it walked off the road and was gone.
"Mike spoke up. The Voice of Reason. He said, 'Let's just stay here and see what happens.' So that's sort of what we did. Well, I pulled up a little more before I turned off the engine. It was really quiet. You could hear the swamp. I climbed out of the Jeep and sort of hid behind the door and pointed the camera down the road.
"Like about three seconds went by. Now, about 60 yards away, I'd say, a panther steps out of the swamp into the road. Click, click, click. I think it heard the camera but didn't know what I was or what the Jeep was and was just curious. It started walking right toward us!
"Then he stopped. I could see him opening his jaws but couldn't hear anything, but I think he must have been mewing.
"Now a much bigger panther steps into the road. And I realize I'm seeing a mother and a cub. She licks her cub's ear. And then behind the mother steps another small panther. Click, click, click. I'M GETTING PICTURES OF A MOTHER PANTHER AND HER TWO KIDS!"
Most of us would have fainted.
"So now, and this is the most amazing part for me, the two cubs start swatting at each other like kittens will do. It goes on and on, the playing, like Mike and I and our Jeep aren't even there.
"Then they suddenly turn around and start walking away with their tails just sticking up. Then, whoops, they're gone. They've disappeared back into the swamp. Later I figured out that I had them on the road for three minutes."
• • •
Back at home 90 minutes later, she inserted the camera card into her Gateway, which clicked and clicked — and then finally purred something like a panther. Her images — hundreds of them — floated across the computer screen like tawny ghosts.
From those she decided on 11 keepers. She knew she had taken better photographs in her life, but she also knew that no one had taken photographs quite like these.
She and Mike headed to Beef O'Brady's and celebrated with chicken sandwiches and beer.
Next time, she and her camera will be ready for that bear.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.