Rick Cruz never steps into the Fakahatchee Strand swamp without first imagining his own tender flesh sliding through the digestive tract of a large and toothy predator. Explorers who wade in what he calls the "Amazon of North America" don't have to be rocket scientists. But they have to be smarter than the resident dragons.
Sprawled on his belly, Cruz peeks cautiously into a culvert next to the forested swamp. "You have to be real careful out here. I mean, you can't just march into the water. Alligators have a brain about the size of pea, but want to know something? They're smart enough to feed themselves. They hide in the culverts and ambush whatever happens to pass by."
No gator lurks in the culvert. Now Cruz pushes his way into the black water, but only inches at a time, and only after poking the bottom with a stout stick. Alligators, he has learned from hair-raising experience, often lie on the bottom, awaiting a chance to surprise something with meat on its bones, usually a wading bird or snake but sometimes something higher up on the food chain — a swamp man.
Cruz, a dedicated swamp man for much of his life, so far has managed to keep body parts out of the jaws of hungry reptiles, though it hasn't been easy. He makes his living selling Everglades photographs and leading nature tours in the Big Cypress National Preserve. But his volunteer work in southwest Florida's Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, perhaps the most inhospitable wilderness on the continent, is especially wild and wet. He is documenting the presence of some of the world's rarest plants, including one probably found nowhere else, the famous ghost orchid.
A ghost orchid in bloom is delicate and white and shaped like a fairy in a child's picture book. Ghost orchids cling to fragile existence from the branches of pond apple and pop ash trees guarded by alligators and venomous snakes in the black water beneath. A visitor is more likely to see a resident Florida panther or black bear here than a ghost orchid, the rarest of the rare.
They blossom only in the heat and the humidity of summer, when the mosquitoes, deer flies, snakes and gators are most active. Somebody who wishes to see a ghost orchid really has to want to see a ghost orchid. Luck is also a necessity.
Up ahead, Cruz slips on a submerged log, brushes a deer fly from his chin and asks an unpleasant question. "You know what poison ivy looks like, right?"
Poison ivy is as common in the swamp as St. Augustine is in Florida's suburbs.
"You have to be careful where you put your hands," Cruz continues. "You got your poison ivy, right? You got the cottonmouths coiled up on tree stumps. And you got to be careful if you lose your balance and lean against a tree. Fish-eating spiders like to perch on the trunks just above the water's surface. They're not venomous, but they're big and they'll bite."
From the thicket on the left something croaks ominously. An alligator?
"No," says the swamp man. "Just a pig frog."
• • •
Cruz is something like a ghost orchid himself. He is a swamp man who blossoms when the ghost orchids are doing the same, in the heat and the humidity when the mosquitoes and deer flies are biting and when the cottonmouths and alligators are most active. He would rather be in the swamp than a Starbucks in Naples. He doesn't seem to belong in the 21st century.
He's tall and gangly and frequently in need of a shave. He has black hair long enough to wear in a ponytail. Born in Cuba in 1969, he came to Miami about a year later. He remembers looking out the car window as a child during Sunday drives across the Everglades and longing to explore the swamp beyond the road. He dropped out of high school to cut lawns and carry luggage at a Miami Beach hotel. He slung fast-food burgers and washed dogs at an animal hospital.
Along the way somebody gave him a camera. He took pictures of water and gators. He sold those pictures. Eventually, he met the famous landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, who became a mentor and displayed Rick Cruz photos in his gallery in the Big Cypress. Butcher told him, "You aren't a misfit. You're a swamp man. Go ahead. Wade right in. Take beautiful pictures. But watch out for alligators."
In the swamp, Cruz slips. Almost falls. Regains his balance.
Swamp men stay on high alert. Ghost orchid season occurs during alligator mating season. Male alligators are especially territorial and sensitive to intrusions. Once in a while, a male will bellow if Cruz gets too close. A few times, a big alligator has leapt into the water from a nearby fallen tree and vanished in the dark water close by. Catching his breath, Cruz watches for bubbles and taps the bottom ahead with his hiking stick, a cypress branch onto which he has attached a feather for good luck.
He is never without his walking stick. He is never without a compass, sometimes two. "It's very easy to get turned around out here," he says.
In the swamp he turns around to demonstrate.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store when I'm out here," he says. "Wherever I look I see something I want to examine.''
Whisk fern, a plant that hasn't evolved in 60 million years.
Butterfly orchid. Jingle bell orchid.
"Okay, so I see a fish-eating spider over here. That's interesting. Then I want to see what's up ahead. Maybe I'll see an otter or an Everglades mink, you know? And, like, next thing you know you're not sure of the way back out."
A lot of people believe authentic Florida is gone. They make a pretty good case. Florida's population is now about 19 million. Throw in another 40 million tourists who insist on theme parks, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. Busy roads throughout the state all look alike.
Last year a woman got lost in the Fakahatchee Strand. She wasn't the first and won't be the last. She was trying out a new camera. She felt confident enough to step off the road into the water. The 75,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand is 20 miles long and about 5 miles wide. The flowing water is deeper in the strand than in the neighboring Big Cypress National Preserve. The Strand strikes some people as claustrophobic. Two nights and three days later park biologist Mike Owen found the lost woman, scared, bug-bitten and dehydrated. Welcome to authentic Florida.
• • •
Cruz helps Owen keep track of the ghost orchids. Cruz takes pictures and measures the distance between host trees. He takes a GPS reading. Owen and Cruz know the exact location of 375 ghost orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand.
In the 1960s, orchid fanciers from Miami stripped the trees of what was rare and valuable. Finally, laws were passed to protect the rare plants. But it didn't stop the stealing completely. In 1994, park rangers arrested a man with a bagful of rarities, including three ghosts. Susan Orlean wrote a good book about the case, The Orchid Thief. An entertaining movie, Adaptation, based on the book and starring Meryl Streep, still shows up on cable. Another five ghost orchids were stolen between 2006 and 2008. Cruz and Owen never take strangers to see ghost orchids. They don't believe that all men are worthy of trust.
Cruz often is accompanied by a swamp woman. Julie Cardenas of Naples isn't afraid of the swamp. Well, maybe just a little. She always wears a floppy a hat — they both do — because of the spiders and because rat snakes fall from treetops. She once worked as a flight attendant and later on a cruise ship. Eventually she got a biology degree. Now she helps Cruz with his ecotourism and worries about him when he wades into the swamp by himself.
What if a gator gets him?
Her boyfriend used to laugh at her concerns.
In the swamp's Venusian humidity, his long-sleeved shirt sticks to his back. A red-shouldered hawk cries from the top of a cypress. In the distance, a branch cracks. Cruz has seen 12 panthers in the Fakahatchee Strand and 17 black bears. They never make him nervous. He feels blessed to be sharing the swamp with them.
Something plops into the water. What could it be? Cruz once saw a 5-foot cottonmouth, as thick around as his leg, watching him from a pile of mud. It didn't retreat. It opened its snow-white jaws and showed him fangs.
Somewhere in the distance an alligator bellows.
"Keep your eyes open," he says.
• • •
In May, Cruz was looking for orchids by himself. The water got deep, as it is now, reaching mid thigh. Vines and stumps below the water's surface slowed his progress. Going slow in the Fakahatchee Strand is a good thing.
The water was black like Coca-Cola.
When the alligator, hidden on the bottom, suddenly opened its jaws, Cruz saw the white maw and stopped moving. The alligator never lunged. It stayed under the water waiting for his foot like a bear trap.
He pivoted and backed away. His heart pounded for minutes.
"It was 6 feet, not particularly big. I don't think he could have drowned me. But it could have bitten me in a place where I would have bled to death. I was 6 miles from the nearest human being."
Rabbit's foot's fern. Resurrection fern.
• • •
He and park biologist Mike Owen call it "Cruz Slough." It's not on any map. But it's where Cruz discovered the mother lode of ghost orchids in 2005. Their roots look like spaghetti strands entwined around the branches of pop ash trees. In May a bud forms. In June the bud blossoms. Ghost orchids need tropical humidity and shade. They need a pollinator. At night, giant sphinx moths flit through the swamp looking for ghost orchids. The moth has a proboscis 6 inches long — just long enough to reach the pollen deep within the flower. The moth is the only known pollinator of the ghost orchid.
"Start looking," Cruz says. "There's a ghost orchid in bloom. See if you can find it."
Cruz has to point it out. It's hanging from a pop ash limb about 15 feet above the water, dangling like a paper-doll ballet dancer.
"My first ghost orchid, in bloom, in 2010!" Cruz says. "Wow! We're so lucky. Wow! Cool! I never get tired of this."
A little while later, Florida's indefatigable Swamp Man steps out of the Fakahatchee. His boots make a sucking sound as he draws them from the mud. A pileated woodpecker stops hammering a royal palm and the pig frogs in the bushes oink their goodbyes.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."