First of two parts
The rain let up long enough to make a mad dash across the parking lot to the ranger station.
"See any tornadoes?" the woman behind the counter asked. "You know the weather service says they're headed this way."
Tourists speaking in foreign tongues had gathered in the tiny visitors center to escape the storm that was tearing a path across Florida's west coast.
"No tornadoes not today," I said. "But perhaps you could help me. Is this where I go to get a backpacking permit?"
Two men studying a map started to laugh. Backpacking permit?
After all, this was Big Cypress Swamp. You know, as in water, snakes and alligators. Maybe a canoe permit. But hiking?
Sure there is swamp. But this subtropical wilderness also has its share of hardwood hammocks, slash pine islands, wet prairies, marshes and mangrove forests.
Reptiles like it here, but there are plenty of mammals that also call Big Cypress home _ wild pig, deer, black bear and of course, the endangered Florida panther.
In fact, this 700,000-acre island of primeval paradise is their last stronghold. Chased from the rest of the state by golf courses and strip malls, the great cats went where few humans would follow. The Swamp.
"Yes, a backpacking permit, please."
The woman explained that, given the heavy rains, high winds and threat of tornadoes, there had not been a great run on permits that day.
Only one other person had inquired about backcountry camping. More on him later.
"You should have the place pretty much to yourselves," she said. "Just you and the mosquitoes."
The path would be pretty much the usual for this time of year, she said. Maybe a tad deeper, 'cause of all the rain.
But it would be well marked, she added. No worries, long as you kept to the canal er, trail.
My companion, a former eagle scout, was well acquainted with the outdoors.
"Bring a knife, flashlight and toothbrush," he had been told. "I'll take care of the rest."
Now, with sheets of rain marching in from the northwest, we headed off into the storm.
The trail followed the perimeter of an airfield, then crossed the path of some over-sized, petrol-powered vehicle. You'll see plenty of tracks left by these animals here.
The Preserve issues some 2,300 permits to off-road vehicles each year. Relegated to about two-thirds of the park, the preserve's official literature concedes that these ORVs have a profound visual impact "but biological and environmental effects are neither well documented nor understood."
Well, I'm no biologist, but confidently would hypothesize that any life form, be it flora or fauna, that crosses the path of these monsters in low gear would bear some scars.
Scars. Humans have left their share.
The Miccosukee and Seminole lived here for years, still do, without much impact. But then came the white guys. They cut the cypress trees for pickle barrels and stadium seats.
But they sooned learned that Big Cypress' greatest treasure wasn't its trees. It was its water.
A great sheet of it marching slowly to the south, covering everything in its path, including our trail.
"There's an orange marker on that tree," I said, gazing across the pond in my path.
The first step of many, my boot disappeared beneath the water. The mud refused to give it back.
Stranded like a cow on a river bank, a mosquito zeroed in for the kill.
But the hand was quicker. Splat!
And the leg stronger. Whush!
The trail, with all its mystery, lay ahead. To the north, a patch of blue sky. Swamp or no swamp, it felt good to be alive.
If You Go
Big Cypress National Preserve: 31 miles of the Florida Trail starts at Alligator Alley and runs south through swampland and wet prairie across Tamiami Trail.
When to go: January through April.
Where to start: Best bet is the Oasis Ranger Station and head north. You can leave your car there overnight. Check in with the rangers. They'll update you on trail conditions (bet you a week's pay it's wet). Let them know when you finish. It is possible to walk all the way to The Alley, but you'll need to arrange transportation back to your car. Much easier to do the loop trail.
Water: There is plenty, unfortunately, none you can drink. You'll have to pack it in. Bring at least a gallon per day per person.
Weather: It gets hot, it gets cold. In the winter, temperatures can range from the 40s at night to the 80s during the day.
Bugs: Take your pick. Lots of hungry mosquitoes. Spiders too. Bring insect repellent.
Footwear: This is boot country. No flip flops. When you're not walking through mud, you're dancing on slippery rocks.
Snakes: All of Florida's deadliest, the diamondback and pygmy rattlers, cottonmouth and coral snake. Odds are you'll never see one, but if you do, remember, this is a National Preserve. Everything is protected. If you see a snake, say G'day and walk away.
Nasty plants: Sure, poison ivy and poison wood. In the winter, they lose their leaves, but they still can make you itch.
Safety: Bring a map and compass. The trail is well marked, but it's easy to get turned around, and in a swamp everything looks the same. A first-aid kit also is a good idea, just in case.
For more information: Call the Oasis Ranger Station at (813) 695-4111, or write Big Cypress National Preserve, Star Route 110, Ochopee, 33943. For information on the Florida Trail, write the Florida Trail Association, P.O. Box 13708, Gainesville, 32604, or call (904) 378-8823.
_ TERRY TOMALIN