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See Old Florida on an airboat ride

It’s like going into a different world, deep into the heart of a cypress forest at the headwaters of the Everglades.
An airboat out of Camp Mack in Lake Wales takes you into the heart of the headwaters to the Everglades.
An airboat out of Camp Mack in Lake Wales takes you into the heart of the headwaters to the Everglades. [ Alligator Cove ]
Published Nov. 4
Updated Nov. 15

I was kicking myself as a lifelong Floridian that I had never tried an airboat trip. It’s an experience that isn’t easily found, but I discovered that it’s worth the time.

You have to drive to the boonies and then get on a funny-looking boat that resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption. You then enter the heart of a swamp and for the next hour you won’t even see a house or Circle K sign as you glide across the river of grass.

That’s why it’s worth the trip.

Airboats were designed as a way to fish and hunt in shallow water. Alexander Graham Bell is reputed to have invented the first airboat in 1905 to test aircraft engines. You don’t want to think about this too hard while on one, because it’s really just a big, honking motor that moves a propeller to power a johnboat across the water.

The result is a very smooth ride that even people with a bad back will be able to tolerate because it’s rarely a bumpy one. When our boat went into a mass of grass and water lilies, the ride still kept its smooth vibe. There were times I was thinking that our captain would turn to avoid an obvious dead end, but he headed right into the grass.

An airboat ride just outside of Lake Wales takes riders deep into the heart of a cypress forest in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes area that spans Polk and Osceola counties.
An airboat ride just outside of Lake Wales takes riders deep into the heart of a cypress forest in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes area that spans Polk and Osceola counties. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

The result was like going into a different world. Deep into the heart of a cypress forest, you are surrounded by black mud, cypress knees sprouting from the ground and whispering green branches overhead. Or you are zipping at 30 or 40 miles per hour across the water in the middle of one of the massive Kissimmee Chain of Lakes that make the headwaters of the Everglades. It can be miles from edge to edge of the shoreline.

My trip was on the north end of the Everglades with Alligator Cove Adventures in Lake Wales, which runs out of Camp Mack, a Guy Harvey Lodge, Marina and RV Resort.

Our guide Dwight Keen, nicknamed Flame for his wild red hair when he was a kid in backwoods Polk County, now has snowy locks and a head full of knowledge about Old Florida. He can spot a gator in the water a half mile away.

He also spotted a pair of bald eagles high up in a pine tree. We saw herons, egrets and beautiful pink roseate spoonbills. There were even some cattle roaming the shore.

Getting an up-close look at rural Florida also brings its environmental issues into focus. Lake Hatchineha, known for its world-class bass fishing in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, is choked in some parts with non-native plants such as water lettuce and hyacinths and invasive hydrilla. They are fed by the pollution of its more urban neighbors and farms, and decades-old engineering mistakes that straightened rivers for drainage.

Taking an airboat ride into the headwaters of the Everglades near Lake Wales, you won’t see a house for miles as you glide across the river of grass.
Taking an airboat ride into the headwaters of the Everglades near Lake Wales, you won’t see a house for miles as you glide across the river of grass. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times (2021) ]
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In the town of Okeechobee, located on the north side of the big lake, one airboat captain has made a point of showing tourists how some of the recently added stormwater treatment areas have surprisingly clean water and plentiful fish by filtering out the phosphorus from the water. He’s hoping to see more of these expensive treatment areas to improve the health of Lake Okeechobee.

“I want them to go home with something they learned, something to think about, helping to protect the environment,” said Jason Ferrell, a fourth-generation Okeechobee resident who offers ecotourism airboat rides.

Finding an airboat tour usually means heading to a rural area, where cell service can be spotty. The boat ride is smooth enough to take even young children. Wheelchairs and walkers aren’t permitted on most airboats, but if the rider can move from the wheelchair onto the seat, the captain will store them.

Trips generally cost around $50 for an hourlong tour, and it’s usually half that for kids.

Note that airboats are not permitted within state and federal parks, so these tours are adjacent to the protected lands.

If you head north of the Tampa Bay area, you can find airboat rides along the Withlachoochee River near Dunnellon and the Homosassa River and Crystal River north of Brooksville, though the no-wake zones along those rivers have driven tours further north lately.

East of Lakeland, you’ll find tours of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes near Lake Wales and Avon Park.

In Everglades City, about 35 miles southeast of Naples, both Captain Jack’s and Everglades City Airboat Tours offer two-way headsets to better communicate with the captain.

If you want to venture further south, Everglades Holiday Park near Fort Lauderdale is a favorite of Ivanka Trump, who went there with her family in February after her father left the White House and again in October with girlfriends to celebrate her 40th birthday.

Some tips

  • It’s loud. Most boats provide earmuffs, but have them on hand if you are concerned.
  • It’s windy. Even on a balmy day it becomes downright cold once the boat ramps up to speed. Consider a long-sleeved shirt or hoodie if you are susceptible to cold.
  • Book ahead. Some of the boats only have four to eight seats, so don’t expect to just walk up and get a ride.
  • Wear a hat, sunscreen and bug spray as you would on any outdoor Florida excursion.

Airboats rides

Alligator Cove Adventures: About 25 miles east of Lakeland in the heart of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, it launches from Camp Mack river resort. 14900 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales. 863-696-0406. alligatorcoveairboatnaturetours.com.

Nature Coast Navigator: Offers tours around Ozello, the small town between Crystal River and Homosassa. The drive to get to the tiny Citrus County town is a beauty, with twists and turns through St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve. On the water, you’ll see a chain of islands and inlets of Florida’s Nature Coast. 352-445-2755. naturecoastnavigator.com.

Everglades City Airboat Tours: Tour the western edges of Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. 907 DuPont St., Everglades City. 239-695-2400. evergladescity-airboattours.com.

Captain Jack’s: After tours of the mangroves and a cypress forest, there’s a live alligator show back on land. 905 Dupont St., Everglades City. 239-360-6607. captainjacksairboattours.com.

Everglades Holiday Park: A favorite of the Trump family, this park outside of Fort Lauderdale has 29 acres of wetlands to explore. 21940 Griffin Road, Fort Lauderdale. 954-906-6982. evergladesholidaypark.com.

Eaglebay Adventures: Offers ecotourism tours of the marshlands of Eagle Bay, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. 900 State Road 78 W, Okeechobee. 863-824-0500. eaglebayadventures.com.