MIAMI -- While officials of the Big Cypress National Preserve work on a long-term management plan for 146,000 acres known as the "addition lands," now is a great time to explore them. Insects are few, and the morning air is still cool.
The addition lands, located to the northeast and to the west of the original boundary, became part of the preserve in 1988. It's a huge wilderness of cypress domes, watery sloughs, dry prairie and sinkhole lakes, interspersed with 10 to 15 private cabins and camps that were built before it was public land. The only way to access the area -- unless you are a landowner -- is on foot.
Matthew Schwartz of the Sierra Club Broward chapter occasionally leads group hikes into the addition lands. Recently, Schwartz escorted 25 hikers on a six-mile trek that began and ended at the L-28 interceptor canal north of I-75 near mile marker 51.
"See it before it's gone," he told our group.
Schwartz is among those vocally opposed to the preserve's tentative plan to open portions of the northeast addition lands to off-road vehicle use. Officials are contemplating designating a network of trails and issuing a limited number of permits for ORVs. Preserve representative Bob DeGross said they expect to complete a preferred alternative and hold public hearings this summer.
"The plan is going to reach a balance between ORV recreation, hunting recreation and non-motorized recreation," DeGross said. "Congress has identified that as an appropriate activity for the Big Cypress."
Schwartz believes the area should be kept as wilderness, with feet as the only mode of transportation. He has no problem with hunting, he said -- just the furrows, mud holes and trampled sawgrass made by hunters' buggies, tracks and four-wheelers.
Our group walked into the woods from the trail on the north side of the canal. Nobody was particularly noisy, but we were talking among ourselves. Despite our less-than-silent approach, a doe appeared in front of us before we had reached 100 yards. Everyone stopped and stared, including the doe. Then she disappeared.
Because we were there a day after a rain shower, most of the trail was either very muddy or a foot underwater. If you really hate the idea of getting your feet wet, then you should skip this hike. Nobody in our group balked because Schwartz warned everyone ahead of time that they should bring extra shoes and socks for the ride home.
But the muddiness provided interesting distractions in the form of animal track identification. We would amble along for a short distance until someone would halt abruptly, point to the ground and demand, "What is that?"
According to various hikers who claimed to know about these things, we spotted the tracks of wild hog; deer (of course); wild turkey; panther (!); possibly bobcat; raccoon; and coyote.
It wasn't an optimum time of day for bird-watching. Nevertheless, we saw a flock of wood storks at the trail head and passed egret, ibis and various herons. Maybe a mile down the trail, past a denuded cypress forest, Schwartz pointed out a voluminous nest straddling the bare boughs. Looking past the nest to the next tree, we spied its occupant -- a bald eagle. Everyone took turns gazing at it through binoculars.
We stopped for lunch at the remains of a torn-down hunting camp next to a small pond. About all that was left of the structure was a portion of the Mexican tile floor and a cistern for drinking water. But the detritus provided elevated seating for some hikers. The rest of us sat on our jackets on the ground.
After lunch, we ventured off the trail into a cypress dome -- a depression in the forest where the water was knee deep. Bromeliads decorated the tree trunks, and bits of green moss coated the broken cypress knees. We had to step carefully to avoid tripping on the submerged knees. In the distance, I could hear the familiar cinder block-pounding sound of a pileated woodpecker.
I am not sure exactly which direction we hiked. But we never were very far from I-75 because I could hear traffic noise the entire day. It was a bit disappointing to listen to the hum of civilization while you're exploring what, to you, seems like virgin woods. But the hauntingly beautiful scenery went a long way toward dispelling that feeling.
Up to that point, we had seen no alligators, despite sloshing through plenty of sloughs. But our luck was about to change. Using his GPS, Schwartz guided us to Tarpon Lake -- a hidden sinkhole in the middle of the forest teeming with small-to-medium-sized gators. Besides the swimming reptiles, the ripples of fish broke the placid surface every few seconds. I never got a good look, but at least some probably were the species that gave the lake its name. Those isolated tarpon must have provided a fairly decent sport fishery because two rowboats were parked on opposite sides of the lake.
We made our way back to the trail and began the return trip to our vehicles. On the way, we found the eagle sitting in the same tree branch where we had seen it several hours earlier. Guess it was his day off, too.
The closer we got to the trailhead, the louder the highway noise. But the wood storks were right where we had left them that morning -- milling around next to the L-28, nearly in the shadow of the interstate.
It must have been a good breeding year for the endangered species. Funny, we never saw them in the woods.