The Big Cypress
I can hear mourning doves. And mosquitos. A deep blue is starting to spread across the sky and little wisps of clouds catch the first pink rays of the rising sun. After a night absent of any relief from the humidity, a gentle breeze finally makes its way through the brush and through my bug net. My hammock rocks slightly and I attempt to peel my sweaty, sticky skin off the nylon. I see a light come on in my friend's tent, and suddenly the itching of exactly sixty mosquito bites kicks in on my left knee. I guess I let it rest against the netting overnight? But I figure it's just the penance in blood one must pay to enjoy this place.
The swarms are immediate. In hindsight, mosquitos have been conditioned to feeding at dawn since all the critters out here wake up. That's when the blood gets rejuvenated, basically making it a fresh cup of blood-coffee to start the day. In a way, it's our fault for being up and moving at this time. Spray, both deet-heavy and deet-free, seems only marginally effective compared to netting and body-covering clothes.
Complaining about mosquitos in Florida is like complaining about wind in Chicago: Pointless, but undeniably cathartic. Our souvenirs are tiny and organic, but apparently three pinecones is too many for my poor pannier bag- it's stabilizing strap's clip snapping in half while cinching everything down for the day's riding. I reckon as long as the gravel isn't too bouncy things should be fine.
The eastern third of Big Cypress's loop road is paved, and it's damn-nice pavement, but we're only on it for another mile before the road turns to gravel. Personally, Im excited. Although it's one road passing through one jungle, the loss of pavement makes it feels far more remote. But it's not as if they gave up paving the thing. The gravel portions coincide with the areas of the road that flood during the rainy season. March is a part of the dry season, so incidents with water are of our own volition. That kind of accord happens later, don't worry.
Loop road is a wonderful point of solitude on this trip. It's early enough that we only come across one car. By and large we have the whole thing to ourselves. Our itinerary for the day has only loose objectives- hike in the Big Cypress, find a place to camp. Along the loop road there are several trails to venture into the swamp, the main one being the former southern section of the Florida National Scenic Trail- a hiking trail that follows the length of the state. Now it's just called the Highway 41 to Loop Road Trail, clearly to make it sound more attractive and sexy to hikers. We pass by its southern trail head and Im left with an intense curiosity of why they're downplaying this trail so much.
Goofing Off In Big Cypress
This is the chillest tour ever, after all, so you won't find any of the macho, masochistic, grueling pics of ragged cyclists here. It's warm, sunny, and we're in the middle of a jungle. Here, we can be whoever we want. Yes, we smell bad.
But sometimes you're in a new, remote location and things begin to change. You're on a fancy bike that you zip-tied an old, beat up basket to and your bag of granola is about to explode out the side of that basket. Your quads bulge, you feel the sun on your skin, but you actually applied liberal sunscreen to protect yourself in the long term. You start to feel, in earnest, ultra.
You can see it wash over her, as she identifies various plants in her Florida Native Plants book. It's almost too much to handle, even while putting around at 10mph, and the seams of her floral print shirt stress under this new-found strength. It subsides suddenly as we enter Sweetwater Strand. What came over her?
Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida
Remember our camp host Ray? From yesterday? Well, ol' Ray took our map of Big Cypress and made some notes, but I swear he circled the Sweetwater Strand part three times, saying it's the most beautiful section of the whole loop road. He's never bothered to drive faster than a couple miles an hour through the strand, because, well, there's just too much to see. Ray gets it. Slow is more.
Nestled between the loop road and Big Cypress's Oasis back on the Tamiami Trail is Roberts Lake Strand. When you research hiking in Big Cypress, Roberts Lake Strand comes up often. The spot is known for having a few old-growth cypress trees that were spared during the logging boom, and an alligator-filled lake. It's deep in there, though I can only find info saying it's a 6-mile round trip hike from the Oasis. It involves going east for the first time in two days, and that lovely tailwind that escorted us out here becomes an annoying headwind.
A ranger at the oasis tells us it'll take seven hours to hike to the strand and back. It's already noon, and nearby campsites to the north of the Tamiami Trail are closed for the same flooding that closed the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. Bummer. We had not planned to venture so far south, but a campground is open down by Everglades City. The riding time to there gives us a few hours, not seven hours, but a few. The ranger suggests Gator Hook Trail, back on the loop road. "It's got a whole grove of dwarf cypress y'all can check out." The recommendation is encouragement enough, so we head back the way we came, back onto gravel, to a very well-built trailhead with canopied picnic tables and restrooms. Along the way, I can feel my rear tire getting kinda squirmy, and once on gravel the moon bounce effect of a soon-to-be-flat tire kicks in caused by a two-inch-long chunk of wiring. The last mile to the trail is delicately limped through and eventually walked once I get too nervous about riding on the rim in gravel.
Gator Hook Trail follows the remnants of an old logging railroad. It runs a straight line east from the loop road and the first 50 yards or so get stomped out through mud and brush. A few remnant cypress logs that served as foundation for the railroad remain and are the last crossing before the trail opens into a submerged sawgrass prairie with staggered dwarf cypress. These trees are stunted due to lack of nutrients in the "shallow" water (the big ones grow in deep water) and though they look young, many of them are hundreds of years old. This shallow water covers the trail year round. All hiking in Big Cypress is submerged, and under the water the trail is mostly broken limestone bedrock. We knew this much ahead of time, and brought shoes specifically for hiking underwater. At first I thought I might just do a pair of sandals, but the limestone is sharp and filled with solution holes. The holes form over decades from rainwater mixing with decaying, slightly-acidic leaves, and would absolutely love to rip off a toenail. Gross, right? So it's totally worth getting some hiking sneakers wet and muddy.
We are losing our shit over this place. Just a few hundred feet in and the alien nature of walking through one vast, shallow river, hopping from limestone chunk to limestone chunk, and the contrast of the chilly water with the day's heat and humidity has us giggling, yelling, and stopping to look at every plant. The water goes cloudy with every step, so we keep our distance from one another so we can actually see where we're walking. Yellow blazes mark a trail, otherwise the partitions in the sawgrass- mostly too narrow for people and made by other animals, scatter everywhere. It is so cool.
Through the sawgrass prairie the trail leads us into a strand of dwarf cypress. The trees are loaded down with air plants, some flowering and some on the verge. Small, aquatic grasses have grown over the trail, covering the limestone. We are losing our damn minds over this forest in which we've found ourselves. Yellow blazes on trees lead us out of this enchanted space and onto firm ground- the bed of the old logging railroad.
We pass by ferns, vines drape overhead. Hardwood trees with burls line the edges of this raised bed. We catch glimpses of different reptiles and amphibians moments before they dive to evade us. The bed sinks down and throws us back into deep water, this time up to our waists. We walk along the original cypress timbers felled to build the railbed. They were cut and laid in the 30s, but naturally a tree that grows in water does a fantastic job of resisting rot in that same water.
WETTEST TRAIL EVER.
Tillandsia (Air Plants) Everywhere
The sun hits a point in the sky where it's obvious we gotta motor it if we want to avoid riding in the dark. It's heartbreaking. What kind of monsters would willingly leave this place? Us, I guess. We wade back to the sawgrass prairie that brought us into this paradise.
Back on the Tamiami, we pass by the roadside sites of Big Cypress's western range, then return to civilization. Yeah, we stopped at the tiniest post office in America, making it just minutes before they close to get our cancelation stamps. We're dorks. The prairies of Big Cypress morph into tall palms and mangroves as we approach State Road 29. The plantlife changes signify we're now on the gulf side of the state, the Tamiami being the only road crossing east-to-west, and 29 being the only road that will take you south.
A headwind pushes against us. This road, cut between the hardwoods and mangroves, acts like a wind tunnel. It becomes very clear how aerodynamic our loaded up bikes are not. But hey it's not all bad. There's a bike lane! It's just the shoulder of the road, and trucks still fly inches away at sixty miles an hour, but at least there's a sign.
There's something to stop and look at every ten feet in Everglades City. The town feels fundamentally different from anywhere else I've been. The whole take-er-easy vibe you hear about with Florida is deeply engrained here. But we're just passing through. The southern-most inhabited point of gulf coastal Florida, Chokoloskee, a little 148 acre island, has campsites open inside a trailer park. It wasn't our first choice, but it was the only option within 50 miles of Big Cypress without heading back east. Ascending the bridge to the island, whatever laid back attitude we thought Everglades City had doesn't hold a candle to Chokoloskee.
We arrive in a crowded campground, leathery-tan baby boomers walking around waiving to one another. The campground office is closed, a man walking by says "Oh, he's out riding around in his golf cart. You'll probably see him later, but just pick a spot! How far y'all ride your from?" I pass a woman walking out to a dock, I ask her how she is. "Another perfect day in paradise!" She is drinking some kind of frozen drink out of a mason jar.
I WENT TO CHOKOLOSKEE ISLAND
AND TOOK THE MOST "FLORIDA" PICTURE
I WILL EVER TAKE.
A clubhouse sits on the shore, next to a cabana in the middle of a roaring, grey-haired happy hour. We take advantage of the amenities, using its stove and air conditioned bathrooms. On the back porch, we talk to a younger couple visiting from Cleveland and plow through our dinner of sautéed veggies with chocolate for desert. Every trope one might think of with Florida- it's here. We laugh at how typical everything is with our new friends, listening to folks up on the cabana as they have another round.
The sun sets behind the mangrove islands out in the water- part of the ten thousand islands. I kill a mosquito before it lands on my thigh. Pelican silhouettes fly by as the sunset, now past the horizon, finally explodes into purple and salmon hues.
This is chillest tour ever.