God's Country

Live alligators. Dead snakes. Howling owls. About the only thing the Everglades doesn't have is a bright future.

In my computer phone file Tom Jackson is listed as "Nature Man." He recently completed his master's work at UM's renowned Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where he specialized in crocodile ecology. He also spent time researching sea turtles here and in Texas, expanding his already expansive expertises. An energetic marijuana-legalization activist, reggae-music DJ at WVUM, a man who shares his one-bedroom Key Biscayne apartment with two monkey-tailed skinks, nine exotic snakes, and a bird, Jackson has an informed opinion about everything -- from which is the worst beer to buy (he hates Budweiser because, he insists, Bud gives money to the DEA to keep reefer illegal) to how the feral cat problem must be dealt with.

It's an ugly sight. Near the bingo hall at Krome Avenue and the Trail -- yes, there's a gambling parlor in the swamp -- is a boat ramp, where Lenny and I had stopped on our trip. I used to stop there regularly, up until a couple of years ago. That's when I was there one night and, among all the empty trailers hitched to the empty cars, I saw a number of abandoned domestic cats. I guess humans dumped them there in hopes that when the boaters returned, they'd take in the animals. But I'm probably giving humans far too much credit.

Cats dumped out here will struggle to survive in an unnatural habitat, becoming feral, picking up sundry diseases and parasites, and preying on other animals. People may empathize with cats, yet, Jackson notes, "Well, I'm sorry, but these fuzzy, furry animals are unfortunately responsible for the decimation and extermination of animals worldwide. The feral cats should be killed." Ultimately the cats themselves suffer their way to ugly deaths. Maybe that's where they went, because this time Lenny and I saw no signs of any life. We were too close to civilization. And I wanted to get away from it.

If anyone could, Tom Jackson could show me the ideal, real Everglades. "There's this 100-year-old cabin in the Fakahatchee Strand," Jackson told me when I phoned him. "We were there the other night. When we woke up the next morning, we found panther tracks outside. We didn't see the panther, but he was there."

Let's go.
Jackson tells me ahead of time to "wear shoes that tie on and long pants. And you'll want a sleeping bag or something so you don't have to sleep in the rat doody." He says nothing about mosquito repellent (it's winter) or a cellular phone or, God forbid, a gun. When he picks me up for the trip, he's wearing shorts and sandals.

During the two-hour midday trek across the Trail to the Fakahatchee Strand near Everglades City, we feel a vibrancy in the air. At one point I spot a two-foot gator basking on the far bank of the canal, then, within a mile, I notice dozens -- literally dozens -- of gators, all sizes, in similar positions and in clear view. Some people are lucky enough to be out here on a weekday fishing. But Tom feels sorry for them. "Catching fish laden with mercury," he mutters.

I ask Jackson what he'd most like to find on this trip. He says he's already seen a panther, the same one, he later learned, that died from mercury poisoning. I tell him I'd like to see an owl, a bobcat, a rattlesnake. Those things are so soul-stirring, and, yes, I'm willing to do anything short of dying to cross paths with a panther. Nature Man doesn't want to play along, isn't excited about the chase. "I want to see anything I haven't seen before."

Jackson parks the truck near a sign that explains the status of the Florida panther. A young couple stops and reads the sign from their car. Jackson exchanges pleasantries and mentions to the couple that they are reading about ghosts. We load our backs like donkeys, laden with our packs of human necessities -- sleeping bags and warm clothes, some canned food and a few six-packs, toilet paper. Nature Man changes from sandals to hiking boots, we grab our snake sticks. And then we walk. And walk. And walk some more.

The path we take serves as a road, but few vehicles are designed to traverse this grassy swath cut through dense vegetation -- it's broken by deep puddles and mudholes, many as wide as the path itself. The water soaking my jeans up to the thighs is cold and murky. When I try to negotiate a three-inch-wide rise with nasty black mud on one side and thorn bushes on the other, my foot slips into the muck, nearly sucking the high-top right off.

Along a dry stretch of the path I fetch Jackson, who's several paces ahead of me. "Tom, check it out, a turtle, right in the path." Jackson comes back for a look. The turtle is digging. "Don't disturb her," he says, eyeballing the animal. Jackson rattles off some technical scientific stuff about turtle eggs and we move on.

Each time Jackson expresses excitement I get the feeling he's spotted something awesome, like a panther or bobcat or maybe a black bear. "Look at these," the scientist says, turning up a leaf. "These are called tortoise beetles. Isn't that a cool shade of metallic blue? And if you look underneath, see, yellow legs." Yes, I see. Even a bird's food, a tiny insect, can evoke some fascination.

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