Some people have a passion for their work. In the thick of America’s Amazon, the most orchid-rich swamp in the United States, the staff at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park bubble over with infectious enthusiasm when they’re out in the field. And how can they not? Working in one of the wildest places in Florida, it’s easy to fall in love with the outdoors.
Thirteen years after I first met Park Biologist Mike Owen while researching 50 Hikes in South Florida, John and I are here with our friend Phyllis for an in-depth look at the park’s trails for a new book we plan to release next year. It’s summer, of course, the best time to photograph the strand. But it’s over 90F at 9AM, and we’re sweating just standing around. That means hiking these trails (the biggest loop you can make is 50 miles) isn’t going to happen. Instead, Park Manager Renee Rau wrangled a group of us into a few ATVs. Among our ranks are author Jeff Klinkenberg and VISIT FLORIDA photographer Pete Cross, in search of a ghost orchid.
Rumbling down Janes Scenic Drive with Park Ranger Steve Bass at the wheel, we make our first stop at one of the prairies, where we learn that Park Services Specialist Steve Houdeknecht has a passion for fire. It’s been his mission for more than a decade to keep the Fakahatchee Strand’s expansive prairies healthy by using prescribed burns. Since the other writer with us is focused on fire management, we learn how burns are staged and how they rejuvenate fire-dependent habitats like these.
Mike Owen’s enthusiasm for the park’s botany knows no bounds. But he’s not here today, so it’s up to our Steve, an Eagle Scout, to find a ghost orchid. It’s not the easiest thing to do. This is my third time into the strand on such a search, and we come up disappointed on the first try. The orchid that Steve knew about hasn’t quite opened yet. But he points out the intricate vine of a vanilla orchid up a tree trunk, and seeing it gives me my bearings.
I’ve been here before. I spot a Guzmania along its edge. Sadly, Renee recounts the news that the giant bromeliads of Fakahatchee are under attack by Mexican bromeliad weevils. The place we know as Guzmania along the East Main Trail is now a shadow of its former self.
On the second try, Steve finds a blooming ghost orchid high in a pop ash. It’s at a difficult angle for Pete’s liking, so he makes plans to return to see if the other one has bloomed. John’s delighted, as this is his second sighting this week; the first was from the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and was much farther away.
Returning to Janes Scenic Drive, we swap Steves, now taking on the fire expert as our driver. Renee heads off with Jeff and Pete while we continue deeper into the wilds of Fakahatchee. While it feels like a wilderness – and is as dangerous as one if you step off a trail and can’t find your way back – it isn’t, really. It was logged through the early 1960s, ravaged for its resources, and still is laced with tramways and private in-holdings. But in such fertile ground, nature heals quickly.
After another stop for a discourse on fire, we’re off to find the East Boundary Trail. When I first visited the park, Jack Horner of the Alligator Amblers was working on a 50-mile loop trail through the Fakahatchee and according to Steve, we’re headed for the most scenic portion of it. Not many people get out here, since the preserve is day use only. For several years, ultrarunners have been staging events out here, utilizing the loop that Jack planned long ago. Volunteers must clear it for winter use, since vegetation grows in so quickly.
I’ve never seen this side of the East Boundary Trail before, since getting to it requires a traverse of all of Janes Scenic Drive, virtually impossible in a passenger vehicle in summer and a very slow, long drive in winter. As summer rains get the sheet flow of water going across the preserve, the limestone base of the road breaks apart into deep potholes, puddles, and sticky mud.
Steve takes us on a detour along the park boundary to get around a yellow jacket nest near the usual trail access point. We pass a stop sign at the end of a paved road, an incongruous find as we’re more than 15 miles from the nearest highway. It’s in neighboring Picayune State Forest, remains of the biggest land scam in Florida history. A cross trail brings us to the orange-blazed East Boundary Trail, but not without a splashdown through a surprisingly deep slough.
Feet wet and photos taken, we head for the higher ground of the East Main Trail, an old favorite that Jack Horner introduced me to long ago. It was here I met Mike Owen for the first time, and relaxed on the porch at the Ballard Camp after miles of hiking that morning in three different parts of the preserve. Today’s trip by ATV seems brief by comparison, but the landscape is as lush as I remember it, the Ballard Camp still a treat for hikers who walk the 1.5 miles in from the gate.
As afternoon thundershowers are rumbling, we bump down Janes Scenic Drive on the way back to the park office and our car. It’s been nearly six hours in the Fakahatchee Strand, and we’ve only seen a small portion of the 85,000 acres that extend between Alligator Alley and the Ten Thousand Islands. As to bid us goodbye, a squadron of swallow-tailed kites swoop and dive over the prairie as we pass.