You drive 80 miles west from Miami, across that great sponge called the Everglades, past the signs advertising AIRBOAT RIDE and ALLIGATOR WRESTLING and INDIAN VILLAGE and SNAKES, and just when the Tamiami Trail begins curving back toward civilization, toward frosty places like Tampa and Nashville and Chicago and Anchorage, you take a hard left on Florida Route 29. The two-lane road runs for eight or 10 miles to the south, and then it quits at a dead end in a region loosely known as the Ten Thousand Islands, a nearly unspoiled wilderness that barely abides man, teems with snook and redfish and tarpon, is scented with wild orchids, water lilies and hibiscus and watched over by rattlesnakes and alligators and crocodiles. No city-sissy tenderfeet need apply.
Here on the edge of Everglades National Park, in an area uncontaminated by hordes of tourists, the natives take their living from the swamps and the sea. There are shrimpers and mackerel fishermen, crab potters and gill netters, families that serve wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and every other chance they get, poachers who jacklight alligators by night. The few villages here look like sets by Jo Mielziner for plays by Tennessee Williams. An abandoned market bakes in the ferocious sun; hurricane-wrecked shrimp boats and dinghies slowly rot into the weeds along tidal creeks; and cattle egrets patrol abandoned lawns looking for snacks.
This is where the fresh water meets the salt, the "vital zone" where life abounds. The water seeps out of the Everglades, gets up a head in rivers like the Harney, the Shark and Lostmans and pulses in a reddish-chocolate color through the mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands into the Gulf of Mexico. With few exceptions, the land lies only five or six feet above sea level, and many of the houses are perched on stilts to allow occasional floods to swirl underneath. Some say the area is misnamed, that there are at least 17,000 islands at low tide, ranging from 6,000 acres down to a few square feet of oyster shell, in a line about 80 miles long and 10 miles wide down the coast. Edged with mangrove trees, matted and thick and propped up on their roots, the islands form a maze of waterways: sounds and bays and tidal creeks, rivers and lakes and inlets, and never the same from one year to the next. "These islands change with every storm," says Homer Rhodes, naturalist and fisherman, who has been around the area most of his life. "Islands disappear, passes and creeks either get bigger or die out, and you have to stay on your toes when you're cruising out there."
Bird watchers are the most frequent visitors, and fishermen next, and all of them are accepted with bemused tolerance by the locals. Once in a while there is a direct and abrasive meeting, mostly the result of different approaches to conservation. "Sometime an outsider'll come in here and try to catch out every fish in the water," a local guide explains. "We don't like that, and we tell 'em so. Then, on the other hand, there's the young boy from Everglades City that guided a party from the National Audubon Society up the creeks one day. After they'd saw about a skillion kinds of birds, one little old lady said, 'Now tell us, sonny, which bird do you like the best?' And the kid said, 'Well, ma'am, the truth is most of these birds is too fishy. The white ibis I guess is the best. Like half chicken, half beef.' That woman gave a little yelp, and she says, 'You mean to say you eat the white ibis?' And the kid says, 'Why, yes, ma'am, ever'body around here eats 'em.' The lady hollers, 'You take us back this instant!' She says, 'This instant!' "
The white ibis, or "Chokoloskee chicken," as it is locally known, has been a staple item of diet in the Ten Thousand Islands for 100 years, and although it is strictly forbidden to kill anything except fish in the Everglades National Park, the consumption of white ibis remains a constant among the locals. "It is truly amazing," said an oldtimer, "how many of them birds gets theirselves run over by cars and boats and things nowadays."
"Ain't nothin' in the world tastes so good," says Fishing Guide Walter Brown, who lives in a trailer on one of the islands. "I've eat just about every kind of bird there is, and I haven't come to anything that can beat our white ibis. And after you fry 'em you mix the drippings with flour and water, and you got yourself the best thick brown gravy there is."
Park Ranger James Denslow, an intense young man who will unleash a 30-minute lecture on conservation at the drop of a hint, says he knows why the bird is so delicious. "Look what they feed on: snails, shrimp, crayfish, all delicacies themselves. The natives shot some rookeries to pieces years ago. There were flocks of thousands and thousands in the old days, and when they were shot at they'd fly away and make a big circle a half a mile wide and settle right back down for the hunters to blast 'em again. Now there still are a lot of white ibis in the park, but only a fraction of what there used to be."
The bird life of the Ten Thousand Islands, especially in the southern two-thirds within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, is so rich and variegated as to make bird watchers choke with emotion and natives salivate. "Friend of mine was out paddling one day," Guide Douglas House said, "when he shot a wild turkey on one of the islands. My friend paddled up to shore, and what did he see but the turkey standing there! So he chased it down and wrung its neck. On the way back to his boat, he stepped over the turkey he shot! That same guy killed 42 coots on one blast of No. 6 shot. Course, it takes a lot of coots to make a meal. All you do is cut out the breast and throw the rest away."
Walter Brown chimed in: "If you serve 'em that way you're missin' the best part. What you ought to do is take out the gizzard and throw the rest away." Chacun √† son go√ªt.
A trip through the area of the Ten Thousand Islands usually produces at least one major bird-watching breakthrough. The brown pelican, now dying out along much of the Gulf Coast, comes plummeting into the water from 60 feet up and hits with all the grace and dignity of a fat man off a high board. More than once on trips into the Ten Thousand Islands I jerked my head around to see what was attacking the boat, only to find a brown pelican bobbing to the surface, licking his chops and burping softly. Almost all the water birds of the island area are skilled fishermen, but the smartest money is on the white pelican, a huge bird that summers in national parks like Grand Teton and Yellowstone and winters in Everglades National Park, thus remaining on the federal payroll all his life. Not content to dive and grab an occasional solitary fish, the white pelicans band together and form a line across tidal creeks or bays. At a signal from the foreman, they begin to swim forward and beat their heavy beaks on the water. The commotion drives frightened baitfish into pockets, where the pelicans can relax and enjoy an urbane meal.
My own favorite island species is the anhinga, a bird so scrawny that he bears the name of snakebird. The anhinga spots his prey, dives beneath the water to chase it down and spears the fish with his sharp beak. Back on the surface, he has a problem: his mouth is held shut by the meal he wants to eat. Presto! The anhinga flips the fish into the air, catches it head downward and swallows it whole. Now another problem arises. The anhinga lacks the heavy oil of most aquatic birds, and every time he goes on a sea hunt he gets drenched to the skin. So at the conclusion of each meal the anhinga hauls himself out of the water and hangs himself out to dry. Whenever I see an anhinga go through all these procedures, I think what a hit he'd have been on the old Orpheum circuit.
Sometimes there is a price for the performance, even in the Ten Thousand Islands. There are dangers and discomforts to be endured, and they keep a certain natural check and balance on the number of visitors. The area will never become another Coney Island. Simply to take a boat out in the island waters is to invite casual entanglement with all sorts of perils, including shoals and oyster bars hidden by the discolored water. The best bet is to go with a local guide, but even that practice does not guarantee safety.
"For six years I guided a man from the Cadillac company in Michigan," Walter Brown recalls. "One day we were going up one of those narrow mangrove canals, and the man was down in the bottom of the boat to keep from getting hit by the branches. All of a sudden he jumps right out of the boat! I killed the motor real quick, and there I seen a big cottonmouth moccasin alayin' in the boat where it had fell off one of those branches. I taken the oar and raked the snake out, and he just swum right up under the limb that man was settin' on. The man grabbed a handful of leaves and threw it at the snake, and I kept whackin' away with the oar, and the more I whacked the closer the snake got to that poor fellow. Finally I cut the snake in two and got the man in the boat. He said, 'Go back to the dock!' That was the last word I ever heard that man speak. He paid his bill, gave me a $10 tip and drove off. He's not been back since."
Even the alligator, normally the gentlest of animals, can cause trouble in the Ten Thousand Islands region, at least if certain fundamental rules are not observed. "Rule No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 is never, never, never block off a alligator's path to the water," says Walter Brown. "If one is layin' on the bank sunnin', if you put your boat up against that bank, in between the water and the gator, you're askin' for it. He's goin' in that water. I don't know what's gonna happen to you, but he's goin' in.
"I been in a boat one day where some people pushed it next to a bank where about a 12- or 14-foot gator was sunnin', and that gator come arunnin' down that bank just as hard as he could, and he landed plumb in the middle of that boat. He swished his tail about three times and blistered the side of my face, and when he finally got out there wasn't a camera, a chair, a gas tank, a engine box or nothin' else left intact in that boat."
The boatman must be on a constant alert for alligators (and for that matter, crocodiles, also native to the area, but much rarer). "It's not that they're about to bite you," says Captain Ted Smallwood, who has spent his lifetime in the area. "They're shy and quiet, mostly, but that don't mean you're not gonna ruin your boat if you run over one. Last summer, when I first got one of those big 90-hp engines for my small boat, I was down in the Harney River guiding this old lady, and we're doing about 40 miles an hour when she says to me, 'Captain, are there any alligators in here?' And I said, 'No, ma'am, all the poachers and outlaws already killed 'em on account of it's a national park here now, and when they made it a park they made the pi ice of alligator hides go up,' and I says, 'I haven't seen one of any size in several months,' and about that time she says, 'Captain, what's that lying out there in the water?' And there he was, lying crosswise, about 10 foot of alligator, and it was too late to turn, and I mean to tell you I lowered the boom on him. Jerked all the bolts out of the lower unit of my engine and bent it all to pieces. Didn't help that alligator worth a doodely-squat, either."
Whatever the alligator population in the Ten Thousand Islands (and some say it is down drastically, despite state and federal protection), it remains high enough to attract poachers. Whenever the night is dark enough, gator hunters go out in their small, powerful boats and cast bright searchlight beams into the mangrove forests, looking for the golden glows that show an alligator's eyes. "And it's next to impossible to catch 'em," says a park official. "They blind the gator and shoot him, usually with a hand gun. Then they gaff him, quickly slit that bellyskin off, dump the carcass over the side, salt and roll up the skin and stick it in a flour sack. Whole thing takes only a few minutes. If we get anywhere near, all the evidence goes over the side and we've got no case. Why, they even carry mops to mop the blood off the boat! And when they do get convicted it only costs 'em a night's profit, anyway."
Some idea of the extent of the local alligator hunting may be gained from a short conversation I held in the Everglades City drugstore with a boy of about 10. We were discussing conservation, and the boy said, "It's a awful thing. My daddy, he says those outlaws got the gators plum caught out of there. Hardly a gator left anymore. My daddy, he says it's a durn shame the way those poachers has taken advantage of nature."
"Well," I said. "I understand they get $6 a foot for the hides."
"No, sir," the boy said quickly. "We git five."
The worst offender is a man who lives in the heart of the Ten Thousand Islands area and makes almost his entire living from alligators. "I don't think he's got enough good sense to stop," says a park ranger. "He's pulling a lot of crazy stunts with a new rig he's got—a 14-foot skiff with a 100-hp Mercury in it. Can you imagine? That dad-gum boat goes every way but upside down sometimes, and he just may kill himself and solve a lot of problems for everybody around. But before he gets himself killed he's trying to teach everybody else in his family how to poach. And in his spare time he goes out and poaches fish, or he'll bust in on the mullet fishermen and break up their schools, or he'll threaten to shoot somebody. He's just a mean man."
The presence of at least one "mean man" seems to be a tradition in the Ten Thousand Islands, dating back to 60 and 70 years ago, when there was no law around and citizens policed themselves, usually haphazardly. The original "mean man" seems to have been Ed Watson, a heavyweight, red-bearded immigrant who came into the area in the 1890s after killing the outlaw woman Belle Starr or three men in Georgia, depending on who is telling the story. Watson appropriated a rich plot of land, where he planted cane and manufactured syrup. In those days escaped convicts frequently found their way to the Ten Thousand Islands, and most of them wound up working for Watson, who paid them off at the end of the growing season with a knife blade in the throat. The seat of government was at Key West, 90 miles across the water, and one of the area's early law-enforcement officers won his job by promising to bring in the notorious killer. He headed north and stayed away for a month and was laughed out of office when word got out that he had spent the time working on Watson's plantation and had barely got out alive. Ultimately, Watson died a Caesarean death. A posse of his friends and neighbors cornered him on the boat landing of C.S. (Ted) Smallwood, father of the area's present citizen of the same name, and gunned him down. "I think Ed Watson killed very few that didn't need killing," says the easygoing Captain Smallwood. "He wasn't too bad of a guy. He was just one of those that when he told you he'd do anything he would do it, and he depended on you being the same way. If you didn't, he'd just kill you. That's all they was to it. They say it was my great-grandfather on my mother's side of the house is supposed to have been the one that fired the first shot in. Course, I think if they'd of shot my great-grandfather, too, everybody'd of been better off."
Until a road was built into the region in the 1920s the Ten Thousand Islands were filled with quaint types on the order of Ed Watson. One of the early guides to the wilderness area, Captain Bill Collier, used to instruct would-be visitors: 'if you meet anybody in the islands, tell 'em quick your name, what you're doing there and where you're headed. Don't ask them their names or what they're doing."
If the visitor wanted a guide to fish the area or study the wildlife, he cruised around the islands looking for one of the natives. According to one elderly resident, "You could get a local guide to take you out all day for a dollar, but if he sniffed around and found you had whiskey with you, nothing would happen till it was consumed. And I mean nothing would happen, including you leaving."
Battles over water rights and fishing privileges were settled with guns, knives and fists. Nets were pulled up and cut, houses were burned and men were killed. On those few occasions when the government managed to put channel markers in place, they were either ripped out or moved to shoals, where they would lure strangers aground. This kept outsiders from poaching and added an occasional bonanza in the form of a rich haul from a wrecked boat. Moonshining was a major preoccupation; sometimes the bootleggers would use too much Red Devil Lye in the batch, and "the stuff was so strong it would lather like soap when rubbed up in the hands," an early inhabitant wrote. At the southern tip of the islands the local brew became known as Cape Sable Augerdent, and when Van Campen Heilner sampled some of it in 1919, he said, "I thought I had been drinking carbolic acid."
Nowadays, except for a little poaching, communities like Everglades City and Chokoloskee and the other villages of the Ten Thousand Islands are many times more law-abiding than such communities as New York or Chicago, and yet some of the earlier attitudes prevail. Lawmen are distrusted. In some vague way park rangers are the enemy. "Most of the people think that the rangers are personally nice people," says a local mackerel fisherman, "but they resent being told what to do by anybody, nice people or not. The majority of us don't do any poaching, just seven or eight or so, but most of the people are against the rangers anyway, because the rangers bring rules." The local people are also foursquare against the inroads of the 20th century, especially those that raise the decibel level in their sleepy little hamlets. "I'm a swamp rat," Captain Ted Smallwood says proudly, "and by the time you get my age you know what'll kill you quicker'n anything else? Noise. Noise and aggravation. Pure damn nauseation from the noise. That's the reason I live out here in the swamps. I go to town and it makes me crazy. Wouldn't want to make my living in a town. A feller ought to have enough brains to make a living where it's quiet, that's the way I look at it."
A Ten Thousand Islands guide like Smallwood is a good companion as long as he is guiding you, but don't expect him to spill the local secrets: where the best fishing holes arc, when the snook are running, where the new snags are, etc. I fished with young and affable Douglas House for a week, and we built a pleasant friendship, but I strained it one day when I asked him: "Douglas, show me on the map where we caught those snook the other day, will you?" He looked at me as though I were some kind of traitor prepared to betray him and said absolutely nothing.
"It's all right, Douglas," said his Aunt Clara. "You can show the man. He's leaving in a few days."
Douglas ran his finger to a place on the map that even I knew was a phony. "Has to be that way," Douglas explained later. "It's not the fish that get caught that bother us. It's the way everybody runs into the same hole with those powerful engines and scares all the fish off. Then we have to start finding 'em all over again."
Another guide says, "Sometimes folks hires us to find out where our favorite holes are, and then they go out and find 'em alone the next day. Well, ain't none of us gettin' rich guidin'. Most of us live in trailers or little houses, and even though we're fishin' the best snook and tarpon grounds you can find, we're still not chargin' as much as other guides other places. So we got to protect what we know. I remember one day I took out this guy and we caught snook till his arm was sore, and all of a sudden he says, 'Say, what's the name of this place?' And I said, 'Well, there's some cabbage palms in here, so this must be Cabbage Bay.' Which I really knew the name of it, but I wasn't atellin'. So the next day he asks some guy to take him to Cabbage Bay, and when they get to the real Cabbage Bay they had a hell of a fight about it. 'This is it!' the one guy said, and the other guy said, 'No, it ain't! I was just here yesterday!' But I didn't lie. I didn't tell him it was Cabbage Bay. I said, 'This must be Cabbage Bay 'cause there's cabbage palms in here.' "
One guide took four fishermen to a secret redfish hole deep in the islands and then watched in mounting annoyance as his customers proceeded to haul in the prized fish by the dozens. "It was gettin' to be a bad situation, but they'd paid for the boat and there's no legal limit on redfish, and they had a right to take what they wanted. But they was cleanin' out my private hole! So when I thought they wasn't payin' attention I lifted the anchor a few inches and let the boat slowly drift out of the hole. You know what those stupid redfish done? They followed the baits! Wound up, those hogs caught 400 fish. I was filleting fish for 'em till my hands was raw. Took another party to the same place the next day and didn't catch but two."
"You'd be surprised how many of these so-called sportsmen go crazy when they get back in those islands and see all the fish they are," says Walter Brown. "They want to take over the limit, and I tell 'em either to put 'em back or they're gonna go to jail, one. They catch four snook, which there is a four-a-day limit on snook, and then they want to catch another limit. Why, I've carried out parties that caught enough trout or reds to take 'em back to Miami and sell 'em for $90, $100. And then the next party comes along and gets skunked. No wonder we're mistrustful of outsiders."
On one of my last trips with young Douglas House I found out that the people of the Ten Thousand Islands are not only "mistrustful" of outsiders. We left Everglades City on the low tide, and on a one-hour run to one of Douglas" favorite hangouts for the battling snook we managed to break six shear pins, those replaceable little bolts that give way like a fuse whenever the propeller hits something hard. Around the Ten Thousand Islands a propeller is usually ruined in about five trips, Douglas explained, and even the most experienced old hands occasionally wipe out the lower units of their engines on "storm snags," waterlogged pieces of lumber that lie just below the surface.
"I don't know if we can make it across here," Douglas said, as we came to a shallow bay. "The wind's got the water all blowed out." His method of attacking the problem consisted of revving up the 50-hp outboard engine to full speed in an attempt to plane high over the shallow spots. He would head for a seemingly solid row of mangroves at a speed in the neighborhood of 40 mph, and at the last second, when my life was flashing before my eyes, he would tuck us into a tiny pass between islands and out the other side. For a time we were having an informal race with another boat, until the competitor took one hole through a row of trees and we took another. From behind the screen of mangroves we heard a thump, followed by an extra-loud whine of the engine, followed by silence. "He found the oyster bar!" Douglas said. A few minutes later we came to a deep channel, and suddenly the front of the boat slammed upward and I was propelled three feet into the air, landing in a huddle in the bottom of the boat. Douglas smiled. "Porpoise!" he shouted. I had hardly recovered my seat when he was planing after a manatee, the sea cow that works along the bottom eating vegetation. A linear series of surface whirlpools showed where the manatee had escaped to a deep hole. "Just a baby," Douglas said. "Maybe one or two hundred pounds."
"How do they taste?" I asked without thinking.
"They say they're like tender beef," Douglas said. "That's what they say."
Our fishing hole turned out to be a narrow tidal stream, full of sunken logs, rocks and other menaces. Halfway up the creek was a shell bank about 15 feet high, and Douglas explained that it was one of the favorite gathering places of the diamondback rattlesnake, the big hopper of the species. Only a few days earlier, Douglas said, a friend of his had spotted a seven-foot diamondback swimming the stream right where we were fishing. "Gee, Douglas, that's really interesting," I said, carefully lifting my dangling legs back into the boat. A few minutes later I was bitten so hard by a horsefly that I yelped in reflex.
"Quiet!" Douglas said. "You'll scare the fish." He explained that this creek was loaded with snook, but that they were "flightier" than most, perhaps because there were so many of them. The trick of fishing this creek, he said, was to go when no one else was around, remain quiet, take your limit and get out before anybody else spotted you. Otherwise the place would become overrun with fishermen and the snook would leave.
For two hours we hooked snook, normally among the rarest of sport fish, as though they were trout in a hatchery. A shower of minnows would pop out of the water along a spread of tangled branches and I would drop a surface plug near the same spot, and whack! another snook would hit. We kept a pair of three-pounders for dinner and lost the prize of the day: a 10-pounder that broke my line on his fourth jump and went swimming off with a $1.65 plug in his jaw. "Let's get on out of here," Douglas said, and began to pole us through the thick brush downstream. Around the first bend, about 50 yards from where we had been fishing, we came upon a fisherman and his guide, sitting there in dead silence. '"How many you caught, Douglas?" the guide said.
"Don't think they're in here today," Douglas said. "Ain't caught any yet."
"You ain't told the truth today yet, either," the grizzled guide said.
As we poled farther down, Douglas whispered, "That's my father-in-law."
Tucked into the next cove we found another boat and another pair of silent fishermen. "Inny action, Douglas?" a young guide asked.
"Not yet," Douglas said. "Don't seem to be in here today."
Just then one of our captured snook slapped against the side of the fish well. Douglas coughed loudly. "We're going out and look for 'em," he said to the other guide. "What're you gonna do?"
"I'd sit right cheer and drink a soda with you all, if we had a soda," the man said.
"We ain't got but one between us," Douglas said, "or we'd share. You could go by the hermit's house and get some water."
"All he's got to drink is moonshine," said the other guide. "Last time I stopped there I didn't get home for a day and a hife."
We moved along, and Douglas said, "That's my brother-in-law. Reckon you've noticed that everybody around here is kinfolk? Well, this was originally my father-in-law's spot, and he told me and my brother-in-law. That's how come we all to be here today."
I asked Douglas why he had—er, uh—lied to the very man who had shown him the spot. Didn't it make a difference to him that they were his own in-laws he was deceiving? Douglas said that when it came to fishing holes he didn't have any in-laws. Didn't have any mother or father or sisters or brothers. Or friends, either. He gave me a look, and I said, "Douglas. I haven't the vaguest idea where we are. You know that."
But I noticed he took us home by a different route.
Bird watchers are the most frequent visitors to the Ten Thousand Islands. The bird life there is so rich and varied as to make watchers choke with emotion.
Simply to take a boat out is to invite entanglement with all sorts of perils, including shoals and oyster bars. The best bet is to take a guide, but even then there is danger.