Here & Now: Bear Hunting! And It’s Girl Time in the Swamp
An excursion to remember with Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventures.
Illustration by PushArt
The whole thing started when Steve Markley, owner of Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventures, posted a Facebook notice: Free photographer’s adventure in the Big Cypress Preserve. First come, first served.
Now, Captain Steve is a grizzly-bearded bear of a man; a fifth-generation Gladesman who knows the swamp like his own backyard. Wait. It IS his backyard. His great-great-grandfather, Captain F. C. M. Boggess—cattleman, educator and gator hunter—fought in four wars, including the last Seminole War. His great-grandfather was the first tour operator in Everglades National Park. Captain Steve became the first authorized guide in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Having just read about a bear napping on a Naples lanai, I’m positive they’ll be all over the swamp. I pick up the phone. “Hey Steve, is there still room for me? I’d like to see some bears.”
“Got one spot left, and glad to have you,” Steve counters, “but you know this ain’t Disney. We’ll see things, but I can’t guarantee what. We start at 5:30 a.m. You’re not here, you get left. Bring your lunch and plan to get wet.”
3:45 a.m. Going on a Bear Hunt
No need to dress, as I cleverly wore my swamp clothes to bed just five hours ago. No makeup required; lunch and camera already bagged; swamp shoes and bug repellant in the car.
“Meet at Concho Billie,” Steve had said. Me: “Is there a sign?” Him: “No, but it’s just past Turner River Road. Can’t miss it.”
5:20 Shooting Stars and Strawberries
I’ve reached Monroe Station. Definitely too far. Calls to Captain Steve go to voicemail. “Please don’t leave without me!” I beg the recording. Meanwhile, nothing to do but eat the strawberries and banana from my lunch bag and watch the shooting stars in this inky Everglades sky.
“Hey Karen.” It’s Steve calling: “Running late—I missed the turnoff to Concho Billie. [Pause to enjoy irony here.] Just drive back west a little ways and you’ll see my buggy in plain sight on the side of the road. Can’t miss it.”
“How far?” I plead. “JUST-a-LITTLE-ways,” he repeats, enunciating in case I might be a bit slow.
6:00 Swamp Women
Steve’s big green swamp machine with its monster truck tires is exactly where he said it would be. He’s busily unhitching it from his truck and loading up necessities. Chain saw. Axe. 150-quart cooler. Gas can. Big straw hat with turkey feather.
Pulling up behind me are Jacquie Roecker, organic food specialist/philosopher/nature photographer, and Linda Jacobson (astronomygal.yolasite.com), astronomer/master naturalist/photographer. It’s girl time in the swamp!
Beneath an indigo-tinged sky, our buggy growls and pounces across the Tamiami Trail and into another world. If a bear lumbered alongside us, only Steve would sense it. Jacquie has claimed shotgun next to Captain Steve. Linda is perched dead center on the upper deck bench, a weathered walking stick between her knees. I prove I’m the newbie by cozying up to the outside rail beside her. I’ve just settled in when Linda’s stick comes whooshing inches from my face, just in time to save me from a mouthful of spider web.
“That’s why I sit low,” Jacquie says, laughing. That stick will make its appearance several times today, deflecting branches as we barrel through thick brush.
“You see something, just holler ‘Stop!’” Captain Steve says. “We’ve got no schedule. Y’all can take all the time you want.”
6:50-8:30 Magic Light
A gauzy golden glow now embraces the swamp. Otherworldly beams of sunlight slash through the pines. Steve stops and starts on call as the Swamp Women wade through the tall prairie grasses to capture a dewdrop on a tiny purple flower, an osprey screeching overhead or the silhouette of a cypress dome.
Now we’re grooving to the bumpy cadence of navigating mud bogs and palmetto scrub. A pair of startled deer dart into the bush.
8:45 Bear Tracks!
Success! We’re squatting over perfect paw prints, very fresh on the wet trail. Beside them, a clean set of panther tracks. My Canon is ready: longest lens attached; all settings checked.
9:15 Cooler on the Loose
We come upon a deep stream, swollen from recent rains. No way around it or over it. Must go through it! Steve floors it and we plunge in at a roughly 45-degree tilt.
Suddenly, Linda calls “Stop!” Not wildlife, but a great photo op, as Captain Steve wades in hip-deep after his new 150-quart cooler, bobbing gracefully downstream.
Cooler equals lunch. I’m ravenous and it’s barely 10 a.m. The others take a fruit break. Alas, my strawberries and banana are long gone.
The sky is now clear blue. Around the next bend is a movie-set cypress swamp. Copper-colored water swirls around ghostly cypress knees. Surreal clumps of spiky air plants and orchids cling to the trees. Must get this panoramic shot. I switch to my wide-angle lens, just as Jackie calls “Deer!” A nice-size one, standing smack in front of us at water’s edge. I grab a quick shot, realizing I have the wrong lens. The deer wades into mid-stream … turns to us … languidly strikes a model’s pose. While I’m fumbling with lens changes, Jackie and Linda are shooting away. Then she’s gone.
11:30 Lunch, Glorious Lunch
It’s at least 15 degrees cooler in here. Swamp slogging shoes still in trunk of car. I’m wading barefoot through the soft sandy bottom, knee-deep in the clear, tannin-infused water. Clean enough to drink, Captain Steve says. Tasty, too.
After giggling our way through posed wild-swamp-women portraits, lunchtime is declared. No tomato sandwich and plain vanilla yogurt ever tasted so heavenly.
12:15 p.m. Cattle Trails, Gator Drags, Purple Flowers
After lunch we explore places deep in the Big Cypress, where few humans ever venture. Remains of abandoned cattle ranches … a hidden hunting camp … flattened grasses signaling gator drags … shady hardwood hammocks … and an unexpected bounty of flowers, from fairy-size miniatures to big showy blooms.
1:50 Fork in the Road
The swamp women are muddy, bedraggled and definitely losing steam when Steve suddenly cuts the engine. “We can head thataway for another three hours, or turn left back toward your cars. Your choice.”
Cars it is. No bears today, but Captain Steve has three happy adventurers on his hands. I’m not speaking for the others, but I’m a mud-streaked swamp thing on a most unfortunate hair day. The swamp women make a pact to do it again. Next time, nothing will be the same. It never is, says Captain Steve. “Because this ain’t Disney.”
(239) 695-2186, captainstevesswampbuggyadventures.com