Although Betty Osceola has traversed the Everglades thousands of times, she’s always discovers something new when she gets out on the water. On this sunny December morning during an airboat tour, it’s the leaves of the maple trees on an island that she frequently passes.
They had turned a bright orange and burgundy, popping among the swampy greens and browns of the Everglades like a nylon traffic vest. Combine that uncommon site with the classic ones, like the turtles sunning themselves on the mud patches, a great blue heron plodding in the sawgrass marsh, an anhinga soaring overhead, a 10-foot male alligator glaring back from the murky waters and the thrill she gets when she’s driving an airboat, and it was a perfect start to her morning. “It’s the closest you get to flying,” she says. “Gliding across the Everglades in the airboat, and stopping out there in nature away from civilization. It’s very relaxing, very grounding.”
Osceola has been guiding airboat tours with her company, Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours, for more than 10 years. And her life is ingrained in this area. She’s a member of the Panther clan of the Miccosukee tribe, and spent her upbringing living off the land, hunting and fishing with her father. At age 5, after a long day of frogging with him on the water, they’d return to their tree island camp late at night, where Osceola would clean their haul by peeling off the frog skins one-by-one like a tiny pair of blue jeans. “If we were going to eat, it came from the Everglades,” Osceola says. “It didn’t come from the grocery store.”
But those days feel like a lifetime ago. The Everglades she grew up with is vastly different from the one she sees today, and especially right now. It’s flooded. Due to an abundance of rain, primarily from Tropical Storm Eta, many of the tree islands Osceola once slept on as a child have been submerged underwater for months, their roots slowly rotting. “The Everglades is supposed to be the river of grass,” she says. “But for the past four months, it’s like a lake out here.”
>> Read the full story in our April issue:
Photography by Erik Kellar