They call it quail hunting but it looks more like guerrilla warfare in some Caribbean jungle.
About 40 miles west of the dazzle of Fort Lauderdale, the sea of grass called the Everglades gives way to a low-lying forest of cypresses, pines, live oak, palms, and scrubby palmettoes.
When Bill Davenport, a Miami physician, first saw Big Cypress swamp 20 years ago, he was not impressed. Davenport was accustomed to traditional quail hunting over dogs in farm fields in his native Arkansas.
But you take what you can get, and there are no appropriate farm fields in Miami. Davenport liked to hunt and over the years he came to like and finally to grow very fond of the swampy backwaters in the cypress country.
He keeps a hunting camp there today, seven miles north of the super-highway called Alligator Alley where trucks roar through the night between Naples on the West Coast and Lauderdale in the East.
There aren't many big cypresses in the Big Cypress Swamp. The loggers got most of the few remaining ones years ago. But it still is big country, about two million wilderness acres in the southwest corner of the Sunshine State.
Davenport's camp consists of about 50 acres in the middle of it all, with a big cabin and a shed to house the machinery for the hunt. His hunting grounds are immense.
When Davenport plans a hunt he ponders the merits of quail cover over an area of 36 square miles of lowlands and water, land he sublease from a cattle rancher.
"We'll hunt about four section (one square mile apiece) tomorrow," he said as 10 hunters doused the lights and headed for their bunks on Saturday night.
A sharp rain blew in early Sunday morning and slashed against the tin roof of the cabin. The hunters, hearing it, rolled over and waited for a break before beginning the hunt.
It wasn't until 8 o'clock that they breakfasted and readied the machinery.
Jack Miller, a pilot for Pan Am, sat at the controls of his four-wheel drive swamp buggy, which stood six feet off the ground on giant tractor tires, "This thing will go through anything," he said.
Davenport had his 1951 jeep rumbling. On the tailgate he had erected a tall platform. The hunting dogs were in a box that was the base of the platform, and on top, seven feet off the ground, a car seat was bolted on along with a gun rack and a steel bar to hang onto.
Gerald Murphy and Roger Dick clambered up to the high seat and settled in.
Dick's sons, Bus and Zikky, brought up the rear in the Land Rover they'd reconstructed from a twisted wreck.
"Let's go," Davenport shouted in cavalry fashion, and the caravan moved out.
It was my introduction to the land called Big Cypress and sadly it wound up a disappointment. My vision of a good swamp (I've been lost in a few) is a place of massive saneness, where soft ground stretches through standing water, where there are no humps or hillocks to take a bearing on and the trees block out the sun.
But Big Cypress has been fiddled with.
To get to Davenport's camp required a seven-mile drive off Alligator Alley. There was no coursing route through untrammeled swampland, it was a bump and grind straight shot along a government-built drainage canal.
Alongside the sand road, teen-agers in four-wheel drives had stopped to toss tin cans into the canal and plink them with rifles and pistols. "It's a shame," said Davenport. "They wind up killing a lot of alligators and manatees."
And now, on the hunt, we found ourselves following the ruts and tracks of a hundred other interlopers while the dogs worked in a pack out front. Great swatches of low-lying palmettoes had been burned or bulldozed from the ground where the cattle farmers were establishing new grazing range. Jumbled hunting camps of rustled trailers lay at the ends of the trails. Still, the eerier landscape held intrigue. In the swamp a difference of only a few feet in elevation creates startling changes in the ecology.
In the lowest stretches, the cypress trees dip their elephant legs into standing water; a foot more elevation and the cypresses were replaced by grass prairie and low palmettoes; a little higher ground supported pine "islands" and on the highest sections where it's almost always dry stook tall live oaks with bright green foliage.
Why Quails live at all in this enviornment is something of a mystery, since they generally are dryland creatures. The Big Cypress Swamp is inhospitable by other standards, as well. The trees are adorned with hawks, which prey on quails and bobcats lurk in the woods.
But there are quails, even on a windy, cool hunting day. Jack Miller found them with his swamp buggy.
"Hunt in there, Missy," he shouted to his best English Pointer as she ranged out in front of the rumbling vehicle. "Find the birds."
The buggy was emerging from a two-foot-deep slough when Missy stopped dead in her tracks, her tail stretched straight back and her nose quivering toward a pile of palmetto brush.
"Dog on point," Miller shouted. On one previous point he and the others had simply driven over to the dogs with the idea of shooting from the car seat. The birds had flushed before the hunters arrived.
This time Miller switched off the key and jumped down. He walked toward the motionless dog, gun ready. The birds erupted into flight and Miller knocked one down. The others scattered.
"Two went down by the canal," said Prentiss Nunn, who had watched their escape. the Two men climbed through barbed wire and sent the dogs off to hunt the singles. Bumper, another pointer, found one along the canal berm.
The hunters stomped in, flushed the bird and Miller killed it with one shot.
But the hunting was slow all day though there was much sign of wild boar, deer and occasional shightings of snipe and quail.
On the way back to camp Davenport invited me to drive his jeep. I thought that would be fun and shortly after I was behind the wheel Roger Dick offered me a beer from the cooler.
I took it.
"Now you're a real Big Cypress hunter," said Dick. "Beer in one hand, steering wheel in the other."
Thanks. But no thanks.
Sadly, the natural beauty of Big Cypress Swamp has been marred in places by roads, drainage canals, private development of hunting camps, logging, ranching and farming. Now Alligator Alley is schedule to be expanded to four lanes as part of Interstate 75. Oil and gas exploration is going on in the swamp.
But there are protective measures. The federal government is rapidly acquiring land for the 570,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve. The acquisition is about three-fourths complete, which means almost a quarter of the giant swamp is protected against development.
The National Park Service is even thinking about undoing some earlier, ill-conceived improvements.
"We're looking seriously at the Turner River Canal," said Howard Dimont, chief ranger for the preserve, "with the idea of possibly closing off the drainage canal and restoring the river to its original state."
In the swamp, where things happen slowly, going backwards is sometimes better than going frontwards.