The estimated 500 residents of the 55,000-acre Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation have loads of elbow room. As do the countless alligators, which drift like solitary logs in the boundless Everglades of South Florida. Yet during a two-day stay, I never felt alone. I had plenty of company to keep me amused — from a safe distance.
Big Cypress, about 80 miles northwest of Miami, is the largest of Florida’s five reservations. Compared with the Seminole land in the city of Hollywood, just south of Fort Lauderdale and the site of a Hard Rock casino and hotel, it’s much purer in scenery and experience. It’s also the best place to go “Heart of Darkness” deep into the Everglades, the hideout of imperiled tribe members during the 19th-century Seminole wars.
The Florida Seminoles’ knowledge of the challenging terrain was key to their survival. (Total population: 3,500, up from about 200 after the last war in 1855-58.) For example, they knew how to build dugout canoes from cypress trees, how to weave swamp palms into roofs and how to avoid some of the more treacherous threats of swamp life, such as creatures with harrowing teeth.
My shameful confession: I stepped on a fire ant nest my only night on the reservation. Neither the ants nor I were happy about this situation. They expressed their anger by biting me; I responded by throwing water on myself as if I were in flames. But it could have been worse: An alligator could have mistaken me for a chew stick.
Wild critters of limited cuddliness and abundant fascination inhabit Billie Swamp Safari, a 2,200-acre eco-adventure park on the reservation. Created by tribal chief James Billie, the park features an energetic roster of activities, such as airboat rides, a half-mile nature trail and a rugged buggy excursion. In the center of the village-style property, a “no petting” zoo displays specimens you hope never to find in your shoe (Chilean rose hair tarantula, giant emperor scorpion) or beneath your car (caiman, alligator).
Guests are also invited to a Seminole slumber party in the chickees, traditional wooden huts with a thatched roof and primitive conveniences: kerosene lanterns, beds covered with patterned Indian blankets, a door that opens and closes. Thirty cabins stud the land, some precariously close to the swamp, others conveniently near the communal restroom facility. (No sinks or toilets in the lodgings.)
“Two crocodiles, or alligators, whatever they are, swam up to our porch,” said Pip, the male half of a British couple residing at Billie’s last month. “There was a little one and a big one that chased it away.”
I ran into the Brits, my only homo sapiens comfort that evening, en route to the fireside storytelling, held between the alligator pit and the herpetarium. I decided that I could miss the “Once upon a time” opening for a gator sighting.
I followed the pair to the back porch of their hut, the scene of their original glimpse. I leaned hard over the railing, searching for glowing eyes or a Cyrano-esque snout among the lily pads and saw grass. The gators were playing hard to get. Or perhaps they’d all escaped.
A portion of a fence erected along the water’s edge appeared crushed, as if a powerful force had stampeded through the barrier like a tank on a mission — or a gator on the lam. There were no footprints on the road outside the chickee. But then again, the day was so hot that any watermark would have dried in an instant.
Although I failed to spot the primeval reptile during that outing, my count was still impressive. I spotted one gator during my walk along the nature trail and two on an afternoon airboat ride led by Carlos Cruz. (Those who subscribe to the Nat Geo Wild channel might recognize the beefy chap from the show “Swamp Men,” which is set at Billie’s.)
Sitting in the driver’s seat, a princely throne nearly as high as the treetops, Carlos whizzed around the swamp, stopping often to impart information about our surroundings. Only Seminoles can legally cut down cypress trees, he told us, and the Asian water buffaloes grazing along the banks are imports. Not that the Everglades need any more exotica.
On our second loop, he slowed near a thicket of trees adorned with dozens of white tissues. When we drew closer, a cloud of fluttering wings rose from the branches. I praised the bird ornaments, completely missing our reason for creeping: a gator floating on the surface of the water. Good eye, that Carlos.
Wildlife is integral to the Seminoles, culturally, economically and sartorially. They not only attach sacred meanings to animals but also rely on the meat and skins for sustenance, clothing and trade currency.
During storytelling time, our guide bewitched his audience with folkloric tales more magical than Darwin’s theory of evolution. The hole in a vulture’s beak, he explained in the fire’s glow, was caused by a row with a bear. In short, the bird devoured the bear’s friend, the rabbit; to avenge his pal’s death, the bear shot an arrow at the vulture, piercing his nose. Why do dogs walk on four legs? Because the dog ratted out his owner’s infidelities to the man’s wife. As punishment, the man revoked the canine’s membership in the biped club.
Up the road from Billie’s, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum further delves into the history and lore of the Seminoles. Out back, a mile-plus boardwalk ribbons through dense flora, with placards highlighting the medicinal and utilitarian uses of plants. The trail leads to the Seminole Indian Village, where artisans display their crafts.
Lorraine Cypress, quiet and intense, was working palm fronds into a basket. Her completed items, including dolls and jewelry, were arrayed around a long table. The artist, her faced lined with time, graciously posed for a photo under a sign identifying her name and clan: panther.
I purchased a necklace strung with beads as yellow as a panther’s eyes. I slipped on the accessory, but only partly for fashion. If I ran into a gator, he might mistake the beady circles for a pride of predators.