Piercing cold shot up my right leg as soon as I stepped into the water then the deep, dark mud. Not one who’s afraid of getting a little dirty when playing, this past Valentine’s Day provided an opportunity to check something off my bucket list, a swamp walk with Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery.
If you’re not familiar with who Clyde Butcher is, he’s known for his large-scale, black and white landscape photography. I’ve always considered him to be the Ansel Adams of Florida and have admired his work since the 1990s when I moved to Florida and the Flamingo Lodge sold his artwork. To capture some of the amazing images of Bald Cypress trees, orchids and other Florida flora and fauna, he wades into the bowels of Big Cypress National Preserve (Florida) – sometimes into chest-high water – and over the last several years, visitors can do the same during guided swamp walks.
With Valentine’s Day on a Saturday, I was looking for an excuse to distract me from dwelling on my singleton status. Yes, some may argue cats make the best Valentines but I was looking for something more substantial than sitting home on the couch. Thanks to Facebook, I learned the gallery would be holding an open house with Clyde Butcher that weekend, I knew I had to book a swamp walk.
Wearing jeans, old tennis shoes and a long-sleeved shirt (as the directions advised), I followed the guide step by step into the cold, gooey mud and water, using a walking stick to balance through hidden holes and roots. Since this was the 45-minute introductory walk, the deepest the water got was my mid-calf. I was hoping for something waist-deep which is typical of the 90-minute tour but thankful I didn’t reserve it because it was a mighty chilly day and participants on that tour came back shivering.
With each step, there was a sloshing and slurping sound as the swamp tried to suck my shoes into its depths. Bald Cypress trees cast a magical spell over me and they’re the prettiest tree in Mother Nature’s portfolio. Deciduous conifers, the base of these trees are much wider than the trunks and the tan to grayish bark appears stringy and almost shaggy. They’re known for growing tall and to a hearty age, as in, hundreds of years old. But, it’s the cypress knees which really fascinate me. These are roots that typically protrude above the ground and out of the water.
Almost on cue, when the guide talked about birds that live in the forest, a hawk screeched overhead. Along the way, the guide pointed out delicate orchids and other hearty bromeliads living on the cypress trees. Although they didn’t look it, the trees in the forest were more than a century old.
Often, I found myself stopping and looking up and admiring the mystique of the cypress forest. My date with a swamp walk in Big Cypress National Preserve reminded me that although I may get lonely from time to time, life is definitely good.
After the walk, I hosed down, changed into dry jeans and shoes and warmed up by the campfire the gallery staff had prepared. Once I felt human, I went inside the gallery to finally meet Clyde Butcher and chatted with him a bit about photography.
Spoiler: Although he’s recognized for his photographs of Florida, he’s been touring the Western United States and his 2016 calendar will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Methinks that will call for a return trip to the swamp.
Clyde Butcher’s original studio and gallery is located in Ochopee in Big Cypress National Preserve, about a 2.5 hour drive from my home in North Port, Fla. and about an hour’s drive of Miami. Behind the gallery, visitors are invited to participate in guided walks typically offered Saturdays and Sundays. Groups are small, there were eight in my walk. Visit www.clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com to learn more and to book your swamp walk.
View additional photos in this Flickr gallery.