By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Eason guides the boat through narrow trails, which lead to wide sloughs, which lead back to narrow trails. The area is crisscrossed with paths, some divided by a hedgerow of sawgrass, like a median between lanes, others just narrow enough for one boat to squeak through. Like any cautious driver, Eason slows at the intersections, craning his head both ways to make sure there's no oncoming traffic. The prospect of a collision out here is very real and very terrifying, given the churning props. All the boaters use the same system of trails, which is essentially a grid of watery streets, without the benefit of traffic control or speed limits.
A few minutes later, Eason pulls up to his camp, which can best be described as "rustic." Like all camps in Conservation Area 2, his place sits on stilts, about five feet above the water. Camps in other parts of the Everglades are built at ground level on tree islands, which stand a foot or two higher than the water level. In Conservation Area 2, the water's almost always high, unless the region is unusually dry, and there's not a tree island in sight.
Eason's camp has a wide, shaded porch with a commanding view to the east that takes in the Sawgrass Expressway only a mile or so distant. The close proximity to civilization is a bit jarring out here; the hum of traffic from the freeway competes with the croaking frogs and grunting gators. "That's the growth of South Florida for you," notes Eason.
The camp comprises four buildings -- the main "house," a storage shed, a bathroom, and the "honeymoon suite" -- connected by a raised walkway. Inside the buildings, walls are bare studs and plywood, and the windows are screened but glassless. The kitchen in the main house features a sink that drains into a bucket, a microwave, and a gas stove. Two yellow light bulbs hanging from an electrical cord strung along the ceiling provide the light, and a portable generator supplies the power. The whole place is painted light green and has a tidy yet weather-beaten appearance. Eason owns it with a partner.
He unloads supplies for the weekend but doesn't linger. It's late, the light's fading, and there are two dozen camps to visit. First stop on the tour will be a place regarded as the swankiest little pad in the swamp, a four-bedroom affair locals refer to as "the Taj Mahal."
Like many rivers, the River of Grass is dotted with islands. Thousands of them. In aerial or satellite images, the islands are shaped like scraggly teardrops, oriented with their fat ends to the northwest and their tails to the southeast. Some are big enough to have names: Temperature Change Head, Custard Apple Hammock, Nuthouse Head, Amazing Grace Island, Draft Dodge Island, Airplane Head. Most, however, are just pocks on the map.
The islands have a rich history. For centuries they've provided dry land for trees to take root and cover for wildlife. Indians who lived in the Everglades built homes and grew food on the islands. The first white people to trek through the Everglades, in the early 1800s, camped on them. In 1918 Naples resident Ed Frank combined parts from a Model T Ford and the bucket seat of a World War I airplane and created what is believed to be the first swamp buggy. The invention allowed people to motor through the swamps and haul enough construction materials into the boonies to build camps. Back then game such as deer, hogs, and turkeys were abundant, and the land didn't seem to belong to anyone in particular. Sportsmen staked their claims in the Everglades, clearing small patches of land on the islands and throwing up rudimentary shacks that would serve as base camps for their hunting forays. The hunt camp was born.
By the late '50s, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission counted about 20 camps in Conservation Areas 2 and 3. In less than a year's time, the number doubled. Camps were also appearing in areas to the west that would later become the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Most were on land owned by the state or the Flood Control District, the agency today known as the South Florida Water Management District. Maybe 10 percent of the camps were on private land.
In 1959, representatives from the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Florida State Board of Health took a tour of the camps. They didn't like what they saw. "Subsequently [the board of health has] stated that it is contrary to the Sanitary Code of the State of Florida, by reasons of water supply, sewage, and garbage disposal factors, to condone present camper operations and trends," commission biologist Harold E. Wallace wrote in a memo in 1959. Because meeting sanitation requirements would cost too much money, Wallace recommended removing the camps. One method bandied about was to have the sheriff's department in each county bordering the Everglades tell the squatters to tear down the camps and move out. "The [Flood Control District] attorney suggests a test case rather than blanket legal notification, such theory being that a successful case would result in mass voluntary exodus, thus saving time, trouble, and expense," wrote Wallace.