Postcards From the Edge

Peace and quiet, great fishing, tax-free land. Welcome to the Everglades, where "hunt camps" are enjoying a new lease on life.

Given these problems it would be easy to make a case for evicting squatters and banning ORVs. But that would be shortsighted, according to one expert, who points out that, aside from the camp owners, no other group of people knows the Everglades region inside out. "You could [claim]... that this is public land and they shouldn't be out there," says Chris McVoy, a research scientist with the water management district. "But you have to look at the benefits. Someone sitting in Lake Worth doesn't know what's going on out there. All they can do is read the [water level] gauges."

McVoy, who is surveying the history of the Everglades, describes himself as a "suburban liberal environmentalist" who has come to appreciate the value of firsthand information gleaned from hanging out in the 'Glades. "These people add other points of observation," he says. "It's informal and not rigorous, but they aren't dummies, and they like the outdoors."

In fact many camp owners consider themselves stewards of the environment. They share their knowledge and observations with state agencies, keep track of how water levels affect wildlife, work to keep exotic species like melaleuca and Brazilian pepper in check, and try to spare tree islands the effects of wildfires by running circles around them in buggies or airboats to create fire breaks. "We really are the eyes and ears of the Everglades," says Al Bryan, president of the Dade County Full Track Conservation Club. "We are not just a bunch of shoot-everything-that-moves beer drinkers."

By 8 p.m. Eason is back at the landing to pick up his wife, Joy, and some friends who plan to spend the night at camp. But Joy's running late. "I can't stand it when people are late," he says. "And she's always late."

The clouds are no longer threatening rain. Instead the sunset is a panoply of pink rays shooting up from the western horizon, coloring the underside of the puffy white clouds.

Three airboats make their way back to the landing after dark, looking like bizarre swamp apparitions, huge yet without any identifiable shape, against the black night. After dark, airboat drivers wear hardhats with spotlights mounted on the front to see the trails. As the boats dock, the spotlights illuminate bugs hovering so thick the cumulative effect resembles falling snow.

Killing time Eason relates the lineage of his own camp. It was built in the '60s by a guy named Ernie Palmer, who later sold most of it to James Stratton. Eason and a partner bought majority shares in the place from Stratton about 15 years ago. That's typical of the way camps change hands: People get partners, sell shares, and pass on shares. The transactions are legal -- they come with a bill of sale -- but they're not like other real-estate sales. No deed is involved. Buyers get a piece of the structure itself and have to share in the maintenance.

Joy arrives at about 9 p.m., and she doesn't seem too happy. "I shoulda stayed home; I've got so damn much work to do," she grumbles as she gets on the boat.

Eason dons his helmet, switches on the light, starts the airboat, and takes off through the dark. The night air is cool and sticky, and the trail looks even narrower in Eason's beam than it did during the day. Bugs bounce off passengers' faces, and it's quickly apparent this is no time to yawn.

The remainder of the evening is devoted to a steak dinner cooked on the barbecue and a couple hours' worth of swamp philosophizing. Joy's mood improves as she talks about family time spent camping in the Everglades. "My youngest son [who's 27] has been coming out here since he was about a year old," she says. The Easons used to own a track -- a motorized swamp vehicle that runs on tanklike treads -- and the baby found the noise and clamor of the machine soothing. "He'd be fussing and we'd get him on the track, and he would go sound asleep. You'd think an old track going bumpity-bump would keep him awake, but he loved it."

At dawn the next day, the only sounds are crickets in the swamp and heavy, scratchy footsteps on the roof of the camp, which turn out to be three large buzzards preparing for a day of scavenging. An airboat at a nearby camp cranks and fires just before 7 a.m., shredding the otherwise quiet morning with the angry sound of a buzzing prop.

After breakfast Eason starts up the Air Gator for a tour of the far western reaches of Conservation Area 2, where just a few camps are located. The drone of the big Continental drowns conversation as Eason skims along the narrow trails. To the north is an unbroken line of sawgrass, interrupted here and there by scrawny wax myrtle trees in the foreground and melaleuca stands in the distance, where the horizon meets the cobalt blue sky. To the south is more of the same: a barren-looking landscape miles from civilization. Which is the whole point.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

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