Granny's Roughnecks

Out at Mack's, there are skeeters, gators, fried catfish, pig hunts, and freedom -- with a few strings attached

Nell Jones turned Mack's from a backwoods boat launch into a South Florida legend by virtue of her inspirational strength and wisdom. Since she wasn't able to have kids, she and her husband, Mack Jones Jr., adopted two girls. Their oldest daughter got married and had twin boys in 1979. Three years later, at only 24 years old, Danelle Jones committed suicide. Her husband tried to manage the twins on his own, but he left the boys with Nell and skipped town. Nell raised the boys as her own, teaching them to be God-fearing young men who now prowl every square inch of the surrounding land.

Today, Keith and Marshall Jones are responsible for both the physical upkeep of Mack's Fish Camp as well as the imposing legacy they've inherited. Just as Everglades pioneers Ted Smallwood and Totch Brown eked out a living where few dared, the Jones twins live on the edge of Florida's final frontier. Together, they've got to maintain this fragile family heirloom even as the ceaseless tide of humanity -- carrying along development and environmental perils -- bears down upon it.

Fishermen still account for part of the business at Mack's Fish Camp, but most visitors, especially on weekends, arrive on ATVs. Then there are the just plain curious and the folks whose families are tied to Mack's in one way or another. Rodd is here because his sister (Marshall's pretty, ponytailed wife, Nicole) and their parents have moved here from Davie.

Another part of the business lies two and a half miles away, just across Krome Avenue, where the twins operate the 46-unit Jones Trailer Park, also passed down to them from their grandparents. "Beautiful, comfortable, affordable, real living," promises the business card, followed by "Family owned and operated for six generations." Now largely occupied by South and Central American migrant laborers, the trailers surround a lake fed by a natural spring.

When the twins were kids, bringing the ramshackle trailers up to code was among the huge expenses that loomed menacingly over their future. More recently, wildfires in that corner of the county have threatened the camp's occupants: In May 1999, the camp was briefly evacuated as a 10,000-acre fire blazed nearby. This winter, the flames crept close enough to leave a thick layer of soot on everything.

But the fires are popcorn-worthy entertainment compared to other disasters the camp has suffered. Diversion techniques employed by South Florida Water Mismanagement (as the camp-dwellers call them) have flooded the camp. "Whenever bad rains come and they don't want the city to get it, they'll dump it on us," Marshall complains of the nature-tinkerers.

"Once they dredged the canals, fishing's never been the same," he continues. "But it's still pretty good." The canals were dredged in the 1940s and '50s, he continues, giving the land decades to adjust to the change. "But now, if they go and change it again, it's going to take migrating species about 20 years to find habitats."

Additionally, he reports, when fertilizer runoff from Big Sugar's refineries upriver dump nitrogen and phosphorus into the canal, it's led to massive fish kills in the surrounding Everglades. "We've lost over a million fish in ten years, and that's on the light side."

On this lazy weekday afternoon, peacocks scream and birds chirp in the banyan trees above the canal as Marshall angrily points out an entire flatbed load of garbage that was dumped off just before dawn recently. Jerry says he woke up in time to see a truck from A+B Roll-off pulling away. The compacted trash sits there in a loaf-like lump. An old, broken television console has cleaved off the mass like an iceberg and crashed to the road. Although the twins called in a complaint, the trash remained there weeks later.

"That's a third-degree felony, right there," Jerry drawls.

Keith pulls up on his green John Deere four-wheeler. "How about calling the Channel 10 Problem Solvers?" he offers his brother. "They're even better than Help Me Howard."

Marshall and Rodd roam up and down the canal in an aluminum boat, collecting garbage that's blown into the water. As the boat ambles up, Rodd jumps out and grabs Colonel Sanders, a red rooster that's one of several camp pets along with a handful of chickens and peacocks, a ten-foot albino Burmese python, dozens of cats, and even a snapping turtle Rodd keeps in a kiddie pool. His broad smile spreading the freckles on his face, he puts Colonel Sanders on his shoulder. With the bird's talons digging into Rodd's white T-shirt -- which reads "Jesus Is My Homeboy" -- he sings, "Colonel Sanders, here he comes, doo-dah doo-dah!"

The cell phone on Marshall's belt rings with a frog's rib-bitt. It's Nicole, trying to find a highway exit in the morass of Miami. Calmly, he gives her directions. "Kiss the baby for me," he says.

Now that police and water management have closed off most of the ATV trails in the eastern Everglades in the past several years (to stop riders from wiping out on the levees and then suing Water Management), Mack's feels an additional pinch. Fewer bikers come in to buy beer, water, sunscreen, and bug repellent. Says Marshall: "We just want to run a family business out here. We're not looking to make a mint. We don't have a fleet of airboats."

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