Granny's Roughnecks

Page 3 of 7

Tonight, after braving a torrent of mid-May mosquitoes gearing up for the summer's feeding frenzy, Doogie stumbles into the store.

"Hey, Keith," he says, "You got any skeeter juice?" As Keith hunts down some Off behind the counter, something inside the pine-paneled walls scratches and scurries. "Swamp rats," he says. "Just as furry and cute as a damn rabbit."

There is no place like Mack's Fish Camp. It feels like an old, sepia-toned newsreel about the pioneer days has come to life. Visit once and it's almost impossible to stop thinking about it, even days later.

"It burns itself into your mind," Rodd says.

Mack's Fish Camp is less than an hour's drive from Fort Lauderdale or Miami but feels far removed in time and space -- like the Twilight Zone episode in which Billy Mumy replaced the cornfields around his farmhouse with an endless void, making it the center of a small, self-contained universe. Mack's remains among the wildest enclaves in all of Broward County, a portal back to a time when most of the land down here looked as wild as this. It has proudly belonged to the same family for six generations, and a new crop of young Joneses stands in line to inherit its riches and preserve its singular status. It has been battered by natural and man-made disasters but still looks much as it did 70 years ago. Although it has survived fires, floods, and hurricanes, it still reels from the loss of Nell Jones, the camp's patron saint.

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."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton