Shealy walks with a small flashlight in one hand, his tall, lean frame slightly stooped. He has spent almost all of his 34 years in Big Cypress, and he knows this part of the swamp like most people know their front yards. We are about four miles east-southeast of Shealy's campground and gift shop on the Tamiami Trail in the village of Ochopee, trying to get back to the spot where, three hours earlier, we dumped two and a half gallons of lima beans. The beans are bait. The creature they are meant to draw out of the depths of the swamp -- the one Shealy has the feeling we may find signs of -- is neither deer nor bear nor hog. It is not covered by any of the hunting regulations that apply to this area and protect animals like the endangered Florida panther and the American alligator. But according to those who say they have seen it, it is no less real.
It is the Skunk Ape, reportedly a nonhuman primate that walks on two legs, stands more than six feet tall, is covered in dark hair, and smells like rotten eggs mixed with three-day-old roadkill. A part of Florida folklore for more than 50 years, the Sasquatch-like Skunk Ape has been sighted -- and smelled -- all over the state, as far north as Ocala and as far south as Tavernier. Over the decades, tales of harrowing encounters with shaggy, stinking giants have come from the suburban frontiers of Florida's east and west coasts while also persisting in the agricultural interior.
One region, though, has recently produced more Skunk Ape sightings than any other: the undeveloped 2400-square-mile hinterland dominated by the Big Cypress National Preserve. It was here -- within two miles of where Shealy and I are walking, in fact -- that this past July four separate vans packed with tourists saw something they identified as "Bigfoot." It was not far from here that a Fort Myers television crew filmed Shealy finding huge tracks of unknown origin and pulling a clump of reddish-brown hair off a bush. And it was within a few hundred feet of here that Ochopee Fire District Chief Vince Doerr photographed a tall, hairy, reddish-brown thing he spotted the morning of July 21, 1997.
Whatever it was all those people saw, it wasn't a bear. It was too tall, too thin, and it walked on two feet. That leaves two possibilities: either a hoax by a human in a monkey suit or an unknown creature.
Shealy says he has no doubt which of those is the truth. For the past seven months, he has been talking about the Skunk Ape to anyone who will listen, taking TV and print reporters out to look for tracks, and lugging buckets of lima bean bait into the woods. His public relations efforts have helped bring media attention from all over the world to this backwoods corner of South Florida and have attracted scientific investigators as well. His "bean-sets," as he calls the lima bean baits he puts out, also seem to have produced results: Something is taking the beans and leaving fourteen-inch, humanlike footprints behind.
The place we are heading for tonight is one of Shealy's favorite bean-set locations -- a "proven spot," he called it this afternoon as he raked grass and pine needles out of the way to expose clean, unmarked mud. If the Skunk Ape goes for the beans, Shealy explains, he will leave tracks in the mud. It has worked before on this very location, which lies just west of Burns Road -- the scene of the fire chief's sighting. All we have to do is come back in the morning. But after seeing how bright the moon is tonight, Shealy is inspired to check the beans early. So here we are, pushing our way through patches of hip-high sawgrass and palmetto, getting our feet wet in the interest of science. A certain skepticism seems in order -- it's hard to believe we could really get results so soon -- but otherwise, it occurs to me, there are worse ways to spend a warm Saturday night in January.