Postcards From the Edge

On most maps of South Florida, civilization simply ends somewhere out west. In Broward County the demarcation line is I-75 in the south and the Sawgrass Expressway in the north. In southern Palm Beach County, State Road 7 is pretty much the end, though some development straggles west of the line. These obviously man-made boundaries leave the impression that there's nothing farther west but a vast, uninhabited expanse of the Everglades.

But what appears on maps as a blank is in fact the refuge of a decades-old yet little-known remnant of Old Florida. Out there, hiding in plain sight, are elegant houses and tumbledown shacks, single cabins and motel-like complexes, constructed about as far from anywhere as the builders could get. Which is the whole point.

They're called "hunt camps." While the name alludes to the origin of these structures, it doesn't explain their continued existence. In many parts of the Everglades, the hunting just isn't that good anymore, and fewer people are doing it as South Florida rushes headlong into total suburbanization. Nowadays the camps are more likely to see use as swamp party pads, places to kick back on the weekend with a barbecue and a cooler full of beer.

The camps have been tolerated, if never officially blessed, by the agencies that own the land upon which they squat. Their existence has always been tenuous. The state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission wanted to do away with them 40 years ago. Some environmentalists think the camps and the vehicles used to access them are detrimental to the Everglades.

Nevertheless Big Brother never could decide what, if anything, to do about them. That indecision sent a clear signal: Build away. Today there are about 65 camps in Water Conservation Areas 2 and 3, located in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and as many as 150 more on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The status of camps on Miccosukee land and federal land in Big Cypress are not in question. But camps in the water conservation areas are squatting on public lands owned either by the South Florida Water Management District or the state itself.

State legislators recently decided, however, that the camps can stay. Beginning January 1, 2000, each will be eligible for a 20-year lease, which is a story in itself, amended as it was to a major environmental bill during the 11th hour of the last state legislative session. The politicking involved was so slick it would impress a sugar lobbyist. In fact, camp owners have a sugar lobbyist to thank for their new leases on life.

And for the first time in decades, they know where they stand. Now that they're in a neighborly mood, it's a good time to poke around the Everglades, maybe knock on a few doors and dispel the stereotypes about the kind of people who hang out in the swamps for nothing more than a little R and R.

Jim Eason's four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup is parked by the water at a boat ramp in Conservation Area 2, directly west of Boca Raton. Eason is a lanky, 63-year-old, affable Alabama native who's been hunting, fishing, and kicking around in the Everglades for 35 years. By day he owns an electrical contracting company in West Palm Beach.

This afternoon he's launching his airboat for an overnight run to his camp. The boat is a green Air Gator powered by an air-cooled, six-cylinder, 290-horsepower Continental airplane engine which, like most airboat engines, runs mufflerless. Which makes it deafeningly, painfully loud. But Eason is a consummate nice guy. He hands over his only pair of ear protectors to a passenger. "My hearing's no good anyway," he says with a smile.

It's been raining like biblical times lately, and the bruised-looking clouds are threatening to open up again. The rain is needed, as Conservation Area 2 was bone dry until mid June. The recent rains have put at least a few inches of water on the airboat trails, and the airboaters are itching to get back out there.

"Watch it getting on and off," Eason says in his Alabama drawl, as he welcomes a passenger aboard. "Airboats get slicky."

His camp is five miles north of the landing, about a 20-minute ride in the airboat. Weeds 12 feet tall that shot up during the dry spell are threatening to block the trail in places, as are thick patches of water hyacinth interspersed with floating mud clots. To the untrained eye, it often looks as if there is no trail at all. But Eason knows where he's going. He just gives the boat a little more gas on the rough spots and glides right through.

Despite the din airboats are surprisingly soothing. The noise of a propeller whirling a foot behind your head precludes mindless chatter, leaving passengers with nothing to do but ponder the passing scenery. Not far from the dock, the boat startles a purple gallinule, a small bird prized by birdwatchers for colors that range from pale blue on its forehead to a greenish bronze on its back. The bird takes wing in the same direction as the boat and at the same speed, so for a few moments it appears to hover in midair.

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Bob Whitby