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A twisted tale

Along the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp in Southwest Florida, croaks and growls, soaring cypress trees and alligators peeking through iridescent green ponds reassure anyone who thinks there's no longer any Florida in Florida.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published March 10, 2005


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[Times photo: Jeff Klinkenberg]
The trees at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary run from the small to the oldest and largest living things in Florida — cypress trees that have never fallen prey to the logger’s saw.

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[Times photo: ]
Hurricanes are among the threats to Corkscrew’s trees. Still, the oldest ones have survived six centuries of meteorological assault.
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[Times photo 1997]
Visitors to the sanctuary can see all manner of wildlife, such as this great egret, catching a fish next to the boardwalk.
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Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida is a fine place for eyeballing birds and butterflies, alligators and snakes, turtles and newts. A few lucky visitors stumble across black bears and panthers. Corkscrew is a lovely place to encounter Spanish moss, old man's beard lichen, resurrection fern, pond apple and, inevitably, pond scum.

It might be the very best place in Florida to experience spring.

But what many of us love most are the cypress trees. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, operated by the National Audubon Society, is the Land of the Giants. The 11,000-acre swamp contains the oldest and largest living things remaining in our state. If you are prone to narcissism - if you have spent a little too much time lately shadow-boxing in the mirror - Corkscrew is good medicine. It is a splendid place to discover humility.

The titans in the deepest section of the swamp, accessible by a 2.2-mile boardwalk, never experienced a logger's saw. Some trees reach 130 feet into the March sky. Four tall men, if they were comfortable enough with their masculinity to grasp hands, might be able to wrap their arms around the trunks of the largest trees. But maybe not. In the Land of the Giants, even a macho man is right puny.

Close encounters

"There is no other place in Florida like this."

Ed Carlson, the Paul Bunyan of swamp men, is bragging. He's 6 feet 5, wears size 13 boots and weighs - well, never mind the claims of untrustworthy scales. Just say that when he wades through muck he is heavy enough to worry about sinking. Yet even he is a twig here. Craning his neck to gaze at the treetops, he almost grows dizzy.

Carlson, 54, discovered Corkscrew as a teenager. A summer job resulted, then a science education at the University of South Florida, followed by full-time employment in the Land of Giants. Now he runs the joint.

When Carlson ambles down the long boardwalks of the sanctuary, talking a mile a minute, the thrill for him is not gone.

"Hear that? A red-shouldered hawk. Oh, listen: a pileated woodpecker. Oh, snowy egret. See the plume feathers? Breeding season is here. Wow: Check out that banded water snake! It's HUGE. One time I was wading through the swamp and suddenly a cottonmouth was lying in a clump of water lettuce that was building up INCHES in front of me in deep water and I swear that cottonmouth was looking me straight in the eye. . . ."

Ed Carlson is the kind of swampman who even takes joy in a close encounter with a venomous serpent.

Fortunately, visitors need not play chicken with moccasins to enjoy Corkscrew. They can saunter along a sturdy boardwalk and chat with park rangers situated every hundred yards or so. The lazy can even watch a movie in the spectacular visitor center and call it quits. Or take home one of those cool, colorful $2 guides from the bookstore.

But most of us travel the boardwalk, which twists through the trees like one of the Swampman's snakes. Carlson was so loath to harm certain trees he changed the route of the boardwalk or left gaps so trees could sprout through the slats.

At Corkscrew, the celebrities are pond cypress and bald cypress trees, so named because they lose their needles in winter. At first, a visitor encounters pond cypress. They're modest in size - think of them as the wooden matches of the forest. Deeper in the swamp, a visitor encounters the first bald cypress trees. They're larger than the pond cypress - a cigarette to a wooden match. Keep walking until you reach the heart of the swamp, the dwelling place for the grandfather trees. Compared to those matches and cigarettes, they're Cuban cigars.

When the Spaniards first explored La Florida those trees were already a century old.

By all rights, they should be gone. Loggers harvested virtually every ancient cypress tree from Florida in the early 20th century. In 1954, Audubon acquired Corkscrew, named after a twisty river that flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Now we can experience a true primeval forest. Now we can stand on the boardwalk and stare slack-jawed at the old ones.

If these trees could talk, they might tell of Calusa warriors and Spanish conquistadors - as well as the space age.

Songs of the Mesozoic

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Corkscrew, if bittersweet, sort of like autumn in the North. Yes, weather is comfortable, flowers are in bloom and baby birds are atwitter. But before long we'll be wishing we all bought hurricane shutters.

Corkscrew, east of Bonita Springs, was spared a direct hit from Charley last August. But winds still sheared off tops of a few stately trees. Hurricanes, and fire, are among the only things that can hurt the grandfather trees. Even so they have endured all manner of insult during the last six centuries and are still standing tall. If they can avoid bad luck they have another good 400 years of life in them.

"What I worry about most is fire," Ed Carlson says. In a severe drought even swamps catch fire. "We believe there was a catastrophic drought about 600 years ago that was followed by a catastrophic wildfire. I hope I never live to see such a fire in my lifetime."

Corkscrew Swamp looks like it was here at the dawn of creation. On an overcast day, it feels like a black-and-white movie; you almost expect King Kong to burst through the trees. Night herons call, even during the day, and frogs respond with frantic grunting and creaking. In two months or so, amorous alligators will join the concert with their bellowing.

Carlson, hardly timid about abandoning the boardwalk, watches his step during alligator mating season. More than once he has been chased through the water, through the ferns and over the muck, by testy saurians. Even a large man can move fast in the Land of Giants when he has a mind to.

An alligator bellow, a song from the Mesozoic, is a warning to stay on the boardwalk. Fortunately, visitors can stay out of harm's way when admiring a cypress knee, which is something like a root that pokes out of the water next to the trunk of a tree. A cypress knee, by the way, looks like the cap worn by Merlin in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Nobody has quite figured out their purpose though Ed Carlson has a theory: Muck collects between the knees. Muck eventually rises above the water. Voila! Land ahoy. Cypress trees don't mind dry feet once in a while.

"Hey, look over there! See them?"

We know spring has arrived when the wood storks return to Corkscrew. An endangered species, wood storks - they're a tall wading bird with a featherless black head - are already building nests in the tops of cypress trees. By April, Corkscrew will be a nursery to 500 pairs or more. In the old days, of course, Corkscrew could boast 5,000 nests and 15,000 chicks. Those days are gone, not because Corkscrew has changed, but because surrounding land, where parent wood storks once hunted food for their offspring, is now tomato farms, citrus groves and strip-shopping centers.

When one visits the Land of the Giants, strolling a boardwalk perched over prehistoric reptiles, as herons cry and leopard frogs croak from the foliage - it is easy to pretend that Florida is still an ancient place, untouched by modernity.

On the way home, stuck in the interstate traffic, honking at the idiot who keeps changing lanes, you'll know the truth of the matter.

Try to hang on to your memories.

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is northeast of Naples, at the end of Sanctuary Road West, off Immokalee Road CR 846, 15 miles east of Exit 111 on I-75. Open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (until 7:30 p.m. from April 12 through Sept. 30). Food: modest cafe and picnic area. Admission: $10 adults, discounts for others. Call (239) 348-9151 or go to www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 09:39:05]


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