BY DAVE GRISWOLD
Special to The Miami Herald
Smack in the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve, a rare stretch of the Florida Trail open to bicyclists is chock full of wildlife that few people see.
The rest area at mile 63 on Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) is a staging ground for adventurous wildlife viewing, no matter the prosaic look to the building and parking lot. From this spot, the Florida Trail cuts under the highway on its way south and north. For much of its distance the trail is only for hiking, but heading north from I-75 is a stretch suitable (and open) to off-road bicycles.
My winter rides here in Big Cypress find the sides of the canals full of alligators and turtles basking. In late spring the air is filled with myriad calls of passionate frogs. Summer is turkeys racing down the trail ahead of me and numerous deer. And each season I find the tracks of Florida panthers pressed into the sand and mud of the trail.
Few hikers and bikers visit this area, so you’ll probably have the road to yourself. Because of this the animals that frequent the trail are shy. Being quiet and keeping a respectful distance will help you see more than their backsides as they dive into the water or bound between the trees.
The trail is fun to ride even if you don’t know much about nature, but I recommend taking along a field guide to identify what you see. To experience all the subtle gifts nature reveals, make full use of all your senses. Look ahead to see what might be lurking along the sides of the road, scan the road bed for animal tracks and small creatures, breathe in the scents of the plants and animals outside your vision and listen for wildlife calls and movements.
For the last year I’ve taken my bike up this trail dozens of times, mostly in the dry season, but also in the wet season. I keep coming back for the incredible wildlife experiences.
This portion of the Florida Trail follows Nobles Road, an old dirt and gravel road that runs past what were once farms. A canal paralleling the road is what draws the wildlife.
Shark Valley in the Everglades National Park is known to many cyclists and nature enthusiasts in South Florida, but is not the only place to get up close to wildlife on your bicycle, or even the best. As Yoda said “There is another.” And this trail in Big Cypress is the best.
December to May are the optimal times to ride in Big Cypress, as this is the dry season (meaning fewer bugs and cooler, drier weather), but rides in the wet season can also be interesting as long as you check the weather before going out and take plenty of bug spray.
My first ride in February set the tone for all my rides after that. The day was perfect, with lots of sun but not very hot, and I saw an exceptional number of animals.
Herons and egrets flew up from the canal, croaking their alarm calls. A couple miles up the trail, I saw what looked like a yellow-orange rope coming out from the brown grass that edged the road. I lay on my belly and focused my camera on a lovely Everglades rat snake. He coiled up as I approached and eyed me suspiciously as I took dozens of shots, his black and red tongue flicking out to test the air.
I saw many alligators along the canal, but farther up the road, a gator basked on a fallen palmetto trunk. He was light gray from the mud that had dried on him, so I nicknamed him Dusty. He promptly took a dislike to my watching him and dove into the water with a loud splash, disappearing into his hole in the bank, which was almost completely submerged. Over the next months we were to become acquaintances, if not friends.
Above the slash pines and cypress lining the road the sky stretched on forever, frosted with wedding cake clouds out of a Clyde Butcher photograph.
Off to the left was an artificial lake about the length and width of a railroad car. I walked over to see what might be hiding there. I heard the constant plops of leaping fish. Whirligig beetles danced their dervish gambol on the water’s surface. Suddenly a small snake popped out of the dried grass and opened its wide white mouth. I stepped back as the Cottonmouth twined quickly back into the grass toward the lake. So much for their reputation of ferocity.
Back on my bike I soon reached the point where the Florida Trail (marked orange) splits from Nobles Road (marked blue after this point). This is as far north as bikes are allowed.
I’d had a good ride and didn’t expect to see as much on the way back south, and for the first hour I was right. Then I saw two dark shapes on either side of the road. As I got closer, I saw they were an alligator and a large cottonmouth facing off. When they sensed me, though, they decided I was the most dangerous creature in the mix. With an explosion of movement, they crashed and slithered back into the brush on either side, then splashed into the water and disappeared.
As the sun moved below the tops of the slash pines to the west, I came upon a young Eastern diamondback rattlesnake crawling across the road and stopped to photograph him. He just sat there, stretched out, without a single shake of his rattle. The distinctive diamond pattern along his back was absolutely beautiful, each scale in black, cream or a wide pallet of browns like an intricate mosaic. Even as I rode off he sat there, secure in his territory.
I started out earlier than normal because thunderstorms were predicted in the afternoon. The rainy season had begun, but the canals were still bereft of water in most places as the dry season had been extremely parched.
Almost immediately the quacking “wonk-wonk-wonk” calls of squirrel tree frogs surrounded me. Peering into the saw palmettos lining the road, I saw the diminutive songsters and their paramours clinging to the fronds, shaded in browns and greens, throats pulsing, goggle eyes alert.
In the canal were the frogs’ jelly-like egg masses and swarms of the wriggling black polliwogs that were emerging from them. The drawn out buzzing “baaas” of Eastern narrow-mouthed toads, the rapid fire clucks of Southern leopard frogs and the explosive grunts of pig frogs painted a vocal picture of the diversity of amphibian life along the trail.
I’d seen many red-shouldered hawks over the past few months, but on that day one sat in a dead tree near the road and shrieked his calls for the world to hear, oblivious of my presence. He gazed over his domain, ruffling his feathers, preening and yawning. Finally, hearing the call of his mate, he leapt off his perch and with a few quick wing beats flew off.
Farther up the road I came upon a fellow traveler, an alligator taking advantage of the clear right of way. He paused in his sprawling waddle, plopping down on his belly to wait for me to pass.
Patches of fire milkweed were surrounded by queen butterflies, toned-down versions of their more famous cousins, the monarchs.
Far off rumbles of thunder made me look up. Towering cumulonimbus clouds approached from the east. I picked up my cadence, hoping to beat them to my car.
I stopped my race, however, when I came upon Dusty the alligator’s hole, now completely exposed in the dry canal. Clambering down the side of the canal I peeked inside. As my eyes adjusted I saw Dusty lying supine in the gray mud that remained inside, waiting out the dry season in his haven of shade and dampness. A few weeks before he had a dozen Southern leopard frogs as boarders. Had they become hors d’oeuvres, or did they dislike their landlord? More likely they were lustily mating in puddles.
A swallow-tailed kite glided overhead, master of the air. It circled, its white and black profile a perfect fit in the firmament, and flew past a palmetto to snatch a bit of dried frond for nesting material. But how can a creature so wedded to the sky need so prosaic a construction as a nest?
A year ago I would have considered it insane to travel in Big Cypress in the summer. I would have envisioned myself eaten alive by mosquitoes and dodging Zeus’ lighting wrath. But rain was not due until the afternoon, and the insects were nothing that some bug spray and a steady pace on the bike couldn’t deter.
The canals were filled to overflowing, spreading out into the cypress forest, and the alligators had followed the water to new feeding grounds. Months ago I had startled a pair of otters on the road, and with no water to retreat to they had run through the dry canal into the woods on the other side and out of sight. Now they would have seemed more at home in the fully liquid summer.
Deer were numerous, feeding at the side of the road and in the brush between the slash pines. Does and fawns vaulted into the thickets of saw palmetto as I drew near, and the road was crisscrossed with their hoof prints and the splayed tracks of turkeys.
Occasionally I saw the spoor of Florida panthers on the trail, mixing predator and prey in a story told in footprints.
Turkeys would flee down the road far ahead of me like miniature raptors from Jurassic Park. As I rounded each bend they would run off at full tilt again. After a few times playing this game they would erupt into the air with heavy wing beats, flying off into the trees. I picked up the wide brown feathers they were molting, poking them into my hat.
At the north end of the road, I glimpsed a small coiled shape. I plopped down on my stomach to photograph this dusky pygmy rattlesnake. If I’d been foolish enough to pick it up, it would have fit in my palm. Its colors were beautiful — light gray accented with an ocher stripe down the back punctuated with regular black splotches.
It shook its tiny rattle and struck repeatedly at me (I was well out of range), making up in aggressiveness what it lacked in size.
The most poignant sight in all these trips was two sets of tracks side by side, the common and easily seen American alligator’s tracks headed north and a rare and elusive Florida panther’s going south. What better image of what’s possible to discover in Big Cypress?
BICYCLING THE FLORIDA TRAIL
• Getting there: Nobles Road is accessible from the rest stop on Interstate 75 at mile 63, about 40 miles west of U.S. 27. One way toll is $2.50, no toll on return trip. Park in the parking lot near the building (this rest stop is open and staffed 24 hours a day).
From the parking lot pedal east, minding incoming cars, turn north to go beneath the I-75 overpass, then east and follow the shoulder of the exit ramp until you come to an access gate to your north (you will still be on the exit ramp). Pass through the gate and latch it behind you to prevent wildlife from crossing the road.
You’re now on Nobles Road. A few hundred feet ahead it will curve to the left where you will find a mailbox. Sign the register book inside and take a map.
• Facilities: The rest stop has vending machines, water fountains (chemical tasting water) and bathrooms. This area is always active and safe. There are no other facilities.
• On the trail: The road’s grade is level, but there are rocks, ruts and large puddles in places. Your bike should have wide tires, and a repair kit is a good idea (patches and frame pump). Bring plenty of water, along with insect spray and sunscreen. When riding a bike your hands and calves get extra sun exposure, so coat them well.
• Camping: There is a camping site just off Nobles Road about 4 ½ miles north of I-75. It’s free; register at the sign-in box. No potable water. Otherwise the closest places to stay are in Westin or Naples.
• Information: The Florida Trail Association, http://www.floridatrail.org.