You drive 80 miles west from Miami, across that great sponge called the Everglades, past the signs advertising AIRBOAT RIDE and ALLIGATOR WRESTLING and INDIAN VILLAGE and SNAKES, and just when the Tamiami Trail begins curving back toward civilization, toward frosty places like Tampa and Nashville and Chicago and Anchorage, you take a hard left on Florida Route 29. The two-lane road runs for eight or 10 miles to the south, and then it quits at a dead end in a region loosely known as the Ten Thousand Islands, a nearly unspoiled wilderness that barely abides man, teems with snook and redfish and tarpon, is scented with wild orchids, water lilies and hibiscus and watched over by rattlesnakes and alligators and crocodiles. No city-sissy tenderfeet need apply.
Here on the edge of Everglades National Park, in an area uncontaminated by hordes of tourists, the natives take their living from the swamps and the sea. There are shrimpers and mackerel fishermen, crab potters and gill netters, families that serve wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and every other chance they get, poachers who jacklight alligators by night. The few villages here look like sets by Jo Mielziner for plays by Tennessee Williams. An abandoned market bakes in the ferocious sun; hurricane-wrecked shrimp boats and dinghies slowly rot into the weeds along tidal creeks; and cattle egrets patrol abandoned lawns looking for snacks.
This is where the fresh water meets the salt, the "vital zone" where life abounds. The water seeps out of the Everglades, gets up a head in rivers like the Harney, the Shark and Lostmans and pulses in a reddish-chocolate color through the mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands into the Gulf of Mexico. With few exceptions, the land lies only five or six feet above sea level, and many of the houses are perched on stilts to allow occasional floods to swirl underneath. Some say the area is misnamed, that there are at least 17,000 islands at low tide, ranging from 6,000 acres down to a few square feet of oyster shell, in a line about 80 miles long and 10 miles wide down the coast. Edged with mangrove trees, matted and thick and propped up on their roots, the islands form a maze of waterways: sounds and bays and tidal creeks, rivers and lakes and inlets, and never the same from one year to the next. "These islands change with every storm," says Homer Rhodes, naturalist and fisherman, who has been around the area most of his life. "Islands disappear, passes and creeks either get bigger or die out, and you have to stay on your toes when you're cruising out there."
Bird watchers are the most frequent visitors, and fishermen next, and all of them are accepted with bemused tolerance by the locals. Once in a while there is a direct and abrasive meeting, mostly the result of different approaches to conservation. "Sometime an outsider'll come in here and try to catch out every fish in the water," a local guide explains. "We don't like that, and we tell 'em so. Then, on the other hand, there's the young boy from Everglades City that guided a party from the National Audubon Society up the creeks one day. After they'd saw about a skillion kinds of birds, one little old lady said, 'Now tell us, sonny, which bird do you like the best?' And the kid said, 'Well, ma'am, the truth is most of these birds is too fishy. The white ibis I guess is the best. Like half chicken, half beef.' That woman gave a little yelp, and she says, 'You mean to say you eat the white ibis?' And the kid says, 'Why, yes, ma'am, ever'body around here eats 'em.' The lady hollers, 'You take us back this instant!' She says, 'This instant!' "
The white ibis, or "Chokoloskee chicken," as it is locally known, has been a staple item of diet in the Ten Thousand Islands for 100 years, and although it is strictly forbidden to kill anything except fish in the Everglades National Park, the consumption of white ibis remains a constant among the locals. "It is truly amazing," said an oldtimer, "how many of them birds gets theirselves run over by cars and boats and things nowadays."
"Ain't nothin' in the world tastes so good," says Fishing Guide Walter Brown, who lives in a trailer on one of the islands. "I've eat just about every kind of bird there is, and I haven't come to anything that can beat our white ibis. And after you fry 'em you mix the drippings with flour and water, and you got yourself the best thick brown gravy there is."
Park Ranger James Denslow, an intense young man who will unleash a 30-minute lecture on conservation at the drop of a hint, says he knows why the bird is so delicious. "Look what they feed on: snails, shrimp, crayfish, all delicacies themselves. The natives shot some rookeries to pieces years ago. There were flocks of thousands and thousands in the old days, and when they were shot at they'd fly away and make a big circle a half a mile wide and settle right back down for the hunters to blast 'em again. Now there still are a lot of white ibis in the park, but only a fraction of what there used to be."
The bird life of the Ten Thousand Islands, especially in the southern two-thirds within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, is so rich and variegated as to make bird watchers choke with emotion and natives salivate. "Friend of mine was out paddling one day," Guide Douglas House said, "when he shot a wild turkey on one of the islands. My friend paddled up to shore, and what did he see but the turkey standing there! So he chased it down and wrung its neck. On the way back to his boat, he stepped over the turkey he shot! That same guy killed 42 coots on one blast of No. 6 shot. Course, it takes a lot of coots to make a meal. All you do is cut out the breast and throw the rest away."
Walter Brown chimed in: "If you serve 'em that way you're missin' the best part. What you ought to do is take out the gizzard and throw the rest away." Chacun � son go�t.
A trip through the area of the Ten Thousand Islands usually produces at least one major bird-watching breakthrough. The brown pelican, now dying out along much of the Gulf Coast, comes plummeting into the water from 60 feet up and hits with all the grace and dignity of a fat man off a high board. More than once on trips into the Ten Thousand Islands I jerked my head around to see what was attacking the boat, only to find a brown pelican bobbing to the surface, licking his chops and burping softly. Almost all the water birds of the island area are skilled fishermen, but the smartest money is on the white pelican, a huge bird that summers in national parks like Grand Teton and Yellowstone and winters in Everglades National Park, thus remaining on the federal payroll all his life. Not content to dive and grab an occasional solitary fish, the white pelicans band together and form a line across tidal creeks or bays. At a signal from the foreman, they begin to swim forward and beat their heavy beaks on the water. The commotion drives frightened baitfish into pockets, where the pelicans can relax and enjoy an urbane meal.