Bear Island reveals remote Big Cypress
BEAR ISLAND , Fla. — A quarter of a tank of gas going west from Miami will get you there.
As we set up our camp site, I heard the wind rustle some leaves. More importantly, I heard the wind rustle the leaves of some trees about a half-mile away, getting louder as it approached us. The dead-calm silence of the camp tweaked one of my senses to life, shockingly.
Was I still in Florida?
Yes. I’m in the best part.
Bear Island, at the western corner of the Big Cypress National Preserve, offers this environment. The remote campgrounds strip camping to the bear essentials. No water or bathrooms on the site and the dump station is about a quarter of a mile down the road. This place is about as anti-Miami as you can get.
My partner and I had bet on it.
We pitched our tent under a young palm tree so we could tie the top of it up. We didn’t have any spokes, but it didn’t matter. There was no one to impress at this campsite.
Well, not quite. Butterflies circled my bicycle, hawks and egrets flew in the distance, and we were pretty certain we’d run into some larger animals later, as the sun went down.
|Alligators swim near the Visitor Center in the Big Cypress National Preserve along U.S. 41 (Photo by Tiffany Parrett).|
Turns out we did. Dave and Linda Stanker, both 58, of Port Orange, FL, biked past our site as my partner collected dead wood for our fire. Surprised; we had just returned from exploring the area by bike, and they were the first people we had seen since the Oasis Visitor Center.
“Oh no, you aren’t alone here,” Dave informed us. “There are a few other campers and the RV site has three other families at it.”
“We didn’t see anything around us and we can’t hear them at all,” my partner said.
“Exactly,” Dave said smiling. “Welcome to Bear Island.”
While there are other places to camp in Big Cypress, Bear Island is farthest from anything resembling civilization. After leaving the Visitor Center, it’s still 20 more miles up a dirt-road, at 30 m.p.h., before you get to the campgrounds.
Any exploring to be done must be on foot or bike. No cars are allowed. Special permits can be acquired at the Visitor Center for off-roading ATVs, though.
My partner and I had biked a few trails while we still had some sun, but the un-paved ground was pretty moist, and previous ATV-ing had cut huge ruts into the ground. We still had a good work-out, though, and were mesmerized by the flora and fauna around us.
“Camping in these remote areas really lets your mind settle,” Linda said. “After we retired we bought an RV and decided to travel the state, just enjoying the nature of it.”
“You can’t beat Big Cypress this time of year,” Dave said. “We like the Everglades, but usually it’s too hot or the bugs are too fierce. Right now, though, at the end of winter, it’s not so bad.”
While most of the nation may be wondering how February can count as the end of winter, the answer was obvious as soon as the sun set for good. What had been a warm day turned into a cold night, but not before the mosquitoes came out to say hello.
Caught off guard, my partner and I made a dive for our tent. The fire hadn’t been set up yet. We’d barely even gotten to say goodbye to Dave and Linda, before we were swatting and smacking at the air.
It felt like summer in Miami, at its finest.
After an hour, thankfully, the mosquitoes calmed down and went away. The temperature dropped significantly and once it was safe to venture away from the tent my partner got the fire going. We still didn’t see any light from the other campsite around us, but we were glad not to. We didn’t want any light drowning out the million tiny stars painting the night sky above us.
Unlike anything we’d ever seen in Miami before, these stars blanketed the sky. While roasting hot-dogs on the fire, my partner and I told stories about the different constellations— and what a change it was- to be able to point at them in mid-story.
Of course, the night had some drawbacks. It took us about an hour to realize there was no moon, which meant there was absolutely no light once our fire went out. We could also sense that the weather wasn’t going to hold, as the stars disappeared behind fast-moving clouds that we couldn’t even see, but could sense.
And then, the scariest moment of every campers life.
“Get your flashlight! Shine it at the bushes!” my partner ordered me to do, as we heard the shrubs and trees around us come to life violently. I did as I was told.
|Writer Marcus Giusti points to the tent held by a line between two trees at Bear Island (Photo by Tiffany Parrett).|
My mind raced, thinking of the animals we had seen earlier. We’d been warned of alligators and bobcats, and of course, panthers. This was panther country after all, and Bear Island juts right up against the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
I thought of this in the split second it took for me to hear my partner’s commands and get my flashlight. Shining it at the bushes, though, revealed the culprits.
“Of course,” she said, sarcastically. “Armadillos.”
“And a weasel. I should have known!” my partner said. “Cats don’t let themselves be known. If it sounds like a herd of elephants, it’s an armadillo. If you don’t hear or see it at all, then you got problems.”
Maybe there are some things about Miami I didn’t miss after-all.
After laughing off our near-death armadillo experience, my partner and I put out the fire and retired to the tent for the night. As we expected, raindrops started to trickle on our heads several hours after we’d fallen asleep.
Being woken up at 8 a.m. under a soggy blanket is no way to start any day, but it was a good indicator that our time at Bear Island was coming to a close.
The night had been pretty moist and pretty cold, but the early morning was beautiful. A thick fog surrounded the trees, and the quietude remained. We packed up camp, loaded the trunk of the car, hitched up the bikes, and headed back down that 20-mile dirt road.
We didn’t see a single soul the entire time.
|A sleeping bag view of the campsite at Bear Island in the Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo by Tiffany Parrett).|
If You Go
The Big Cypress National Preserve is west of Miami on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail).
There are no entrance fees.
Big Cypress Visitor Center at Oasis
- Open: 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Closed Dec. 25
- Phone: 239-695-1201
- Location: On U.S. 41, Tamiami Trail, approximately half-way between Naples and Miami.
- Closures: The visitor center is closed on Dec. 25.
- Exhibits: The visitor center offers a 15-minute movie about the preserve, a wildlife exhibit and book sales.
- Open All Year
- Details: Primitive camping with no water or rest room facilities. Three designated, primitive campgrounds: Bear Island, Pink Jeep and Gator Pit. Pink Jeep and Gator Pit require an Off-Road Vehicle Permit to access. 40 sites available at Bear Island. Campgrounds may close seasonally or temporarily for repairs or resource concerns. Please contact the visitor center for current campground information.
- Make a right out of the Oasis Visitor Center onto the Tamiami Trail. Make a right up Turner River Road (839), which turns into a dirt road for 20 miles. Make a right into the Bear Island Campground.
Off Road Vehicles
- Permit Office at Oasis Visitor Center
- ORV inspection times are Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday 8:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.