Airboat tours highlight Miccosukee culture
SHARK VALLEY, Fla.— The small group of anxious visitors stood in line in the small brown wooden shack on U.S. Hwy. 41 early on a bleak Saturday morning, fingering the cotton balls they were advised to take and staring intently at the brightly painted, mid-sized craft they came to ride.
The visitors came to the Miccosukee Indian Everglades Airboat Tours, just west of the entrance to Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley, to take in the unique and beautiful scenery that could be found only in South Florida’s “River of Grass.”
They came from as close by as Miami and the Keys and as far away as Germany and Russia. They arrived by recreational vehicles or rented cars from the airport. They spoke several languages among them, but one voice with a distinctive southern American accent asserted itself above the others.
|Miccosukee Indian arts and crafts are displayed at an Everglades National Park camp.|
“That ain’t nothing more than a speed boat,” said Frank Grazette, dismissing the docked airboat that his wife, Marie, and 14 others were excitedly waiting to ride.
Of course, as Marie reminded him, he had never been on a speedboat, but he knew that neither it nor the airboat would prove a challenge for him, a tough retired army postal worker from Shreveport, La.
This is what Grazette said before he went speeding due northwest, with cotton stuffed in his ears, through the vast expanse of brown saw grass and black water in the Everglades aboard an airboat heading to a Miccosukee Indian campground nestled in the hammocks of the Glades.
Grazette, like the other passengers, found himself grimacing and tightly gripping the hand bars in front of his seat, as the brief, light rain from the gray sky pelted his face like a sand blaster. Everyone laughed nervously and tried to shove the invaluable cotton balls deeper in their ears, as the deafening noise from the airboat’s airplane engine and propeller threatened their eardrums.
When the brief shower ended, the passengers were able to enjoy the cool, morning breeze and allow their eyes to fully roam their surroundings. The cessation of the rain permitted some to use their hands as an extra muffler against the loud roaring of the airboat. Some pulled out their cameras. Some curious riders seized the chance to squirm around and sneak a peak at their Miccosukee driver, Joe Tiger, manning the watercraft.
The main attractions, the famous alligators, mainly hid that morning, trying to avoid the slight chill in the air. But, the simple beauty of the seemingly never-ending horizon of tall grass and placid waters was striking enough. Birds could be seen flying in the distance, and a couple ducks swam by slowly.
Finally arriving at the camp, Tiger, the silent driver who stood in stark contrast to his noisy airboat, docked the boat alongside a wooden bridge at the old campground. Passengers were permitted to get off and explore the camp for 10 minutes, just as the rain subsided.
“I’m glad to get off that damned thing–I held on for dear life,” Grazette joked. “Don’t think I’ll be riding any speedboat now after this.”
The airboat ride was a new experience to most of the passengers, but they generally seemed to enjoy it.
“I’ve never done this before, and I just had to try it,” Liz Baum, who came from Boston with her husband Roger, said. “Once the rain ended it was really exciting.”
The group headed up the bridge and the first thing they saw was a six-foot alligator lounging alongside the bridge, a little too close for most people. It showed no signs of moving, and was certainly not the least bit interested in the frightened humans who rushed past it.
“I have to take a picture of him because I have never seen an alligator in my life,” said camera-ready Gerhard Schwarz of Bavaria, Germany. “My wife does not want me to get close, though.”
The bridge became a path headed into the saw grass, where the wildlife could be viewed. Several species of birds sat in the brush of the hardwood hammock. The purple gallinules were particularly eye catching.
“The Glades is a birdwatcher’s paradise,” commented Joanne Smith of Miami, who was pointing out the different species to the rest of the group. “I usually come down here with a group a couple of times a year to watch for birds.”
A lone, older native Miccosukee woman sat in a rocking chair knitting under one of the thatched huts, called chickees. She scarcely acknowledged the gaping stares of the curious people who were touring her chickee and another one nearby.
“I wonder if she was planted here,” Smith said. “It seems strange for her to be all the way out here alone.”
Many of the female visitors were drawn to inspect the old pots, pans, and other old Miccosukee cooking utensils on display. Small totem poles captivated interest. Couples posed for pictures in front of practically everything.
“You have to be impressed with how they lived,” said Roger Baum. “These chickees are so sturdy … to think that [the Miccosukee] didn’t even use hammers and nails to build them.”
When the campgrounds had been toured thoroughly, everyone reclaimed their seats on the airboat and re-stuffed their ears. The Miccosukee woman joined the group on the boat.
On the ride back, small alligators could be seen swimming swiftly near the mangroves and saw grass, and the cameras snapped their images away. The sky was beginning to darken again, and the occasional osprey, Everglades kite and spoonbill could be seen flying overhead heading for shelter. When the rain began, it came down with more fury than before, forcing the passengers to hold on and cover their faces. It would soon end.
The airboat ride is supposed to last only 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer. Take away the rain and the noise of the motor, and you experienced an incomparable way of traversing the majestic grandeur of the River of Grass. It would be hard not to enjoy the ride.
“We’re going to ride again later in the day if it gets hotter,” Luba Milanovich said of her and her husband Dmitri, who are from Moscow, Russia. “We want to try it again and maybe see some more alligators.”
IF YOU GO:
Different operators offer airboat rides all along Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41. The Miccosukee Indian Everglades Airboat Tours is open daily, with rides going on throughout the day.
Rides cost $10 per person; children under 5 ride free.