Swat! Swat! A Day of Wild Adventures in the Fackahatchee


Curator, The Orchid Identification Center
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota, Florida

John! What's that on the back window?" "Probably wet leaves falling from the limbs we're hitting." "No, they're moving around!" I turn and look back. "A cross between a horsefly and a vampire," I say. Actually, it was close to 100 giant bronze-red horseflies, milling around at the back of the van. When we finally stopped moving and turned the motor off, they flew away. Had something in the exhaust gases attracted them? Anyway, the mosquitoes arrived at that point––and stayed all day. Swat!  Swat!  Swat!  Swat! "Spray me, please!" "I need more Spray." Swat!  Swat!  Swat!  Orchid hunting is FUN––Swat! 


On Friday, I had packed field clothing, hiking boots, drinks, food, etc., in my van before going to work for a busy day. At 5:45 pm, I finally fought the traffic out of Sarasota to I-75 South. At 8 pm, I was northeast of Naples on a back road headed for Michelle and Damian's. After an excellent, much needed dinner and good talk, I realized it was late and went to bed. Actually, it was only 1O pm. 


Rising at 6 am on Saturday, 21 July 2001, I found Damian watching the weather channel. Heavy thunderstorms were predicted. "I won't sell any boats on this kind of day," he said, "but you have to go to work." Michelle and I loaded my van, and off we went down a back road that saves 30 plus miles, if you know where to go.


Pentalinon, Ipomoea, Kosteletzkya, Ruellia succulenta, Merremia, and bracken ferns 2 to 3 meters high. Three swallowtail kites circling low over the road. Deer ahead? No, two guys with a gas can, stranded for two hours in the hot sun, as huge black thunderheads move in from the west.

We squeeze them in to the car. Nice guys who live in a very remote place, resenting an ever more intrusive world, and are worried about the kids at their place. We drive them to where their friend has a car, so they can find gas and return with him. We bounce in the potholes. Near the south end of the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve we see the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens van coming towards us, from US 41. I tell them that we'll be right back, drive 3 miles (bounce, bounce), drop the guys to their friend's and then 7 miles back to our meeting place (bounce, bounce, shake, rattle, and bounce,) to park by the Selby van. Michelle and I transfer our stuff to the Selby van and jump in.


Our group has permission to unlock a gate and drive back 3 miles. Overhanging trees bump the roof, horseflies pursue us, we watch for large gators sunning in the road (but see none this time), and park––Swat! Backpacks on, off we hike on a hidden trail. Dr. Wes Higgins, Selby Gardens Director of Systematics and AOS Judge, who recently had spotted a likely place, could not be along.



On the trail, we find plants of Eulophia alta coming up, then a Habenaria floribunda. One tree has a good mass of Vanilla phaeantha. Scattered about on a number of trees are Encyclia tampensis, Epidendrum nocturnum, and E. rigidum, plus many ferns and bromeliads. We reach the lake that Wes found and wade around it, under huge pondapple trees. Epiphytes are thick, among them many bromeliads, two Peperomia species, and big clumps of the rare fern Asplenium auritum. We see various orchids, including Prosthechea cochleata, Polystachya concreta, Pleurothallis gelida, and what's this? A tiny clump of that mystery Prosthechea species thatwe have been watching at a spot several miles to the southwest. Still no flowers. Swat! Maybe it's a new species. Swat!


The big alligator in the center of the lake dives under, then comes up near the same spot, and floats peacefully. Light showers fall. Big storms pass us by on each side, a few miles away. Other gators call. My shirt has a hole on one shoulder. Jeannine snags the shoulder of her shirt to match. Frogs make an almost unbearable racket. Swat! "More spray! Who has some spray handy?" We sit on logs, with some standing knee-deep as we eat lunch. Drink plenty of-liquids. Swat! Admire the epiphytes and continue on around the lake. One step at a time, always using our walking poles for extra support and to probe ahead. We go around a very large tree with fine orchids and find that we are back at the trail, on the old logging tramway. Swat!


We walk back. Swat! Rest a few minutes. Swat! And board the van (Tracy still has the key!).  We drive back out to the gate, with the bounce, bump of trees on the roof. We can't spot the hand fern clumps that we promised Sheila. Our two vans are the only vehicles in the parking lot.


Since it is early, we go out another trail by foot. Swat! Dangerous footing on board bridges, among rocks and cypress knees. Swat! Epidendrum floridense is still where I pointed it out on an HG-TV show about orchids. Ferns of many kinds, giant royal palms, campylocentrums, no sign of the bear. Swat! Off the trail and into a dense swamp, watch for ghost orchids! They're everywhere in here, but widely scattered, hard to see; and recent rains have battered the flowers. For now, we don't find them, yet we must be walking right by them. We reach the Picnic Logs, where on an earlier visit Michelle and I ate lunch, while the bear hid in the ferns and watched. Bletia (the new one, endemic here) and Liparis clumps sprout up on logs and stumps. A few meters away, in a wooded area known as The Cathedral, Epidendrum nocturnum, E. anceps, E. rigidum, Prosthechea pygmaea, P. cochleata, a new miniature Prosthechea species, plus ferns, bromeliads, and Peperomia cover the trees. Fifty orchid species grow in the Fakahatchee. At least half occur within 100 meters of this spot. Here's where Ursula had skinned her shin a couple of years ago. The blue water lily is all over the lake to our immediate right. But it is getting late, and we need to leave. Going out, Michelle finds one Polyrrhiza after another. I pass a small leaning tree that might bewhere a large ghost grows. No, can't find it. But what's this? Three clumps of the mystery Prosthechea, about 100 meters from previous finds. What's this just below them, on the back of the tree? Single thin leaf, no flowers. It may be Maxillaria parviflora, until now known in the USA by only a few plants that Roger Hammer found on one tree several miles away. Malaxis spicata is on several stumps. By now, those with a camera have about worn out the mechanism plus used up many rolls of film. We cut or collect nothing, except information, on our trips. SWAT! And bites. Swat! " Spray me, please." Swat!


We walk out, in a fine drizzle. Does it reduce the mosquitoes?  Swat! No. We load our gear and ourselves into the two vans, drink some liquids, and start driving north, up the back roads to Michelle's. Within a quarter mile, the heavy thunderstorm finally hits. We drive the 22 miles in it. Almost there, in heavy traffic in a residential area, I am watching for a street number where I will turn. A large deer leaps out of a vacant lot on my right, crosses between cars doing 35 to 40 mph each way, leaps over palmettos and runs off across more vacant lots. No sign of the pigs, bear, coons, otter, gators, that share the suburb with humans.


At the house we drink lemonade (cold!), use the rest room, talk about future plans, including possible Selby-Eckerd researches.  Before I go inside, I sit on a riding mower to take off my muddy boots. Michele's two giant but harmless and happy dogs snatch my street shoes. Time for a game with their friend! No, I grab my shoes and put them on. The muddy boots go in a plastic bag, in the back of the car. The dogs are too smart to want anything to do with them. It is too rainy to walk around the 5-acre yard. Damian comes home, in a good humor, despite the rainout at his business.


We drive out their gate, my van leading the Selby van back to the nearby Interstate past endless construction sites. At Ft. Myers, I turn off, to buy gas and grab a bite. No, I'll finish a few potato chips, drink the tomato juice, and eat later. The Selby group is well ahead of me by now.


Across the Caloosahatchee, past Punta Gorda, across the Peace River, onto the long stretch of pineland, mile after mile with few exits, and those with few, if any, facilities. Something ahead. Blinkers, a small dark car way off the road in the palmettos, a wrecker trying to back up to it. Another car, police, several people, standing next to the rain slick road. I drive a mile. Another vehicle on the shoulder. This time it's a white van. I see women in hiking clothes, with blonde hair, standing off to the side. Brakes! I pull over, past their glowing warning triangles, and stop. 


It is 6:3O pm. The right front tire of the Selby van blew suddenly, while in heavy traffic. Tracy controlled it and got off the road. They can't unlock the spare tire and no one brought a cell phone. Sheila has an AAAPlus card and writes down the license, etc. We record my mileage, and she and I head north in my van to find a phone. After 4 miles there is an exit but no businesses or anything. We go west towards the distant US-41. After 4 more miles, we spot a little golf driving range, with a bar and grille. She calls, gives the account. They tell her it is top priority, and the wrecker will arrive within half an hour. Easier than I thought, but we still have to go south, find an exit and turn back north to the Selby van. I remember a little paved cross-over, near where the car went into the woods. We pass the van and see the rest of our group standing there, with a Highway Patrol car blinking away, just ahead of the van about 100 meters. Odd, they usually pull up in back of a breakdown. I find the cross-over, we turn and soon are parked well off the road near the van. No trooper is standing there. He is with a Wildlife officer and a SWAT team––everyone waving rifles––in a small clearing just to our right. They arrest five men on drug smuggling charges. What if there had been a gun battle? Well, there wasn't. An hour passes. The sun is down, the bugs are out. Swat!  Not too loud. What if the SWAT team is jumpy? No, they're professionals, but they search the area, perhaps for evidence, perhaps for more criminals? Swat! Swat! Swat! "ANY spray left?" "Sure." Swat!


Finally, the wrecker comes. The rain has caused accidents all over. In no time, he has the spare loose, switches the wheels, and away we go. I stop in Sarasota. The Selby van, with Tracy and Edit (who in Hungary has never seen anything like today), heads for town. The two Eckerd profs and I eat hamburgers. I arrive home at 11:20 pm. As predicted over dinner, a quick shower and into bed I go. On Sunday, between 3 am and 7 am, my yard fills with 6 inches of rain. Constant lightning flashes and loud thunder keep me awake. At least, I lay quietly stretched out in bed. I don't swat. I do itch. I have red bumps and spots, lots of them. Anyway, we didn't see any snakes all day, and nobody broke any bones. A pretty good day. Orchid hunting is really FUN!