Everglades home to snakes, gators, cable show

Ed Woods, park director of Billie Swamp Safari, looks on Monday, June 28, 2010, at the park located on the Seminole Tribe reservation near Clewiston, Fla. Visitors can explore the almost-untouched swamp firsthand on both land and water, with the Billie Swamp Safari's airboat tour and swamp buggy ride. Woods said he hopes both the "Swamp Men" show and park tours help educate people about Florida wildlife. (AP/ Photo/J Pat Carter)

CLEWISTON, Fla. - The Florida Everglades are home to snakes and gators, and now they're the setting for a cable show called "Swamp Men."

The show takes viewers behind the scenes of an eco-tour company, Billie Swamp Safari, as the staff rescues and relocates wildlife on the Big Cypress Seminole reservation.

But visitors can explore the almost-untouched swamp firsthand on both land and water, with Billie Swamp Safari's airboat tour and swamp buggy ride. Tourists can also watch a critter show and sample traditional Seminole fry bread and even gator nuggets at the Swampwater Cafe.

"Swamp Men" began airing on the National Geographic Wild channel in May. New episodes will begin airing in the fall.

But the swamp tours date back to 1992, bringing in student field trips from local schools and tourists from all over. Tour participants on a recent summer day came from not just South Florida, but as far away as Virginia, Hungary and Pakistan.

Tour guide Hans Lago has something to say about almost every living thing in the swamp as he navigates his airboat through the water. Lago stops the ride to point out the kind of cypress trees from which the Seminoles traditionally carved canoes. He says the elusive ghost orchid really isn't all that hard to find — if you know where to look. And when large gators start swimming up to the boat, he explains the reptiles never stop growing until they die.

Joe Casey came to the park from New Jersey with his wife, son and daughter. He said it's different from the parts of Florida he's seen before — Walt Disney World and the beach.

"You gotta see the alligators," he said. "You see them on TV, but you don't see them on the beach, you see them here."

There are plenty of alligators to be seen during one of the park's 20-minute airboat rides.

Lago said he can never predict what he'll see each time he takes a group out.

Around the first bend might be a school of fish, some lazing turtles or a rare Florida panther skulking. Or there might be a water buffalo chewing on mangrove cud — although water buffalo, along with some of the other animals you might encounter like bison and ostriches, are not native. They were taken in from exotic animal farms, where some, like the ostriches, might have been killed as surplus.

On parts of the tour, the water is as slick and smooth as mirrored glass, not the brackish muck you'd expect to find in the Everglades. On others, it's exactly as imagined: dark, dank and full of gators.

The buggy tours are a different type of excursion. Here the tourists are caged in and the animals roam free. Each buggy is as tall as a house, with a waist-high frame of latticed iron surrounding the elevated seats.

At one point, guide Matthew McLean got out of the buggy to demonstrate how the sabal palm, Florida's state tree, could be used to make shelter, a fishing harpoon and even dinner — hearts of palm, anyone?

And that's not the only edible here. There's also the shoestring fern, which can be boiled to make a stomach-calming tea, and marshmallow plants, which yield a sweet treat after growing in — you guessed it — the marshes (though today's confections are usually made with substitute ingredients).

McLean also pointed out a murky, albeit innocuous-looking pool of water. Surrounded by pop ash trees, it's actually a patch of a quicksand-like substance. Past excavations of the small pond have yielded centuries-old Spanish armour.

McLean said the Seminoles also used the treacherous bits of swamp to trap U.S. soldiers while fighting to retain control of their land. The outnumbered tribe fought the U.S. Army three times between 1817 and 1842. In the end, about 3,800 Seminoles were forcibly removed to Oklahoma but the 500 who remained never signed a peace treaty with the federal government. To this day, their descendents call themselves the "Unconquered People."

Ed Woods, park director at Billie Swamp Safari, said he hopes both the "Swamp Men" show and park tours help educate people about Florida wildlife. But he doesn't want kids to think that they should be handling snakes or alligators the way the staff does in their show. He doesn't like the term "alligator wrestling," and he points out that the handlers here wears special safety gear.

"We're not here to show, we're here to educate," Woods said, adding: "There ain't no reason to stick your head into an alligator's mouth."

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If You Go...

BILLIE SWAMP SAFARI: Everglades eco-tour, Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, Clewiston, Fla.; http://www.swampsafari.com/ or 863-983-6101. Airboat rides run daily every half-hour from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; $15 a person. Swamp buggy tours run every hour from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; adults, $25; children ages 4-12, $15. Alligator and snake shows run daily, 2:15 p.m.; adults, $8; children, $4 (free for 3 and under).

GETTING THERE: From Miami, take Interstate 95 north to 595 west to Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) north. Take exit 49 and follow signs 19 miles to park entrance.

SWAMP MEN CABLE SHOW: http://bit.ly/bFUZY1