Touring The Everglades,
Cracker Style

by Lanita Bradley Boyd

The Seminole Princess eased away from the small dock and out into the narrow Black River that cut through a thick expanse of trees. As passengers we were anticipating a relaxing hour observing nature in the Collier-Seminole State Park, but with Captain Ray Evans we received unexpected bonuses.

Captain Ray calls himself a “Florida cracker.” He says the term originated from farmers in Florida who used to crack a bull whip over the heads of cattle. The whips didn’t touch the cattle, but made a frightening cracking sound that made them move. Whatever the origin, the term is now used to refer to native Floridians, and Captain Ray is proud to claim the designation.

Wiry, with sun-weathered skin and long reddish hair, the Captain wears his captain’s hat and leather jacket with flair. He expertly negotiated the dark waters as we headed six miles toward the Gulf of Mexico.

After introducing himself, he started talking about the Everglades in general and this habitat in particular—mangroves, part of the wilderness preserve. The mangrove trees had tangled and intertwined branches and roots. Looking over the side of the boat gave no clue as to the depth of the water. Almost immediately, Captain Ray answered my unspoken question.

“Mangroves grow in saltwater or brackish water,” he said. “Each tree drops three tons of leaves a year into the water. They release tannin, which makes the water so brown you can’t tell it’s so shallow.” He added, “In fact, if you can see the bottom, you’re stuck.”

There are many small tributaries that appeal to canoeists and kayakers. “I’m always getting calls for help from people who’ve taken out canoes or kayaks, “he said. “They’ve capsized and are screaming for help, and I just say, ‘Stand up.’ They are shocked to realize that the water is only about waist high. You can’t tell that by looking.”

A great blue heron floats overhead and gently skims the water, prompting questions about what other wildlife we would see. He pointed out several turkey buzzards high in the sky. We watched the buzzards glide to their perches, oblivious to the people below. We looked for alligators and manatees, but the weather wasn’t right for them.

“There are definitely sharks here. If anyone tells you sharks don’t swim in shallow water, they’ve either never been here or they work for the Chamber of Commerce. Occasionally you’ll see an armadillo here—possum on the half shell, we call it,” Captain Ray added. “There are lots of raccoons and possums. In case you don’t know what a possum looks like, it’s like a rat on steroids. There are 27 kinds of snakes in the Everglades, but only four will kill you.

“Actually, it only takes one of those four to kill you.” This sobering thought kept all fingers inside the boat.

“Can we walk on these islands?” a visitor asks.

“Why?” was the response. “Why would you want to? The roots are so deep that if you fall in the mire you’ll probably break a leg just getting out. This is not Orlando. This is real.”

Then he added, “AAA doesn’t come here!”

Interspersed with his pointing out various flora and fauna, we learned some Florida history, Captain Ray style. The Calusa were the first native people here. They were a warrior race, unusually tall for Native Americans—6 feet or taller. They were called “brown giant infidels” by Ponce de Leon, who was eventually killed by the Calusa. They lived off the water, not the land, eating conch, clams, oysters, fish, crabs, turtles, and alligators. They found an island with fresh water, so they raised the level of it with shells. Shell mounds that still remain are up to thirty feet tall. Some were burial mounds, but primarily they formed a higher and safer place to live.

“They made arrowheads of shark teeth or queen conch. This weapon was unique to the Calusa, thus the term ‘conched on the head,’” said the captain.

The last of the Calusa died in the 1790s—many killed by smallpox—and eventually Native Americans from various other tribes fled to Florida when their lands were taken from them. These fragments collectively became known as Seminoles.

Captain Ray has a friend, Tommy Crow, whose bumper sticker reads, “America: Love It or Give It Back.” Though not claiming any Native American ancestry, our captain made clear his respect and admiration for the original inhabitants of these waters. He continued his review of Everglades history, “Barron (a name, not a title) Collier was a Florida entrepreneur who never did anything on a small scale. By 1923, he had bought 1.4 million acres in Florida. He built a road from Tampa to Miami, thus called the Tamiami Trail, which is now U S 41. He used dynamite to build the road and destroyed much wildlife in the process,” our guide explained. “He built canals to drain vast areas of the Everglades.”

“In the late 1930s, he decided the Everglades should be protected from people like him, but was refused his offer to give it to the United States government. The state wouldn’t take it, either, so Collier made it a park and named it Seminole Park for the many Seminoles who lived in the Everglades. In 1947, it was turned over to Florida for management as a state park and Collier’s name was added, making it Collier-Seminole State Park. This happened to be the same year that Everglades National Park was dedicated.”

Captain Ray told us that the Everglades consist of three swampland habitats—cypress, sawgrass, and mangroves. We enjoyed our tour of the mangroves so much that we wished Captain Ray Evans were available to take us through the cypress and sawgrass as well. This self-described “Florida cracker” has been guiding this tour for 25 years. It’s easy to understand why people keep coming to experience his creative and entertaining interpretation of the Everglades. •

from the July-August 2005 issue

Collier-Seminole State Park
20200 E. Tamiami Trail