Technically, Midway Campground sits in Big Cypress National Preserve, a slice cut into the northern section of Everglades National Park. In reality, it is all one big eco-system. The National Preserve status of Big Cypress allows for greater recreational use of the land including ORV trails and hunting. It’s the closest campground to Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades, where we scored a spot on the coveted Meteor Shower Night Bike.
Oasis Visitor Center
Without an ORV (off road vehicle) or canoe hanging off our F150, we were limited to what our legs could give us. The 1/4 mile boardwalk at the Oasis Visitor Center gave us swamp in miniature. A few alligators, local fish, native birds and a swarm of tourists. Wanting to get off the beaten path, we reviewed all the marked trails with the Ranger, who without saying stay off all the trails as they are not maintained, strongly encouraged us to join the afternoon ranger led hike where we could walk on an ORV trail and into a cypress forest.
Ranger Led Back-Country Tours
We met Ranger Ken and a curious dozen for a 90 minute guided hike through the varying eco-systems of the preserve. Retired and well versed on the natural habitat, the otherwise sensible fact-meister Ken left the crushed limestone trail of sable palm, slash pine and epiphytes to bushwhack into a Cypress strand. Solid limestone footing gave way to spongy soil. Spongy soil became covered with fresh water and soon we found ourselves standing knee deep in the middle of a Cypress swamp.
Stuck in a Cypress Swamp
Ignoring thoughts of what to do with wet and muddy shoes, socks and pants at our rudimentary camp, we took in the hidden whispers of unseen dwellers inside the dome. When Ranger Ken challenged the group to see how deep the cypress swamp can get, an overly adventurous explorer waded a few more steps toward the center before sinking chest-deep. He described the muddy bottom as “quicksand-like” as four of us helped to extricate his trapped feet with the hike-provided closet poles. Ranger Ken had a good laugh at that.
The mile hike back gave us a chance to dry out a little before re-entering the truck. Back at camp we battened down the hatches as best we could for the impending front. In a should we stay or should we go moment, we pro-conned the Shark Valley night ride vs. manning the tent as heavy clouds building to the west were rapidly approaching. We landed on go, hoping the shelter project would be standing when we returned well after dark. The frontal passage hit as we huddled in the visitor center. Heavy wind and rain whipped the bikes under cover on the back of the truck as the rangers assured us that the bike ride was a go as soon as the storm passed.
Biking into the Slough
True to their word, twenty of us pushed off under thick fast moving clouds on the paved Tram Trail, cut into an enormous slow moving river-land running through the middle of the glades called a slough (pronounced slew). Seven miles into the glades, an observation tower gave a panoramic view of the eerie landscape. Strange sounds and splashes emanated from the expanse of watery sea grasses. The large group and slow pace of the ranger had tasked our patience, so we ditched the group at the top of the tower and made the ride back at Como-speed with just the light of a half moon to illuminate the way.
Cold Temperatures Arrive
Fortunately our camp had survived the storm. The front brought cold temperatures forcing us into our mummy-bags to stay warm. Neither of us had brought anything beyond a light rain jacket, which made the forty-degree temperatures a challenge in layering light clothing with beach towels for warmth.
The Everglades is a weird place that often comes alive at night. As the strong winds pushed the low clouds to the east, a beautiful night sky finally revealed itself. A truck pulled up adjacent to our site in a small patch of grass across from the lake. Inside our tent, we listened closely trying to figure out if it was just campers arriving late to their site or something else. The party’s conversation died down to whispers and we drifted back to sleep. Two hours later we were awoken again by the arrival of another pick-up. The conversation volume picked up with the distinct smell of skunk. A check of the cell phone indicated 2 am. Leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag, Eric struggled into a pair of jeans and shirt to investigate. After a brief conversation, the group packed up and drove off into the night.
The next morning, the camp host frowned on our decision admonishing us to just wake him next time so that he can bring in LE (law enforcement). It happened again the next night but this time it was just a lone individual and a back-packing tent. Eric left him alone since he was quiet. He was gone before 5 am the next morning. It seems folks just pull into campgrounds late at night and party, star gaze, or catch some sleep as the case may be – departing before the camp wakes in the morning. Best to be prepared.