Wildlife and wonder abound in Florida’s Six Mile Cypress Slough

Cypress wetland
Cypress wetland is reminiscent of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island.
In Florida’s marshes, swamps, and sloughs, the most significant invasive species is the human being. Seven billion people have to live somewhere, and many — not the entire seven billion — have chosen to live in Florida. Many residents want to and work at preserving nature, since it not only brings pleasure but also contributes critical ecological elements that make life possible.

During my recent trip to Florida, my friend, Fran, and I ventured into the Six Mile Cypress Slough (pronounced “slew”), a few miles east of Fort Myers. While cars whizzed along the nearby interstate and people frequented shopping malls surrounding the 3,500-acre wildlife preserve, I felt I had been transported into the wilderness.

The slough, 11 miles long and a third-mile wide, is a linear ecosystem, a corridor through which wildlife can travel in safety from habitat to habitat. It’s home to a diverse population of plants and animals. Fortunately, few are considered endangered. During the rainy season, it collects runoff from a 33-squaremile watershed, deterring flooding, recharging shallow wells, and protecting the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

In the June-to-October wet season, water in the slough reaches a depth of two to three feet, making it comparable to a wide, shallow stream. This fresh water flows a few miles to the southwest, emptying into the Gulf at the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

On a map, the Six Mile Cypress Slough, which became a preserve in 1970, reminds me of a very long golf fairway with housing communities and commercials sites crowded up against it. I wouldn’t have guessed it was home to a fascinating collection of wild animals and breathtaking views of cypress swamps reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.

From the parking area, we trek a mile-long boardwalk sitting above the seasonal high-water mark, a necessity to keep people’s feet dry and to keep them separated from animals that might otherwise swim by.

slough
(left) One of the slough’s permanent residents: an American alligator. (Middle) An egret stalks fish, hiding beneath duckweed. (Right) Another visitor points out the alligator to Fran Pierce from the boardwalk.

And swim by they do. The boardwalk, wandering through the cypress wetland, took us past Gator Lake and on to Wood Duck, Otter, and Pop Ash ponds, all with their viewing pavilions. I had not walked a hundred feet along the shore of Gator Lake when another visitor pointed out a resident — an American alligator six to nine feet long. Like a floating log, it lay in the water, most of its head above the surface. It gently swished its tail and glided by, heading to a second pavilion on the lake. I wondered if it was looking for a hand out — or perhaps a hand. There’s a sign saying it’s against state law to feed or entice alligators. The word that impressed me was “enticed.” What part of me would actually entice a gator?

Farther along at two other ponds, we spotted alligators sunning themselves. They really do look like fallen trunks of saw palmetto, except the palmetto won’t leap out and nab you. It’s hard to believe these reptiles have been coursing swamps and wetlands for perhaps 100 million years.

Winter is the dry season, and it seemed unusual to see most of the cypress forest, adapted to water, standing high and dry. But the first part of the boardwalk is on higher ground and, as we ventured along, the ground fell away and became wet, to a depth of a few inches to a foot.

We walked through a mixed forest. There are tall white pine, pond ash that reach twothirds the height of the pine, lots of cypress with their unique knees, and saw palmetto. Ferns abound. White lichens dot trees as if markers had been painted on them. Prolific numbers of bromeliads and epiphytes grow in every available notch. One of the most common epiphytes is the needle-leaf air plant, looking like spines of hedgehogs clinging to trunks. Unlike our local mistletoe, they are not parasitic but rather symbiotic, both plants deriving benefits from each other.

While the slough is in an urban area, it feels wild. Sunlight filters through the canopy, rendering a shadowy, other-worldly aura. Vines clinging high above us drop to the ground. The air is still and cool, if humid. It’s quiet. I expect to turn a corner and see one of the resident or transient mammals: black bear, white tail deer, bobcat, or raccoon. But it’s winter and they, like the trees, are resting, awaiting spring.

The water in the slough is dark from tannins. Several species of wading birds tip-toe on long legs, hunting fish they see — although I don’t — moving in the shadows and under duckweed. We spot egrets, ibis, herons, kingfisher, and Anhigas, a bird that can dive underwater, propelled by webbed feet, to spear fish. I saw one with wings spread to dry them.

Turtles varying in size from grapefruit to basketballs sun themselves, seemingly oblivious to the people watching and talking about them. They are brown with red and yellow highlights, like racing stripes — an oxymoron for such a sedate animal.

I spy one snake extending its body along a branch in the water. It is black with yellow chevron stripes along its body. It also has an arrowhead-shaped head, so I know — here in Florida — it has to be a venomous water moccasin. Good thing it’s resting.

Surrendering myself to my surroundings, I am taken by the richness and wonder of the slough and grateful the people who live here had the good sense to preserve it. The website says, “The preserve provides education and low impact recreation to its visitors.” Indeed it does, and so much more. It’s an opportunity to observe and appreciate plants and animals that can’t be found in most other places in urban communities. Oh, you can venture into the Everglades, but at considerable cost — and you probably wouldn’t see anything more than I did at Six Mile Cypress Slough — just more of it.

Walking the boardwalk in the slough is free, as is time spent in the interpretive center. The boardwalk is open daily from dawn to dusk. The interpretive center is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — and, of course, we went on a Monday. There is a parking fee of $1 an hour or $5 for a maximum stay. The boardwalk is wheelchair-accessible. All you need bring is your camera — and your sense of wonder.