"I Have Lost the Trails of my Youth"

Beginning this past year in the Big Cypress National Preserve, Off Road Vehicles are required to follow designated trials, through out the boundaries of the Preserve. This new rule was well known that it was coming and is one of many rules that has changed the use of the Preserve over the years. I didn't think this would be too terrible, as I could still get to the area of the Preserve that I wanted to go to. I had in fact for many years been following the designated trail, even though I was not required to do so. What I was not prepared for was the feeling of nostalgia that I have, as I follow the mandatory designated trails during this first year. I now realize that " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

I have been visiting the Big Cypress National Preserve for over forty years. Being a native Floridian, I took for granted the access to nature that was available to me in the Big Cypress Swamp, during my teenage years. During those years of the late 1960's and 1970's, every trip was an adventure. A person could set out on a swamp buggy and follow any trail through the swamp. Every turn of the trail brought a new view of the Big Cypress Swamp. Every fork in the trail a new opportunity to see a part of the swamp not experienced before. An expectation was that around every turn you would find an alligator or deer or snake to view. While this expectation never came true on every turn, the expectation was as exciting as the times a turn did provide an opportunity to view a swamp creature. With the designated trail, now the trail is well known, the turns reveal the same view seen many times before. The forks in the trail, are no longer allowed to take, so no new adventure exists to be followed any more. So for this I say, " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

I travel to a Particular area of the Big Cypress Swamp. It is a long drive by swamp standards, about 16 or so miles. In years past, there were about a dozen ways of following multiple trails to get to that area. Over the years experiences on these multiple trails gave me memories of the people I was with, the animals I saw, the hardships of pushing a stuck swamp buggy or fixing one. Each of these dozen or so trails has memories for me, of good times and experiences. Every time I would travel one of these trails, spots along the trails would trigger these memories and remind me of the people and adventures that were had along the trial. Now those trails are closed to travel, so many areas I will never see again. They have closed the trails to my memories and that is sad. So for this I say, " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

The Big Cypress Swamp, an adventure shared by many people in the past. These people would take an old vehicle and remove the body, put on bigger tires and add what metal was require to mount a seat and a platform to carry their stuff. These swamp buggies were built with as many different characteristics as the people that built them had, coming from various walks of life. They were affordable for a working mans and provided relatively inexpensive recreation. Back then there were plenty of people doing this and enjoying the Big Cypress Swamp. These people consisted of families, guys that enjoyed each others camaraderie and individuals, each enjoying nature as the Big Cypress Swamp provided it. A person could pitch a tent any where in the Big Cypress Swamp and make it their camp. This is not so now! Rules and regulations have made the Big Cypress Swamp less enjoyable and less affordable and lots of people have lost interest and no longer visit, no longer are allowed to pitch a tent any where they want and that is sad. So in another way, " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

The Big Cypress Swamp provided opportunity for hunting, an American Tradition. During my early years, the State wide Rules for Hunting applied and many people participated. Opening weekend of the hunting season was a big event. People traveling the trails, pitching tents, camp fires at night, lots of people adding to the adventure of the Big Cypress Swamp, with people everywhere in the swamp enjoying the event. Then came the Big Cypress National Preserve, and with it came the area being designated as a State of Florida Game Management Area. First just a few rules limiting which game animals could be hunted. Then the game management area being broken into areas. Then quotas placed on how many people could hunt at a time and then every year less and less number of hunters allowed in each area. It is no wonder that less and less people enjoy the Big Cypress Swamp hunting experience. And for this I say, " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

While hunting was never a big draw to the Big Cypress Swamp for me, the enjoyment of this unique environment was, including the animals which inhabit it. My first hunting experiences was with a 35mm camera. I enjoyed stalking animals to take their picture. I didn't have to shoot them and eat them to enjoy going into nature and hunt them. I have many friends that are motivated to hunt and over the years I have participated and harvested game also. My great joy is seeing animals in their natural habitat and learning their nature. Many years ago a program was started to improve the situation of the Florida Panther. This program has been successful in restoring the health and population of the panther. The side effect of this program is that the general animal population in the Big Cypress Swamp has been severely depleted. Where I used to see animals and animal tracks of all types: raccoons, possums, armadillos, wild hogs, quail and others, I rarely even see animal tracks now, much less the animals. All of these animals became panther food and are just about gone from the Big Cypress Swamp and that is sad. Seeing these animals and the opportunity to photograph them are almost non-existent now. And for this I say, " I have Lost the Trails of my Youth".

In my youth and in my early days in the Big Cypress Swamp, there were men of the Swamp, Gladesmen that were respected for their knowledge of the swamp. These "ole timers" would share their experiences of the swamp with us young just learning guys. Taking us under their wing, they taught us how to read the swamp in our travels, where the game would be found, hunting techniques to be successful in our harvest and camaraderie. These "ole timers" are almost all gone now, and that is sad. Along with their passing and all the things mentioned before, the Gladesman culture is also passing and that is sad. While no one can expect things to remain the same forever, I find that I am now one of the "ole timers", but with few younger people interested in following the Gladesman Culture. A Culture so severely restricted by rules and regulations, that it is no longer the adventure of my youth. For this I say, " I have lost the Trails of my Youth".

Story by Steven DeLine January, 8, 2012