Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
The first thing you need to know about Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is that it’s pronounced “sloo.” And a slough is not a swamp. Far from it. A slough is a place of moving water—allowing for much more dynamism than a swamp’s still water.
Just 18 minutes by car from downtown Fort Myers and 1 minute from a string of strip malls, it’s a 3,400-acre wetlands preserve untouched since the 1970s. It’s untouched in every way; in a state park, if a tree falls too close to a trail as a result of lightning, a hurricane or decay, it’s typically cut into pieces and hauled off. Here, that tree becomes a nurse log, supporting fungus and lichen communities.
Nature is allowed to run its course, whatever that may be. It’s a story that unfolds on its own—with some events repeating seasonally and annually, but also largely shaped by the mercurial hand of nature. That kind of unpredictability is perhaps why the preserve is so beloved.
There’s a small army of dedicated volunteers, who work in the Interpretive Center and serve as guides for scheduled nature walks.
It’s on one such walk that I meet Cathy Sedlacek, a guide who’s been with the preserve for 20 years. She moves slowly over the boardwalk, with the comfort and familiarity of someone who appreciates this place as if it were a second home. The No. 1 reason she keeps coming back is simple: “It’s quiet,” Sedlacek says.
But so is she, which is how the Michigan native has come to know every log, fern patch and nesting brand of the space, just like a mother knows every freckle on her child’s back. Hers is a bond forged by love, time and details—“a little piece of Florida surrounded by civilization,” she states.
WHAT YOU’LL SEE
The 1.2-mile boardwalk is a network of planked paths, designed to allow outsiders a glimpse into species’ natural behaviors—without the interruption of humans. As such, no jogging, running or even power-walking is permitted. Nor are phones, smoking or excessive noise.
It’s these rules that allow for so many daily bird sightings—many of which are captured in images and shared on the Friends of Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve Facebook Group, a community of 933 members. Daily uploads vary from wood storks to great crested flycatchers, otters to Swainson’s thrushes.
We are mere minutes into the walk when we see a fellow hiker with a telephoto lens trained upward. There on a branch perches a red-shouldered hawk, his black bead eye aimed at the Otter Pond a few yards away.
We take a few moments to appreciate how close this bird is, and how still. Even without binoculars, which are provided free of use to guests of the guided walks, it’s easy to make out the patchwork coloring of its shoulder plumage and the concentration in its gaze.
As much as the tour is about fauna, it’s equally about flora. Sedlacek points out small things that might have otherwise escaped attention, such as the bright green shoestring fern, skinny as spaghetti noodles. “It’s thin until it rains and then it puffs out like freshly washed hair.”
She makes sure we see the white circular patches coloring the trees in the middle of the preserve. Lichen. “The first time I came here, I thought these trees had some kind of disease living on them,” Sedlacek relates. “Now I know that really it’s fungus and algae that live together. The algae are the host and the fungus is the food. It’s a sign of good air quality—you will never see it along expressways.”
The tour guide draws our attention to the black dirt churned up by wild pigs hunting, and tiny balls of sand pushed in a pile by burrowing crayfish. We spy a gator, maybe 5 feet long, gliding across, well, Alligator Pond.
Sedlacek explains that catch-and-release fishing was once allowed at the preserve. “But, over time, as soon as somebody walked up with a fishing pole, umbrella or even a cane, the gators would come up,” she says. Fishing was summarily outlawed.
The gators stayed, of course, returning to feeding on the gar. The biggest one of the lot is called Big Al—but only half the naturalists refer to him by name. “There’s a big split on whether or not it is right to name the wildlife,” she says.
Each thing she mentions is something we may not have known to look for. I’ve called Florida home for 13 years, but had no idea that crayfish make piles of perfect spheres or that lichen is the name of the bright pink and bright white patches on the trees.
Floridians, and especially the region’s locals, could learn much from the preserve—but they are hardly the bulk of who comes here. In season, this preserve draws in upwards of 1,000 guests a day, most of them from other states and countries.
“Oh, only maybe between a quarter and a fifth of our visitors are from Fort Myers,” says Sedlacek. “They often tell me that they have been driving by the preserve for years and just decided to come in. Once they do, they’re usually surprised by how much is here.”
It’s easy to underestimate the preserve—just a third of a mile across. Yet it also spans 11 miles. Maybe it’s small, but its size doesn’t reflect its ecological importance. The slough is a 33-square-mile watershed, purifying the water. The plants along the slough pull out nutrients from the water, growing unbounded. Save for patches of earth overturned by the pigs, the preserve is green upon green, with ferns crowding the understory, air plants decorating many braches and bald cypress trees packed in like spruce on a Christmas tree lot.
So much moving water—in summer, the makeshift shallow river is up to 3 feet deep—brings in nutrients that pack into the food chain. Abundance can be seen at every level, from the fungus to the birds of prey.
The water, once it has flowed through the entire preserve, makes its way to Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. It’s a process that would have been entirely halted decades ago if it hadn’t been for environmental educator Bill Hammond. “We almost feel an obligation to tell the story,” says volunteer David Minnick, leading our tour’s second half. Minnick is outgoing, cracking jokes and making chitchat.
Hammond, teaching at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, had been taking his students to the wetlands every Monday in the 1960s. “One day, he told them, ‘Enjoy the view, because this May it will all be cut,’ ” says Minnick of what Hammond warned his students. (The cypress forest was periodically clear-cut, with the wood used as lumber.)
The students felt such a connection to the area, hating to see it destroyed, and so they rallied. “They approached everybody,” says Minnick. First the federal government, then the state and then finally the county. The county supported the idea, but challenged the kids to find the money to make the park a reality.
Together, they forced a referendum on the ballot to support the preserve. It passed. “If it wasn’t for those kids, this would be a parking lot,” says Minnick. “—Or the seventh hole,” adds Sedlacek. Instead, it’s been free to evolve outside of the hands of developers. The preserve is ruled by nature’s cycles, and little else.
For example, you know it’s May when the feeding frenzies descend upon the small Otter Pond. Fish breed here every summer, when the water level reaches its highest height. Come winter, the pond slowly drains, inch by inch.
Some fish, such as gar, have evolved strategies of survival. “They have a swim bladder that allows them to gulp water, and then they burrow into the mud and essentially hibernate,” explains Gayle Sheets, another naturalist.
She says not all fish have evolved like the gar, so when late spring comes and the ponds dry up, there’s nowhere for them to go. Minnick notes, “The birds just line up and it’s like the deli—they take a number and get a fish.”
Late spring sees the feeding frenzies, and winter brings the greatest number of birds, with migratory birds flying in to join the ranks of local species. Summer rains cause the canopy to thicken overhead, bringing temperatures inside the preserve down by at least 10 degrees from the outside city.
Each season ushers in something new. So, too, does each week—perhaps why its Friends Facebook Group is so active. Photographers share daily shots of birds and other wildlife; locals check to learn what’s flown in or made an appearance. Whatever’s arrived or become active that day may stay for a few more. Log in and you get a bit of a cheat sheet on what to look for.
But truly, the real draw of Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve lies in the fact that anything—any species, any behavior—can happen at any time. Dynamic indeed.
Brooke Morton is a freelance writer specializing in the outdoors. She’s also the founder of Sober Outside, a travel company for teetotaling adventure-lovers.
IF YOU GO
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
7791 Penzance Blvd., Fort Myers