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FLORIDA

The 'Glades Beyond the Gators

Gad about by airboat, try the track at Sebring, wash up in a spa, clean up in a tribal casino.

March 25, 2001|MARYALICE YAKUTCHIK | Maryalice Yakutchik is a freelance writer who lives in the Baltimore area

FLORIDA, Fla. — Having speared a fat fish, a great blue heron is poised to gulp. I stand on the bank of the Kissimmee River-the headwaters of the Ever-glades-watching the wading bird, expecting that the drama of swallowing will surpass that of the impaling. Surely this feathered predator would fare better, I think, if it had a short, wide, straight neck-like that of a gator-instead of a narrow, sensuous S-curve that's prettier than it is practical.

Then again, maybe not.

Misconceptions about this swamp and its inhabitants are as prolific as mosquitoes. In fact, anyone who kinda-sorta can locate the general vicinity of the Everglades on a map has earned the right to boast she knows more about this place than most folks. Hint: It's a natural wonder, not a national park, although part of it does sit inside Everglades National Park on Florida's southern tip.

I had been in and out of this corner and that in the course of making a television documentary on the Everglades, and the land never ceased to tug at my curiosity. When an opportunity for a short vacation arose this past winter, my first thought was: Now I can go to the "gglades without an agenda, just wander wherever I feeellt drawn.

The Everglades is a state of discovery, a journey, not a destination. You can't simply go and see it. You have got to flow through it.

It's natural to start where the ecosystem starts, just south of Orlando. There, in a patchwork of marshes, ponds and lakes-some natural, many not-areis the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, which runs 100 miles south to Lake Okeechobee., and ultimately covers the interior of the southern half of the state.

Historically, Okeechobee would spill over its banks during rainy spells, and the water would move south, ever so slowly, a shallow "river of grass" 50 miles wide and 100 long, sustaining a unique population of animals and plants. Then came development. Today, a dike encircles Okeechobee, and 50% of the original 4-million-acre Ever-glades is gone forever, drained, ditched, diverted.

But as I stand here on the banks of the Kissimmee, the glass looks half full instead of half empty. Fifty years ago , half of the 103-mile meandering Kissimmee was turned into a tidy, deep canal. The fish went belly up, and the wading birds went away. Now, a river restoration experiment is in progress: An eight-mile stretch of canal recently was backfilled outside this crossroads hamlet, and the Kissimmee again looks and acts like a real river, complete with pretty oxbows.

A tranquil place from which to watch wildlife return to the Kissimmee is the 1,000-acre Pearce Homestead, a 1900s farm-museum-park complex here that recalls central Florida's boom years as a cattle countryregion.

Nearby is the 46,000-acre Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve.. This vast, pristine mosaic of wet and dry prairies, flower-filled marshes and shady hammocks (clumps of broadleaf hardwoods) is accessible only on foot, bicycle or horseback.

It's less serene but decidedly more fun to see the Kissimmee by airboat, a contraption that glides across shallow water with the help of a propeller or huge fan mounted on back.

I take a seat high atop one of these squirrely craft and put on earphones to protect my hearing as the driver revs the engine. We're off. Ducks skitter frantically out of our path. Alligators duck under our boat. An anhinga, a bird that looks more like a snake, retreats by pulling its long black neck underwater. A gallinule, as striking a bird as I've ever seen, hides its purple head, with its yellow-tipped red beak, in the brittle branches of a dying myrtle tree. A huge flock of blue-winged teal rises like a cloud ahead of us.

The ride whets my appetite for speed and noise.

Sebring

I stop for lunch at Chaateau Elan, a new hotel and spa overlooking the historic Sebring International Raceway. The hotel is crawling with wannabe race drivers, students at Panoz Driving School., They learn onwhich uses the 3.7-mile, 17-turn track famed for its 12-hour endurance race that draws the world's daredevils every March.

I've never really gotten over having to trade in my Camaro for a family-sized SUV, so I sign up for a spin with Charles Espenlaub, a Panoz senior instructor.

I insert myself into the passenger seat of a gleaming GT racer with 250 horsepower. In an instant I smell rubber burning, see orange pylons flying, and hear whooping and hollering (mine).

I yell: "What are we doing, 100?" "Forty," Espenlaub says, grinning and skidding out of an S turn. He's not yet out of second gear.

When the ride and the rush end too soon, I appreciate the wisdom of the visionary who built the spa here. After an hour of being scrubbed with aromatic gels and sea salts, I am back in shape to face the creep-and-crawl traffic on U.S. 27, the highway between Orlando and Okeechobee.

Clewiston

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