News of the Strand

News from the Fakahatchee

Friends of Fakahatchee: Dedicated to financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and educate the public about its importance.

20 Years of the Friends of Fakahatchee

Talk Given in Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Establishment of the to Friends of the Fakahatchee on December 7, 2018

by Franklin Adams, Everglades City, 

Good Afternoon Everyone. The Friends of Fakahatchee celebrated the dedication of the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk Project this morning. The dedication was a testament to the incredibly dedicated and hard-working group of the Friends of the Fakahatchee.

We should recognize people like Tom Maish, the driving force on the new boardwalk quest, Patrick Higgins & Glen Stacell to name a few. Glen Stacell is our incoming president of the FOF and I share with you how Glen came to be a volunteer with the Friends. The Friends were seeking new board members. Knowing of Glen’s science/biology background I asked him if he would be interested in joining the FOF board. His response was, “well what would I have to do?” My response was, “you will be an unpaid volunteer and you can do as much or as little as you care to do.” All I can say is, Glen, you have made me proud. There are many others of you each contributing in your own way to the common cause.

Having Eric Draper, the Director of Florida State Parks, with us is a genuine pleasure and is greatly appreciated. Many of us in the environmental community were delighted when Eric Draper was chosen to head the Florida Park Service. His interest bodes well for the Friends as the organization continues to work to make the Fakahatchee experience available and an enjoyable and educational experience for all. We also thank State Senator Kathleen Passidomo for her vital support for Fakahatchee and look forward to continuing to work with her. Longtime Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala continues, as always, to support wise and needed environmental projects here in Collier County. Thanks again to you all for being our Friends in conservation efforts.

With us this afternoon is the lady from Naples who was instrumental in helping Mel Finn and others save the Fakahatchee, Jane Parks. Mrs. Parks was President of the Florida Federation of Junior Womens’ Clubs back when the Save the Fakahatchee fight was going on.

We are gathered here to Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of the Friends of the Fakahatchee as a Citizens Support Organization, a partnership with the State of Florida Park Service. The Florida Park Service was established in 1935 by the Florida legislature with the annual budget of $25,000. WOW! (well back then 25,000 went a lot further than it does today). Over the years the annual budget has increased considerably but many feel that the budget is still inadequately funded by the legislature. Because of this shortfall Friends groups or CSOs are critically important to the Florida State Parks system. Friends of Fakahatchee and other Friends groups pick up the slack, fill in the holes, open trails and advocate for improved educational opportunities like the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. I am talking about you folks. You make the difference by your dedicated efforts and support at all levels of the Friends of Fakahatchee.

Well how did this Friends group come about? I was not involved but this is what I have been told by a few of that small group of individuals who were there when it happened. Some are in the room with us and we owe them a debt of gratitude for coming together to help establish the Friends in 1998. I have communicated with some of those original supporters who are still with us. It is from them that I am able to share a little of the story of our Friends beginnings. Two of the dedicated original founders have passed on. But we remember Alan Caldwell and Bill Mesce for all their contributions to the Friends over the years.

It all began with Mr. Greg Toppin who was the Manager of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in 1998. We are delighted that Greg and Joann are here with us this afternoon to celebrate. It’s been awhile. Like other Florida Park Managers, Greg was short on needed staff and funding and realized that he needed a Friends group to help out. (Especially since the Fakahatchee was the largest unit in the Florida Park System). I was told by Barbara Lewinski that Greg Toppin put up a notice in the Everglades City post office asking that anyone interested in the Fakahatchee attend a meeting at the Copeland Baptist Church to discuss establishing a Friends group.

Those attending that first meeting were Alan and Elsie Caldwell, Bill and Pam Mesce, Barbara Lewinski, Cindy Hackney and Roger Dykstra (and there may have been others). The decision was made to form the Friends.

On May 4, 1998, the articles of incorporation were signed by Alan & Elsie Caldwell, Greg Toppin, Barbara Lewinski, Brian Donohue & Roger Dykstra.

On June 10, 1998 the CSO agreement was signed by Fran P. Mainella, Director of the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks who later went on to become the Director of the National Park Service. Barbara Lewinski was the new Secretary, and Roger Dykstra the first President of the Friends of Fakahatchee. Elsie Caldwell was a founder would later become president of the FOF.

The new Friends group wasted no time in getting to work. Establishing a visitors center at S.R. 29 & Alligator Alley was on the new wish list. Its day is coming but not there.

Invasive exotic plant removal began soon and continues today. Barbara recalls them doing a trailer take down of an old trailer that a ranger had resided in, removing the furniture and contents in preparation for an improved residence. What that small dedicated group began is carried forward by you all today. Raising funds for equipment, a swamp buggy, a much needed pole barn, maintaining Janes Scenic Drive, hand clearing trails and trams, educational swamp walks, moonlight tram adventures and the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk to name a few. Keep it up Friends.

Since Founders Alan Caldwell and Bill Mesce are no longer with us I want to mention their past dedicated efforts for the Fakahatchee. Alan was a microbiologist married to Elsie who was a chemist. They loved to be camping in the swamp. Alan served as chair of the By-laws and nominating committees, treasurer, vice-president and all around longtime faithful friend and glue to the Friends of Fakahatchee. The Friends honored Alan with a plaque at the gator hole at the end of the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, thanks to Jim Woodard and Howard Lubel and Steve Korney.

Bill Mesce, married to Pam, was a Viet Nam veteran. Quiet, thoughtful and totally captivated by the Fakahatchee, he delighted in sharing his love, photographs and knowledge of the swamp with others on his Swamp Walks. Doing so was therapeutic to this former Marine who served our country so well. Bill and Pam lived just outside the swamp and often shared their Copeland retreat with the Friends on special occasions. About two weeks before Bill’s passing I drove to Copeland and picked him up at his Mother’s home. We just drove Scenic Drive down to one of Bill’s favorite areas , West Slough. Bill knew that his time was near and he could not walk much, so we just sat in my truck and talked about the good times in the swamp. The Friends have honored Bill Mesce with a memorial picnic area on a swamp tram. A place to sit and contemplate the peace and serenity that Bill Mesce valued so dearly. Thanks again to Howard Lubel and Jim Woodard for bringing it about.

In closing we remember nature photographer and Fakahatchee Friend Saul Friess who left us recently.

We also remember Nathaniel Nat Reed who left us back in July at the age of 84 while fishing. Some of you will remember that Nat came over and spent the day and evening with us in December 2011. Nat paved the way at the Florida State level for the acquisition finally of what became the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Nat made Mel Finn’s long pursued dream to save the Fakahatchee a reality. As we know, sometimes a lone individual can make a significant difference and Mel Finn and Nat Reed did. We owe him our gratitude and honor his memory. Tomorrow morning Kathy and I will travel to Jupiter Island to attend Nathaniel’s Memorial service with his family and friends.

And now finally, I would like the original Founders to stand proudly and receive our grateful thanks for their efforts 20 years ago in founding the Friends of the Fakahatchee . THANK EACH OF YOU!

Thanks to each of you, and now let us visit, ask questions of the Founders and keep up the good work and enjoy our time together.

Annual appeal to fund pole barn for Fakahatchee

by Patrick Higgins

Ranger Steven Bass and Paul Joslyn clear fire trail using one of the vehicles to be stored in the pole barn.

The Park and your Board is really grateful for your past generous response to our annual appeals. This has allowed us to provide much needed material and equipment to fulfill our mission of preserving and maintaining the Fakahatchee’s unique ecosystem.

Over the past few years we have provided the extra funds so the Park Biologist could upgrade to an ecofriendly hybrid Ford Explorer. We also purchased a FOF pick-up truck, a tram for our tour programs, an ATC, 2 UTVs, and a wood chipper. In addition, the Park has all manner of large equipment from road graders, tractors, grass cutters and some very large trailers.

We have now reached the stage where we need to provide covered storage for this donated equipment, and for the Park Service’s other vehicles to protect them from the elements. This will in turn reduce annual maintenance costs, much of which is funded by FOF as part of our direct park support budget.

This year we are therefore proposing a major annual appeal project to build an approximate 6,720 square foot (70 x 96ft) open-sided pole barn in the vehicle park area for this purpose. This may seem large, but with just the equipment the park and FOF has now, 70% of its capacity would be filled. Our estimate of $50,000 for this is a bigger ask than we have ever made before, but the pole barn is the top of our Park Manager’s wish list, and will have benefits for years to come.

Because this year’s target is higher than usual we are also going to seek matching funds, but we need to raise at least half from our membership. Between this and your continued generosity I am confident that we can make this happen.

One thought is that at this time of year some of you with IRAs may be planning to take required 2017 distributions. A tax efficient way of charitable giving can be to allocate and transfer a portion of this distribution directly to a qualified charity of your choice such as FOF. This is known as a Qualified Charitable Distribution or QCD. Based on your specific tax situation you may find this affords you a tax savings while fulfilling your charitable giving goals. Of course you should talk with your tax advisor to see how this can be a win-win for both you and FOF.

In any case, any donation large or small to help us meet this important need would be most welcome. You are an amazing group. On behalf of the resource that we all cherish, thank you for your support.

The Friends of Fakahatchee, Inc. is a 501(c}(3} not-for-profit Citizen Support Organization providing financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecological and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and to educate the public about its importance.

FOF Finds Support to Enhance Visitors’ Fakahatchee Experience

This digital rendering of the proposed Cracker Pavilion shows how placing the pavilion across the canal gives people the opportunity to experience the Fakahatchee if they choose not to walk the boardwalk.

Although we feared that damage to the State Park System by a major hurricane might suck up
funds for the Boardwalk Expansion Project, I’m happy to report that this is still full steam ahead. Permitting will probably be in place around February 2018. This includes monies for the new restrooms and the new interpretive Environmental Education Center, funded by the last Florida legislative session.

Over the summer the park received a donation from our neighbors in Big Cypress National Preserve – enough long-life synthetic wood planking to resurface the entire length of the existing Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. It’s now all neatly stacked in pallets in the Harmon Building for when we’re ready.

FOF has also just been awarded a $46,720 grant by Collier County’s Tourist Development Council to fund wayfinding in the park. Wayfinding refers to information systems that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space. The grants provide funds for creating a useful visitor map, as well as information kiosks/boards at our hiking, biking and canoeing trailheads. Visit our Plan Your Visit page for online information.

Friends of Fakahatchee Welcome Back Lunch Dec 16

Join us for lunch as the Friends of Fakahatchee host their annual “welcome back” gathering Saturday, Dec. 16 at noon in Kapnick Hall at Naples Botanical Garden.

“We’re excited about meeting in such a beautiful location that gives attendees a chance to tour the gardens after our lunch,” said Patrick Higgins, Friends of Fakahatchee president. “We hope the new time will encourage our members and the public to participate as we kick off our new season.”

The luncheon speaker is Nick Ewy, associate director of horticulture for the garden. A Michigan native with a degree in botany and plant pathology from Michigan State University, Nick worked at the American Orchid Society Botanical Garden in Delray Beach before joining the Naples Botanical Garden where he he oversees the Garden’s diverse collection and display of native and exotic orchids. He is working towards conserving several of Florida’s native orchids through propagation and re-introduction studies.

Nick Ewy Nick started working with rare plants in high school, and went on to obtain a degree in botany and plant pathology from Michigan State University. He now serves as Associate Director of Horticulture at Naples Botanical Garden.

The $45 fee for the buffet by Frisco Catering includes complementary admission to the gardens, which are located at 4940 Bayshore Drive in Naples just a few steps from the Kapnick Hall. The luncheon begins at noon with a cash bar followed by a buffet lunch and Ewy’s presentation.

Get your Lunch Ticket

Irma hits Fakahatchee, but park will recover

by Patrick Higgins
President – Friends of Fakahatchee

I hope this finds you all well. I know many of us are exhausted from our own recovery efforts from Irma.

Francine, Glen and I met with Steve Houseknecht Friday the 23rd of September to assess the damage to the Fakahatchee from Hurricane Irma and any needs from FOF. Power had just been returned to the park office. Until then the park staff, like many of us, had been in a survival mode. All the staff had evacuated, with a large contingent weathering the storm at Mike Duey’s house in Golden Gate.

Remains of the chemical shed and shade house by the park office.

All the park buildings came out pretty much unscathed except for the small chemical shed behind the park office and Glen’s shade house which were demolished. However, the park residences did not fare as well. Steve Houseknecht’s home by the lake flooded, albeit by only a few inches, but with sufficient damage that it’s uninhabitable. He has spent much of the past week ferrying personal possessions to his Everglades City house. On top of this, his truck broke down so he commandeered the FOF truck with our blessings. Then he was almost arrested when he was stopped in unkept civilian clothes driving our truck piled high with furniture. They thought he had stolen it.

Steve’s Everglades City home is a partial stilt house on a raised mound. The water level came within a foot but didn’t enter. Everglades City has been devastated. After our park visit Francine and I looked in on Marya Repko. She had mud and water on her screen porch but her living area escaped. It was tragic to see piles of household debris lining all the streets. Mike Owen’s house has some roof damage and the stilt house up by I-75 occupied by our newest park Ranger, Guy DiGiovanni, remarkably was not lifted off its foundation, but had some damage. The Park Service will pay for the necessary repairs.

The entire length of Janes Scenic Drive is still flooded. Steve was able to make one foray as far as Gate 7 after which it was impassable. At its worst, water was flowing across SR 29 and Highway 41 in places. I’m sure we can expect a number of wash-outs on our trail network, although Steve doesn’t expect the road bed of JSD to be too badly damaged, as he had wisely closed much of it since the flooding started 6 weeks ago. Steve is thankful that all the park and FOF vehicles were okay and had been protected either in the sheds or the Harmon building.

Our entrance sign and donation box still stand at the boardwalk entrance.

On the way to the park, Francine, Glen and I surveyed the damage to the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk. Until then park staff hadn’t the resources or time to make other than a cursory inspection. On the crushed rock approach to the start of the Boardwalk our cabbage palms had all their boots stripped so they looked like they had been neatly trimmed by some urban landscaping firm. The vista had also been decidedly opened up with more sunlight where there had been shade.

This downed tree is one of several blocking the boardwalk.

Our new signage along the entire length of the Boardwalk seems to have fared well. Even our big old FOF donation appeal sign was still standing. The traditional chickee structures in the Indian village and almost everywhere else along our route to the park fared well – an important observation as we are building a chickee rain shelter/ outdoor classroom at the Boardwalk this autumn. Although mosquitoes in urban areas are becoming a problem, at the park they are not.

Explorers Glen Stacell and Francine Stevens scuttle under another branch.

We managed to reach the alligator hole after about an hour of struggling, some of which was on our hands and knees. Although it is a mess, the Boardwalk fared remarkably well. Most of what needs to be done is cosmetic, such as debris clearance. There were only 10 places with noticeable physical damage to the structure, largely the railings.

Damage from the root ball of a tree that fell away from the boardwalk.

However there is one 8 foot section where a large tree fell away from the boardwalk. Its root ball canted the boardwalk surface at a 45 degree angle. A bypass may be needed here as it will be very difficult to remove the root ball. There is another section higher up where a heritage tree has fallen across the boardwalk and very heavy duty chain saws will be needed.

Cypress bark stripped by the wind from trees.

The platform at the alligator hole was intact and just needs cleaning up. Unfortunately some of our heritage trees below the big cypress tree cutout had their bark stripped by the wind and will not recover, but from the big cypress tree cutout (including those trees) the bark is pretty much intact and the heritage trees from that point onwards should recover. Unfortunately our iconic eagle nest was blown away, although the tree is still intact. We will have to consult with the Park Biologist as to whether we should interfere and attempt to put some sort of platform there, or let nature take its course.

The big cypress tree cutout is intact.

Amazingly I saw a number of the orchids we had planted out last year with Kit Kitchen-Moran still in place and some stripped cypress already coming out in bud. Unfortunately we also saw some Brazilian pepper reacting to the stress by rushing to flower. Berries and seeds will soon follow.

A resilient Dingy Star orchid thrives near the end of the walk.

The State has authorized Steve to hire a contractor to clear the boardwalk. We first need to get some volunteers in first to try to recover the hundreds of healthy bromeliads littering the boardwalk. These can be saved and replanted along our future epiphyte walk. We also want to make good use of the wood chipper we donated to the park so that the debris is hauled out and not just thrown over the rails which would spoil the future visitor experience.

The East River canoe trail entrance was completely blocked by downed trees and the port-a-potty there half submerged, but it is already partially opened through some self-help by eager canoeists.

The big tree is down…

Until the water goes down there is not much we can do along our trail network and JSD. Steve is assessing the situation and will be making a call for FOF volunteers to assist when appropriate.

The iconic strangler fig tree still stands.

Our remarkable resource has suffered far more insult than Irma in the past–including strip logging– and will recover, aided by our dedicated park staff and volunteers.

Phew. We made it. Are we too old for this?

The Sun will come out.
Best wishes to you all.

New Fakahatchee Video

The Jewel of the Everglades

A new 6-minute video by Jay Staton and Patrick Higgins leads you through the Fakahatchee on all of your electronic devices! As you explore the wonderland of the foliage and wildlife, Patrick’s narration gives a Naturalist’s overview of the Fakahatchee Preserve State Park vast landscapes.

Donate to the Boardwalk Expansion!

Year-end message from FoF President

FoF President, Francine Stevens

December is a month when we can be consumed with holiday preparations. However, it was a pleasure for me to manage the Welcome Back dinner as I looked forward to spending some time with my Friends of Fakahatchee. The emails I have received since Saturday indicate the dinner was one of our best ever.

I would like to thank Jinny Ball who does all the hard work in the background to register everyone and welcome them at the entrance with a name tag. Thanks to Bruce Bunch who does all the publicity for our events and tours and who managed to get filmmaker Richard Kern for our evening program. Richard proved to be an engaging speaker as he narrated his film live and flawlessly. His film surpassed my expectations—it really captures the spectacular beauty and fragility of the Fakahatchee and its surroundings.

It was my pleasure to introduce the entire Park staff: Gina Gilmore, Steven Bass, Mike Duey, Mike Owen and Steve Houseknecht, who was recently promoted to park manager. It is important to remember that the Friends of Fakahatchee are supporting a staff of five to manage the largest Park in the State at nearly 80,000 acres.

One of the best ways we have found to support the Park is by educating the public while they are having fun. With Patrick Higgins and Glen Stacell’s leadership, the FOF scheduled 53 tours for December through March. We have Glen Stacell to thank for this success; three years ago he persisted to introduce tram tours on Janes Scenic Drive, and the tours continue to be very popular—so don’t wait too long schedule your tour on the Ghost Rider. Tickets will sell even faster after the holidays…please see our schedule on our Events page.

With this letter, I want to send out an invitation to those who like to volunteer outdoors.  We can always use help with the tours and help working in the field with the Faka-hackers. Our most loyal Faka-hackers, Dino Barone and Howard Lubel, drive in from the East Coast to work in the field, so no one is too far to join a great group that tells me Faka-Hacking is more fun than work and reason why they keep coming back. There are four ways to access volunteering information. Visit our How to Volunteer Page. Send us an e-mail for info at or call the FOF phone line 239-695-1023, and leave a message. We will return your call. Finally, you can write to us via the US Mail at Friends of Fakahatchee, P.O. Box 35, Everglades City, FL, 34139.

Thanks for a great 2016! With your support and volunteer hours, we look forward to an exciting new year for the Friends of Fakahatchee. Best wishes for a happy holiday season.
Francine Stevens
President, Friends of Fakahatchee, Inc.

Outdoor Afros dodge gator in 10 mile hike in Fak

Outdoor Afro hikers check out an orange discovered along the trail.

Outdoor Afro hikers check out an orange discovered along the trail.

by Ta-Shana Taylor

Gators, panthers, black bears, oh my! On October 15th six Outdoor Afros, including Outdoor Afro Miami Leader Ta-Shana Taylor, hiked over 10 miles in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve as part of a national  #UndergroundTrailMode  movement.  Outdoor Afros is a national organization dedicated to connecting African Americans to outdoor experiences.

The pristine swamps of Fakahatchee were perfect for getting in touch with the experience slaves had along the Underground Railroad while braving the wilds of Florida on the way to the freedom of the Caribbean. And boy, did they get the full Fakahatchee experience! Their hike was almost cut short by an angry hissing gator that wouldn’t clear the trail, almost forcing them to turn back around. Luckily, Fakahatchee volunteer Skipper showed up as he was on his way to take well water samples at the Fakahatchee Hilton.  He saved the day by driving his truck and encouraging the gator to leave the trail.

With the help of Fakahatchee staff, the Outdoor Afros continued to the Hilton where they enjoyed lunch before tackling the overgrown trail that extends even further.  On this less-visited portion of the East Tram Trail, they saw fresh black bear tracks and a half-eaten opossum that was clearly someone’s lunch. Their teamwork made handling the thick brush an adventure filled with shared stories, laughs, and smiles. They also enjoyed learning about the edible plants on the trail from Yanique, an Outdoor Afro from Lake Worth who’s knowledgeable in ethnobotany.

After hiking 10 miles, their efforts were rewarded with seeing both a panther and a black bear on Jane’s Scenic Drive while leaving the park! The moment passed too quickly to get a picture, but all of the Outdoor Afros agreed that the beauty of Fakahatchee is one of Florida’s hidden gems and a great way to connect to black historical experiences.

  Editor’s note: Ta-Shana has seen panthers on her last two visits to the Fakahatchee!

Annual Fund drive yields new ATV for park staff

Park staffers admire the new Honda ATV acquired with funds from the FOF annual fund campaign. From left to right are: park services specialist Steve Houseknecht, ranger Steven Bass, biologist Mike Owen and ranger Tom Mosley.

Park staffers admire the new Honda ATV acquired with funds from the FOF annual fund campaign. From left to right are: park services specialist Steve Houseknecht, ranger Steven Bass, biologist Mike Owen and ranger Tom Mosley.

A shiny new red Honda ATV is this year’s evidence of the generosity of FOF members who participated in this year’s annual appeal.

“Members contributed more than $9,800 to the purchase of the ATV,” said FOF president Francine Stevens.  “The staff could not be more pleased and wants to thank members for their generosity.  With the new ATV, they will have reliable access to remote areas of the park.”

The Board of Directors and the Park manager have identified the need to purchase an all-terrain vehicle to be primarily used by veteran Park biologist Mike Owen and supporting staff.  The vehicle became the focus of the 2015 annual appeal launched late last year.

Stevens said the success of the appeal set the stage for another great year for the park and the Friends of Fakahatchee.

Sam Peters joins swamp walk/tram tour team

Sam Peters, center, one of the newest swamp walk leaders for the Friends of Fakahatchee, chats with wife Cynthia and Tom Maish, right.

Veteran Friends of Fakahatchee member Sam Peters (above, center) is the newest member of the Fakahatchee Adventure team.  Sam has earned rave reviews on TripAdvisor for leading swamp walks and tram tours this season.  One visitor described him as “a true naturalist with plenty of depth and breadth to really teach you something about the different habitats at the Fak.”

Notes Friends president Francine Stevens: “Sam shows  his support of the FOF  mission to educate the public about the importance of preserving the fragile ecology of the Fakahatchee every time he drives all the way from Miami to lead a swamp walk.  All of our leaders are dedicated naturalists, but he literally goes the extra mile.”

Sam’s dedication runs in the family. His wife, Cynthia (above, left)  is a former FOF board member who served as chairman of the event committee.  At right is Boardwalk Vision Committee chairman Tom Maish.