The guttural, high-pitched sound breaks the peaceful ambience that until now consisted only of that low chirping of crickets so typical of hot summer days and the soft creaking of our aluminum boat on the water.
Silence falls again — we wait.
Miles of tall sawgrass, shrubs, and lush hammock trees border the long and narrow canal where we stand, their perfect reflection on the glassy water disturbed only by occasional air bubbles from the fish below. Then the plaintive sound, a succession of seemingly short cries, arises again.
Sitting high in the airboat's driver seat, rudder stick in hand, Captain Jesse Kennon, his mouth barely opened, emulates the call of baby alligators in distress. He bends down, plunges his hand in the murky water and flaps it before initiating a third round of call — success at last. Adult alligators of various sizes come gliding in our direction.
"A lot of times the adults are curious. They'll find out where the baby's at or what's that, so a lot of times they'll respond," says Kennon with a grin as a six-foot male gator asserts his territory with a muffled bellow strangely reminiscent of the growling noises a hungry stomach makes.
More than 30 miles from downtown Miami, deep within the Everglades, Kennon is home. He's owned and has been living in Coopertown Airboat Tours, among the oldest airboat tours on Highway 41, for 35 years. Yet the land he's inherited from relatives is now being transferred to the U.S. National Park Service as part of a decades-long effort to protect the Everglades.
A subtropical wilderness that once stretched continuously from Orlando to the Florida Keys, the Everglades now mostly consists of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests, and hardwood hammocks dominated by wetlands that extend in patches from Lake Okeechobee down to the tip of the Florida Peninsula.
Florida's first settlers saw it as a devilish swamp that needed to be dried out, and by the early 1900s more than half of the ecosystem had been drained for agriculture and urban development. To protect the vanishing wilderness, the U.S. government created Everglades National Park on 1.5 million acres in 1934. There is no other habitat like this in the world. It's home to hundreds of species, including the infamous American Alligator and the endangered Florida Panther.
Since its establishment, Everglades National Park, which covers the wetlands south of Highway 41 (connecting the east coast from Miami to the west coast in Naples), has been managed as a wilderness area where airboats are banned. Yet a sliver of land known as the Eastern Extension, where Coopertown is located, continued to function outside of park's laws before being incorporated in 1989. As part of its comprehensive management plan, the U.S. National Park Service was mandated to purchase the privately owned parcels in that area, wipe out private airboating, while only allowing three tour operators — including Coopertown — to continue to function on park lands, under the park's rules.
It took years for that to happen, but now the new rules are ready to go into force. By the end of 2016, Coopertown will be functioning as a concession for park services under a 10-year contract that may or may not be renewed. When that happens, Kennon will find himself renting land his family has owned for more than half a century. But much more than a business, it's the one place he's called home for decades that Kennon will relinquish.
On the day he signs the agreement, Kennon will lose a bit of himself.
A tall and lean man in his mid-70s, Kennon may well be South Florida's very own Crocodile Dundee. Yet in lieu of boots and cowboy hat, the mayor, as he's often referred to (more on that later), prefers athletic shoes and a baseball cap that covers his wavy strawberry blonde hair. His signature piece of jewelry is a pure gold alligator ring he never removes — the lifelike gator, the size of a ping pong ball, wraps around his right ring finger, front legs stretched out as if struggling for a way out. He's from Missouri and speaks with a soft Southern twang, and sometimes fast as an auctioneer. And when he smiles, the sparkle in his eyes betrays a defiant, playful spirit.
Former Navy seaman, skydiver, aircraft pilot, master diver (he once owned a scuba diving store in the Florida Keys), bull rider (he earned a gold buckle for bull and saddle bronc riding), and alligator wrestler, Kennon is a daredevil who shows little signs of slowing down. Just a few months back he took his sports car for a spin at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Two years ago the septuagenarian zip-lined in Costa Rica, and in 2013 he drove his Harley Davidson down to Key West as part of the yearly bikers' Poker Run.
Adventure came calling early on for Kennon. It started one late night when he was only 16 years old. Kennon had returned home inebriated and announced to his mother he was leaving their Missouri hometown for Los Angeles. And on that very same night, he did. Kennon threw all his essential belongings, clothes, and rock 'n roll vinyl records, in his 1958 Chevrolet Impala and drove off.
"If I was 10 years younger I'd be getting in trouble," he says now with a chuckle.
I'd known about Kennon for years. He's been among South Florida reporters' favorite go-to source on anything related to the Everglades. Yet only now, just a few days short of the month of June, the official start of the rainy season, did I venture with him on an exclusive early morning sunrise boat ride.
So at dawn (a few hours before he demonstrated his vocalizing prowess) Kennon headed for the wetlands and turned the boat's propeller off, waiting for the sun to rise and bring back colors and life to the "river of grass."
View of the rising sun from Kennon's airboat in the middle of the Everglades | (Courtesy Latterly)
An outdoorsman par excellence, Kennon belongs to the dwindling gladesmen culture, where years spent in the Everglades meant developing an intimate relationship with the land, understanding the flow and movements of water, the changes brought by the seasons and the habits of the creatures that populate these wetlands.
"Just look at the hammock, it goes smaller and smaller and just disappears, right?" Kennon says pointing at a concentration of trees surging from the waters. "Basically like a ship turned backward, so you have the big thick end on the top on the north end, so it's pointing toward the north end, and then as it goes down there's less soil, less soil, so the smaller end of it is south.
"See the little yellow flowers? Them shooting means there's not much soil, it means there's rock, so if you spot those you know you're getting into rock areas, so you need to turn or get out of there real quick."
He cautions me to watch for the size, thickness, and color of the grass. The taller, thicker, and darker it is, means the soil is higher, water is running low and the area will be difficult to drive on.
"These are all the little things you can tell by the color of the grass and the different vegetation around and after a while, you learn."
Kennon smiles, showing rows of perfect white teeth, apparently self-satisfied with his lecture on navigation. "It's a sign post, looking at the shape of the tallest hammocks that is. It's Mother Nature's way of saying this is how everything moves."
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