One afternoon recently, brother Mark and I forsook the gruelling another-day-in-paradise beer and beach ritual in Fort Myers, Florida, for a short trip to Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, a 3,500-acre, free-admission managed wetland.
Home to countless bird species, turtles, otters, and alligators basking on man-made platforms in appropriately named Gator Lake, Hurricane Irma-battered Six Mile Slough illustrates the value and contribution of such natural sponges, many of which have been paved over in the name of progress, leaving floodwaters with far fewer ready outlets, exacerbating the damage.
In Ontario, it’s a discussion that’s ongoing, often revolving around the latest proposal for a mega dump which developers want to place smack in the middle of a wetland, effectively eliminating its high water absorption role in favour of that of contaminant dispersal system.
The tour of the slough – pronounced sloo – was part of a recent one-week trip to Fort Myers with my three brothers, a getaway we arrange every 20 years or so because more frequently would be too debilitating. Brother Peter is part owner of a condo in Fort Myers, a place that revolutionized my general impression of the Sunshine State formed after a trip to what I saw as shabby Fort Lauderdale 35 years ago.
I decided then that, if you take away the beach, beer and bikinis, Florida didn’t have much to recommend it. But Fort Myers has been a very different experience; it’s well groomed, tastefully decorated, with a lot of attention paid to historical and natural preservation such as the Six Mile Preserve.
Even my younger brothers Pete and Mike are now entry-level senior citizens, so bro-vacay activities are a tad tamer than they used to be. There’s still a lot of attention paid to the beach, pool, golfing, restaurants and live music bars, but substantial naptime is also built into the schedule. We also took a break to go sightseeing and shop for books at a Barnes & Noble.
Following my own discount book purchase – Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz – I took relentless ribbing from my brothers for the rest of the trip. I have yet to read the story of the diminutive Ovitz family that survived the wartime experiments of Nazi Dr. Joseph Mengele, which, I admit, was a strange selection as a light beach read.
Although Peter’s reinforced condo community remained relatively unscathed, the cleanup following Irma’s unwelcome visit Sept. 10 continued while we were there, mostly disposing of trees downed along the sides of many roads we travelled during our stay.
Containing interpretive centre, boardwalk, amphitheatre, and observation decks, the Six Mile Preserve was closed until Nov. 1 while the post-Irma pieces were picked up. Already saturated following previous heavy rains, Irma raised the water level in the preserve by three feet, submerging the boardwalk.
As we circulated on that resurfaced boardwalk, Mark and I encountered volunteer guides Evie and Neal Hartman who described how Irma’s random bursts levelled sections of slough foliage, creating what amounts to temporary bald spots. Obviously committed to the preserve, the Hartmans were still awed by Irma’s wrath and thankful to everyone who lent a hand in the cleanup.
We also encountered flora and fauna of all shapes and sizes, from the tiniest lizard to odd looking “Cyprus knees”, undergrowth that looks like small clustered cone-shaped stumps; they rise up from the horizontal root system of Cyprus trees and are believed to help stabilize them.
Overall, Six Mile Slough and the rest of the area were spared. By the time it reached Fort Myers, the irascible Irma had been downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, still a force to be reckoned with but nothing requiring widespread evacuation.
Who knows when and exactly where the next inevitable hurricane will strike Florida? Residents prepare as best they can and Friends of the Six Mile Slough such as the Hartmans hope for the best.
With an eye on maintaining the preserve’s positive influence in perpetuity, the volunteers oversee fundraising projects such as purchase of natural river stones for $250 each to be placed in the facility’s garden; they may be engraved with name, favourite saying, peaceful thought, or remembrance.
As Mark and I strolled the boardwalk, I was thankful that there are people who care enough to focus on the environmental healing powers of the gentle side of Mother Nature as represented by the slough, and not cave in to her rage as represented by Irma.