Clyde Butcher, renowned nature photographer, says to bring a waterproof bag for your camera and an extra set of clothes, because he wants to take you into the very soul of his primeval subtropical swamp world. Butcher, his wife, Niki, and daughter, Jackie, are kicking off the 19th annual Open House and Labor Day weekend Swamp Walks at their Big Cypress home, studio and art gallery in the Everglades, about 47 miles east of Naples.
During a 90-minute walk, you will be guided at least knee deep into Big Cypress Preserve swampland, and you'll wade across limestone in your tennis shoes into the tannic waters of one of the unique and untamed habitats in the country.
It's an experience, Butcher said, that brings swamp walkers to that untouched, sacred place that is nonexistent in our everyday life.
"Places that are primeval," Butcher said from his hotel room in Venice last week, "like the Big Cypress swamp, give you a feeling that you may be the only person on earth there — a feeling like this is the beginning of the beginning. That's something I always look for when I take photographs.
It is for that reason the walks are meandering, stopping for five minutes here and there to take in the breath of the environment. Butcher said to avoid distraction, you could even leave your camera at home. Either way, the art gallery will be open with Butcher's latest fine art black-and-white photographs on display.
"It is an experience that people say afterward is better than Disney World," Butcher said.
Niki Butcher agrees.
"There's something about being in the water," she said. "Water is what we are conceived in, and live in before we are born. There is something very life-giving and spiritual about this experience. You can't describe it fully. You are connected. You have to experience it."
With master naturalists to guide and narrate the tours, you will depart from the Butchers' home in small groups (allowing no children younger than 8), and be led along one of two different paths that venture deep in the preserve. The paths go through fresh swamp waters, marshes, strands, hammocks and cypress domes that are teeming with organic nature and wildlife, and, according to Butcher — an expert wilderness traverser with his large-format camera — bring the walker to a place like no other.
"One of our goals is to get people to experience this so they can see how important it is to protect the environment and wildlife here," he said.
One of the nation's first established preserves, Big Cypress encompasses more than 700,000 freshwater acres that support an array of wildlife, from alligators and herons to black bears and the famed Florida panther.
LABOR DAY WEEKEND SWAMP WALKS
What: Guided 90-minute walk through Big Cypress Preserve
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 and Sunday, Sept. 2; 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Sept. 3. Walks leave every hour on the hour. Reservations required.
Where: Big Cypress Gallery, 52388 U.S. 41 E. (at mile marker 54.5), Ochopee
Cost: One child 8 to 17 admitted free per paid adult; $25 per additional child; $50, adults (includes a $25 credit to use in the gallery the day of the walk)
Reservations and Information: www.clydebutchersbigcypressgallery.com or 239-695-2428
What to bring: Complete change of clothes; box lunch or snacks; wear long pants, hat, old tennis shoes, and long-sleeved shirt
Something else: Clyde Butcher will be in the gallery all three days to meet visitors and sign books from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Niki Butcher will be giving hand painting black and white photography demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.