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Okaloacoochee Slough

State Forest

 

We headed for Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest, just west of Lee County, Florida without knowing what to expect. There's little information available on this 32,000 acres of swampland in the middle of nowhere. Former ranch and agricultural lands purchased between 1996-2000 by the State of Florida under the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) Program, it is destined to be employed in multiple forestry and land use management practices.  Recently opened to the public, this vast area spans from Hendry County into Collier County in Southwest Florida. The slough provides, with a steady southward flow, the water necessary for Corkscrew Swamp, Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress Preserve to sustain.

 

An Indian name, probably first spoken by the Seminoles who had settled the area and derived from the Creek Indian language, as many Seminoles were former Creeks, Okaloacoochee might sound phonetically like: "ahk-hol-wak-oo-chee". Of course, "slough" is pronounced, "slew". The Creek Indian word, "Okaloacoochee", is actually a combination of 3 separate Creek words that might refer to the swamp's shallow, dark waters. We observed the darker tint of the continuously draining swampland waters while driving down our first trail and eventually speculated that the first visitors may have been referring to the particulate matter - the dark tannin - in the water. In any event, we've since learned that many refer to it simply as "OK Slough", and that's just fine with us.

 

One of the unique and special aspects of Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is the number and length of driving trails available to explore the area by car. In the early 1900's the forest was targeted by the lumber mills as an ideal source for railroad ties to supply the ever expanding railways into Florida. Although logging ended in the 1930's, with agricultural and ranching interests taking control of the land, the old roads and trails established by the loggers still remain. Road and trail names like Twin Mills Grade, Wild Cow Grade, Mustang Grade and Oil Well Pad Road hint at the history of the forest. While the lumber mills, oil wells, wild cows and mustangs are indeed now history, nature resumes its steadily pressing need to imprint the area. Today Okaloacoochee is home to several endangered and threatened species such as Florida panther, Florida black bear, sandhill crane, wood stork, crested caracara, and American alligator.

 

The family car will do well on the sand and crushed rock beds that make up most of the current roads, except during the summer rainy seasons. Pickups and SUV's, preferably with 4-wheel drive, would be advantageous then. The roads, built up slightly from the surrounding ground and bordered by water channels left by the excavated dirt, are narrow in many places making turn-arounds difficult in wet weather. Roadway ground clearances are not normally a problem but deeper puddles do occur when it rains heavily. In all there about 39 miles of roads and biking, hiking and horseback riding trails. Powered vehicles not meant for road use are not allowed in the forest.

 

Access points to most of the forest roads lie along a paved, state maintained roadway, Keri Road. Each of the 8 or so forest access roads has a self-pay station at the entrance requesting $1 per visitor. The roads vary in length but even the shortest will take you at least a few miles into the forest. The roads and trails wind through the forest, around the larger bodies of water, sometimes intersecting with one another. While we refer to "the forest" and that conjures up visions of miles of tall trees, in many areas you'll see only scrub vegetation and water. Slash pine, saw palmetto, cabbage palms, cypress and wax myrtle are common in the area as well as many types of water grasses. However, there are many large and small "woodsy" areas throughout to explore from the roads and trails.

 

Peaceful and serene, the stillness is occasionally broken by the shrill cry of a hawk or bird chatter here and there. Alligator grunts and frog croaks are common in the wetter areas. In this remote setting, aircraft engines, automobile traffic, fans, compressors and like noise makers as well as visual clutter is entirely absent. Treetops meet blue sky everywhere and animated clouds drifting silently above are the only reminder that time has not stopped. Not often you may cross paths with another visitor or Forest Ranger, a friendly wave or nod of the head being the only interruption to your pursuit.

 

While not well documented like many other state recreation areas in Florida, wildlife sightings at OK Slough seem more than occasional. White-tailed deer, wild pig, alligator and the elusive, endangered Florida panther may be seen. Birding, always popular in remote swamp-like areas of Florida, will undoubtedly prove to be rewarding. Several species of raptor including red-shouldered hawk, swallow-tailed kite, snail kite and crested caracara can be expected to be commonly seen. Larger wading birds such as egrets, ibises, herons and the wood stork should appear regularly. Woodpeckers, barred owls, vultures and any number of smaller birds are always on hand. Be sure to look  for the bird checklist for OK Slough available at the self-pay stations. In addition to a species list, it provides a frequency of sightings available by season.

 

Hunting, a popular activity among some, occurs seasonally in the forest and is tightly regulated and controlled. Turkey, wild pig and dove are commonly sought. Fishermen can experience their familiar pleasure but mostly by casting from land because the water areas are too shallow for watercraft or paddling or inaccessible except by hiking. Camping is permitted year round at the designated camping site. During hunting seasons, additional camp sites may be opened.

 

While remote, Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is easy to find. Entrance from the west lies between the cities of Labelle and Immokalee off of Route 29, east on Keri Road. An east side entrance is facilitated by traveling Route 80 west past Clewiston, then south on 833 to west on Keri Road. From US Highway 41or Interstate 75, travel west to Route 29, go north to Keri Road and then east. Signs marking the various forest access roads are easily seen.

Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

 

Swamp hibiscus

Swamp hibiscus

 

White-tailed deer in Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

White-tailed deer

 

Swallow-tailed kite soaring - Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Swallow-tailed kite soaring

 

Swallow-tailed kite juvenile

Swallow-tailed kite juvenile

 

Red-shouldered  hawk

Red-shouldered  hawk

 

Killdeer faking "broken wing" distress

Killdeer faking "broken wing" distress

 

Glossy Ibis - Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Glossy ibis

 

Glades morning glory

Glades morning glory

 

Wild pigs - Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Wild pigs

 

Wild pigs on trail in Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Wild pigs

 

Wild pig bones in pool

Wild pig bones in pool

 

Black vulture in Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest

Black vulture pulling pigskin from pool

 

Black vultures await

Black vultures in slash pine tree

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