Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An airboat view of Everglades flora, fauna

Visitors depart on an airboat tour in Coopertown. Jesse Kennon´s family has been conducting them since 1945; 50,000 tourists a year take the ride.
Visitors depart on an airboat tour in Coopertown. Jesse Kennon's family has been conducting them since 1945; 50,000 tourists a year take the ride. WILFREDO LEE / Associated Press

COOPERTOWN, Fla. - Jesse Kennon's day begins at 6:30 a.m., as he opens Coopertown's only bait-and-tackle shop. He heads to the only restaurant, where the lunch menu includes alligator tail and frog legs, to make sure the kitchen is ready. Then, he's off to spend the day giving airboat rides through the Florida Everglades.

Kennon, or "Mayor" as he's called, runs Coopertown, which is less than an hour from Miami but consists of only four acres and eight residents - his immediate family.

Still, this town that started in 1945, when Kennon's family first offered airboat tours, has turned into a major player in South Florida tourism, attracting about 50,000 visitors a year. That does not include the dozens of music videos and model shoots done here, or the major television and movie productions filmed on site, such as episodes for CSI: Miami.

Yet it's still a small town. In the 1940s, there was nothing but the Everglades and the Indian village. The restaurant and house where Kennon lives went up two years later. Today, there is only one major road connecting Coopertown to Miami.

"What we do here is try to show you the beauty and the majestic part of the Everglades," says Kennon, who wears gold-plated alligator jewelry around his neck and on his ring finger.

"Most people anticipate coming to see a big jungle. When they get out there, they find it's really not a big jungle," he says.

The goal for Kennon and his staff is to explain the importance of preserving the habitat.

"The more people I can introduce and show the environment, the ecosystem, the fauna, and explain what the actual Everglades is about, that's more people that respect that and will help support its survival," he says.

The airboat tours show visitors alligators in their natural habitat. The rides are smooth, not bumpy or splashy, almost as if you were gliding on 12 inches of water. While on the ride, you will catch whiffs of different aromas: sweetness from the basil trees, a soft grass smell from the freshwater river. You will also see birds and vegetation: the great egret, a tall white bird; the great blue heron with its blue and gray feathers; the white swamp lily; and the spatterdock, a floating-leaved plant.

During the rides, Kennon imitates the sound of baby gators in distress. Alligators are curious and often will slowly make their way toward the airboat while keeping a short distance.

Before or after your turn on the airboat, stroll through the Alligator Exhibit for a closer look at the roughly 16 alligators, including Big Man, a 14-foot alligator that weighs 1,000 pounds.

There's also the bait-and-tackle shop, a tiny room crowded with fishing equipment.

If you're brave enough to try down-home cooking Everglades-style, walk into the one-room Coopertown Restaurant and order alligator tail and frog legs. A recent group of visitors from London described the meal as tasty, yet "chewy" and "tougher than chicken." For those not so adventurous, hamburgers and grilled-cheese sandwiches are also on the menu.

The restaurant also serves as the souvenir shop for gator-themed purchases - from gator figurines, pens, and mugs to T-shirts and gator heads.

For Kennon, who started driving airboats when he was 9, the work never gets old.

"I had an office job before, and that was not my bag," he says.

It is around 10 p.m., and Kennon is finally shutting down shop.

"This environment out here is kind of hard to beat."


Riding the Glades

Coopertown can attract more than 100 visitors a day, not including private boat rides. Christmas Day through New Year's is the busiest week, averaging 300 to 500 visitors a day.

Location: On U.S. 41, or the Tamiami Trail, 11 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, just a few minutes' drive from the Miccosukee Resort & Convention Center.

Phone: 305-226-6048

Web site: www.coopertownairboats.com

Prices: Rides start at $22 per adult, $11 for children; children under 6 are free. Each trip lasts about 40 minutes, covering nearly 10 miles of the Everglades. One-hour, 25-mile private tours can be arranged with stops that include a basil tree, where you can pick a leaf.

Tips: You do not get wet on the boat rides, but be prepared for the noise. The staff supplies cotton balls to use as earplugs. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended.

- Associated Press

Suzette Laboy Associated Press
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