I am on the Loxahatchee, Florida’s first National Wild and Scenic River, going upstream.
All visible civilization is behind me. No sign of asphalt, concrete, or cable, not even a hum from I-95. The vegetation is dense, the scenery wild. We pause. The silence is broken only by the splash of a mullet.
At first the water is brackish, tall mangroves lean over sloping banks. But in a mile or so, the river changes personality. It’s mostly fresh water now, lined with ferns, palmettos, and brooding centuries-old cypress trees that block out the light of day. Reddish blooms and wild orchids dot the trees. Turtles sun on fallen logs, herons fish near the shore, osprey perch on treetops. A twelve-foot alligator makes gimlet-eye contact from an ankle-deep mangrove swamp.
The Loxahatchee Queen churns around the next bend and ties up at a pine-log dock.
We enter the restored compound once occupied by Vince “Trapper” Nelson. It’s the last place a boat can go before turning around.
After what seems like an eternity, moving upriver through a tropical ecosystem, the first sign of man’s intrusion is Trapper’s old boat shed. An intrusion to be sure, but a welcomed sight to those who felt lost in this jungle paradise. ~ artist Ron Parvu
There are plenty of tales about the “Man of the Jungle”, this legendary real-life Tarzan. Hobo,trapper, gambler, hunter, alligator wrestler, celebrity host, snake charmer, lady charmer, voracious reader. Trapper Nelson lived life on his own terms.
Primitive but serviceable, Trapper’s small cabin and open-walled chickee hut sheltered him. His favorite food was gopher tortoise stew. He trapped, hunted, and kept a barrel filled with rattlesnakes. A likable guy, they say, with a dry sense of humor and unusual pets.
Trapper Nelson had a flair for playing Tarzan (on his stout rope swing over the river) and entertaining strangers (like various Whitneys, DuPonts, and Kennedys) with his pens and pits of captured alligators, caged bobcats, and deadly rattlesnakes. Want to be the center of attention? Do what Trapper did ~ cut off the head of a gopher tortoise, drink its blood, and praise the virtues of wildlife nutrition.
The walls showcased his talent for the jungle lifestyle. And so did his neck, draped with dramatic species, a thrill for his awe-struck guests. Outdoor chic, you might say.
There’s little left of the Jeep he used to charge through the surf.
Trapper played all the angles. What a salesman. He sold animals to zoos and wholesalers; hides of otter, bobcat, and rattlesnake to Sears Roebuck; orchids and plants by mail-order; postcards of his jungle garden; sugarcane. Trapper rented rowboats and poles for fishing, sold baby alligators from his pens, firewood from his never-ending woodpile, and artifacts from the heads of gators and snakes.
But then came the government. With its regulations. And taxes. And health inspectors. And environmental inspectors. And facilities inspectors. The whole thing got to be too much for this tired hustler with worries over land, money, and family.
Like in poker, you play the hand you’re dealt. In 1968, The Legend of the Loxahatchee was found sprawled face down in the chickee hut, his 12-gauge shotgun a few feet away.
Vince “Trapper” Nelson’s ashes are in the Loxahatchee. As his friends cast them into the river, a nephew reads the poem, Requiem, that Scotland’s Robert Louis Stevenson wrote for his own epitaph.
Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me die. Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will This be the verse you grave for me: Here lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.
The camp I visit is intact. It is preserved and protected forever, a tribute to one of America’s last pioneers and his beloved Loxahatchee.
The song of the river ends not at her banks but in the hearts of those who have loved her.
— (Buffalo Joe)
*header quote: Henry David Thoreau