THE WILD EAST: Orange Jeep tours roll through hidden back-country Collier
July 3, 2014
Alligators often lurk under the brush parallel to the Orange Jeep Tour route in Ave Maria, about 40 minutes northeast of Naples.
There the red-shoulder hawk dominates the airways, unless an eagle is around. White-tailed deer sometimes peek their curious heads out of the brush. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to see one.
Tour guide Mike Sullivan says he runs two-to-three 90-minute tours a day during the offseason. That number doubles during peak season.
“During season we do half a dozen tours a day,” said Sullivan, a tour guide veteran of 1 1/2 years. “I see a lot of northerners, Canadians and Europeans.”
Same, but different
What’s unique about the tour is the route. The tour starts at 5076 Annunciation Circle, Suite 104 each time, but the route is never the same.
“It depends on the weather, what you want to see and the time of year,” Sullivan said. You won’t see the same animals and plant species every time, he added.
The neon orange Jeep Wrangler, caked in mud, holds up to six passengers, plus the driver. Three pairs of binoculars sit on the dashboard waiting to help curious riders investigate the secrets revealed in the Southwest Florida safari.
After stopping in a small field to view some wild turkeys, my boyfriend, Doug Yurek, Naples Daily News photographer Scott McIntyre, Sullivan and I raced toward the vibrant green grass and into the 17,000 acres owned by the Collier family and designated for conservation.
But before we drove into the wilderness, Sullivan stopped, bent over and pointed out a set of coyote tracks.
“You can learn a lot by watching the roads,” he said. “It’s a good indicator of what’s happening out here.”
Out there, the alligators line the banks. But you can’t see them — only how they got there. Sullivan pointed out a handful of alligator slides at the beginning of and throughout our journey.
Alligator slides are patches of grass folded over by constant alligators’ sliding into the canal or body of water from the brush above, Sullivan explained. He also imparted some gator wisdom throughout the trip.
“You can tell how big an alligator is by how many inches there are from its eyes to its nose,” Sullivan said.
Alligators hang at a 45-degree angle in the water so only their eyes and a little bit of their snout show — but they think we can’t see them, he continued.
When Yurek asked Sullivan if running in zigzags really made it more difficult for alligators to catch their human-prey, Sullivan replied and chuckled, “I think alligators made that up to make humans easier to catch.”
Seeking stolen moments
There are stolen moments Sullivan says are the best part about the orange jeep’s trek through the wilderness.
One time he said he saw a black bear hidden away, almost invisible. “I saw the silhouette of its ears,” Sullivan said. “Then we stared at each other for 20 seconds.”
I had my own stolen moment when I saw the dark shadow of a deer’s face hidden in the brush. But by the time we backed up a couple feet to see it, it was gone.
Swallowtail Kites, birds that vacation and raise babies in Southwest Florida, but live permanently in South America, were a frequent site along the trail. So were soccer ball-sized spider webs, out of a Tim Burton horror film, with a baseball-size hole in the middle.
We also saw hardwood hammocks, or a small forest of trees. They were a treasure along the trail because the air coming from the forest was cooler and moist — a welcome refuge from the Florida heat.
“It feels like air conditioning,” Sullivan said. “It’s prehistoric looking too.
“I could see a T-Rex just bounding out of there.”
There is no sunlight in the hammock, but there are cicadas, an insect that resembles a cockroach. They make a loud, fast, humming sound not often heard in the city.
Sullivan has seen a lot in a little over a year with the Orange Jeep Tours.
One time he came across 10 turkey babies clustered outside the Jeep’s door, but he couldn’t find the poults’ mama; he looked around but did not see her.
Sullivan searched again and, on closer inspection, he found her hiding in the brush, head covered, with one eye open.
“She just did not want to leave her babies,” he said. “That stuff is the most fun to see. I’m not sure if I’ll see it again.”
One time a 2-foot-tall deer fawn ran around the jeep five times with its mother nearby impatiently stomping her hoof.
“He was just playing, he didn’t know any better,” Sullivan added.
He said it initially took him two tanks of gas and a compass to find his way around. Now he can’t get enough time in the backwoods.
“You have to go the way the trails go,” Sullivan said. “If you get lost, you’ll find your way.”