Daughter of the Everglades Squatter

By Mandy Ward Davis

Originally posted in February 2017

I never thought I’d go back to the Everglades, but last Monday, I found myself looking at a brisk Florida sky and two kids who needed something to do.  “We want to see Manatees,” they said, “Manttatees?” I’d said, a life -long mispronouncer of words that my husband lovingly calls Mandyisms.

“Mannnnateees, Mom,” said my daughter “Think about a man having tea when you say it.”

I’d spent a portion of my childhood in the Florida Everglades, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back.  We’d come down to the Florida Keys, from Maine, for a long weekend to escape the cold and do some snorkel trips but the temps in the 60s had made underwater exploration kind of like dabbling in hypothermia.

Life in Maine, in the winter, can get kind of small. We were all craving outdoor adventure, the feel of sunshine on our skin. Plus I’d just recently started working for Chimani and I had not actually had the opportunity to try our National Park Guide apps out in the field. So, going to the Everglades seemed like a win-win.

I grew up in New England, but there was an earlier part of my life when I was a flip flop kid in Florida who played with red ant holes in a burned-out back yard like preppy kids play with golden retrievers.

My parents divorced when I was young and my mom moved to Connecticut while my dad stayed in Florida where I’d been born.  For years I went and visited my dad in various apartments around the Delray area. But then, when I was in 7th grade he packed up all his worldly possessions into his VW wagon and took off for the Everglades, where he became, the first and to my recollection, the only, established squatter. He lived there for almost 30 years. Yup, that’s right, my dad was the Everglades hermit.

So, while my friends with divorced parents spent holidays skiing with their dads in Vail, I went to Florida, to an outpost island called Lulu, where my dad had a village of tents, fire pits, and camp chairs. Somehow he’d gotten our old yellow patio table out to the island by canoe, so dinner was always kind of a formal event.

Mandy Ward Davis and Mike Ward 1986
Mandy Ward Davis and Mike Ward 1986

There’s no other place on earth like the Everglades. It is a unique interdependent series of ecosystems, swamps, mangrove forests, islands, and a dense wild habitat for marine life, bird, and mammals. At a glance, it is static and unimpressive, but if you sit there, quiet your breath, and patiently watch, you will see the entire glade is wildly alive.

*      *    *

Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. Though my dad was an interesting character, no one ends up living alone on an island without a reason. I’m not sure whether my dad had moved to the Everglades to remove himself from society, or society had asked him to leave. I’m guessing it was the latter. I do know his three wives had all showed him the door.

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We’d spend days canoeing amongst the mangroves, him pointing out all sorts of marine life and birds. Through vast amounts of silence and alone time, he’d become like an Audubon field guide, he knew everything. In the heat of the afternoon, he’d sit in the shade of his camp and sketch birds he’s seen by memory.

It took my family an hour from Key Largo to get to the  Royal Palms Visitor Center and then another five minutes or so to the Anhinga Trail. We parked the car next to rows of vehicles covered with tarps. We assumed that these were day-trippers keeping picnic coolers shaded, but we soon saw a sign over a pile of tarps warning us to cover our car so that they would not be attacked by vultures. For my family, this kind of sign was a definite indicator of a great day. And no we did not go back and cover our rental car.

We came across our first alligator about 12 steps from the bathroom on the Anhinga Trail. Surprise and fear traveled through my body as I and remembered every alligator/crocodile movie ever made. I was relieved that there was a low stone wall separating us from the gator. My kids took pictures, angling selfies so the alligator could be seen behind their faces.  I smiled nervously. An older woman passed me, “Oh you haven’t seen anything yet.” We continued down the trail and I was dismayed to see that the stone wall completely disappeared. We were just out in nature with alligators, a lot of alligators, like alligators literally everywhere. At times there were so many they were stacked up on top of one and another.

Maisy and Calder and some Gators
Maisy and Calder and some Gators

Thankfully the swamps that lined our trail were loaded with fish, so the alligators seemed full and a bit sleepy, but still every time my husband placed his hand on my back or touched my arm to point out something, I shrieked as if being attacked.

My kids, clearly never saw any bad gator movies and they were enthralled stretching their bodies practically into the mouths of the gators to get pictures.

Honestly, I was a little lost and kept thinking about my dad, what kind of man decides to live here? What kind of dad brings his 12-year-old daughter out here to sleep solo in a tent surrounded by gators?

Alligator Yawn?
Alligator Yawn?

After leaving the Anhinga Trail we drove another 45 minutes into the park to Flamingo Station where you can rent kayaks. We arrived at 2:56, 4 minutes before the rentals close. The boat guides were pretty laid back though and not overly concerned with us getting back quickly. They set us off down a man-made canal that was pretty good for seeing manatees. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed, a man-made canal felt sort of like a ride a Disney World. In the car, I had imagined paddling my way through tight jungles of mangroves, pythons swinging out of branches, toucans flying over my head. This was pretty tame.


We paddled for about 15 minutes before we saw our first manatee. The sun was warm on our shoulders, the water brown like coffee, wood storks and roseate spoonbills, larger than my children, swaying heavily in the tops of thin trees. My husband spotted the manatee first. With a wave and shush sign, we all paddled towards him and there in the shallow banks was a large whale-like manatee chewing on the roots of the mangroves. Its size was breathtaking, it’s peaceful nature majestic. To our left two more manatees floated to the surface, sighed, then swam under our boats and settled a little farther down the canal to continue eating.

None of us could speak. We were in awe and simultaneously reminded that the word is filled with wonder.

And in that moment, the gentle sway of the water below my boat, I understood, why a man might leave society and choose to live in the wild.

Flamingo Station Canal
Flamingo Station Canal

8 thoughts on “Daughter of the Everglades Squatter

  1. Mandy
    I paddled many times with your dad in
    Ireland on lough key, Great times I
    temember fondly.


  2. Mandy,
    What a great insight into your dad. I go to Lulu every year and camp for a week with a group of kayakers. I have been going there for 22 years and remember meeting your dad a couple of times. He was very nice an only asked that everyone sign his log book and take out what they brought in. There is still a cabin there where he lived.


  3. Mandy—wow, really appreciate more of the story. I knew your Dad for years as we ran guided canoe and kayak trips in the Everglades for 20-25 years. We camped with him as guests for several trips. We found him very cordial, knowledgeable and full of stories of the wild places. I remember the yellow table and the racoons that were his friends. We shared many a campfire including the one of Feb 2000 where he suffered a stroke. I just got a letter from one of the paddlers that I had on that trip so that sparked my memories and I googled your Dad’s name.
    I have many beautiful memories of your Dad and Lulu Key.


  4. Mandy,
    I met mike around 1986. In the early 90’s we became regulars at the legendary New Year’s camp gathering. I made T-shirts and paddled them out for years.
    I get that Mike was a complicated guy. But we saw him at his best and we have great memories of him and Lulu.
    Thanks for your story.


  5. Mandy, your dad was one of the most interesting people I have ever met. I have fond memories of him telling tales at Lulu Key. He was a fabulous storyteller and a generous host. You clearly are also a gifted storyteller. Thanks for writing this.


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