Guide Cheryl Dierken was driving her camouflaged tour bus down the swamp road when she felt a loud thud under the tires. Her passengers gasped. A ripple of water, and an alligator leapt from the water beside the bus. It splashed down, and then paddled away between thick trees and hanging vines. Though this was one of the most startling encounters that Cheryl has experienced leading a Babcock Wilderness Adventures tour, it hasn’t been the only one; she’s greeted snapping turtles in the bus stairwell and been approached by young wild hogs. Aboard a converted school bus with doors and windows removed, she and the other guides lead narrated tours through sections of the preserve’s more than 73,000 acres of freshwater marsh, prairie lands, functioning cattle ranch, and pine forest, as well as the 10,000-acre Telegraph Cypress Swamp.
On many of these tours, guides may point out photography opportunities as endangered fox squirrels, wood storks, alligators, and rare Florida panthers saunter by. The bus also makes a stop by the territory of Saylow, a 19-year-old southern cougar who sometimes approaches the fence to inspect her visitors and silently judge their lack of fur. At the Crescent B Ranch, guides point out horse-mounted cowboys herding cracker cattle; the native breed introduced to the ranch in the early 1900s. Staffers also introduce visitors to the original ranch commissary building and museum; built in the style of a rustic hunting shack for the 1995 film Just Cause. Inside, visitors peruse ecological exhibits on local snakes and see a stuffed three-horned cow that once lived on the ranch. Walking trails free of traffic lights connect the piney woods and swamps with a central visitor’s center, where picnic tables sit covered from the elements and a gift shop proffers barbecue sauce, alligator jerky, and local honey.