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No need to get your feet wet on this swamp tour

FOR those who expect a swamp to be murky and unfriendly or Florida's west coast to be a landscape of condos and shopping centers, the Corkscrew Swamp Wildlife Sanctuary is a gift of serendipity. Never stagnant, the waters of this swamp flow ever so slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico to the southwest. Even when the water level drops during drought, plant roots release oxygen, keeping the waters sweet and clear, permeating the air with a fresh, pleasant aroma.

Maintained by the National Audubon Society, Corkscrew is one of the few remaining wetlands preserved as it has existed for millennia. Within its 6,000 acres is the largest virgin bald cypress stand in the United States. Some of these trees were growing before Columbus discovered the New World; many reach heights of 130 feet, with girths often exceeding 25 feet.

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The endangered wood stork is among 100 bird species that can be seen from December through March.

A boon to visitors is the effortless way to enjoy the forest. A mile-and-a-half boardwalk set just above the swamp allows leisurely strolling through the most secret places without getting your feet wet or disturbing the ecosystems.

A small rustic reception building, surrounded by a garden, marks the sanctuary entrance on Route 846, 25 miles northeast of Naples. Hospitable Audubon naturalists are always ready to talk with visitors and answer questions. The admission fee includes a brochure that offers detailed descriptions and pictures of plants, animals, and birds that correspond with 60 numbered plaques strategically placed on the boardwalk.

Time and time again I saw creatures that were mentioned in the guide appear like magic just where predicted.

My favorite way to see the forest is in two visits, late afternoon and again in early morning, times when birds are most active. You should keep in mind that although visitors can picnic at tables in the garden, no food is permitted on the sanctuary trail. You'll also want to wear comfortable sneakers or go barefoot.

The enchantment begins as soon as you step onto the springy wooden walkway that leads through a meadow where a thousand wildflowers shine in the subtropical sun. Butterflies alight on bright yellow St. John's worts, flit from pink meadow beauties to tufty bachelor's buttons, purple chocolate weeds, and sweetly fragrant marsh fleabane. Carolina-Anole lizards scurry on the wooden slats, changing from brown to green; bright blue-tailed skinks jump from under your feet. Quail whistle overhead.

The boardwalk veers into the cypress forest, and suddenly there is shade. One of many conveniently placed benches invites you to sit and watch the special show in the wetland. Iridescent dragonflies, gnat-catchers, and mosquito fish catch insects. Whirligig beetles dance among fragrant waterlilies. Wild river otters peek through floating duckweed.

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As you walk deeper into the forest, the trees grow taller, their trunks thicker. Tiny leaves form feathery canopies a hundred feet above. Bright red lichen that cover rough cypress trunks look like abstract paintings. Silky Spanish moss decorates long-fingered branches, sending out a delicate floral scent. It lives on air, the guidebook explains, and doesn't damage the trees.

Masses of cow-horn orchids, their tiny yellow flowers spotted in rusty reds, hang prettily from long green stalks.

The sound of birds that one cannot always see fills the air, mixing with the buzzing beat of tree frogs and crickets. When you hear a high piercing ``ke-arr-ke-arr,'' look for the naturally tame red-shouldered hawk, which often perches on the boardwalk railing.

A long, haunting wail announces the tall, brown limpkin walking jerkily among tree branches.

Little blue herons are so light, they step daintily from leaf to leaf as though walking on water. Flocks of white ibis with slim orange beaks descend from their nests in the cypress to snack on frogs and fish. Stately wood storks, their necks and heads featherless and wrinkled, walk in the shallows, dipping their bills. Coal-black anhingas fly among scarlet hibiscus blooms.

The lake is an ideal place to photograph alligators sunning themselves lazily on floating logs or the turtles large and small that raise their heads.

If you want to overnight nearby and prolong the feeling of nature unspoiled, as I like to do, I recommend the five-star Ritz-Carlton on Vanderbilt Beach in Naples. Fourteen stories of balconied guest rooms furnished in antiques overlook a powdery beach and the azure waters of the Gulf. Sumptuous drawing rooms lit by crystal chandeliers lead to four restaurants that cater to every taste.

A carefully protected strip of natural wetland separates the hotel's formal gardens and pool area from the beach. Wooden bridges span a shallow creek where alligators and turtles swim free. Herons roost in lush mangroves that line the creek in this microcosm of Florida's primitive wilderness.

If you go

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary's visitor center and boardwalk are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $4 for adults, $2 for children. For more information, write the Chief Naturalist, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Rt. 6, Box 1875-A, Naples, FL 33999; or call (813) 657-3771.

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