As we turned off Florida Highway 29, to this funky potholed
road, our interests started to climb. Lined with Stone Crab cages
reflecting local industry, Dupont St. is a short 45 minute ride from
downtown Naples. The air laden with salt, slowly, we made our way to the
end where we found Totch’s Island Air Boat Tours. Located on the edge of
the Everglades, way down in the southwestern tip of Florida, this area is
rich in history and lore.
Loren G. "Totch" Brown, most around here knew him as Totch,
is a legend in these parts. Born the son of a moonshiner in 1920 on
Chokoloskee Isla, his family settled here in 1880, on Florida’s last
frontier. He lived a simple life, as a commercial fisherman, marijuana
smuggler, and alligator hunter. Living off the land, hunting birds and
alligators, fighting hordes of mosquitoes… can you imagine living
amongst these swamps, with no air conditioning, cell phones, or modern
conveniences? No electric for that matter…On purpose!
In the ‘70’s, Florida was an easy entryway for marijuana
smuggling, especially for someone who knew the area better than the authorities. A.k.a. Totch…. Making 25 Grand per boat load was good
money to folks who were used to making a few hundred dollars a month. With
the advent of aerial surveillance, that plan came to a screeching halt.
Local tradition credits him with giving rise to the Stone
Crab industry, since he devised the crab trap design in use
In his later years, Totch spent most of his time on a tiny island in
Chokoloskee Bay, now surrounded by the Everglades National Park. He loved
it there as it took him back to his childhood, and had plans to live out
his remaining years there. His wish came true after suffering a massive
heart attack during the construction of his Indian chickee house.
TOTCH'S CHICKEE HOUSE
After Totch’s death, his daughter Lorna purchased this tiny three
quarter acre island and made it an Historical site, naming it Totch’s
Remember, this is southern Florida swampland, with a local population
of hungry alligators, and not exactly known for its beaches. With numerous
environmental restrictions placed on local Crabbers and Fishermen, the
Totch family needed to find something for income, and thus two years ago,
started an Air-boat tour service.
Our guide, Gary Thompson, Jr., instructed us to climb
aboard the six seat air boat, in a professional and surefooted manner.
Pushing off from the dock, we quietly made our way down the Barron River,
with pertinent commentary from Gary. With a visit from a large hitchhiking
Red Pelican on our bow, off we were only minutes later, along side the
mangrove jungle. The Captain detailed the abundant wildlife, some natural,
and some "imported". Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, a pod of 8
Manatees, raccoons and a half dozen alligators, one of them 12 foot.
Mullet and Tarpin jumping and spinning on the surface of the water, as
well as an abandoned colony of pigs, goats and an ostrich.
GARY THOMPSON JR.
It was as if Gary had a control knob at his Captain’s seat
all for our photo opportunities. And this native local man knew his
Everglades. The history, the fauna and flora, the people, the tribes of
Indians. He was confident, respectful, funny and adventurous. We couldn’t
have booked a better, more informed guide. Not to mention that the ride
itself was a thrill. The rapid turns were the best, as the boat busted out
into open waters toward Totch’s Island.
This small three quarter acre man made shell island is where Totch
spent much time, hunting, living off the land, writing his memoirs. "Totch
A Life in the Everglades" became a best seller, and is a glimpse of
his colorful hard life of poverty, pride, honesty and crime. His
innate-style of storytelling enlivens his and his family's history of
eking out a living on the edge of the Everglades. Totch lived by his own
rules; he didn’t exalt or excuse his lifestyle but laid it out
explaining the strength it takes to survive on the edge.
While there on this humble island, our guide described the construction of the chickee
house, crab cages, island life and the surrealness of the island itself. Off
we pushed, and
again made our way
past the impenetrable mangroves, this time spotting a pod of manatees. A
rare sight indeed. Constantly watching for water movement or bubbles,
there was a large alligator slithering along the groves.
Gary estimated this gator to be twelve foot in length, but
looked bigger and badder to us! To see this alligator in its natural
environment, effortlessly "cruising" was worth the price of the
tour. And to be so close, inches above the water, makes one’s heart
We continued the tour in our rudderless airboat, just skimming the
surface, turning onto shallow creeks, that as the tide changes exposes the
root systems of the mangroves. These creeks were completely covered by a
canopy of branches, and the numerous native orchids growing in the
mangroves were pointed out to us. Fantastic imagery! At one point, needing
to make up for some time, we surged on a straightaway creek that made for
an exhilarating, wide grinned thrill. This man knew how to give a tour!
Returning to the dock charged from our experience, we were able to
handle a two foot long gator for a photo. Highly recommended, Totch’s
offer 1-1 ½ hour tours ranging in price from $30.00 - $40.00 dollars per
person. Specialty private tours are available as well as fishing in the
10,000 islands. If you’ve never ridden in an air-boat, and want to
experience the Everglades from a "local’s point of view,"
Totch’s Island Boat Tours is the place to go.
For more information: Totch’s Island Boat
Tours Toll free: 1-866-626-2833 929Dupont
St. Everglades City,