The alligator, his leathery snout breaking the water's surface, casts a menacing look as our boat glides slowly by. He's so near we could touch him, but we're not that crazy.
At the moment, we're safe in an airboat, a flat-bottomed craft powered by two ear-splitting Cadillac engines spinning an airplane-sized propeller.
Airboating is a time-honored Florida tradition, a refreshing change from sunning on tourist-clogged beaches or fighting your way through oversized amusement parks.
It's a thrilling way to see a unique chunk of South Florida wilderness — the Everglades.
To see a slice of this amazing slow-moving river we board the covered boat with a half-dozen others visiting Everglades Holiday Park in the western reaches of southwest Broward.
Our captain, Mike Reinhardt, is on an elevated seat behind his passengers, pulling levers that control the craft's direction.
We begin our journey slowly, along a canal where gators float amid the cattails and sawgrass. But then Reinhardt revs the engine and suddenly we're skimming over the murky swamp.
No seat belts. No speedometers. No posted speed limits.
It feels like we're flying, the 50-mph ride as exhilarating as a roller coaster. Only wetter as water sloshes into the boat, soaking our feet.
Wind whips our face while the engines' roar blocks out any coherent thought. (Reminder to self: Next time bring earplugs.)
'Swamp chickens' You don't have to race across the Everglades to appreciate all it offers. It's just as awesome when Reinhardt slows things down and we take a good, long look.
An airboat's real advantage: It takes people to places hard to reach any other way. It maneuvers narrow canals and roams wide marshes, home to an array of plants and animals.
The Seminole Indians, who once made the Everglades their home, called it Pa-hay-okee, meaning grassy waters. Nature lovers call it a national treasure because there's nothing else like it in the world.
In this flat, watery wilderness, we glide by pond apple trees and sable palms.
Look at this extraordinary swamp as a bird watcher's mecca, with birds winging through trees and wading in shallow streams. Birds flock here in the winter because it's a hospitable place, a nice place to stop before heading farther south.
We see purple gallinules stalking silently through the reeds.
They're known as "swamp chickens," Reinhardt says. That's because their feet aren't webbed and they're not adept at flying.
The airboat continues its trek and we pass a trio of silent fishermen, maybe angling for bass or bluegill.
Nearby a blue heron stands motionless, as if posing. And we cruise past more gators, soaking up the sun.
"Keep your body parts inside the boat," Reinhardt jokingly cautions. "You want to return home with everything you came with."
River of grassAlong the way, we savor the view. Cotton-white clouds dot an azure sky as we float on this slow-moving river, which stretches 50 miles wide but is only a few inches deep in places.
The water flows south from Lake Okeechobee into the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Back in the '40s, pioneering conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas called this watery wonderland — with forested islands and mangrove waterways — a river of grass.
Florida's earlier residents, the Seminoles, first maneuvered the Everglades in their dugouts. They hunted gators for their tender white meat and tough hides. They gigged frogs and gathered tasty swamp cabbage, buried deep inside the heart of the sable palm.
But dugouts weren't fast or efficient enough for those who came later. Eventually, Florida's backwater hunters and fishermen cobbled airboats together using propellers fitted to flat-bottom boats, powered by aging car engines.
Today's airboat rides remain a hit with tourists and locals alike, and it's no wonder. If you look carefully and listen closely, you see the real Florida — naturally.
Liz Doup can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4722.
See the Everglades, home to 'gators, birds and snakes, from an airboat at SunSentinel.com/travel