Erv Stokes' grandfather came to the Everglades during World War II to serve as pastor of the Chokoloskee Church of God. His daddy Odalph stayed in the Everglades and made his living hunting, trapping, skinning and, occasionally, wrestling alligators.
Erv, born and raised in the Everglades, used to dive for the gators his daddy shot. He didn't care much for the work, so he became a school teacher, but in 1984, he opened Eden of the Everglades, and started offering airboat rides through eight acres of swampland he owned along Panther Creek near Everglades City.
He built a boardwalk so visitors could take a comfortable stroll through the swamp. He opened a gator pit, too, where "Odie," his father, would wrestle the reptiles. Eventually the younger Stokes changed the name of the business to Jungle Erv's Airboat Rides.
"Some guys said, 'You should just call it Jungle Erv's,' and I liked the sound of that," Erv said, "so I did."
But trouble came to paradise. The business was pretty much blown away by Hurricane Andrew, which passed right over Everglades City in 1992, and battered again in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma.
Now Jungle Erv is rejuvenating his business. He has rebuilt his boardwalk, which wends its way through six miles of the Everglades. He has ordered "swamp buggies" – vehicles with enormous tires that can drive over the boggy terrain of the Everglades – so he can provide tours. And he plans to expand the gator show too, which will always remind him of Odie, who died in 2010 at the age of 81.
Odie began wrestling gators in his son's gator pit in 1989 and kept right on going as he lost his sight to macular degeneration. He claimed he could see murky shapes, which was enough for him to subdue his opponents. "Once I get ahold of that sucker, he's mine," he told a reporter in 1999.
Odie had been effectively blind for two years before he finally decided, at the age of 70, to give up gator wrestling. By then the National Enquirer had written about the blind gator wrestler, and ABC's Good Morning America had covered the phenomenon, too.
The gators had been good to Odie. Although he considered himself a fisherman, he would turn to gators when the mullet weren't running. He would hunt, trap and skin the creatures, and then sell the hides for around $5 a foot, which provided quite a windfall when he landed a 7- or 8-foot gator. Odie even spent some time in prison in 1969 for selling the hides across state lines.
"We're not ashamed to admit it," Erv said, casting a glance at his mother, Laverne, sitting nearby in the new gift shop at Jungle Erv's. She married Odie when she was 15 and spent years helping him fish, but she didn't complain about the gator poaching, which fed the family.
Laverne's mother, according to family legend, was "sweet on" Edgar Watson, the tall, handsome, red-haired, blue-eyed serial killer who was gunned down by his neighbors at his 35-acre plantation at Chatham Bend, about 20 miles southeast of Chokoloskee Island on Oct. 24, 1910. Watson reportedly hired itinerants to work on the plantation, and then murdered them. He had been implicated in numerous other murders too. (You can read all about him in Shadow Country, Peter Mathiessen's novelization of Ed Watson's life.)
Odie probably never would have been caught and prosecuted for gator poaching – a commonplace crime at the time – if two events hadn't conspired against him. First, alligators were placed on the endangered species list, which caused law enforcement officers to pay more attention to poachers. Second, Odie's name turned up on a list kept by a man in Atlanta who sold gator skins.
So when his son opened Jungle Erv's, Odie figured he might as well make some money wrestling gators since he had been doing it for most of his life anyway.
Meanwhile, the airboat business took off.
The airboats that Erv operates are ungainly machines that consist of light aluminum skiffs powered by muscular automobile engines mounted on the back, above the water line. The engine spins a large propeller at high speed. The pilot sits on a tall stool in front of the caged engine and propeller, steering the boat with a pair of rudders mounted behind the engine to catch the high winds blowing backwards.
The revved engine gives off a deafening roar (riders are offered sound-muffling ear protectors), and the boat skims at high speed like a car on a vast, rain-soaked tarmac. When the pilot turns left, the boat skids sideways without losing any speed.
Then, for thrills, the pilot may suddenly shoot down a narrow alley lined with mangrove trees, or slide over some exposed ground and back into the water on the other side.
But the pilot also stops from time to time to talk about the gators, the wild pigs and other wildlife that frequent the area. Some of the animals – presumably either deaf or indifferent to the roar of the airboat engine – even make an appearance, which always delights the riders.
Bryan Sanders, who was in the first-grade class Erv used to teach, delivers mini-lectures on the flora and fauna. He might display the leaves of a mangrove tree and explain how they dispose of the salt from the sea water soaked up by the tree's roots, or point upward to show how the wings of vultures form a "v" when they fly, while hawks and other raptors maintain their wings in a straight line.
"All of my guides are native to the area," said Erv. "Most have worked here for years. They know what they're talking about."
Jungle Erv's Airboat Tours
804 Collier Ave, Everglades City
Boats Tours Depart Daily
Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Reservations suggested but not required
The Original Coopertown Airboat
22700 Southwest 8th Street, Miami
Everglades Island Air Boat Tours
Turn right on Dupont Street (off SR 29), just before the Everglades City Bridge
1-866-Manatee (626-2833) or 239-695-2333
Wooten's Everglades Airboat Tour
32330 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee
239-695-2781 or 800-282-2781