The last of the Gladesmen
Few people know the Florida Everglades as well as Jesse Kennon, the mayor of Coopertown.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
The guttural, high-pitched sound breaks the peaceful ambience that until now consisted only of that low chirping of crickets so typical of hot summer days and the soft creaking of our aluminum boat on the water.
Silence falls again — we wait.
Miles of tall sawgrass, shrubs and lush hammock trees border the long and narrow canal where we stand, their perfect reflection on the glassy water disturbed only by occasional air bubbles from the fish below. Then the plaintive sound, a succession of seemingly short cries, arises again.
Sitting high in the airboat’s driver seat, rudder stick in hand, Captain Jesse Kennon, his mouth barely opened, emulates the call of baby alligators in distress. He bends down, plunges his hand in the murky water and flaps it before initiating a third round of call — success at last. Adult alligators of various sizes come gliding in our direction.
“A lot of times the adults are curious. They’ll find out where the baby’s at or what’s that, so a lot of times they’ll respond,” says Kennon with a grin as a six-foot male gator asserts his territory with a muffled bellow strangely reminiscent of the growling noises a hungry stomach makes.
More than 30 miles from downtown Miami, deep within the Everglades, Kennon is home. He’s owned and has been living in Coopertown Airboat Tours, among the oldest airboat tours on Highway 41, for 35 years. Yet the land he’s inherited from relatives is now being transferred to the U.S. National Park Service as part of a decades-long effort to protect the Everglades.
A subtropical wilderness that once stretched continuously from Orlando to the Florida Keys, the Everglades now mostly consists of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests and hardwood hammocks dominated by wetlands that extend in patches from Lake Okeechobee down to the tip of the Florida Peninsula.
Florida’s first settlers saw it as a devilish swamp that needed to be dried out, and by the early 1900s more than half of the ecosystem had been drained for agriculture and urban development. To protect the vanishing wilderness, the U.S. government created Everglades National Park on 1.5 million acres in 1934. There is no other habitat like this in the world. It’s home to hundreds of species, including the infamous American Alligator and the endangered Florida Panther.
Since its establishment, Everglades National Park, which covers the wetlands south of Highway 41 (connecting the east coast from Miami to the west coast in Naples), has been managed as a wilderness area where airboats are banned. Yet a sliver of land known as the Eastern Extension, where Coopertown is located, continued to function outside of park’s laws before being incorporated in 1989. As part of its comprehensive management plan, the U.S. National Park Service was mandated to purchase the privately owned parcels in that area, wipe out private airboating, while only allowing three tour operators — including Coopertown — to continue to function on park lands, under the park’s rules.
It took years for that to happen, but now the new rules are ready to go into force. By the end of 2016, Coopertown will be functioning as a concession for park services under a 10-year contract that may or may not be renewed. When that happens, Kennon will find himself renting land his family has owned for more than half a century. But much more than a business, it’s the one place he’s called home for decades that Kennon will relinquish.
On the day he signs the agreement, Kennon will lose a bit of himself.
A tall and lean man in his mid-70s, Kennon may well be South Florida’s very own Crocodile Dundee. Yet in lieu of boots and cowboy hat, the mayor, as he’s often referred to (more on that later), prefers athletic shoes and a baseball cap that covers his wavy strawberry blonde hair. His signature piece of jewelry is a pure gold alligator ring he never removes — the lifelike gator, the size of a ping pong ball, wraps around his right ring finger, front legs stretched out as if struggling for a way out. He’s from Missouri and speaks with a soft Southern twang, and sometimes fast as an auctioneer. And when he smiles, the sparkle in his eyes betrays a defiant, playful spirit.
Former Navy seaman, skydiver, aircraft pilot, master diver (he once owned a scuba diving store in the Florida Keys), bull rider (he earned a gold buckle for bull and saddle bronc riding), and alligator wrestler, Kennon is a daredevil who shows little signs of slowing down. Just a few months back he took his sports car for a spin at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Two years ago the septuagenarian zip-lined in Costa Rica, and in 2013 he drove his Harley Davidson down to Key West as part of the yearly bikers’ Poker Run.
Adventure came calling early on for Kennon. It started one late night when he was only 16 years old. Kennon had returned home inebriated and announced to his mother he was leaving their Missouri hometown for Los Angeles. And on that very same night, he did. Kennon threw all his essential belongings, clothes and rock ‘n roll vinyl records, in his 1958 Chevrolet Impala and drove off.
“If I was 10 years younger I’d be getting in trouble,” he says now with a chuckle.
I’d known about Kennon for years. He’s been among South Florida reporters’ favorite go-to source on anything related to the Everglades. Yet only now, just a few days short of the month of June, the official start of the rainy season, did I venture with him on an exclusive early morning sunrise boat ride.
So at dawn (a few hours before he demonstrated his vocalizing prowess) Kennon headed for the wetlands and turned the boat’s propeller off, waiting for the sun to rise and bring back colors and life to the “river of grass.”
An outdoorsman par excellence, Kennon belongs to the dwindling gladesmen culture, where years spent in the Everglades meant developing an intimate relationship with the land, understanding the flow and movements of water, the changes brought by the seasons and the habits of the creatures that populate these wetlands.
“Just look at the hammock, it goes smaller and smaller and just disappears, right?” Kennon says pointing at a concentration of trees surging from the waters. “Basically like a ship turned backward, so you have the big thick end on the top on the north end, so it’s pointing toward the north end, and then as it goes down there’s less soil, less soil, so the smaller end of it is south.
“See the little yellow flowers? Them shooting means there’s not much soil, it means there’s rock, so if you spot those you know you’re getting into rock areas, so you need to turn or get out of there real quick.”
He cautions me to watch for the size, thickness and color of the grass. The taller, thicker and darker it is, means the soil is higher, water is running low and the area will be difficult to drive on.
“These are all the little things you can tell by the color of the grass and the different vegetation around and after a while, you learn.”
Kennon smiles, showing rows of perfect white teeth, apparently self-satisfied with his lecture on navigation. “It’s a sign post, looking at the shape of the tallest hammocks that is. It’s Mother Nature’s way of saying this is how everything moves.”
For Kennon, the Everglades is an open book, so much so that there was a time not so long ago when the Coast Guard would rely on his expertise for search and rescue missions. No need for a helicopter to scan the ground from above or the use of a GPS to locate somebody’s whereabouts. For Kennon, it’s all about wet trails.
When an airboat is on the move in the Everglades, its trajectory can be tracked down by looking for wet grass — grass forced under water as the boat’s hull passes over it. When the grass recovers its standing form, it glistens with water while the surrounding grass is dry. Kennon’s wet trails have helped the Coast Guard find a dozen people who’d lost their way or broken down in the middle of the Everglades (including his own sons).
“See how pretty the sun is coming up this morning?” Kennon says without taking his eye off the lens. “See what it looks like? If we’ve had it a little bit more covered with fog, it would have been real pretty, mhmm.”
When he isn’t busy taking tourists for a tour (the package includes a wildlife show with native species of reptiles, a one-hour ride punctuated with anecdotes and glades facts, and ends with a photo op with a baby gator) Kennon rejoices in these moments of solitude, where he disappears in his natural playground immortalizing what he sees with his camera.
He’s got enough photos of sunsets and sunrises — airboat views, Coopertown views, shots from his cars or even his motorcycle — to fill a book with them, something he says he’d enjoy doing when, or if, he retires. It’s a project that befits him as he plans to dedicate more time to traveling the world, his eyes set on the Mediterranean coast: Turkey, Greece and Italy, where he can continue to capture the rising and setting sun.
“It’s very peaceful, very relaxing, so if you’ve got something on your mind you can sit out here and think it out very clearly without any distraction,” he says. “It’s always different, it’s always changing, the animals move, different flowers bloom in different parts of the year and they’ll be more colorful in different times. Certain times of the year certain trees lose their leaves, and when they come back in the spring they’ve got that soft light green color. It’s constant change.”
From the explosion of invasive cattails that feed on fertilizer runoff from the nearby sugarcane fields and suffocate sawgrass, to the introduction of exotic species of fish and other reptiles including Burmese pythons that were once pets, Kennon has watched the Everglades he loves change at an alarming rate.
Just in the last two years, he’s caught and killed more than two dozens pythons; a species he sees as the worst to have been introduced in the Everglades for its voracious appetite and lack of natural predator. Even gators are succumbing to the pythons. A gruesome photo went viral showing a python, belly exploded for its gluttony, the legs of a large alligator poking out.
Then there are the Australian Melaleuca trees, imported in the early 20th century to dry out the swamp. The plants flourish in standing water and reproduce rapidly, turning into dense forests. Their seeds were intentionally scattered by airplane over the Everglades. Vast areas of the wetlands that were once nothing but grass are now thick forests of Melaleuca whose control methods — herbicides and managed fires — also endanger native species.
Kennon pauses again as if urging for silence to let in a shy, clickety sound. “Little cricket frogs, click-click click-click,” he smiles. “When you get a whole bunch together, sounds like a little chorus.” He snaps another photo of the sunrise then goes on to describe the different species of frogs that inhabit these wetlands, the color and texture of their skin, the sound they make — some snort loudly, earning themselves the nickname of pig frogs — and how one goes about catching them.
He’s a frog hunter, too. In fact, it all began with frogs.
In 1945 Kennon’s cousins, the Coopers, made their way down to Florida from White Oak, Missouri, hoping to make a living catching frogs. John Cooper set himself by the side of the East-West Canal (along Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail) with his airboat to sell the frog legs he’d catch in the Everglades. Curious passers-by started to request rides, and the idea for an airboat tour venture came to life.
“He came down, it was him and his wife and his daughter and son, and his brother and his brother’s wife, they come down here and they bought this,” Kennon says of cousin Cooper. “They asked the kids, ‘What are we going to name it?’ They says, ‘Well, everybody here is a Cooper, so we’ll name it Coopertown.’”
In 1981, cousin Cooper retired and passed the torch to Kennon — the mayor was born. “If you’ve got a town, you gotta have a mayor,” Kennon says. “Somebody’s got to take all the abuse, right?”
While Kennon grew up in Missouri, he spent many summers, including a few semesters in school, with the Coopers. He learned to drive an airboat and catch alligators by hand at age 11.
As an adult, he moved around a bit, spending time in California where he worked as an account executive for a distillery, and in Chicago, where he picked up general contracting. Yet he’d always go back to Coopertown for short stretches. It was in Chicago, in the midst of a brutal winter, that Kennon had the urge to return to Florida.
He permanently relocated to Miami in 1976, continuing his work as a general contractor and taking up some jobs with a freight shipping company when he wasn’t helping out the Coopers. Taking over, he says, wasn’t something he had envisioned, but he felt he’d been preparing to make that move all his life.
Kennon settled in with his wife and two middle school-aged boys, eager to call Coopertown home. Many memories come attached to this land. The happy times of raising his family while passing down his knowledge and love for nature to his boys — which they themselves have passed on to his three granddaughters and one great grandson. The laughters of birthday celebrations, the excitement of the holidays and the headaches that come with having children. Such as the time the boys, in their late teens, took off in the middle of the night each in an airboat heading in different locations and both managing to get stranded. Kennon had to go and rescue them.
There were the countless evenings Kennon disappeared into the heart of the wetlands, the moon reflecting on the waters and nothing more than a bottle of wine and some cheese. And those times where his and other glades families would meet up at a swimming hole for a day of fun.
And the difficult moments. The ravages of Hurricane Andrew and the difficult years that followed. The death of his wife.
“Coopertown, population 0008,” reads the sign by the side of the road that was put up by the Coopers.
The rustic wooden restaurant with its pinkish hue and handpainted signs, a vintage 1940s look to it, faces the road and greets visitors. There is parking in front of the restaurant and to its left, near the old bait and tackle shop, now boarded up. The fleet of seven airboats is parked on the far right, past the tiki hut with strings of white light dangling, which designate the official entrance. On the property, there’s Kennon’s house, part home and part gift shop (he owns another home in the suburbs). The back serves as an educational center of sorts, which includes several enclosures — where gators young and old, have taken up residence (along with the few native snakes and turtles) — and a small area with bleachers, where the staff puts on a wildlife show. This is Kennon’s world.
He’s made a name for himself in South Florida and found other lucrative means to make the business flourish under the spotlight. Aside from offering tours to tourists, Kennon has found a niche in lending his knowledge to Hollywood and the media.
From Invasion USA, starring Chuck Norris, to The Big Year with Jack Black and Held for Ransom with Dennis Hopper, Kennon has worked in dozens of productions for big screen movies, either transporting crews via airboat to remote locations, acting as guide or safety observer. He did stints with television shows such as Miami Vice and CSI Miami, in which he played himself, and documentaries where he helped capture or wrestle alligators. There were also commercials and photo shoots for renowned magazines — Vogue, Penthouse, Playboy and GQ, among many others, where Kennon’s gators made a cameo.
Kennon shies away from divulging too much about his celebrity clients or the many shoots he’s witnessed, but he remembers the day his gator ring ended up on a Playboy model. “I think it was a Playboy Hong Kong issue. When they were shooting the girl took my ring and put it on her finger,” says Kennon, putting his hand over his chest to mimic the pose the girl took with his ring on. He stops and smiles. “So now it’s actually in one of the Playboy magazines.”
When I pressed him to elaborate on how he handles alligators to get them to cooperate for shoots, Kennon looked down at his ring, slowly rolled it side to side and finally said, “Hmm, let’s put it this way: I have respect.”
Kennon has had a special relationship with the reptiles he shares his home with, so much so that he’s kept a few of them on the Coopertown homestead to educate tourists about wildlife and the environment. Among these is JoJo, who’s been with Kennon for 35 years, since he was a hatchling.
In a 15-year-old Pringles commercial for the brand’s spicy cajun flavor, a man savors the chips, sitting by his wooden shack, a car tire hanging from a nearby tree, in what seems like the heart of the bayou swamps. An alligator glides on the brackish waters before it climbs on the deck, approaches the man and bellows. “Alright JoJo, last one,” says the man before throwing a chip into the gator’s wide opened mouth.
This may have been the only time JoJo was acknowledged by name in his many acting roles. Aside from Pringles, there were also Lubriderm commercials, three music videos with rapper Flo Rida and a movie starring The Rock, among other shoots.
JoJo’s last stunt was a movie scene in which he was to swim past submerged 55-gallon drums. “I held his legs on him and swam him down past the drums like that,” said Kennon holding his hands paralleled, swaying them side to side and explaining how he held JoJo’s back legs against his tail. “When I showed up on the set it was funny ’cause the cameraman says, ‘What are you doing here?’ He says, ‘You’re not putting alligators in the tank with me,’ I says, ‘Oh, yes I am.’”
Back on land, we walk up to JoJo’s pen, an enclosure with a pool and a couple of palm trees, our footsteps crunching on gravel and sand. As Kennon unlocks the gate, the 14-foot gator surfaces from the pool, greeting us with a loud bellow.
“The minute I walk back there he comes up on the edge and hisses like, ‘I’m not going anywhere. You’re not taking me anywhere. I’m not going,’” Kennon says. He smiles and turns to JoJo. For an instant, gator and man showed their teeth and looked deep into each other’s eyes.
A month after our sunrise adventure Kennon entered the last stages of negotiations with the National Park Service. He was presented with a 140-page document that once signed will mark the end of his ownership of the land that’s been his family’s for more than 70 years. Just like that the mayor will lose his title, privileges and a bit of himself. The sale of Coopertown is non-negotiable; it will happen, yet the minute details of the concession contract have yet to be ironed out.
“It’s not a done deal. They made me an offer I don’t 100 percent approve of. I’ll come back with an offer they’ll come back with another offer; tomorrow could be a whole new ball game,” Kennon says.
“I won’t totally walk away. As long as I’m alive, I’ll probably be involved in it, but the whole operation will change. It’ll become a regimented-type business instead of a family.”
Years of hard work, love and dedication on the balance, Kennon may be losing his land. But, quite like JoJo, the mayor isn’t going without putting up a fight.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Kennon was a Marine. He was in the U.S. Navy.