When one thinks of the Sunshine State three things typically come to mind: Disney World, spring-breakers and elderly retirees. Yet most vacationers never set foot outside the infamous amusement parks or pristine beaches. Just beyond major tourist destinations are millions of undeveloped wetland acres. Gators, Burmese pythons, wild boar and endangered panthers call the region home. Some individuals claim that there is another species inhabiting Florida’s swampy terrain, an unaccounted Bigfoot-like creature called Skunk Ape. Native tribespeople were familiar with this beast long before European explorers arrived. According to Seminole legend, a monstrous being referred to as ‘hairy man’ roamed the encompassing bush. Supposedly, in the early 1800s, one particularly violent battle between early settlers and a Skunk Ape resulted in several men’s fatalities. Encounters with the elusive cryptid continued for centuries but gained notoriety after a series of sightings occurred over sixty years ago. On December 22, 2000, Sarasota County Sheriff’s department received two mysterious photographs from an anonymous source. Dubbed the “Myakka Skunk Ape Photos,” these unnerving images depict a large bipedal hominid. Accompanying the peculiar portraits was a letter from the photographer. She identified herself as a senior citizen who snapped several pictures in her backyard and had concerns for the safety of her young grandchildren. Witnesses describe the bog-inhabitants as having muscular bodies covered with red-tinged fur. They are estimated to reach heights of over seven feet tall and weigh a staggering four hundred and fifty pounds. Many who have experienced firsthand nocturnal confrontations recount glowing red eyes. Skunk Ape’s name derives from its unpleasant scent. Those within close proximity frequently report a strong foul-smelling odor, similar to methane gas or rotten eggs. Over three hundred and twenty observational reports have been filed with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. Washington, California and Florida, respectively, comprise the top three states where Sasquatch sightings most frequently occur.My partner, Clint, and I traveled to an undisclosed rural Southwestern location in search of the reclusive animal. Our tightly packed truck more closely resembled a circus clown car than an expedition vehicle. With enough supplies to survive post-apocalypse, the journey away from civilization began. Idly peering out the passenger-side window, I realized this landscape was a stark contrast from my days on the Jersey Turnpike. A seemingly infinite mosaic of picturesque farmland and grazing cattle sprawled hypnotically. As the miles progressed, my mind drifted into daydreams of Skunk Ape. If this revered brute truly exists then it most certainly could thrive in such a remote place. Suddenly my cryptozoological musings abruptly halted as we made a sharp righthand turn. Completely covering the bumpy dirt road was a thick oak hammock canopy. Spanish moss hung from twisted tree limbs and created a hauntingly beautiful scene. In the distance we could see a quaint lakeside cabin; we finally reached the destination. Our fearsome protectors, two toothless senior chihuahuas, curiously inspected their new territory. While we unstrapped our canoe from the roof racks a back-woodsy looking woman slowly approached us. “Y’all taking that thang out on the water?”, she asked through her thick southern drawl. Confused, Clint replied we were planning to, and asked her if there was problem. The woman laughed and said, “Naw, it’s fine but I seen gators here bigger than that dingy”. It wouldn’t be long before we realized this lady wasn’t exaggerating.Later that night I sat alone on the front porch serenaded by a symphony of crickets, tree frogs and howling coyotes. Thousands of stars shimmered above casting an ethereal glow atop the water’s rhythmic surface. Despite the balmy and tropical evening temperatures, there was a deep chill which I could not ignore. An unshakeable sensation washed over me: something had been closely watching. Leering from the abysmal darkness a sentient presence could be sensed. Unexpectedly, a tree branch snapped from deep within the shadows. With my heart racing, I hastily gazed towards the tree line ahead. Dead dried leaves and palm fronts crunched beneath what sounded like two heavy feet. Frozen by a state of apprehensive excitement, I remained still and listened intently. The swift movements traveled further away until they eventually became inaudible.On the following morning we ventured to a National State Park. Many bizarre and unexplained disappearances take place within these sites each year. Below the sun’s pleasant rays, we briskly walked towards a nearby thicket. With each step the scenery became more wild and dense. After hours of hiking whilst scouring for prints or hair samples, a popup thunderstorm quickly developed. Towering nimbus clouds shaded the area and cool gusts of wind provided much-needed relief from overly persistent misquotes. Onwards we noticed an unusual structure erected amongst the trees. In the middle of nowhere, miles away from any designated trails, stood a massive cage. Galvanized steel beams supported the peculiar enclosure. Weaved wire paneling wrapped around all four sides creating a barrier from the outside world. Standing about fourteen feet tall, this industrial cell starkly contrasted against the surrounding greenery. Lush foliage consumed the weathered metal and produced a dilapidated appearance. I couldn’t help but wonder what purpose the holding pen might provide. Perplexed, we cautiously turned to look at each other. At that precise moment we noticed an eerie silence radiating throughout the forest. Instead of chirping birds, rustling branches and buzzing insects, an ominous stillness engulfed us. It felt as if someone had pressed a universal mute button. Intense feelings of dread formed in the pit of my stomach.Hastily we checked the time only to realize several hours had somehow passed. Both of us felt extremely disorientated and pulled out a trusted compass for guidance. Instantaneously, the device spun erratically in every direction when attempting to relocate our main route. By this point the dreary skies completely opened and colossal raindrops started plummeting down. For a lengthy period it seemed we were merely running in muddy circles. Thankfully, the distant parking lot slowly came into view. Relief ran through my veins once I spotted the truck: we were not going to be a chapter in one of David Paulides’ latest Missing 411 installments.During my week-long expedition I searched for Skunk Ape by foot, car and boat. Although I was unable to find definitive proof of such a creature, I am more confident than ever about its existence. Take Florida’s cougar population for example. Millions of people reside here but few residents have ever set eyes on the rare felines. An animal with intelligence that parallels or surpasses humans’ could most certainly choose to remain undetected. After all, they inhabit inaccessible areas teeming with gators, poisonous snakes and deadly insects. Perhaps on a future voyage my luck may change. This quest for Swampsquatch is far from over and I hope to one day come face-to-face with these enigmatic jungle-dwellers.Do you believe in Skunk Ape or have an experience you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!