Some locals go their entire lives in Florida never taking an airboat ride. Really? Might it be that the thrill is no match for a theme park like Disney?

Captain Aaron Bergwerff of Wild Bill’s Airboat Tourswould beg to differ. His white-knuckle rides are real – not fabricated. Bergwerff has been at this for ten years. Every hour, on the hour, he treats parties of all ages to a 50 minute swamp tour aboard a 600-horsepower fiberglass monster.

The redneck ride included glimpses of hefty reptiles, river otters, basking turtles and batman-like birds. Not to mention a variety of tropical tree species. This is Florida’s version of ecotourism.

And, all on the pristine Withlacoochee River in the town of Inverness, off busy Route 44.

It starts with a set of ear protection equipment to dampen the noise of the engine. At a balmy 55-degrees, we layered up with mittens, hats and scarves. A skeleton head clung to the gear stick on the operator’s left side. A reminder of what should happen to us if we fell overboard.

The first half of the ride was what I’d call informative and educational. Bergwerff let the propellors rest so we could ask questions and take photos. Admittedly, he and his young son canoe, fish and even swim in this muddy habitat.

“I’m not scared in the least of gators. They hunt at night, not in the daytime. I’ve been swimming here for years.”

Indeed, because of the temp, the gators kept undercover most of our ride but plenty of other wildlife species weren’t afraid of the commotion. We turned around at the spillway dam. Our operator let loose on the throttle.

Clocking in at 50 mph, we weaved in and around swamp hummocks – debris that included fallen branches, hollow trunks and floating bromeliads. Everyone gripped their ear protection and sunglasses lest they go flying off.

The airboat came to an abrupt stop at a freshwater springs isolated by tall ancient Bald Cypress. “The buttressed trunks serve to supply oxygen to the roots of the old trees,” explained Bergwerff.

If it were only a few degrees warmer, we would have jumped into the crystal clear water!

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