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Two South Florida Locals Launch Photography Project Focusing On The Everglades At Night

As we head toward an unnamed, two-track dirt road, an hour past where civilization ends and the Everglades works to reclaim anything built on it, the men begin a story about the last time they were here. Bone chilling is a bit of a cliché about a scary story, but when driving into a gloom as black as espresso grinds, yeah, this story is bone chilling.

Charles Kropke begins the tale. He has owned Dragonfly Expeditions—“Purveyors of uncommon adventures”—for 17 years and is a Gladesman in his own right. He has been a part of two documentaries on the Everglades, one that earned him an Emmy.

“There have been a couple situations out here that are a little dicey,” Kropke says. “But this one was by far the worst.”

Kropke is now working on a project that has taken him into the Everglades at night about 40 times in the last year and a half. His partner in these expeditions is Matt Stock, a photography teacher whose work taking pictures in the Glades at night is downright high art.

Charles Kropke
Charles Kropke and Matt Stock in front of the mysterious aircraft.

“Oh, yeah,” Stock jumps in, knowing where Kropke is going with the story, “this was one time where I thought we should just run.”

Kropke explains that one dark night they had met a local named Pat, a man with long, wispy gray hair and always wearing a pair of work gloves. Pat seemed friendly enough and welcomed them to the property he liberally thinks of as his own.

Later, maybe close to midnight, when Stock and Kropke were packing up, they heard an awful screech coming from the darkness behind them. They couldn’t identify it. Maybe a rusty clothesline? It was getting closer.

They heard a voice before they could see anything. It sounded like a man doing a falsetto female voice. “What are you doing here? Who told you that you could be out here?”

A woman appeared down the rutted dirt road wearing a green dress, cherry red nails, diamond earrings and a turquoise turban. She was riding a tricycle. It squeaked with every turn of the pedals. Strapped to her thigh was a Dirty Harry-style revolver. Kropke explains, “With that long barrel, you could knock an apple off a tree from a hundred yards.”

It took a minute in the darkness, but Kropke recognized the person on the tricycle. “Hey, Pat. Remember us? We met earlier?”

Photography Project
Everglades Daniel stands between Stock and Kropke, with Office Daniel to the left.

“It’s Patti,” she answered, before yelling warnings about how the two of them should get lost quick. There were also coded warnings about the accuracy of her revolver.

Kropke did his best to explain again to Patti what they were doing. Their project is a novel one, looking for old abandoned vehicles and photographing them before the muck and rust takes them for good.

After a few minutes of back and forth, Patti turned her tricycle around. “OK,” Patti said with a singsong cadence. “But watch your back.”

With the story’s end, we continue on, knowing that waiting in the swamp ahead might be Patti or pythons or panthers or unhappy landowners who don’t announce their presence with a squeaky tricycle.

Or, if we’re lucky, we will find the mysterious something that has brought us here.

Earlier that night, our expedition begins at Dade Corners Marketplace, an eccentric gift-shop-slash-gas-station at the corner of Tamiami Trail and Krome Avenue in far west Miami-Dade. Stock is driving while eating a steak sub half unwrapped in his lap. The setting sun in front of us fills the van in an orange glow.

Kropke is in the back of the minivan with “the two Daniels.” One is Daniel Espinoza, a salesman who works in Kropke’s office and is affectionately nicknamed “Office Daniel.” Next to him is Daniel Tamayo, who grew up not far from here and, whenever he can, blazes trails into inhospitable places for fun. He even has makeshift camps he built from found materials. He’s our off-trail tour guide, and, of course, they call him “Everglades Daniel.”

The Everglades
Tail numbers tell a sordid story.

Kropke explains how all of this came to be. He grew up in Fort Myers but never really ventured into the wilderness just miles away. Twenty-five years ago, he got involved with the non-profit Everglades Restoration Movement, which was chopping down the invasive melaleuca trees. Spending time out here got him hooked on this 1.5-million-acre wetlands preserve between Florida’s developed coasts. He started Dragonfly Expeditions and now takes tourists and locals on outdoorsy excursions in Florida and the Caribbean.

A few years back, Kropke started to notice abandoned vehicles in the Glades, some dating back to the early 19th century. He came up with the idea of having a photographer document the vehicles, and one day he mentioned it to a magazine salesman. “You might want to meet a photographer friend of mine,” the salesman said. “He only does his work at night.”

Kropke  hadn’t considered taking the photos at night, but when he saw Stock’s portfolio, he knew it made sense. Stock, who grew up in the urban sprawl of Plantation, teaches photography at the upscale Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove. On his résumé are gallery shows, artist-in-residences and endowments. Before he met Kropke, Stock began his nighttime photography by shooting the pastel South Beach lifeguard stands, lighting them up with colored bulbs that gave them an eerie-meets-beauty glow. Then he moved on to the buildings out in Stiltsville, those old wooden shacks elevated above Biscayne Bay. When Kropke explained his idea of shooting abandoned vehicles, Stock was immediately hooked.

The Everglades At Night
The sun sets over what seems like endless highway and grass.

As Stock drives on the arrow-straight highway, there’s a new, elevated span just off to the south, man’s newest attempt at civilizing this stretch of nothingness. Stock explains that he sees these vehicles and pictures them the way they were, once someone’s treasured possession. He sees giving them an artistic treatment as their last chance to show the beauty they once had, even while the Glades crawls through their dashboards and snakes vines into their engine bays. “I love sculpting nature to our will,” Stock says, “making it into our idea of what it should be.”

Kropke says Stock’s work goes beyond just documenting the vehicles. “His pictures capture the feeling out here,” Kropke says. “People will say, ‘Oh, that one is spooky,’ and it’s because it was spooky that night. Actually, it’s scary out here pretty regularly.”

But what Kropke really likes about Stock’s work is that it’s not what you might think. Taking photos of old vehicles nearly engulfed by Mother Nature, it would be easy to make the scene look post-apocalyptic, the contrast dialed up, the color turned down, like an Instagram filter. Instead, Stock goes for making nature look beautiful in its victory over settlement.

Many of the abandoned vehicles, Kropke explains, are from the 1920s, when Florida pioneers tried to turn the Glades into tomato farms and logging camps. During the Depression, sometimes they abandoned everything—house, car, farm equipment—and left it to the swamp.

Locals now know about the project, and so Kropke and Stock hear stories about vehicles out in the swamps. Supposedly there’s an old freight train out here somewhere. Up in the Kissimmee Prairie is an original Model T they’re going to shoot, as soon as they can schedule the 18-mile, overnight journey. There’s a Studebaker that Stock photographed already rusting so bad they guessed it wouldn’t be there next time. And on the edge of Pinecrest, there’s a 1937 sedan everyone calls Tom’s Chevy. The story goes that its owner, just after picking it up new from the dealer, drove out here to a speakeasy on the edge of the world. He walked into the bar and never walked out, and his car has been there since.

Stock holds a light stick to illuminate the backside of the plane.

Like any good adventure tour guide, Kropke says things that sound like they ought to be on a Patagonia T-shirt. He explains their project this way: “This is the story of man’s attempt to conquer the Everglades, and this is the Everglades conquering back.”

About 40 miles west of where civilization ends, we pass Dead Man’s Alley, where, Kropke says, bodies used to be dumped by gangsters. We enter Pinecrest, a collection of trailers and cabins and front yard junk collections. The village is named for the rise of land on which it sits, meaning the woods nearby are pine trees instead of the sawgrass that covers most of the Glades. Kropke says Patti lives out here somewhere, possibly bedding in the woods.

We park at a crossroads on the unmarked road. One fork ends at a locked gate. With the road too rutted to drive, we set off by foot on the other fork, and it dead ends a few feet up into brambles. There’s no trail, but Everglades Daniel trudges in, using his phone’s flashlight feature to lead the way.

It takes us maybe 20 minutes of fighting through thorn bushes and saw palmettos before finding it. Stock quickly sets up a sunshine-bright light that makes it pop out of the trees and bushes.

There, deep into these nearly impassable woods, with no sign of civilization, is an airplane.

Just after 8 at night, the last bit of setting sun has faded, and darkness settles in around us, with nothing but shadows beyond the pines that surround us. Stock begins to unpack his equipment from giant gear bags. He expects we’ll be out here, fighting the swarming mosquitoes, for about four hours.

Graffiti on the fuselage
Graffiti on the fuselage tells a story of the aircraft’s decades​ ​in the bush.

As Stock works, the rest of us sheepishly stick our heads inside the plane. Stock warned earlier that the first thing he does when finding a vehicle is make sure there aren’t pythons or corpses inside, and luckily this one has neither. We all want to find some clue to understand how an airplane could end up out here. The wings are missing, and nearly everything is stripped from it, including the prop, nose, engine, windows and most of the interior. It’s riddled along the sides with bullet holes, presumably shot up by locals after it had been parked here.

Kropke says he has a theory. He thinks the plane was used by drug smugglers back in the ’70s or ’80s and then abandoned. Perhaps scrappers removed the wings and engine.

How it could have landed here, though, that’s a bit trickier. Perhaps smugglers had blazed a runway that has since been swallowed by the Glades. The Daniels set off to look for it, but Kropke offers a warning: These highlands are full of poisonwood. It will leave you with a rash that burns like you used a bare hand to pull a cast-iron pan out of the oven. The natives used the plant on their weapons, Kropke explains, and just a bit of it in your bloodstream can be deadly.

As he unpacks, Stock discovers something that, at least to a night photographer, is worse than a sketchy character with a revolver rolling up on a tricycle. He has forgotten the tiny piece of metal that allows him to attach his camera to a tripod.

To capture vehicles at night, Stock makes hundreds of long exposures, some a minute or more. With the Studebaker, for instance, the long shutter speed allowed Stock to capture the Milky Way stretched out in the sky overhead. Without the tripod, we may have to simply turn around.

Looking to save the night, Kropke sends Office Daniel and Everglades Daniel on a scouting mission. They find three abandoned buildings nearby in various states of being reclaimed by the Glades. They come back with a plastic water jug, and Stock props up his camera using it and a bunch of twigs tied together with twine.

Over the course of hours, Stock moves lights around to illuminate different parts of the plane. Later, he’ll splice the images together so that the whole scene is lit up. So often, people ask to come along on these trips, and Stock and Kropke have to decline. If someone trips over the tripod or one of the dozens of electrical cords attached to the lights, Stock’s camera might end up a millimeter off its original position, meaning the whole shot will need to be scrapped.

village of Pinecrest
Stock pilots the crew toward the village of Pinecrest.

In his wanderings, Everglades Daniel found no sign of an airstrip. But he did find a lightless home nearby. It’s so close, if it were daytime, we might spot it through the trees. We talk about whether someone could sneak up on us. The area is covered in pine needles and tiny branches that snap underfoot, and Everglades Daniel says he doesn’t believe it’s possible.

Kropke disagrees. “The men out here know how to travel quickly without you hearing them,” he says. “They could be right up here standing behind you and you wouldn’t know it.”

Once, when they were down a dead-end road to nowhere searching for an abandoned vehicle, a car kept coming by. The same car, just rolling up slowly. It finally stopped, headlights shining on them. No one got out, no one spoke. “We felt trapped,” Kropke says. “We had nowhere to run, and it was blocking us from driving off.” Eventually it just left. “Sometimes characters just appear out here,” he says.

Stock puts a light inside the plane and another behind the severed door so that beams filter through the bullet holes. Behind the plane, Everglades Daniel waves a colored light stick as tall as a basketball hoop to send an eerie fluorescent glow over the fuselage.

“Are you getting the tail?” Kropke asks.

Stock looks at his viewfinder. The light illuminating his face is the brightest thing out here. “Oh, the tail looks killer.”

Before long, the DEET we applied earlier begins to wear off. Swarms find their way through any untucked shirt and up pant legs. But the silence out here and the blanket of stars, as bright as Christmas lights, are somehow a primal entertainment, just like the chilling stories Kropke tells.

Everglades Daniel
Everglades Daniel assists Stock’s photography by holding a colored light stick behind the aircraft.

We’re a couple hours in when Stock lets out a yell that could certainly be heard by Patti, or the squatter in the cabin, or anyone who might be lurking nearby. Somehow the twigs holding his makeshift bucket setup moved. Luckily, he already got everything he needs, he says, so we pack up the gear.

We wander back, this time, with the story on our minds that Kropke told earlier about the natives using poisonwood on their weapons. “Hopefully the car is still there,” Stock half-jokes along the way.

Someday, Kropke explains, they’re hoping the image of the abandoned plane will be part of a book on all the vehicles they’ve found in the Glades. They imagine the book as part of a “trilogy project,” where the cars are followed by photo projects on the buildings and then the people of the Everglades.

Luckily, the minivan is still there where we left it at the crossroads. We load up and head back toward the rest of our cars, parked at Krome and 41. Behind us, Stock’s taillights cast a fire-red glow on the trail we forged. Somewhere back there, beyond the light, the plane slips slowly into the forest.

Later, Kathleen Bergen, manager of FAA Communications, confirms that the plane’s tail number, N4121X, is registered as a 1975 Beechcraft A36 owned by Arnold J. Overland of Baudette, Minnesota. Overland isn’t listed, and his family in North Dakota doesn’t return voicemails.

Bergen showed photos of the plane in the Glades to FAA authorities. She writes: “Our experts who looked at the photos say that it’s not a Beech 36 aircraft, which is what the current registry shows.”

A search deeper into FAA records reveals the tail number used to be registered to a 1968 Aero Commander 100, which seems to match the body style of the abandoned plane. The Aero Commander in question was purchased in 1968 from an airplane dealer in Dallas, Texas. A bill of sale listed the owner as a James Pindrar of Hollywood. We are unable to locate records that a James Pindrar ever existed, and there is not a person with the last name of Pindrar anywhere in the country.

The dealer who sold the plane, Paul Camp of Dallas, Texas, is now 83 and hard of hearing. His son-in-law, Tim Fagan, has worked for Camp since the 1980s. When asked about the abandoned plane and whether it could have ended up in a smuggling operation, Fagan says: “Yeah, all of us small plane dealers had an issue with that back in the day. There’s just no way for us to know someone’s intentions when they buy it.” He says this isn’t the first time he had heard about one of the company’s planes turning up abandoned.

Kropke’s theory that the plane was used by smugglers seems likely. Airplanes were first used by rum runners during prohibition. In 1981, The New York Times reported that drug smugglers had taken to simply ditching planes after they were used to bring in bundles of cocaine and marijuana. In 1980 alone, 179 of the 290 smuggler aircraft seized by U.S. authorities were in Florida. Even today, the FAA’s records on tail numbers are reportedly so spotty that the agency fears smugglers and terrorists can simply paint new tail numbers on a plane to avoid recordkeeping.

So, how did our airplane end up miles from any airstrip with another plane’s tail number? It seems that’s another mystery lost in the Everglades.