Everything we read about the Everglades before our visit there told us we needed to take our time to really get a feel for the place. It’s a subtle place. With hardly any rise in elevation, the landscape in the Everglades is covered for most of the year with a gradually flowing river, oozing by inches through the plains of sawgrass til it reaches the sea. It’s a haven for alligators and wading birds, a truly unique ecology, and one of the most controversial and endangered national parks in America’s history.
We started our visit in the late afternoon, just before sunset, and it turned out to be a perfect introduction to the park. On the Anhinga trail, a boardwalk path elevated over the wetlands, we got our first taste of the Everglades: sawgrass stretching out in front of us, lilies carpeting the open water, egrets and herons snapping up fish, and alligators floating sleepily in flooded canals. The water was still and mirrored the sun as it set in saturated pastels, and we were instantly in love.
An early explorer of the Everglades ecosystem wrote, “My advice is to urge every discontented man to take a trip through the Everglades. If it doesn’t kill him, it will certainly cure him.”
A few hundred years ago, a trip through the Everglades was likely to, if not kill you, at least leave you disoriented, muddy, sweaty, and covered in bug bites. This was wildness, and one of the last untamed, uncharted areas left in the U.S. Flowing from the chain of lakes south of Orlando, along the meandering Kissimmee River, through Lake Okeechobee, and into the vast swamps covering the southern Florida peninsula, the Everglades were a thriving ecosystem that supported a huge range of plant and animal life: black bears, manatees, dolphins, deer, eagles, wading birds, snakes, rabbits. It was the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles lived together. “It had carnivorous plants, amphibious birds, oysters that grew on trees, cacti that grew in water, lizards that changed colors, and fish that changed genders,” says Michael Grundwald in his book about the history of the Everglades, “The Swamp”.
But though it was home to loads of species, the Everglades proved challenging—to say the least—to human explorers. Though the Ten Thousand Islands area, the westernmost part of the Everglades, is actually believed to have been the first permanent settlement of humans in North America, the rest of the region was a tangle of swamps and mangroves, bug-infested, unnavigable and full of things that could kill you.
Even so, some saw potential in the Everglades, an undeveloped area with ample rainfall, year-round summer, and easy access to shipping routes. In the 1880s, Florida began selling off swaths of swampland to developers, funding their loans in exchange for promises of drainage. But draining the Everglades was expensive and complicated: when, after 50 years of attempts, developers started to have success at draining areas large enough to farm, they were constantly battling water levels—the land was either flooded or completely dry depending on the season. The soil that had developed underwater for thousands of years was shallow and fragile; when it dried out, it blew away or caught on fire.
Still, south Florida’s population was exploding and real estate was booming. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed an extravagant system of canals, dammed lakes, and irrigation schedules; they were plagued by hurricanes and uneven rainfall, but eventually they were able to store enough water to keep the farms and communities of the upper Everglades supplied—though they still had massive problems trying to control irrigation.
But because these new developments were trapping in the north the water that had always before flowed gradually south, the undeveloped parts of Everglades were being quickly destroyed: many of the animal species that had long thrived there disappeared, fires raged over the desiccated plains, run-off from farm’s fertilizers was making the water toxic, and the soil was impoverished.
In an article attacking the government’s plan for further development, outdoor writer and activist Ernest Lyons said, “South Florida started out with a marvelous flood control plan. Nature designed it. It consisted of vast, perpetually inundated marshes and lakes interconnected by sloughs. It was a paradise for wildlife and, more practically, a sensible system of shallow reservoirs in which rainfall was stored to slowly seep into the ground. But being human, we just couldn’t leave it alone . . . During dry seasons, private individuals farmed or built areas where old-timers knew inundation was as inevitable as deaths and taxes. Then when the rains came, we called on Government to take over and operate, with sweeping alterations, the magnificent system God had given us . . . Now we are calling on Government to be the very God, by the creation of a huge artificial system of dams, pumps, man-made lakes and controls which must be maintained in perpetuity . . . Nature’s last frontiers of wildlife and last giant units for natural flood control would be destroyed. And Florida would be repeating the folly which conservationists have watched ruin rivers, make droughts, and create floods across the nation!
“Conservationists know the cure for this evil. Save the swamplands as vast natural reservoirs. Quit being so land-hungry that Nature is left no place to store rainfall. Restore the marshes and little brooks. Cooperate with Nature instead of trying to take all and give nothing.”
The history of the Everglades struck me for a few reasons: it’s a prime example of man’s folly in developing places that serve us better when they are left alone. It’s also a fight that continues now; even after Everglades National Park was established in 1947, and the preserved area was later augmented with Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, the fight to maintain water flow through the wetlands continued. Lake Okeechobee is still maintained as a reservoir with a huge dike to hold water back from its natural course of flooding south, and the park is only guaranteed some of this water because conservationists agitated for massive legislation that is attempting to repair the damage caused by water management schemes. It’s only in the past few years that wading birds have started making much of a comeback.
Knowing more about the history of this place made our experience much richer. Seeing how the environment is starting to rebound was incredibly inspiring.
Everglades is a big park, nearly 2500 square miles, and there are several different centers of activity, so there was a lot for us to explore. We spent our first day checking out the area around Royal Palm, then on day two headed down to Flamingo, the southernmost point of the park.
Flamingo was hit hard by last fall’s hurricanes, and most of the park’s services in the area were still down. We spied on some snacking turkey vultures and watched the bay for manatees and crocodiles, then took our time driving back on the park road.
That was Christmas Eve, and we wanted to wake up in the park on Christmas morning (so as not to be waking up in a Wal-Mart parking lot), so we set ourselves up in the park’s campground. Despite the oppressive heat, humidity and mosquitoes, we made soup and scones—our Christmas Eve tradition—read Luke 2, let the kids act out the nativity scene with Little People, played some games, and put the kids to bed. Or this is what we tried to do. The heat and mosquitoes combined with Christmas jitters kept the kids wide awake, and around 11 p.m., in the midst of losing our minds, we high-tailed it back to Homestead to get clear of the bugs so we could at least sleep with our windows open and get a breeze.
So we woke up Christmas morning in a parking lot. But not a Wal-Mart parking lot! It was a Cracker Barrel. Much classier. And we actually did have a completely lovely Christmas morning, opening presents, cooking and eating breakfast together, and playing with new toys.
Later, we headed back into the park to check out one of the high elevation spots in the Everglades: Mahogany Hammock. By “high elevation”, I mean that this place is a few feet higher than its surroundings, but its enough of a change to support an entirely different set of plants, including air plants, ferns, palms, gumbo-limbo trees, and the largest mahogany tree in the U.S.
After our walk through the hardwood hammock, we headed to Nine Mile Pond for a paddle. Though getting out on the water is consistently our favorite park activity, we were nervous about kayaking here, but he rangers assured us that alligators, crocodiles and pythons keep to themselves. As we were putting in our kayak, we spotted a huge crocodile in the pond, so we started our paddle with vigor, putting as much distance between ourselves and the croc as we could. The rest of the time we didn’t see anything scary, just mangroves, sedges, birds, and gorgeous glassy water. It was definitely different from our typical Christmas, but it was beautiful and calm and perfect.
The next day we headed to Shark Valley in the northern part of the park. This place is gator central, and we knew we wanted to check out the whole length of the 15-mile loop road that runs through the area. Some people bike it, which we considered, but instead we opted for the guided tram ride and I was glad we did. The trail was super hot and teeming with gators, and we ended up learning a ton from our guide.
Shark Valley is, indeed, a valley—between Miami at 24 feet elevation and Naples at 15 feet elevation. Not the kind of valleys we’re used to, but enough of a dip that the ecosystem is different here than the surrounding areas. It’s a haven for alligators, who need a constant water supply. They find depressions in the limestone and wear the holes bigger with their bodies and their buddies, creating “gator holes”. These holes become the centers of activity during the dry season, when other animals are driven to the remaining spots of water to eat and drink. The gators hang out peaceably until they get hungry, then they have their pick of the critters utilizing their house.
Alligators are super interesting. We saw loads of them, mostly sunning themselves after a chilly night. We learned that the ridges on the gator’s backs are scoop bones and they act like solar panels, increasing the gator’s surface area so they can soak up more sun. In the wild they live 40 to 60 years, eating mainly turtles, which they are perfectly suited to munch because their jaws have 2000 pounds of bite force.
Our guide told us that years ago we would have seen lots of mammals here, but 90% of them have been killed off by pythons. Burmese pythons started getting imported into the states in the 1970s and sold as pets; but their buyers usually had no idea how big they would get or how much they would need to eat, so people in south Florida started dropping their pets off in the wild. The pythons found themselves in an ideal environment, with plentiful food sources and protected wilderness where they were the top predator. They’ve thrived in the last 90 years and been a scourge to the Everglades. Unlike the alligators and bird species of the Everglades, all of whom have fragile offspring and low rates of reproduction, pythons can lay 50 to 100 eggs at a time, twice every year, and they have a 90% chance of survival. They’re extremely difficult to find, and the rangers said that people who seem them usually see them at night on the road. Every time we drove around the park in the dark, I hoped to run over one with the bus and do my part to help the Everglades, but it never happened.
The gators were creepy and cool, but the birds we saw along our route were my favorite—actually my very favorite thing about this park, gorgeous and graceful with colorful plumes and snappy movements. Completely entrancing to watch.
At the risk of being over-enthusiastic about every single park we visit, I have to say that Everglades blew us away. A lot has been written about this region, I discovered, and all of it more beautiful than what I could say, so I’ll leave off with a few of my favorite quotes about this enchanting place.
The first is from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, hugely influential environmental advocate: “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space.”
And this, from President Truman’s dedication of the park: “Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water but as the last receiver of it . . . For conservation of the human spirit, we need places such as Everglades National Park, where we may be more keenly aware of our Creator’s infinitely varied, infinitely beautiful and infinitely bountiful handiwork. Here we may draw strength and peace of mind from our surroundings. Here we can truly understand what the psalmist meant when he sang: ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul.’”
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