We had pictured the Everglades as one big swamp full of nasty things: alligators and mosquitoes. But it's a National Park - we try to visit them all so we just HAD to go see it. Our visit last week showed us our presumptions were quite wrong.
A swamp has stagnant water but we learned that the Everglades is actually a flowing river.There appears to be no movement but the"river of grass" which makes up the bulk of the park is indeed flowing south to the ocean at the rate of about 1/4 mile per day.
In the river of grass, are islands: slightly higher areas called hammocks: thick stands of, palm, mahogany, cypress and pine trees create a tropical jungle. If it wern't for the park's boardwalk trails, one could not explore this jungle terrain on foot.
The wildlife viewing is outstanding - the best we've ever seen anywhere in North America! There are many unique birds we've never seen elsewhere. And, yes, lots of alligators! The best place to see a wide variety of wildlife is to walk the Anhinga Boardwalk Trail at Royal Palm. We walked it twice - it was that excellent - once on a guided starlight walk when our flashlights lit up the eyes of alligators. They are more active at night.
Mosquitoes were, thankfully, not an issue. We had stocked up on bug repellant and resigned ourselves to the fact that we might have to bathe in it. but, even on the humid, wooded trails, there were really none at this time of year. The few we saw showed up briefly at sunset. Apparently, in summer, they are so thick that almost no one dares to visit the park. It remains open with free entrance and free camping for the very, very brave but there are very few who dare. One park ranger told us the mosquitoes are so thick you'll be scraping them off in handfulls. Free camping anyone?
The alligators are everywhere where fresh water is found and, in brackish or salt water, you might also encounter crocodiles and manatee although we didn't spot either. We did see plenty of gators. They camouflage so well that we had to keep a keen eye out for them.
After a ranger-led talk, we lost most of our fear of gators. Of course, we still kept a safe distance, and we aren't likely to start walking through Florida ditches any time soon. But we now know that it's very unlikely these animals will attack humans. For one thing, it would have to be poor timing on our part - they only eat about twice a week.
For the most part, alligator watching is pretty boring. They lie in one spot in the sun all day and move as little as possible. As the ranger explained, they're typical Floridians - lie in the sun all day, then party (eat and drink) all night.The Anhinga, a bird much like the cormorants we see around home, is much more entertaining as he dives into the water for fish, spears them, then tosses them in the air until they land facing the right way so he can swallow them. (Fish can't be swallowed whole tail-first - something I'd never really thought about).
How cool is this? The park offers a FREE three hour guided canoe trip every morning - canoes, paddles, and life jackets are all included. Twelve canoes follow a ranger guide through a mangrove maze. Participants have to register at the Flamingo Visitor Center and it's first-come, first served. We have our own inflatable kayak but had some concerns about barnacles at the salt water launch areas that we were told might cause a problem for anything less than an aluminum hull. This was a perfect solution.
When we enquired, however, the trip was already full except for one opening.(We learned it's usually filled a day in advance.) Randy decided he would pass so I went without him. I ended up paddling with a nice man named David who was kind enough to steer the canoe and do most of the work (it was an easy paddle). We ended up soaking wet, however! Not because we tipped the canoe but shortly after we left, it started to rain. It was still a very neat experience and one I would highly recommend. You can also call the park to reserve a spot in advance of your arrival.
When we left the park, we crossed Big Cypress National Preserve on Hwy 41. The Oasis Visitor Center, is a great spot to see alligators lying on the banks of the canal, almost posing for the tourist cameras.
We detoured onto the scenic loop. It was amazing. We stopped a an area marked "Sweetwater" where we sat quietely for a good long time as the birds, alligators, frogs, and various fish provided their show in crystal clear waters flowing around the "cypress knees". Not a biting insect in sight, either. Here are just two of the maybe three dozen photos we took. Only about 1/3 of this loop road (the eastern part) is paved but the gravel road had been recently graded and was in fine condition.
One thing we had considered was back country camping in a chickee - an elevated platform. It would have required arrival by boat and a self-standing tent which we didn't have. In retrospect, it's very likely the no-see-ums would have made the experience a little more "memorable" than we wanted anyway.We also decided not to take a ride in an airboat. Although dubbed, the quintessential Everglades experience, I think they're also a tourist trap. The prices are high and, I figured we got a similar view while boating through mangroves and the river of grass in our kayak and the free canoe trip in the park. Swamp buggies and Airboats (fan boats) are, in fact, prohibited in the park so I figure that's another good indication. If you want this experience however, there are many airboat operators lining Hwy 41.
Leaving the Everglades behind, we started a slow week-long crawl up the Gulf Coast that included only one day on the famous but much too busy white beaches of Florida and more time in nature than we had anticipated. We also escaped a life-threatening close call and it had nothing to do with alligators....but all will have to wait for my next blog.
Days On The Road at time of writing: 9
Camping Costs To Date: $32.00