Monday, 27 March 2023, Everglades NP
"Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride." — Anthony Bourdain
Twenty months ago, as I planned this parks challenge, I reasearched all 63 National Parks looking for unique adventures in each. For about half, I quickly settled on a activity to highlight the park's offerings, with the rest requiring more thought. In one park, though - a park I'd never previously visited - I found not one, not two, but THREE must-do tasks:
How could I skip any of the experiences offered at no other park? To wit, I could:
* Slog the slough. Sure, nearly all parks offer ranger-guided hikes, telling visitor about the park's environment and history. But where else can a visitor follow a ranger through a swamp (also called a 'wet walk'), wading through standing water and mud in search of alligators?
* Ride an air boat. How could I pass up the iconic activity for this park, skimming over the river of grass on a fan-powered vessel? (It's not like I could do this in, say, Death Valley!)
* Complete a triathlon. The self-guided, do-it-yourself Tamiami Trail Triathlon allows the visitor to bike 15 miles, hike 3 miles, and kayak 3.5 miles in different parts of the parks at your own pace, on your own schedule. A chance to combine my three favorite sports in a National Park? I'm in!
So much for the Grand Plan. Executing it could tax me, though. Everglades spread over a wide swath of land, requiring over two hours to drive between Royal Palm and Everglades City. (Only two parks in the contiguous 48 states - Death Valley and Yellowstone - are larger.) As I felt my tenuous grip on Island Time loosening, doubts about whether to push myself so hard gained a foothold.
I promised to worry about it later. First, I had to drive to the main Visitor Center to pick up my ticket to the Slough Slog by 8:30. It cost nothing to sign up, but the park only allowed a dozen people on the tour, so I'd reserved the last available slot last Tuesday. Next came a drive to Royal Palm, where we met the ranger at 9:00. He made sure we'd read the rules: lace-up shoes (no flip-flops or crocs to get sucked off by the mud), and socks and long pants that can get dirty. "This is almost my favorite ranger hike in the whole park," he told us. "It would be my favorite if I didn't have to do my own laundry." Everyone then got back in their cars to follow the ranger 15 minutes down the road to an unmarked spot where we pulled off onto the shoulder. "Now there ARE four types of poisonous snakes in the park, though I've never actually seen one," he warned us. "However, just yesterday another ranger reported seeing a cottonmouth."
As he handed us each a walking stick, he explained we would check out an alligator hole. "In this area, the bedrock lies just below the surface. However, bacteria have softened spots in that bedrock. Now alligators have very sensitive feet, and when they feel that softness, they dig away at it. Over hundreds or thousands of years, that causes a depression - a 'hole' - in the ground. That hole retains water, so when the dry season comes, fish and other animals collect there - including gators. For them, it's like camping out at the local WalMart, with a steady supply of food." Even though they only eat once a week.
"You can sort of make out a trail if you look right there," said the ranger, pointing, "but that's likely the muddiest path. You can spread out on either side to find better footing, just stay reasonably close." With that, he wandered into the brush, with us trailing behind.
The ranger declared he would engage four of our five senses (sorry, taste, you're left out.). Taking a sprig of a plant, he rubbed it then passed it around. "Catch the lemony scent? And if you listen, you can hear many songbirds around us." For touch, he pointed out a growth of sawgrass. "It's not really a grass, it's a sedge - sedges have edges. If you want to feel it, slide your finger from the bottom up. Do NOT go the other direction - you'll get a painful cut like a paper cut."
He moved a bit further into the swamp, then halted us. To his right, he pointed out the alligator hole.
"Look closely, and you can see a couple of gators in there." Sure enough, there they sat, only 15-20 yards away from us. "You needn't worry about them, humans are not on their menu. As long as you don't harass them, they'll leave you alone."
At this point, he ended his spiel, and we all stood around and watched the gators watching us, not moving. It felt surreal, standing so close to an apex predator on the food chain. After a few minutes, someone pointed out a white mass on the ground, and asked the ranger about it. "Ah, yes, one more bit of nature. That's gator guano."
We stood a bit longer, then headed back to the road. In all, we'd only penetrated maybe 50 yards from the road. As a person on the periphery neared the cars, he stopped and called on the ranger to identify a snake. One quick glance gave the ranger his first deadly snake of the year: "It's a diamondback rattler, all right. I'll have to let the other rangers know." The snake didn't care for the attention, so it quietly slithered away.
The other hikers returned their walking sticks and drove away while I engaged the ranger a bit longer, telling him of my challenge and asking for suggestions. He encouraged me to try three different short hikes (a half-mile or so) on boardwalks before leaving this part of the park. "You really must do the Anhinga trail, it's the best walk in the entire park."
Decision time: As I'd discovered in the Virgin Islands, planning and living are mutually exclusive. I thus put the triathlon on 'tentative' status, giving me flexibility to check out the ranger's suggestions. The Mahogany Hammock - a 'tree island' on the edge of the slough - formed on land raised as little as 2-3 inches higher than the surrounding sawgrass marl prairie. That small elevation gain lets some of the Everglades' largest trees take root, creating an eco-niche adopted by many other plants and animals - like a rainforest plopped into the slough, with temperatures several degrees cooler than outside this retreat.
(Signs there indicate that an elevation difference of under an inch can make the difference in whether a plant can survive. I guess that make traveling over a 3' elevation pass a significant journey.)
On the way back to Royal Palm, I stopped at the Pa-hay-okey ('grassy waters') overlook. This 0.2-mile boardwalk loop gives a raised vista over the Shark River Slough, up to eight miles wide and under a foot deep.
Looking over the land, a sense of calm again descended on me, convincing me that I'd made a good choice to slow down.
Back to Royal Palm. You could consider it the heart of the Everglades; it was preserved as Florida's first state park in 1916, two decades before the National Park came into being. The Anhinga Trail circled borrow pits, excavations left over from road and building construction. Water fills these pits, providing a gallery for viewing the flora and fauna. The vulture playground in the parking area did surprise me, an effort to keep those birds from damaging cars.
The first thing I noticed on the trail was a large tree with a plethora of vines and roots. Later, I asked a ranger if he could identify it, showing him the photo on my phone. He didn't hesitate. "That's a strangler fig!"
Seeing confusion on my face, he elaborated. "A seed from the strangler fig will lodge in a crook of a branch on a host tree and germinate. It will then send roots winding down to the ground, where they will spread out. The roots will thicken into trunks, constraining the host tree and eventually killing it - strangling it." Oh my, an arbor assassin!
As I started down the Anhinga Trail, someone pointed out an alligator nestled in greenery at the edge of a pond - almost invisible from the trail. A distance later, I saw an Anhinga (a shorebird) and a Great Blue Heron standing in the swamp.
When the trail split into the boardwalk loop, I saw another gator under the bridge. Moments later, another gator, this one swimming in the pool.
Two spots further down the trail featured gators sunning themselves.
(Unfortunately, even in this pristine place, evidence of human scum sneaks in.)
Besides the gators, I saw turtles in the lily-covered water, and a large number of birds. A team of double-crested cormorants sat on top of a boardwalk pavilion, soaking up the sun, their wattles flapping in the breeze.
The clock passed 1:00. Satisfied with what I'd seen here, it looked like I could squeeze in my bike ride. The ranger said Shark Velley VC was 90 minutes away, but my GPS said something about a road closure, adding a two-hour detour onto my drive. I couldn't believe they could shut down US-41/Tamiami Trail - the major east/west route from Miami - so I ignored her directions and took it anyway. At 2:40, I pulled into Everglades' central Visitor Center.
They had bikes available for rent. "You're welcome to rent, but I'll warn you," the clerk said. "We close at 5:00, and if you're late, there's a $20 charge. Most people take 2-3 hours to do the 15-mile loop."
I did a quick calculation, and figured I'd have no issue. If I took my bike on a 15-mile, totally flat ride at home, I could do it in just over an hour. Of course, I didn't weigh the other factors involved:
*temperature in the upper 80s, with an elevated humidity
*super-wide beach tires, which add to the friction I must overcome
*a low bike seat, keeping me from getting proper knee extension
*an archaic, one-speed bike - the type you have to pedal backwards to stop. Hey, this may be the model I learned to bicycle on!
I started with high spirits, but could tell I wasn't cycling as fast as I was used to. I stopped a couple of times for pictures, and to watch an alligator move into a shady culvert,
but otherwise I kept on the move. I finally straggled back to the office at 4:45, early enough to avoid the penalty, but feeling completely exhausted.
That used me up for the day!
As I drove back to my lodging in Miami, I thought back on what the Slough Ranger had said. "Everglades was established in 1934. In contrast to the other national parks, this one was not set aside for its geological features, or its impressive scenery. It was the first park established to protect an ecosystem.
"The magnificent parks out west - think Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite - they all shout out to you, 'Come see us! Let us awe you!' Everglades? It doesn't shout. It whispers."
Yes. Yes, it does.