Tuesday, 28 March 2023, Everglades NP
Another day to experience the Everglades, to discover the subtle majesties of this humble park, to hear its soft siren song.
I checked out of my Miami room and headed west on the Tamiami Trail, aiming for the Shark Valley VC for the passport stamp I'd forgotten to get yesterday.
En route to the valley, I took my airboat ride. Three NPS-licensed outfitters based along US-41 take people out in the iconic vessel of the Everglades.
Sure, it's commercialized, but inexpensive (under $30 for ~40 minutes). Many vendors offer wildlife shows before or after the ride, but I passed on that, preferring to see my wildlife in the wild. That worked quite well yesterday, thank you, and we saw one more gator on today's ride.
The boat skippers (and ours definitely looked the part of a marsh monster)
have a standard patter to entertain the passengers, though the roar of the fans prevent them from narrating while on the move. (Conveniently, the gift shop sells ear plugs to cut the volume.) At certain spots they will stop, cut the engine, and talk about the scene. I enjoyed his commentary on the invasive pond apple tree, whose fruit "is edible, but not really eat-able, as it's too sour and bitter."
The ride - gliding down the canal or slipping across the slough - certainly stole the show. Ready? Fasten your seat belts! Oh, wait, they have no seat belts...
After collecting my NPS passport stamp, I checked the time. Factoring in the drive to my waiting kayak rental, I still had time to hike 45-50 minutes in Big Cypress. I'd shelved the idea of completing the triathlon in lieu of more time near Royal Palm yesterday, but if it fits into my schedule...
From Shark Valley the road veers northwest, leaving the national park for Big Cypress. This area highlights cypress swamps as well as the other environmental niches shared with the Everglades. As the park pamphlet notes:
in 1968, construction of a massive jetport was begun; the ultimate plan was to create the world's largest jetport with the world's largest runway. This project, and the development to follow, would have devastated the natural flow of fresh water through the Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades.
Once again, a diverse group of citizens rose up to protect this fragile land. Bowing to the pressure, Congress created a new class of park to save this land while leaving it open to customary uses such as off-roading, hunting, and native traditions - the country's first National Preserve.
The specified triathlon leg had a trailhead at the Oasis Visitor Center, overlaying a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail. However, other than a canal with a resting alligator at Oasis,
this section of trail failed to excite the imagination (or the camera).
The first part ran parallel to a runway before it plunged into woods showing the effects of the lingering dry season. Given temps in the high 80s again, I felt no remorse when the time came to turn back. The water was calling!
The outfitter rented kayaks in conjunction with the NPS out of the Gulf Shores Visitor Center for Everglades. With the VC undergoing renovation, I sidled over to the NPS ranger and volunteer sitting under a pavilion at the marina. "I reserved a kayak for 1:00..."
The ranger nodded. "It should be waiting for you right over there," she said, pointing to the 'Canoe/Kayak launch' sign. I wandered over, seeing a trailer and a number of kayaks stacked up, but no sign of people. Back to the pavilion. "No one seems to be there..."
The volunteer said, "Well, if you reserved it, they should have pulled one out for you. They don't usually hang around unless they're taking a group out." Seeing skepticism on my face, she got up and led me back over. Near the end of the stack, she found one with a life vest and a paddle laying against it. "Looks like this one should be yours!" she said, though I saw no indication of it. I guess they had re-defined 'self-service'!
I thanked her and headed back to the car to gear up. Slather on the sunscreen to protect from the bright blue skies. Stow the keys and camera in the dry bag. Take off my shoes and socks and put on my muddy tennis shoes from the slough slog - I could rinse them off in the waters of the Chokolskee Bay. Finally, grab the dry bag and head off to reclaim the kayak.
Did anyone catch the fundamental error I just made?
At the launch point, I encountered two people returning from a canoe ride, so I asked them how it was out there. "Wonderful!" came the response. "We saw stingrays and a dolphin. Perfect day to be out there."
Before I launched the kayak, I looked at the map the volunteer had given me.
She'd said I could identify Sandfly Island by the tower and the dock there, but all I could see was a uniform horizon of mangrove islands barely rising above the bay. I picked a direction based on a best guess; somehow I had missed by 90°.
But what did it matter? I had returned to the water, perhaps my favorite element. The open waters of Chokoloskee Bay sported minor waves (no whitecaps), less choppy than what I often hit on the lake back home. I paddled for an hour to cross against the breeze to the 10,000 Islands,
occasionally turning the boat to verify I could still see the ranger tower looming over my start point. I stayed close to the deep-water navigation channel (marked by buoys). Most of the boats plying the channel did not throw off noticeable wakes, but when a cruiser I nicknamed McNasty zipped through, its wake immediately went to whitecaps in the shallower water. Buoyed by three decades of paddling experience, I quickly aligned my kayak perpendicular to the wake and paddled backwards with the whitecap foaming a few scant feet from me. Problem averted. The next time I spied a McNasty in the channel, I made sure to keep more space between us.
Once I'd crossed the bay, I took note of the buoy numbers: 25 and 26. I am a ways from Sandfly Island, aren't I? As I leisurely paddled amongst the mangrove
islands, I could feel the tension leaving my muscles, the lull of the waves slowing my breathing. Far to the north, I could see massive cumulus clouds dotting the sky, retreating into the distance.
A pelican perched on one dead branch, flying away when I floated too close.
As the clock neared 3:00, I reluctantly headed back to shore - I still faced a three-hour drive north to my room for the night. The breeze had picked up, the waves grown choppier. I let Mother Nature blow me back to the north, but that drifted me further east. Not enamored with the notion of paddling across the waves, I instead tacked in, turning to paddle against the wind, then gliding back toward shore. By the time I made it back to the launch point, I had finally become aware of my earlier error: after removing my socks, I had failed to spread sunscreen there, and they had grown bright red after 2½ hours. Gonna need to pick up some aloe for that...
A minor price to pay for an unparalleled day, enjoying the best of the area. What delights await me on my last five days?