What is a Rocky Mountain backpacker doing in the Everglades? Well, it’s cold out here in Wyoming. Work took me to Florida. And I had that familiar yearning to get out, out far, far away, where I could breathe, really breathe. Could I find it in Florida?
So there are the Everglades, the third largest National Park in the 48. Combined with the Big Cypress National Preserve and several state parks it is vast by any standard.
With backpack and gear in the suitcase I headed from teaming Miami to Homestead and into the east entrance. At the visitor center I learned that the rangers are offended when you call the Everglades a swamp. “Swamps are stagnant. The Everglades flows, a shallow wide river washing over the land, a clean base for a sawgrass empire,” he patiently explained. “There is only one Everglades in the whole world.”
This river of grass has islands, I was to discover, islands known as “hammocks.” Raise the elevation by inches and you have a hammock, with a world of trees. A few more inches and you have another world.
The first hammock is of royal palms and hardwoods, mahoganies and gumbo limbos, plants growing on plants, a jungle broken with open water, teeming with fish and wading birds. A ranger gave me good advice, “Come early,” she said, “before the tourists.” At 7:45 I crept out onto the boardwalk.
Beauty whispered. All was still. Egrets stood silent and statuesque, fishing, ready to spring with an explosive snap. So were the photographers, great cameras mounted on tripods. The water sliced by the salacious sway of an alligator’s tail.
A great blue heron stood on a rail. Four feet away was the bird of his dreams. He swayed, lowering a wing. She did too. Together they moved in perfect unison. Sway to the left, just so, and to the right. A spell fell over us all. Entranced we watched this simple miracle, a fusion of mind and body spanning space. Then a sudden distant call. She stopped, alert, listening. He swayed. She stared. The spell was broken. Try as he might, she was no longer in the mood.
Down the road was a pine island, Long Pine Key. A nice campground. Night found me under familiar pines, watching the sun set through them like a world on fire. Miles of trail cut through the thin forest of pine and palmetto. Bears lived there. And endangered Florida panthers. I almost felt at home, bears and tawny lions. I didn’t see either. And again almost felt at home. But where could I backpack?
Further along, another kind of island, dwarf cypress, a mound of trees rising high in the center. Driving past more grass, another world, not of grass but of mangroves. It is a low forest, impenetrable, a tangle of wild roots in tidal waters. No place to step. But I noted there were paths, paths of rootbeer-clear waters, quiet streams connecting ponds and lakes. Something to think about….
The Village of Flamingo
The road ends at Flamingo, a rise of lawn and shady live oaks, the sea glimmering beyond. At this visitor center I asked about a trail I saw on a map to a backcountry camp. “Still under water from summer rains,” the blonde ranger said. “Why not kayak?” Why not?
The man at the marina rented me a red one. Tying in some food and tent and gear in a dry bag, I floated off into another Everglades world, the salt-water coast of Florida Bay. Calm, dotted with distant mangrove islands, the tide moved out, easing my way against a gentle wind. The sky blended with the water in a vague thin line. Pelicans in pairs, skimming the surface, diving in a noisy splash. The fin of a small shark. Snowy egrets in the trees.
“You can’t get lost,” she said. “Just keep the shore on the right.” I can handle it.
Four hours of steady paddling brought me to Cape Sable, the southern-most tip of mainland USA. Pulling around the bend, into the growing surf of the Gulf of Mexico, lay fifteen miles of unspoiled beach. My campsite for the night. I had the whole fifteen miles to myself. A ways to the north at San Marco Island this beach sells for millions. Here, for the night, it was mine. The price? Just four hours of steady work.
The setting sun melted into the gentle waters. Rocked in sleep by the sound of the surf, I had found “out and away, far away.”
But I came to backpack. There was a trail back at the palm hammock, Old Ingraham, with campsites six and eleven miles out. I found the trail head. The path is old tarmac. Hard and hot, shade-less, the sawgrass sadly overgrown with invasive cattails, eight feet high, fed by pollution from farms. I was told that pristine Everglades wilderness could be found some miles in. This is better seen on a bike, but no bikes are for rent here.
Time to drive on around to the north side of the park, to the Shark Valley visitor center where there is a fifteen-mile loop into the heart of the sawgrass and an observation tower at the apex. No place to camp though. But here there are bikes to rent. Ditch the pack and climb into the saddle. This was great! Whizzing by a canal full of alligators, 48 by the halfway point, whizzing past the tractor-pulled tram full of people. I bet they wished they were me. Maybe not.
Firemen were burning up the glades, a scheduled burn. Again I felt at right at home as they worked in the heat to renew the natural cycles of the land, under some control, trying to explain it to the bus load of school kids and the Japanese tourists. But I’m a westerner. I understand and appreciate this stuff.
At the observation tower I tried out a foot trail. An alligator lay across it, sunning himself. This was an unfamiliar complication. What does etiquette require? I stepped closer. He hissed. I concluded that the he owned this one and made my retreat. Hiking has many complications in the Everglades.
Biking around the loop, I found a sea of space, bald eagles soaring and higher yet, vultures circling. I was told it was all up-hill on the way back. Were they soaring for me? But up-hill meant one inch per mile, eight inches total. I think I can handle it.
The Gulf Coast
Now a drive on to the west side of the park, to the Gulf Coast visitor center at the village of Everglades City. I wanted to see dolphins. Time for a tour boat ride out into the Gulf. There! Here! Everywhere they leaped in twos, threes and a pod of six or eight. White Pelicans, two or three of which have visited our own Holiday Park I’m sure (I asked, a couple of them nodded) crowded a sand bar rookery.
Dawn on the causeway from Everglades City to Chokoloskee Island brought a scene of pure tranquility, a Zen of egrets silently lifting, a perfect reflection mirroring their effortless glide.
The Everglades harbors many worlds. It holds a majesty new to me, one of stillness, of sky and space, whispering.
I eased into breakfast at Chokoloskee. Have you ever stopped at a restaurant on a road trip so astonished by the food, you just wanted to put your plans on hold and just spend the day, breakfast, lunch and dinner? Such a moment is Havana Cafe. What food!
Collier-Seminole State Park
But my backpack was still in the trunk. Collier-Seminole State Park, another wild area making up part of the Big Cypress system, noted a backcountry campsite on their 6-½ mile Hiking Adventure Trail. I imagined a night in the Cypress, listening to alligators bellow in the starlight. I checked in at the ranger station. “No one has been there yet this year. The trail is still underwater from the summer rains. Why not rent a canoe?” So, why not?
So I left the pack in the trunk and grabbed a paddle. The canoe trail, like those near Flamingo, led through deep green mangroves (did you know there are four kinds?). The water still, clear and stained cola-brown by the mangrove roots. An alligator slid below the surface as I slid near. White cattle egrets rested in the trees as I passed. Ducks and coots fed on flats that were exposed as the tide drained out.
This trail was marked with posts bearing numbered triangles. Thank goodness. Navigating without them would be a GPS challenge. After three hours I had enjoyed the mangroves very much. One of the great Florida adventures is the 99-mile Everglades Wilderness Waterway, a canoe or kayak trail through mangrove bays, rivers and creeks complete with high dock camping sites called “Chickees.” That is a lot of mangroves. I’ll pass for now.
The Everglades can be a lot of fun
I had a great time in the Everglades. Maybe I could have backpacked after all. The Florida National Scenic Trail, 1,300 miles long, has 30 to 40 miles of trail in the Big Cypress, complete with three campsites. But I found the Everglades is really for boats.
Some misconceptions were lifted. It isn’t that hot in the winter. Daytime highs are in the 70’s, nighttime lows in the 60’s.
The dry season starts in November and lasts through April. I was told that the crowds arrive just after Christmas and continue into March. Early December was delightful
Bugs? There are 45 kinds of mosquitos there in the summer but I only saw mosquitos at one place, the Flamingo Campground at sunset, and they fled at repellant. No-see-ums, nasty invisible flying things that bite like a needle poke, also just at one place, the Edenic Cape Sable, again only at dusk. Every Eden has its serpent. And these were not deterred except by mosquito netting.
Boring? The variety of distinct environments fascinated. If I were to go back, joining with friends and a fishing charter would be the big draw, fishing the 10,000 islands near Chokoloskee and the Havana Café, or Florida Bay near Flamingo for redfish, pompano, grouper and, yes, trout. And there is much more to canoe. West Lake and Nine Mile Pond were so inviting. And I could hike into the Big Cypress.
Next time I’d like to see the Nike Missile site, built during the 1962 Cuban crisis. There are several buildings kept just as they were left in 1979 and two restored Hercules missiles. It can only be visited on guided tours given once or twice a week. Be sure to check the schedule on the Park web site: http://www.nps.gov/ever.
The Everglades is designated like no other place in the United States: a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance. Yet no park is more endangered. While land was protected in the 1940’s the water was not. For all of the 20th century the Everglades have been drying out as upstream flow is diverted for agriculture. And much of the water that reaches the park is polluted by fertilizer residue, changing the very plant composition that makes it the Everglades. As fresh water supplies drop, and ocean levels rise, salt water backs in.
A complex plan was developed and approved by Congress in 2000 to restore the flow of fresh water. Estimates are that it will take $7.8 billion and thirty years to complete with sixty construction projects required. Measurable progress has been made.
There is no other Everglades in the world. Like thousands of visitors, I am now an Everglades fan and hope that the plan succeeds for benefit of wildlife and all those seeking wonder and renewal in a sublime and still realm, one that whispers.