by Lee Foster
Imagine a slow-motion river, only a few inches deep but 50 miles wide and a hundred miles long, America’s greatest wetland ecosystem.
The setting is tropical, with a thick grass called sawgrass throughout. Alligators swim through the mangrove swamps, millions of migrating waterbirds rest here, and an elusive endangered panther lurks in the tangled cypress thickets on the higher ground.
That world is the Florida Everglades, 1.5 million acres of wetland wilderness, Florida’s largest wildlife sanctuary and a National Park.
Anyone with an interest in America’s magnificent natural environments will eventually want to explore this special region.
The Everglades has always ranked high on my list of America’s top natural attractions, along with Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Denali in Alaska. Moreover, while many other parks celebrate geology and grand landscapes, the Everglades exists primarily to preserve biology, so the diverse life forms here are of special interest. Finally, my opportunity for a visit arrived.
With much anticipation I flew into Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast, to lodge on Marco Island and explore the western part of the Everglades as well as peruse some of the 10,000 barrier islands along its periphery. I planned also to drive around to the east side entrance of Everglades National Park and journey through the park to the small community of Flamingo, at the end of the road. Flamingo lies on the edge of Florida Bay, a large expanse of water with hundreds of small islands.
West Side of the Everglades
My initial introduction to nature in the Everglades was through a guided tour with Mason Weeks, whose great grandfather was the first white settler on the western side of the Everglades.
Weeks operates his Everglades Native Tours from Marco Island, one of the three inhabited barrier islands among the 10,000. When Weeks was a teenager here in the 1940s, there was no running water, no electricity, and no bridge between the islands.
“Today some of the Everglades remains as it was,” said Weeks. “You just have to take a few steps off the road.”
Near the road we saw abundant wildlife, especially alligators, notably along the graveled road Turner River Grade in Big Cypress Reserve, a public land holding north of Everglades National Park.
Then, near Everglades City, we took an airboat ride into the Everglades with Mason’s cousin, Clinton Weeks, to see the mangrove forests, herons, egrets, and osprey so abundant in this region.
We did not see any of the Everglades’ fourteen endangered species, such as the Florida panther, Florida black bear, wood stork, everglades mink, and saltwater crocodile, but it was good to know they were out there. After 10 minutes of boating into the roadless swamps with Clinton Weeks, it would be difficult for a layman to find his way out of the morass. Only the position of the sun and the subtle tidal flow through the wetlands could help with directions.
The Weeks are part of the small contingent of native swampers who have lived for generations in the Everglades environment.
“When I grew up, you would starve if you couldn’t fish, hunt, or grow your food here,” said Mason Weeks. “There was nothing to buy, and we didn’t have the money to buy anything anyway.”
Today the Weeks clan feels the ever tightening controls of the National Park on their traditional livelihood, restricting their net fishing, frog hunting, and airboat access to the grassland prairies. Mason Weeks was formerly a fisherman; today he fishes for tourists.
A greater threat to the Everglades is the road itself across the wetlands, Highway 41. It was discouraging to see a large dead river otter on the road, for example, victim of an encounter with a car.
The most persistent threat to the Everglades is man’s manipulation of water, disturbing the ancient river systems, plus the development pressure of the Miami city environment and agriculture on the eastern side of the Everglades.
My first goal was to immerse myself in nature and savor the multiple ways any traveler can do that in the Everglades.
As an alternative to the noise of the airboat ride, I spent a day kayaking along the west side of the Everglades with Kevin Jureller of Get Wet Sports.
We kayaked off Capri Island to red mangrove islands that were, it seemed to me, as remote as anything I had ever seen.
“If you had a week,” said Kevin, “we could kayak through Everglades National Park on the Wilderness Waterway all the way from Marco Island down to Flamingo, traversing the full western length of the Everglades.”
That would certainly be a remarkable way to learn why the Everglades has been named a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. I longed to view more roseate spoonbills, the wide-billed birds, or watch the ibis feed in the shallows with their specialized curved beaks, which make digging for mollusks more efficient. I had yet to see a manatee, the large “sea cow” that feeds on sea grass.
Canoeists and kayakers camp on raised platforms, called chickees, that the park service has built at intervals through this hundred-mile waterway. Such a trip requires careful planning and should probably be undertaken only in winter when the mosquito population is suppressed by the cold. I mentally tucked the trip away on my futures list.
Two nature walks on the west side of the Everglades were particularly instructive. The Briggs Nature Center near Marco Island has a boardwalk over the swamp that helped me understand the sawgrass prairie and the fecund mangrove environment, nursery for many fish species. The main metaphor for the Everglades is that it is a “River of Grass,” and the authoritative book about the region is naturalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ The Everglades: River of Grass, which was published in 1947, the same year that the federal government created the National Park. Until her death in May 1998, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then 108 years old, guided the cause of Everglades restoration. A second nature walk, the Big Bend Cypress walk, showed me magnificent stands of cypress, the premier hardwood of the region.
After having an up-close-and-personal look at the west side of the Everglades, I drove to the east side of the National Park to take the only road into the protected Everglades from the east.
East Side of the Everglades
The road to the east side entrance was a three-hour drive from Marco Island. Approaching the park entrance, I passed through extensive urban development and thirsty agricultural endeavors competing for Everglades water. My plan was to drive through the park and then lodge for a night in the small settlement of Flamingo at the end of the park road.
At the excellent Visitor Center near the park entrance I oriented myself to the nature experience about to unfold. I learned that the best way to approach Everglades National Park is to stop at the various boardwalks and trails created along the main road expressly to show the traveler the natural environments. Due to the watery nature of the Everglades, plus the hazards, from alligators to cottonmouth snakes, a traveler can’t safely hike the uncharted back country. However, you can canoe many areas, and canoe rentals are available.
The first stop proved, retrospectively, to be the most exciting of all–the Anhinga Trail boardwalk at a site called Royal Palm. I saw more wildlife there than anywhere else. There were alligators resting in the sun, red-belly turtles lounging on the mud banks, and fish (gar and bass) swimming warily in the clear water. Many kinds of birds flourish here, such as the anhinga, which can spear fish with its beak. The area also boasts fine examples of the sawgrass prairie. Taylor Slough around the Anhinga Trail enjoys the assured freshwater flow that was the historic story throughout the Everglades.
Pinelands boardwalk showed me the thin trees, called slash pines, superbly adapted to withstand hurricanes, which sweep through the region from time to time.
Pa-hayokee Overlook boardwalk presented the most panoramic view of the sawgrass prairie. Pa-hayokee was the Native American name for this area, meaning “grassy waters.” The word “Ever-glades” also refers to the sawgrass prairie, a grassy expanse, which seems to go on forever.
Mahogany Hammock boardwalk displayed the largest mahogany hardwood trees in the U.S. Since the area was so remote, the trees escaped logging.
Finally, at the historic village of Flamingo, I walked around Eco Pond, another bird-rich environment, where a red-shoulder hawk landed on the ground only a few yards from me.
At Flamingo the park service maintains a Visitor Center, marina, and camp site. I took a sunset boat cruise with a park ranger to witness the nightly flight of the wading birds to some of the hundreds of small islands, where the birds roost securely, beyond the threat of their immediate predators, such as raccoons. As the sun dropped below the horizon, we watched large flocks of white ibises and herons fly out to their chosen islands.
Lodging is now outside the park, due to hurricanes that wiped out the former Flamingo Lodge.
Man in the Everglades
Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts on Marco Island, such as weapons and tools at burial mounds, indicating roughly 3,500 years of human activity in the Everglades. The human population has always been sparse, restricted by the shortage of fresh water and the harshness of the environment, including mosquitoes and the seasonally fluctuating water levels.
Seminole Native Americans lived in parts of the Everglades until there was conflict with the white man. Most of the Seminoles were moved to the Oklahoma territory in the western U.S. Those who eluded the U.S. Army and remained in the far reaches of the swamps have re-emerged today and interact with the traveler at gift shops along Highway 41 on the north side of the Everglades.
Mason Weeks introduced me to a fascinating part of the early 20th-century life in the Everglades at a place called the Smallwood Store, south of Everglades City on Chokoloskee Island. Today this store is a museum in itself, retaining 95 percent of the original artifacts that Ted Smallwood traded to and from the Seminoles and the white trappers/fishermen who lived in the swamps. A visitors can inspect the bobcat furs, Indian crafts, and patent medicines that Smallwood bartered. Peter Mathiessen’s novel The Killing of Mr. Watson captures the flavor of this period, when rum runners and people with a dark past tended to be attracted to the Everglades.
Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to control the water flow in the Everglades is an enormously complex and controversial subject. The Everglades water supply originates to the north in the Kissimmee River basin and flows into huge Lake Okeechobee. From there it meanders south in broad sheet-flows, passing through sugarcane farming operations that add phosphorous and nitrate runoff to the flow. Most of the fresh water is then channeled out to the sea rather than allowed to flow south to revitalize the Everglades. The former natural river system is now entirely man-controlled, with agriculture, flood control, and urban use competing with wildlife for the water resource.
The key to the survival of the Everglades is securing water in sufficient supply, of suitable purity, and at the right time of the year to mimic the natural cycle with which all the plant life and wildlife has evolved.
Wildlife in the Everglades has suffered some major setbacks at various times. At the turn of the century the fashion for feathers on women’s hats led to the near extermination of wading birds, which were shot for their plumes. At the height of diversion of water from the Everglades, in recent decades, wildlife populations declined substantially.
Today the Everglades has stabilized and the process of restoration is underway. When Vice President Al Gore flew to Everglades City in 1997 for the 50-year celebration of the park’s existence, he articulated the public’s desire to save the Everglades, which is critical both for wildlife and for Florida tourism. Many small steps are now being taken to restore water flows. Although the Everglades today is only a shadow of its historic richness, that shadow is magnificent for a traveler to see.
The Park Service Naturalist at Flamingo, Peter Allen, expressed guarded optimism about the future of the Everglades, which he has watched for 20 years.
“It’s true that the populations of wading birds are only a small fraction of their former numbers. But what we have, even though reduced, can be stunning,” the ranger said to me. “On certain days in the winter migration I can look out from Flamingo and see perhaps 10,000 willets feeding at low tide. Some indicator birds, such as the wood stork, have increased in numbers. Likewise, the roseate spoonbill bird numbers are up. We are increasing water flow in critical areas, such as Shark Valley. The American crocodile is expanding its nesting range. Shrimp populations are up. All this is encouraging to me. Each step in the restoration is slow and costly, but, fortunately, it is politically popular now to restore the Everglades.”
The ranger’s voice grew hushed as he evoked the pristine wilderness he had experienced in parts of the Everglades.
“I’ve hiked into the back country of many of our remoter National Parks,” he said. “Even in wilderness areas, there is usually some presence of man. I remember one hike to a distant peak in Grand Teton National Park, where I found a glass jar with a paper inside it listing the names of some people who had hiked there before me. But I can guarantee you that, with a canoe or motorboat, you will find remote parts of Everglades National Park where no human being has ever gone before. In the back country I have seen rare mangrove cuckoos only a few feet from me. I have watched perched peregrine falcons only 20 feet from me. I know where manatees swim in remote ponds. I have found a wildness in the Everglades that exists nowhere else.”
The Everglades: If You Go
For reliable information, start with the Park Service official website at www.nps.gov/ever.