This morning I stocked up on the bare essentials (chips!) when I realized there wouldn't be another convenience store in god-knows-how-far on Highway 41-East, headed to the Everglades, "a natural region of subtropical wetlands in the southern portion of the state; a massive ecosystem of over 600 species of birds and animals, thousands of plant varieties and several endangered species."
You know you've entered the Everglades when every sign is a billboard for an Airboat Swamp Tour! Thinking they could tell me where I could find some relatively cheap gas, I stopped into Jungle Erv's, where as soon as I entered they indicated I could check out the big alligator hanging out in back. It was "hanging out" because they were feeding it chicken bones! Ugh. I won't get into that, but anyway, this sucker was HUGE; maybe 11 feet long they said!
Continuing along Hwy 41 East, I made sure not to blink as I watched for the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest post office in the United States, literally a CONVERTED 7' x 8' SHED in Ochopee, said to have a population of 11! Not eleven thousand. ELEVEN total, lol! I couldn't get to peek inside since it was Sunday (closed), but that's okay, there were ants or insects of some kind that were stinging my ankles as I tried to take pictures. You should've seen me out there, lol; I was literally hopping from one leg to another trying to keep 'em off me - OUCH!
Ice Cream, Alligators and Snakes! reads the sign for the Trail Lakes Campground at Skunk Ape Research Headquarters; I just had to turn around and pay 'em a visit! It was pretty much a reptile zoo attached to a quirky little gift shop/tourist trap where you can purchase "Skunk Ape" memorabilia, lol, along with blow guns, knives and alligator heads, etc.
I stopped at H.P. Williams Roadside Park, a popular place for wild alligator sightings. I had no such luck, however I did spot a a couple of Anhinga, a dark-plumaged water bird. I didn't stay long though, as I was being eaten alive by swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes!
At Kirby Storter Roadside Park, just a short ways up the road, I was able to more immerse myself into the Big Cypress National Preserve ("729,000 acres of vast swamp, containing a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther!"), with a walk along the 1/2-mile elevated boardwalk "winding its way across the sawgrass prairie through a a dwarf cypress forest, into the heart of an impressive Cypress strand (while wearing as much insect-repellent as I could without it dripping off - which still wasn't enough), affording up-close views of mature Cypress trees and peculiar bromeliads (air plants that collect rainwater, plant and animal debris) and GREAT views of GREAT Egrets and other wading birds, as well as some cool lubber grasshoppers, reaching nearly 3 inches in length! I didn't see any alligators or panthers, however I also didn't stumble across any of the four venomous species of snakes, so I can't complain =)
I took a much-needed break from the killer mosquitoes at the Big Cypress Gallery, displaying (selling! lol) the black-and-white nature photography of Clyde Butcher.
At the Oasis Visitor Center (still on Hwy 41) I had the opportunity to see the endangered Florida Panther (it wasn't alive, and it safely enclosed within plexi-glass just in case, lol). I'd rather encounter it this way, versus with the front end of my car, which unfortunately is among the leading causes of mortality among this species that is currently at a population of only a hundred in the wild! It was down to only 30 in the 1990s! :(
Another big THANK YOU goes out to the helpful staff at the Big Cypress Welcome Center who, when learned I was on a tight budget, turned me onto Miccosukee Indian Airboat Rides, a local tribe (predating Columbus) offering 30-minute rides for only $13 with a $3 off coupon on their brochure, versus the normal $40-50 other places charge - it was a no-brainer! I simply showed up during regular business hours (it was slow; no reservation was required) and joined a couple other sets of people there for the ride. While we waited a few minutes for our guide, there was plenty to see - 2 or 3 wild alligators were hangin' out next to the dock, waiting for one of us to take a plunge, lol.
"The airboat passes through the 'River of Grass' and stops at an authentic, hammock-style Indian Camp that has been owned by the tribe for over 100 years (on a personal note, if that is true, it must have been recently updated, lol)." At the village we were free to roam around and explore on our own, though it only took a few minutes, not a ton of stuff to see, although there were some pretty cool, big, colorful grasshoppers (some were mating, ooh la la) and some people claimed to see a snake, but our guide showed us a HUGE, old alligator, which he beckoned somehow with a soda can, and actually got him to come out of the water, open his mouth, and snap at us! INTENSE!
On our way back, our very laid-back guide took it up a notch, speeding up and whipping us around the water, doing 360's, it was great - and we got super close to a great blue heron flying nearby. Beware, the jet engines are LOOOOOUUUUD! But it was a great experience and since the cashier forgot to give me cotton for my ears, the guide kindly gave me his sweet noise-cancelling headphones!
By the time I arrived at Everglades National Park, it was raining so much that upon arriving at the Visitor Center, I stepped out of my car into water at least SIX inches deep! Camping tonight? Umm...no thank you, lol. I hustled inside and the fun, friendly (and handsome!) staff directed me to Everglades International Hostel, a funky "urban oasis" with a Tibetan twist, in the heart of nearby Florida City. For $25 I got a clean dorm bed, free internet access, free pancakes the next morning, and access to lots of unusual outdoor spaces (like a tree fort net, a Tibetan-themed 3-season gazebo, tv room/study/kitchen, spacious 'n cozy rec room tent, waterfall groto fountain...I loved that quirky place and the friendly people made me feel at home =)
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26TH
First thing this morning I got dressed and went to Everglades National Park before the afternoon's rain was set to hit. "Everglades National Park, established in 1947, protects the southern 25 percent of the original Everglades, containing more than 1.5 million acres of natural habitat, half of them water. It is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States, a diverse and intricately linked series of plants and animals; more than 300 species of birds, 600 species of fresh and saltwater fish, over 1000 species of plants, along with alligators, snakes, sea turtles, and bottlenose dolphins; many species threatened and endangered, including the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee. One species that does proliferate is, of course, the mosquito; STRONG insect repellent is recommended all year long, and absolutely necessary May to November!
"The Everglades was originally a slow-moving freshwater river, 50 miles wide and a few inches deep, fed by Lake Okeechobee. Much of the region is a labyrinth of mangrove waterways and sawgrass marsh, dotted with hammocks ('an island of tropical hardwood trees surrounded by pine or sawgrass') and salt prairies. The land areas are not more than 8 feet above mean sea level, and bay bottoms are not more than 16 feet below mean sea level. Except for the pinelands and highest hammocks, any spot can become a swamp in the rainy season (6 months, May thru October).
"Trees and flowers are much the same as those found in Cuba and the West Indies. At least six species of palms (unbranched evergreen trees with a crown of long feathered or fan-shaped leaves) grow within the park, including the stately royal palm. In addition to the tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs, there are more species belong to the temperate zone and multitudes of ferns, orchids and air plants. Beware of the sawgrass - its sharp, serrated blades can easily slash bare skin and thin clothing!
"The park protects the largest U.S. wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, is the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America, and contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, yet, unfortunately, increased development in southern Florida imperils the area. Canals alternately drain and flood the region so meet the water demands of nearby cities, but in doing so they reverse the natural wet and dry cycles of the Everglades. Although fires occur naturally in this environment, drought and canal drainage have magnified its destructive impact.
"The park has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, only one of three locations in the world to appear on all three lists." ~ AAA Florida Tourbook and Wikipedia
Upon arriving at the gate, the cashier informed me that their credit card machine was on the fritz, so my entrance to the park was FREE! Woo-hoo! I'll put that $10 savings toward another night at the hostel, since it's supposed to rain again tonight! Since I already picked up a map and trip planner at the Visitor Center/Park Headquarters last night, I continued on the main park road, a 38-mile scenic drive from the Park Entrance to end of the line at Flamingo Visitor Center/Marina.
At about 8am I arrived at Royal Palm (leaves of which can reach reach 15 feet long!), where I excitedly pulled into the near-empty parking lot (just a ranger and maybe one other vehicle); I pretty much had the quiet park to myself! I walked the Anhinga Trail first, since wildlife encounters are most frequent early morning and dusk, and because there's a lot of foot traffic later in the day. The .8 mile (1200 meters) self-guided loop trail winds across a freshwater slough ("a slow-moving channel of water flowing through the sawgrass prairie"), offering one of the best opportunities to view wildlife up close (especially in winter). This was one of the most exciting wildlife hikes I've ever experiences, as the up-close encounters just kept on coming, right from the get-go!
At close range, I saw brightly-colored wildflowers, herons, egrets, baby alligators, mature alligators (the first one nearly bit my head off before raising its head and wagging its tail, and lunging at me!) lubber grasshoppers, large Florida softshell turtles (snorkel nose!), little Least Killifish (smallest fish in the nation and 7th-smallest fish in the whole world -Wikipedia), Pond Apple trees ("taste like turpentine!"), Florida red-bellied turtles (daringly lays its eggs in the nest mounds of alligators, and is exported by the millions for consumption and the pet trade -Wikipedia), and anhinga.
After a little break at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, I found myself literally jogging ahead of the dense swarms of killer mosquitoes attacking me as I hustled through dark, damp Gumbo Limbo Trail, "a .4 mile (600 meters) self-guided loop trail meandering through a shaded, jungle-like hammock of gumbo limbo trees, royal palms, ferns, and air plants; a world dramatically different from the wide-open slough, containing such a surprising variety of species, that a botanist exploring the hammock in 1893 suggested the area as a federal park." I paid the price in multiple mosquito bites for quick photograph stops of exposed bedrock, solution holes (smaller versions of sinkholes), and Gumbo-Limbo trees.
Back on the main park road, it was a wonderful drive to the multiple turn-offs for the different trails and vistas, with classical music turned on to compliment the graceful flight of beautiful Great White Egrets out the windows.
At Pa-hay-okee Overlook, I walked the quarter-mile (400 m) loop boardwalk across the Shark River Slough of sawgrass, past Sweetbay Magnolia and Baldcypress trees, to a raised observation platform, taking in sweeping views of the "river of grass."
Next, I briskly walked the Mahogany Hammock Trail (totally jealous of the other guy's mosquito net hat), a half-mile (800 meters) boardwalk wending its way over the shallow, freshwater marl prairie moat of periphyton (soft, spongy mats of algae) into a dense, jungle-like hardwood hammock (tropical tree island) of Florida Strangler Fig (covers the host tree with its own trunk and then strangles it!) and Gumbo-Limbo trees, palms, ferns, air plants, and the largest living mahogany tree in the United States! *I'll have you know that prior to this starting this trail I thoroughly coated myself yet again with mosquito "repellant," which seemed to act more as a mosquito MAGNET than anything else. I'm telling you, I have NEVER experienced mosquitoes like this before, and I am from Minnesota for god's sake, where the mosquito is practically the state BIRD!
Further down the road, the rather creepy, half-mile West Lake Trail allowed me to wander part of the largest protected, most extensive mangrove forest in the Northern hemisphere; through a dense tunnel of white mangrove, black mangrove (with finger-like breathing tubes reaching up from under the water), red mangrove (with spider-legged prop roots), and buttonwood trees to the edge of West Lake. Hydrogen sulfide gas is a natural by-product of decomposition in a water-logged environments, giving the air a slight rotten egg smell, yum! Green eggs and no ham - perfect for a pesky pescetarian like me! :P
After seeing no activity at Mrazek Pond, I proceeded to the Flamingo Visitor Center, the end of the line, unless you take watercraft to the numerous islands, where a completely different experience awaits, including camping, canoeing; a whole slew (slew/slough, get it? play on words? no? ...sigh) of other water-bound recreational opportunities. Unfortunately I didn't feel comfortable partaking, due to weather forecasts, so that's another trip for another time :) Anyway, at the visitor center I poked around the different educational displays. I can now correctly identify a crocodile from an alligator; look at ME Dad!
Back outside, I walked over to the Marina next store. After I bought a mosquito hat, which by the way was of no use the rest of my trip (apparently it's considered a faux pas in Miami, lol), I walked around back to find a couple of manatees happily playing, and even better yet, after an hour of waiting I watched TWO wild American Crocodiles surface in Buttonwood Canal on the other side - it was WOO-HOO! They mostly hung around under the dock, unhappy I didn't fall in. And they kind of kept to themselves, preoccupied with the notion of fresh [human] meat. I also spotted a pretty Green Heron, but big deal, I just saw two crocodiles. If I had it my way, I'd throw you in and watch, lol. JK
I stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center just before exiting the park. I was sort of sopping wet when I picked up my maps last night, so this time I made it a point to walk around and check out the various dioramas, and watch the well-done orientation film.
Back at the hostel I made couch-surfing arrangements for The Keys, before kicking back to some South Park with a couple of fellow hostelers. GREAT DAY! =D