|Anhinga in Shark Valley|
Without being able to put into words why—other than “I want to see this before it’s gone”—I’ve wanted to visit the Florida Everglades for years. I’m ashamed to admit that before I went I knew virtually nothing about it. I imagined a kind of giant swamp, filled with mosquitoes, alligators and pythons. Happily, what I found instead was a place with its own quiet beauty—a beauty that is more than skin deep. What I was most struck by was the intricate, often invisible, interconnection of life in the Everglades: plants, birds, animals, insects—and ultimately humans—so dependent on each other. And because it’s so interconnected, it’s also exceptionally sensitive and fragile. Threats to the health and survival of the Everglades include runoff of fertilizers as well as other types of pollution from encroaching urban areas, and the invasion of exotic/non-native plants and animals.
|Just one of the many gators we saw|
A little history: The Everglades once covered nearly three million acres, stretching from just below Orlando, through Lake Okeechobee, all the way to the very tip of the peninsula, as well as east and west towards both coasts. Link to map. However, it was not always valued, or even understood. In the early 1900s, even conservationists felt that the dredging of the Everglades was the “smart, progressive thing to do.” The wetlands and marshes were seen as worthless, and many areas were dredged, drained, and diked to make way for agriculture and development. (One governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, was elected after running on a platform that included promising to drain the Everglades.)
|Baby gators--surprisingly cute!|
The Everglades became a national park in December of 1947. According the National Park Service website, “For the first time in American history, a large tract of wilderness was permanently protected not for its scenic value, but for the benefit of the unique diversity of life it sustained. The mosaic of habitats found within the Greater Everglades Ecosystem supports an assemblage of plant and animal species not found elsewhere on the planet.” The park is approximately 1.5 million acres, but the Greater Everglades Ecosystem is much larger than the national park itself.
|A view from the 65-foot Shark Valley observation tower|
Kerri and I took parts of two days to explore, and could easily have spent much more time there. The park is huge, and there are many ways to see it: scenic drives, hiking, biking, canoeing, boat tours, and naturalist-led guided tram tours. I highly recommend the tram tour at the Shark Valley Visitor’s Center. I took most of the photos in this post while on this tour. You can bike or hike the 15-mile loop the tram takes if you prefer, but I learned a lot from the guide. (We also took an airboat tour, but it wasn’t nearly as informative as the tram tour.) Some things I learned:
Seven million people (one out of every three Floridians) rely on the Everglades for water.
The Everglades is not a swamp, but a very slow-moving river. It flows at the speed of about 100 feet per day (contrast that with the Mississippi, which at its headwaters, flows at an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour). Talk about meandering.
|View from the airboat|
|Alligator approaching the airboat|
The Everglades is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
Everglades National Park is the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, the largest designated wilderness in the southeast, and the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America.
|Cormorant on the Anhinga Trail|
It’s the only place in the world where the American Alligator and American Crocodile coexist.
|Kerri at Eco Pond--the only place we battled mosquitoes|
We agreed that the more we learn about natural places like the Everglades, the more questions we have, and the more we want to learn. For me, that’s one of the happiest, most important benefits of travel: discovery and the urge to know more.
|A new friend--photo courtesy Kerri Dowd|
Thank you for reading installment two of Kerri and Kathy’s road trip. I hope you’ll return next week for our further adventures—we’re bound for the Florida Keys!
For more information on the Everglades:
The Everglades: River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas
The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and thePolitics of Paradise, Michael Grunwald