Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Adventuring in the Everglades

The last few days have been spent in the Everglades, another mythic area of Florida that everyone has heard of and no doubt wondered, what are they like?

Water is the key to understanding the Everglades and south Florida generally. It's hard for a Seattleite to comprehend how a place that gets 60 inches of rain a year, about 60% more than Seattle, can have water shortage issues, but they have them here and they are overwhelming. The problem is that 80% of that rain comes in the six wet months from late May to early November. So much arrives that a lot of it has to go, as swiftly as possible, out to sea, a legacy of the disaster 75 years ago when a hurricane overwhelmed Lake Okeechobee and drowned some 2000 people.

Just as the annual flooding of the Nile once served Egypt's environment, so too the somewhat less regular flooding of Lake Okeechobee served the Everglades. Now water is diverted away when it is most plentiful, and also routinely diverted to keep the farms and lawns of south Florida alive.
If you're an ecosystem like the Everglades, you like hurricanes, as they bring extra allotments of water. Last year the insurance companies were happy that no hurricanes hit Florida, but not the plant community. All of south Florida is now on water restrictions, with residential watering allowed only 1 day a week, and engineers are planning new pumps for Lake Okeechobee to lift out what little water remains from lower down than they have ever pumped before.

Now a lot of water still makes it into the Everglades, but not nearly enough.
Due to farming and housing expansion, the Everglades are much smaller than they used to be, and hurting for water in some years. Nonetheless, they remain spectacular, and if the politicians can bring ecological sense to the situation, there is some hope that they will improve. At the moment, it's a close question whether they are getting better or worse.

We had investigated the biking possibilities here, and decided they were not fortuitous. There were two problems. First, the main road into the Everglades goes from near Homestead to a small community called Flamingo. Hurricane Wilma so drenched the lodge there a few years ago that it is now houses only mold. How to repair or replace it is a still-unsettled question. Since it was the only lodging, a ride to Flamingo was out of the question -- too long to get there and get back and still have time to hike the nature walks. Second, the road along the top of Everglades National Park is too far without lodging to do in a comfortable day, and would leave us no chance of doing the high point of that area, Shark Valley Road.

So we arranged a rental car from Key West to Naples. Our Ford Crown Vic had a spacious trunk, and that is indeed our entire tandem in the trunk!
As we drove back up the Keys, we agreed that we had seen them quite well enough on the bike ride down, doing 25-35 miles a day, and did not need to ride back out. It's worth biking once to see the area, but the narrow shoulders and traffic lack charm, and the bike path is too intermittent at this point, and generally substandard. There is talk of doing it up right, but that appears a long way off, frankly.

We dropped our luggage in a motel in Florida City and headed out to see the 'Glades, and had one of the most spectacular days of
wildlife-viewing ever. The National Park Service has done a
fantastic job of building trails here that bring you right into the Everglades environment. They also helped us understand how much a few inches difference in elevation means to the plant communities.
What we saw were mostly saw grass prairies that look dry at a distance but which are often intersected by rivulets of water. Alligators look for slightly deeper spots in this water world, or else wiggle their tails to dig out holes in these rivulets, "gator holes," that provide them a nice home environment and also attract all sorts of other wildlife. As we headed down one trail we got excited about one alligator a short distance across a canal,
then turned onto the boardwalk section of the trail and saw a busy little community of them. Actually more like a retirement community, as most alligators take rather relaxed poses during the daytime, rarely moving. And everywhere, birds, turtles, fish jumping, and a surprisingly rich assortment of vegetation.

If you look over the sawgrass prairie in these photos, you'll also see clumps of vegetation where the land is a little higher, consisting of trees such as cypress
and bushes that can stand to be under water part of the year, and other areas with large trees, called hammocks -- former coral reefs that are now limestone ledges just high enough to escape the wet season flooding, and supporting gumbo limbo trees, palms, ironwood, and other large plants. There were nature walks to see these as well, and it's a strange experience to go from the blazing sun out by the gator holes and then to walk into the tropical-jungle-like but cool shade of the hammock.

Day two of our Everglades adventure involved doing that drive across the top of Everglades National Park, on the so-called Tamiami Trail, since it connects Tampa and Miami. It goes straight west from Miami, but just before 40-Mile Bend (truly the first bend in the road) you can turn left into a parking area for Shark Valley Road. We flashed our Golden Age Passport, parked and unpacked the tandem. 40 minutes later it was once again a functioning bicycle, and off we went.

Shark Valley Road goes straight south 7.5 miles following an old canal filled with alligators (click on that photo of Louise to enlarge it and see the two right behind her!) to a viewing platform, then returns on a slightly curvy route through the sawgrass prairie.
You cannot drive it, only bike, hike or take the $15 tram ride. We saw more bicycles on it than we've seen in the prior two weeks in Florida. It is so-named because it feeds the Shark River further down, but nothing like a river is visible here. Water flows slowly down to the Gulf through this and other Everglades valleys, but it does so in thousands of rivulets in the wet season, or underground through the aquifer. The lookout tower
was terrific for giving visitors an overview of the immensity of this environment, particularly when one remembers that you can only see a few percent of the Park from this vantage-point.

Thirty minutes of disassembling the bike and we were off to our overnight destination, the Ivey Lodge B&B in Everglades City. This town sits right outside the Park, and the Lodge runs a canoe and kayak service as well. We had signed up for the six-hour kayak trip for day three of our Everglades adventure, and Louise was apprehensive of the physical demands, as she has never kayaked before. We had a tandem kayak, however, and Jeff assured her that all would be well. At the end of the day we both had slightly sore arm muscles, but agreed it was a magical day we will never forget!

Our guide drove us and 8 other kayakers, with a trailer full of kayaks, paddles, life vests and lunch, to a launch spot on the Turner River. Forget what you think rivers look like,
this thing was never wider than a narrow alley and never deeper than 3 feet. And those were the wide and deep places!
We first headed north, up-river, and after awhile took apart our kayak paddles and used just half, as a canoe paddle. When things got really tight, we pulled ourselves along through the brush on what seemed at times like little more than heavy dew. Around every bend there were egrets, herons, mudhens, anhingas, cormorants, and gators. Lots of gators.

Time to talk about gators. They've gotten bad press. They don't eat people. We are way too big. If really provoked they might snap at someone, or if a small child or a dog gets within range they will think "lunch," but full-sized people are not in any real danger. The standard advice is to keep 15 feet away, but that's as much to avoid stressing the alligator as it is to avoid any unfortunate encounters. Staying 15' away was a challenge on this small waterway, but we had no encounters, fortunate or otherwise.

After returning to the launch site for a stretch break -- your legs really do need it after two hours in a kayak -- we paddled down to where we could all watch a gator on the opposite shore, and had lunch sitting in our kayaks. No handouts to the gators, however -- there's a $600 fine, and it teaches really bad behavior to the gator and does create problems for other people in the future, whom the gator might view as a food source.

After lunch we paddled further downstream to
where the stream began to turn brackish. Freshwater plants cannot stand the slight salt content of the water here, but mangrove have adapted to it, and we were now in what is known as a "mangrove tunnel" cut through to allow boats to get by.
Pulling the kayak through by grabbing the mangrove was often more effective than paddling, and watching other boats struggle to maneuver through tight turns created amusement until you yourself got hung up. At last we reached a place where a ripple in the limestone bedrock created a round dip maybe 50' across where it was too deep for the mangrove, and we could all gather for a few minutes before starting back.

Yes, it was a very special day, and the view we got of the Everglades was so different than if we had stayed land-bound.
Our guide John also made it special with his tremendous knowledge of the flora and fauna -- he has a degree in wildlife biology -- and he identified what we saw but also explained things well, such as how dangerous is the life of a baby alligator, who have an even higher mortality rate
than 16-year-old males with new drivers licenses.

Well, time to get back on the bike. We're now in Naples, the car has been returned, and we have some sightseeing to do around town on the tandem before strapping on the panniers tomorrow and striking north. Thanks for staying with us for this longer-than-usual posting about this more-interesting-than-usual place, the Everglades.

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