Last week I took a break from my winter-over location near Orlando and headed back to the heat and humidity of south Florida to spend some time in the Everglades and check another National Park off the list.
Now I don’t know about you, but for 50 years, whenever I thought of the Everglades, which admittedly has been almost never, I’ve imagined miles upon miles of swamp, stagnant, critter infested waters and Cypress Trees. Like in that movie Swamp Thing. So,
the water and critter infestation part was correct, but I was way off on the Cypress thing. In fact I was shocked to find the Everglades has nine distinct ecosystems, none of which are Cypress swamps. To be fair, I did go through a small section that was labeled Dwarf Cypress Forest, but you’d never have known it without that sign and it was certainly no Swamp Thing kind of place. Lotsa Mangrove, no real Cypress. At least not where I was.
I was in the Flamingo area, which has the only campground with electrical power and is 40 miles from the park entrance on that only road. No water at the individual sites, no sewer hookups and you can forget about any connectivity. I spent the week using my more than adequate onboard fresh water tank, and using water like a Fremen (read Frank Herbert’s Dune and that’ll make sense) to avoid filling my grey tank and having to break camp to go to the dump station. Not that it was any big deal to do so, but using the campground showers a few times got me through the week. If you want to be connected to the outside world you’ll have to get nearly out of the park. The Long Pine Key and Royal Palm areas, about 10 or so miles in, have some cell reception.
In truth a week was too long and 5 days would have been sufficient because surprise #2 was not too much to do really, unless you are an avid paddler, or want to spend money on boat trips. I expected there to me more accessible areas to explore and perhaps some hikes available. There are two “hiking” trails in the Flamingo area, but one is completely unmaintained. Read that as mostly overgrown and probably not easy to follow in spots. The other “trails” are mostly short .2 – .4 mile long boardwalks just to give you a flavor of their environment. Interesting, but not really a hike.
I did a couple of good rides, including more than half of the park road, spent a half day paddling, one day exploring a good portion of the boardwalk trails and areas and a lot of reading. If you’re a bird-watcher this is a good place for you. Tons of birds all over of many, many differing varieties. And this is supposedly the less populated season for them. I can’t imagine suffering the heat and humidity of summer here, but apparently the bird population then is far greater, which is hard to believe. So, not the place for you Jody Bennett.
The best thing I did all week was rent a kayak and paddle the 9 Mile Pond Canoe Trail. The kayak rental itself was reasonable, but if you plan to do real paddling here I highly suggest you bring your own boat as they charged me an additional $35 to transport the boat from the marina to 9 Mile Pond. But the paddle was fabulous.
Once you get across 9 Mile Pond itself you’re off into the mangroves and such. The trail is marked by white poles which are easy to follow except in one or two spots where you may have to look a bit.
At some points in the mangroves it’s so dense and closed in that you can’t even paddle. You’re just better off grabbing the mangrove branches and pulling yourself along. Except for 9 Mile Pond at the start and the two smaller lakes at the end, the water is never more than a couple of feet and usually, at this time of year, only a few inches deep. I never scraped a solid bottom and as you’ll see, I certainly dragged my way through plenty of reeds and growth, but there was always water under the keel.
And who knew that the Everglades comes with its own whipped cream??? It’s phyto… something or other. Super nutrient rich, super slimy algae which grows throughout. Makes perfect breeding and feeding grounds for fish, birds, frogs, turtles, etc. Also makes for a bit of a slimy, muck-covered paddle in the dry season with water levels so low. You’ll notice my feet get muckier and muckier as I go. There’s no paddling through this without throwing it around from your paddle blades.
Ok, I might as well have been paddling across a cow pasture here. Yeah, there’s water underneath me, but these reeds just act like a brake, and every paddle stroke was throwing gobs of swamp shit and mangrove muck everywhere, but mostly on me. It was A LOT of work. I laughed A LOT. Do not let this discourage you from adventuring here. First of all, as I said, it’s winter, so the dry season. I’m also out in the late morning and early afternoon which happed to be just past low tide. In fact a Full Moon low tide so the water level was EXTREMELY low.
Despite it being the dry season and the weather looking sunny and beautiful ahead, if I’d taken a picture behind me you’d have thought the world was about to end. Nasty looking rain bearing down on me with a couple of miles yet to go. The good news was I had made the turn back toward the west, with the wind (storm winds to boot) and the incoming tide, there was no lightning or thunder and it was quite warm so the shower was quite refreshing. Actually, there was no bad news.
The last mile and a half is back in to mangroves and much more open water so much easier, normal paddling also resumed. Prior to starting out, the ranger who transported my canoe gave me a heads up to look for Gatorzilla, the local famous denizen of the ponds near the very end of the trail. As I made my way back through the mangroves approaching the ponds in the subsiding drizzle I came across a 6-8 ft alligator resting in the reeds along the waterway. It was sort of a stream through mangroves so I passed by within about 10 feet, happy to have come across him. If you look back to the overhead shot of the trail you’ll notice the two ponds separated by a thin shrub/land-ish barrier. By then all the rain had stopped and it was completely still and
right as I paddled through the very narrow (like maybe 4 ft wide) gap that joins the two ponds I glanced up to see the gargantuan back of a gator not 20 yds in front of me. I believe I exclaimed “Holy Shit” aloud and threw on the brakes. More startled that he was actually there than afraid of him I was still quite glad for the heads-up at that point. He was slowly swimming across the pond in the same direction I needed to go. Once through the gap I veered a bit off to his port side (see, I still got a bit o’ that Navy jargon in me) to pass him by. He could not have cared less. I, on the other hand was all giddy. What an adventure!
I bet you didn’t know the Everglades was once home to a Nike Hercules Air Defense Missile Battery. Actually, you may not have even known that the US ever had Air Defense Missile Batteries. Well, through the 1950’s, ’60s and 70’s we did. In fact, this was the last Air Defense Missile Battery decommissioned, shockingly, in 1979. That Cold War thing was real, for you kids out there.
There’s a tour daily. They’ll take you in to one of the barns where you can see a missile and launcher, but I wasn’t sticking around. It was time to be done with my ride and besides it was getting ready to rain, again. It rained at some point nearly every day. Dry Season, you know
It was a great week, even with the extra days. But hey, what in the world do I have to rush for???
Back to Orlando till March…………