1. My mission in visiting the Everglades was to write an article about the major conservation efforts going on there. But first I wanted to spend some
time getting to know the place on my own terms. So after pouring over maps to determine how to tackle the 1.5 millions acres of varied topography, flora and fauna, I decided to rent a bicycle. * I chose the month of December for my trip, when the people who visit annually are at the lowest levels as are the mosquitoes.
*Note: this was not the brightest idea I’ve ever had.
2. The immediate, most striking feature of the Everglades was absence. There were no garbage cans, telephone polls or fire hydrants. No signage, lamp posts or water fountains. And no people. Not a soul. In fact, the only sign that man had ever been there was the existence of the bike path itself. I had the urge to check repeatedly over my shoulder with the same uncomfortable feeling one gets watching horror flicks, where the girl should not, under any circumstances, ride a bike alone into the middle of the swamp. Yet the Everglades is beautiful, despite the lack of glamorous geysers like Yellowstone or gorges like the Grand Canyon. Its beauty lay in the simplicity of the landscape’s flatness. The highest point in the park is a mere eight feet above sea level. Without land features or manmade structures jutting past the horizon, the sky seemed to expand to fill the void. It was so close it seemed to have a presence all its own, comforting me in its powdery blue blanket.
3. What also had a presence, but was not remotely comforting was this alligator sunning itself a few feet away from the wheels of my bike. Millions of years of evolution have not come to the alligator as I suppose nature couldn’t improve on the design. I would later learn from Kirk Singer, a park ranger, that despite their clumsy appearance, alligators are superb swimmers and can run up to thirty miles per hour in short bursts, but attacks on humans are rare. Apparently we’re intimidating to them because we’re so tall in comparison, though they have been known to jump several feet off their hind legs to catch prey, usually small wading birds or raccoons. Or a five-foot-tall woman on an isolated path. “They really aren’t interested in people,” Singer told me. “But you should keep fifteen feet away at all times because if they feel threatened…” How is one supposed to know what is threatening to an alligator, a creature able to snap a turtle’s shell in one bite?
4. A common joke in South Florida is that there are only two seasons: hot and oppressive. There are in fact two seasons, but they are officially wet and dry. Water is the critical element in the Everglades. It is the focus of almost every conservation and restoration effort. That’s because the Everglades truly begins well outside the park’s boundaries at Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. Positioned as the earring hole in the earlobe that is Florida, the lake is nothing more than a conduit for water delivery into the park. In the summer, rainfalls of inches per day supply the entire region with water by flowing hundreds of miles via natural underground aquifers. Like a magician’s prop, the Everglades has a false bottom. It appears to be a grassy plain, but really it’s a river, unique in the world. It is fifty miles wide, just a few inches deep in some spots, and moves at a speed comparable to an old man with a walker. Stalks of razor-sharp grass taller than I am, called sawgrass, grow out of the limestone which lies just beneath the surface.
5. Disguised behind the brush, a bird, standing on spindle legs no thicker than two blades of sawgrass and about as tall as a Kindergartener, was watching me. It was a heron and it had speared a fish with its long, narrow beak. Herons are classified as wading birds. That is, birds that troll the river on foot for food. It unfurled its wings, which were at least five feet from tip to tip. If this was an intimidation technique, it was very effective. I backed away immediately. Then in a Batman-like move, the heron draped one wing across its beak to hide the fish. Next time, I’ll plan to write a little more about the conservation efforts aimed at saving this fragile ecosystem.
Have you ever been to the Everglades or a similar ecosystem? Ever have an encounter with an alligator?
Have a great weekend everyone!