The One with the Alligators

 

Alligator

Are you looking at me?

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth…. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”

~Marjory Stoneman Douglas

The Florida Everglades is a big place — 1.5 million acres to be exact — much of it inaccessible to humans, and much of it swampy and buggy. When I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago, I weighed my transportation options carefully. After serious consideration, I decided to rent a bicycle from the park information center.*

*Note: this was not the brightest idea I’ve ever had.

I set off on a rusty bike complete with a broken bell on the handlebar. For someone who lives in a canyon of steel, I loved not having a barrier to nature, able to see horizon to horizon, the blue of the sky sharply contrasted with the green of the sawgrass. Sawgrass grows nearly everywhere in this part of the Everglades. It can reach several feet tall in narrow, razor-sharp strands. When the wind blows, the strands make a whistling noise as they flap against each other. And, boy, does the wind blow.

 

 

Everglades National Park

Sawgrass as far as the eye can see

 

It felt like I was biking Stage 8 of the Tour de France through the Alps, even though the highest point in the Everglades is a mere eight feet above sea level. There is nothing to stop the wind as it rushes in from the Gulf of Mexico. Pedaling headlong into it, my leg muscles were on fire as the wheels barely turned. More than once I surmised it would have been quicker to walk. Then out of nowhere a colorful little bird, which I would learn later is a painted bunting, flew beside me at eye level. It was about the size of an orange and it was keeping pace with me, its wings flapping feverishly against the current. Then, I swear, the bird turned its little head and looked right at me as if to say, “See ya, sucker.” And it took off, leaving me in the dust.

Painted bunting bird

Painted bunting bird

At the information center, I’d been warned not to stray from the path. The park ranger eyed me. “You never know what’s lurking in the water.” In this area of the park, the thick sawgrass actually grows out of a slow moving river. Like a magician’s prop, the Everglades has a false bottom. It appears to be a grassy plain, but really it’s a unique river. 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. In most places it’s difficult even to see the water beneath the muck and reeds.

Everglades_Alligator

Hey, what’s that in the river?

I dutifully obeyed the rules, pedaling my little heart out on my squeaky bike when I nearly ran right into an alligator sunning himself on the path in all his scaly glory. I found him fascinating, but he couldn’t have been less interested in me. Millions of years of evolution have not come to the alligator as I suppose nature couldn’t improve on the design. Despite their clumsy appearance, alligators are superb swimmers and can run up to thirty miles per hour (!) in short bursts. Then, without warning, my new friend languidly opened his mouth wide. I mean wide. I could see his pinkish tongue and his many, many sharp teeth. I (perhaps foolishly) wasn’t afraid. It was so half-hearted, it was like he was yawning. But since I was out there alone and without cell phone service, I decided it was time to move on, lest he get some bright ideas for lunch.

 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her trademark hat.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her trademark hat.

I also learned about an amazing woman you’re likely to have never heard about. Her name was Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I’ve been captivated by this vivacious, straight-forward woman. She arrived in Florida in 1915 to escape an unhappy marriage. “I wanted my own life, in my own way,” she said. Soon she got involved in the movement to save the Everglades and became its most powerful public voice.

She worked with developers, politicians, farmers and indigenous tribes, and was instrumental in the creation of the Everglades National Park (1947). “You can’t conserve what you haven’t got.” It is not an exaggeration to say that if it wasn’t for Douglas, the entire ecosystem would be a faint memory, the land drained and paved over for another subdivision or shopping mall.

 

Today the Everglades faces a new set of issues. As a river of grass (the term Douglas coined), the rate of water flow into and out of the park is essential to keeping the ecosystem healthy and intact. That has been compromised by the sheer number of people now living just outside the park’s borders in Miami. Water is often diverted to meet the city’s needs. Another major concern is non-native species proliferating inside the park, namely pythons, and the Brazilian pepper tree and Australian pine tree, which have led to the endangerment of other species.

 

In the end, it took three hours to bike 15 miles. On a perfectly flat trail. Despite being reasonably in shape. So if you have the opportunity to go to the Everglades, take it. Just sign up for the park service tram. You’ll thank me later.

I'm going to make this into a t-shirt.

I’m going to make this into a t-shirt.

 

What was your most memorable wildlife encounter? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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42 comments

  1. I made a brief little excursion into the Everglades a decade ago… I remember watching the gators from the boat, and the guide telling us how high they could jump out of the water. The boat’s edge was almost level with the water. What the hell is it that stops them from leaping right into the “lunch box”???

    I flew over the Everglades in January on my way to and from Key West, the expanse is formidable and I really love their “texture” from the air.

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    1. That’s a great word to describe the landscape — texture. The Everglades makes you want to run a giant hand over it.

      Did you take an air-boat tour? I did that too and it was very exhilarating.

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    1. Hard to believe, right!
      The pythons were introduced to the park by well meaning (hopefully) people who no longer wanted them as pets. So they thought, “Hey, I’ll just release this enormous snake into the Everglades.” It’s had a not-so-good trickle down effect.
      They’re extremely slippery (har, har) and good at hiding.

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    1. No way could I bike at 31 miles per hour!
      Here’s a tip they told us at the information center (really)…when trying to evade an alligator, run in a zig-zag pattern. Apparently their peripheral vision isn’t very good. I wonder who was the first person to try this…and did it work? 🙂

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  2. Wow!!! What a great post! As always. My most memorable outdoor animal encounter has to be when we were hiking in a rainforest in Australia and I was in front. I happened upon a huge brown snake sunning itself on the path and immediately did an about face into my husband and we walked away quickly. We met some other locals hiking and they asked how the path was, I told them about the snake, they asked what color it was and when I told them –they also turned around! 🙂 Guess I made a good call.

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    1. How fortunate that you were able to see the brown snake against the dirt on the path. I bet that he blended in well with his environment. I’ve heard that Australia has an abundance of animals that can kill you in the blink of an eye.

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      1. Yes—it seems that everything has the potential to kill you. Don’t even get me started on the python that lived in the attic of the one house we rented…….

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  3. Yikes, Jackie! Had to laugh at your forewarning us about your bike rental not being your most brilliant idea ever! I could almost hear the scary sound track beginning to play in my head. My post yesterday was about the critters we see here in Ecuador, but NONE as scary at yours! Hope you have a great weekend, my friend. And I hope spring is showing its face in the Big Apple!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. The further I got from the information center, the quieter and quieter it got, except for the squeaky bike. I kept thinking to myself, this is how a bad horror flick would start. 🙂

      I’m heading over right now. I’ve been looking forward to Ecuador critters, part 2.

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  4. I once lived up the road from there. For a while we lived beachside, and many a Sunday morning, a large blue heron would appear in our front yard, standing perfectly still, as if s/he were a lawn ornament. Then we moved inland, where the rent was cheaper, to an area where the roads had been built and infrastructure laid in the 1960s in anticipation of a Space Age boom that didn’t quite materialize. We were on the outskirts of civilization, where alligators were a fact of life. One evening at around dusk, I was taking a stroll on one of those roads that led to nowhere, and I heard the roar of what sounded like a panther off in the distance.

    Except for the danger factor, this sounds like a nice ride.

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    1. Your comment about the blue heron reminded me of the one I saw on my bike ride. I’m not sure if it was a blue heron or other species of heron, but it was quite tall — maybe three feet or so. At one point it unfurled its wings and stood there, feet in the water, airing out. Man, was that impressive.

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      1. Yes! I would walk to the beach to watch the sun rise, then stop at a little market on A1A to pick up the paper on my way back and s/he would be standing there, straight and tall, and then it would open its wings and fly away. It was almost a ritual. Thanks for the fond memory. 🙂

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  5. You and bikes, Jackie; what is it? he he! 🙂

    I’ve read the Everglades are also threatened by runoff of fertilizers, which make the grass overgrow, and do strange things to the creatures living in the waters. Sad.

    One of my most memorable encounters was with a buck. I was backpacking in the Stanislaus and had just stepped out of the trees to cross a stream. An enormous beautiful buck lifted his head from drinking, regarded me for a long still moment, then turned and leapt away with a fluid power and grace that stunned me into respectful awe.

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    1. Oh, that is quite an awesome experience. Just you and that buck. It was like he acknowledged you. I got chills.

      One reason I chose to ride the bike instead of taking the park service tram was to be closer to the wildlife. I didn’t want to be hermetically sealed in a vehicle looking through the window with the constant chatter of other tourists. I wanted to have those special encounters like the one you had with the buck.

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  6. I am very glad that you survived your encounter with the open mouthed alligator greeting you in the bike path. I see a rat on the sidewalk and I nearly suffer a heart attack. I am quite sure I would have dropped dead on the spot if I encountered that beast. If a bus didn’t exist, this coward would have taken a cab just to avoid entering the jaws of death.

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    1. I probably should have been nervous, but really he looked like chasing me would have been too much of a bother. Now I can’t say the same for the heron that I encountered later. He would have have no problem pecking my eyes out.

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  7. My calf muscles ache in sympathy, Jackie, but it was worth it just for the company of that little bird. This is a beautifully written piece. I really enjoyed it. Now I just need to get there 🙂

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    1. I hope you do get there someday. Only after visiting did I realize that the Everglades is a birder’s paradise. So many beautiful, colorful species. I especially liked the wading birds like the herons. Majestic!

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  8. Wowza. You’re brave. And have an affinity for bicycling in exciting places, too! I have never seen an alligator, but I’ve seen lots of crocodiles. I lived in Kenya for a couple years (as a kid/teen) and we went on a trip down the Nile River. We saw amazing wildlife from the banks: crocodiles and elephants and hippos (oh my?). It was scary but I felt relatively safe in our rather-flimsy African-Queenesque-style boat.

    But my scariest wildlife moment was later on that same trip, my mother urged my father (driving the land rover) to get as close as he possibly could to a bull elephant. My dad got close all right, close enough to see the creases in those flapping ears. Definitely one of my scariest childhood moments…

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    1. What an amazing experience it must have been to live in Kenya. (You’ll have to write a post about that soon!)
      I’ve heard that elephants are much more agile than they look. I hope that your Dad didn’t test that theory. I doubt that your Land Rover would have offered too much protection.

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  9. “nearly ran into an alligator…sunning himself on the path” Oh. Oh my. You are pretty brave to get that up-close-and-personal with Nature. Instead of taking the tram, I think I’ll wait for the movie.

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  10. What a fun post! You never forget the sight of those Florida gators. On my last trip there I unexpectedly spotted one in a ditch off a two-land, backroad.

    I think my most memorable encounter with wildlife was the hawk that stalked me around my backyard for two days. Everywhere I went, there he was staring at me perched, very unhawk-like, on some low-thing.

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