“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What was your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Have a great weekend, everyone!