FLORIDA’S EVERGLADES: MUCH MORE THAN SWAMPS AND GATORS

(originally published in 24 Hours)

By John Geary   

When you tell people you’re going to the Everglades, they may conjure up images of dark, murky swamps filled with alligators and snakes. Others may visualize a vast open expanse of flowing grasses broken intermittently by pools of shallow water – a “river of grass” as author and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas termed it in her book,

The area of southwest Florida known as the Everglades is both of those – but it’s also much more.   

I discovered that myself during a four-day trip with Crystal Seas Kayaking in the area of Everglades National Park known as the Ten Thousand Islands. It consists of a series of small islands or “keys” dotting the outer edge of the ’Glades where they meet the Gulf of Mexico. 

While we saw plenty of wild habitat and the wild creatures that live there, the experience reminded me more of a paddle through the cays of Belize than what I would have envisaged looking ahead to a journey through the Everglades.   

To be sure, there are plenty of alligators, snakes and swamps in the ’Glades. We just didn’t paddle through that type of environment.   

Seven paddlers in five kayaks set out from the park headquarters in Everglades City. Once across Chokoloskee Bay and into the maze of islands in which we would spend the next four days, away from the major boat traffic, a sense of quiet serenity settled upon me. Aside from the swish-splash of our paddles, the only sounds that struck our ears were the sighing of the wind and the calls of birds like ospreys, egrets and the occasional hawk. Just an hour’s paddle away from civilization, we were in a different world, a world populated by creatures with feathers and fins.   

As we paddled down one of the narrow channels referred to as “tunnels,” a grey dorsal fin sped toward us. Our guide, John Arsenault, hollered out, “Dolphin!”   

I’d been paddling up the rear, relaxing and taking time to enjoy nature’s sights and sounds, but came to alert quickly as I saw the wake approach me. “It’s diving right under your boat!” our guide yelled.   

Sure enough, the wake disappeared. Assuming the dolphin would continue on a straight line, I swung my kayak around so I could look back up the channel. I guessed right, because moments later, about 20 yards behind me, the dolphin breached effortlessly, briefly resembling a sleek, airborne torpedo above the surface before diving back into the water and continuing its upstream journey.   

Wow. I’d never envisioned seeing a wild dolphin that close during a kayak trip through the Everglades.     

During the next three days, we would be treated to more dolphin sightings, as well as an occasional appearance by a manatee.   

Turtles also ply these waters, and on one occasion, one surfaced about 10 yards in front of my bow, cutting directly across my path. I don’t know who was more surprised – me, or the turtle. Even though I had the right of way (he was coming up from my left - and I bigger), since there no traffic cops patrol the Everglades, I yielded and let him continue across in front of me before I resumed paddling. After all, he lives here – I was just visiting.   

Our encounters with nature were not limited to our aquatic excursions. The Everglades boast enormous quantities and varieties of birds. Pavilion Key, our final night’s campsite, provided the trip’s avian highlight. Entranced, we watched a flock of young egrets learning to fish (not too successfully, either!) under the attentive eye of an adult. The adult birds seemed to work in shifts; one would supervise for a while, then a new adult would land to oversee the fishing, allowing the first one a break.   

Raccoons also live on that island – much to our guide’s chagrin. He spent most of his night chasing them to keep them from breaking into our kayaks and stealing tomorrow’s meals. Racoons aside, our last night in the ’Glades proved to be an idyllic one. As we reflected on our trip’s highlights, we enjoyed one last spectacle: the sun setting on the Gulf waters horizon – and not a gator in sight.     

IF YOU GO:

You can book a kayak trip in the Everglades through Crystal Seas Kayaking. Contact them via the form on their website, http://www.crystalseas.com or call toll-free, 1-877-732-7877.   

If you would like to paddle a different section of the Everglades, the park service in Big Cypress National Preserve (about a 30-minute drive from Everglades City) offers guided day-trips in canoes. Visit http://www.nps.gov/bicy/planyourvisit/ranger-led-activities.htm for the details.

If you’re looking for other adventures in the area, visit www.ParadiseCoast.com a tourism website that has information and contacts for other Everglades adventures and activities.