Estero to Everglades NP
Saturday, November 4, 2006 … 171 Camper Miles – Total 13,649
Cloudy on and off, very breezy, low 80s
We headed out fairly early toward Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades NP. We first stopped at Big Cypress Visitor Center in Everglades City and got a sense of what there was to do and see. From there we continued south to see Ed Smallwood’s Store, an old trading post operated since the early 1900s. Now operated as a for-profit museum, the store features the stock that was on the shelves when the store closed in the early 50s as well as mementos of early life here at the end of civilization.
We continued east along FL-41, the Tamiami Trail, stopping at Joanie’s Crab Café for lunch. (Fast food? NOT, but good.) Then we took a look at the H. P. Williams Roadside Park. Sort of a linear park, it consists of a road that heads straight north beside the “borrow” ditch canal (the ditch where dirt was dug to build the road). This was our first taste of Everglades’ wildlife. In about two miles of stops along the road, we spotted eighteen alligators, lots of wading birds including four kinds of herons, ibis, wood storks, egrets and anhingas (look like cormorants) and many others! The place is teeming with wildlife. We later learned that the concentration of wildlife only gathers here during the three-month dry season which we are now entering. During the wet season, the only other Everglades’ season, the wildlife is much more dispersed through the marshes.
We then headed down FL-997, past lots of truck farms and huge nurseries for shrubs, palms and container plants, to the east entrance to the Everglades NP near Florida City. We set up in the dark at Long Pine Key Campground about five miles into the park. We decided on a salad and fruit for dinner. There was a beautiful breeze and a bright moon all night … good sleeping!
Sunday, November 5, 2006 … 0 Camper Miles – Total 13,649
Partly cloudy, very windy (20 kn), mid 80s
“On life support” and “alive but diminished” are two phrases that the National Park Service uses to describe the modern-day situation in the Everglades. The ‘glades are really a series of many mile-wide rivers only inches deep that begin in the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee and flow southward. Flood control, development and irrigation efforts interrupted the flow of water through the Everglades and they began to dry out and die. In more recent years, the National Park Service has installed and operated massive pumping stations to restore water to the area and is getting better at learning how to mimic the natural seasonal variations necessary to maintain the habitat.
We started the day by driving to the end of the road at Flamingo in the south end of the park. There’s a visitor center there and a marina as well as a hotel, restaurant and cabins. Most of those facilities were badly damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma last year, mostly due to surge. The cabins and hotel were completely ruined and are closed. The marina is now dredged but not yet open for transient visitors. Even the hiking trails are still closed. This is a beautiful setting but the parks service simply has no funds to repair/rebuild. Heading back the road, we stopped and walked all the trails that were open.
The vast majority of the Everglades appear to be completely covered by salt grass marsh. Actually, from above, it would be apparent that they are mostly very shallow water with islands of grass. It would seem that someone could walk or wade easily through the marsh but they are actually quite treacherous. Bedrock in this area is limestone. Weak acids formed by decaying vegetation dissolve the limestone forming deep, ragged potholes that are tough on walkers’ shins.
The walking trails mostly explore hammocks, slightly higher, drier ground that can support the growth of trees. Other access points are for paddlers to launch canoes and kayaks to explore the area by water. At our first two stops, Coot Bay and Marzek Pond, we found alligators sunning by the shorelines, challenging our access to the water and even to read the signage.
Westlake Boardwalk explores a hammock near Florida Bay where the water is brackish. Here, mangroves hold sway. Buttonwood trees and white mangroves inhabit the driest ground. Black mangroves, with their myriad of vertical breathing tubes sticking up, are in the wetter ground and red mangroves, with spider-like prop roots, dominate the wet areas. These mangrove forests are incredibly dense with tangled roots and trunks that are virtually impossible to walk through. Walking the path through these mysterious groves was actually a bit eerie.
The Mahogany Hammock boardwalk trail took us through a hammock supporting a hardwood forest. Hammocks are subject to fires. Those that have water surrounding them rarely burn. The mature forests on them consist of trees like mahogany, gumbo limbo (used to carve carousel horses) and other deciduous trees as well as a variety of palms and other plants. Older trees were hosts to a huge variety of air plants. Alligators often hang around the perimeters of such hammocks. Sandy has decided that, though she feared bears in many national parks, alligators frighten her even more!
Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook had a boardwalk that went to a tower that gave us a good view of the sawgrass prairie and the birds that inhabit it. Finally, Pinelands Hammock took us through another hammock that is subject to fires because there is less water surrounding it. It is dominated by a sparse growth of “slash” pines, similar to the growth in the campground we are in.
We ate a quick lunch at the camper and headed to the area called Royal Palm. There, we first walked the Gumbo Limbo Trail through a hardwood hammock damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 but recovering nicely. Finally, we got to the best part of all, the Anhinga Trail. This picturesque boardwalk took us through a marshy area teaming with even more alligators and bird varieties than we saw at H. P. Williams Roadside Park. They were more up close and personal, too. It is a walk not to be missed!
We finished the afternoon with a drive into Florida City where we cruised around and where Sandy got a short shopping fix. Returning to the campsite, we made a chicken and veggie stir-fry for dinner. That evening we enjoyed a bright and beautiful full moon.