We woke up to blue skies on our first morning in the Everglades. The first exotic creatures we encountered were our fellow campers. A family’s worth of bicycles leaned against a massive RV, playing the soft sounds of pulsing electronic music as mom and dad pumped iron beside the picnic table. Across from them a gray haired woman emerged from her Airstream to play some warm up scales on her flute, before launching into “America the Beautiful.” It seemed like an appropriate opener considering the setting, but techno mom was not impressed. I thought we were glamping, but we didn’t pack a music stand.
We headed for the visitors’ center to get the lay of the land, driving through miles of grasslands dotted with stands of trees, similar looking to the Kissimmee Prairie. We expected/feared things to be swampier down at the very bottom of Florida, but the first thing we learned is that the Everglades is not a swamp. The Everglades is actually a river, which is only inches deep, but miles wide. The vast plains of sawgrass we saw were growing out of freshwater that flowed 100 feet a day. The other thing we learned is that this place is huge.
I love a good map. Beyond showing some of the animals we’d come across, this map gave us a sense of scale for the park. We planned to go from the entrance to the Flamingo Visitor Center, a journey of 45 miles, hitting as much as we could along the way. It took all day and we didn’t see a quarter of this place. To be fair, you need a boat to get to most of it.
Our first stop was Royal Palm, the original state park that was the seed of the national one, home to the Anhinga Trail. It is one of the most popular places to visit here; we heard German, French, and Spanish speakers, and watched school buses unloading field trips. We barely cleared the parking lot before we found out why.
Alligators were everywhere, concentrated into this deeper channel during the dry season and visible soaking in the sun because of the winter temperatures (it was “only” topping out at 80.) Kate and I saw over a dozen of these prehistoric predators, apparently unbothered by the troops of tourists and school groups tromping down the boardwalk beside them.
Beyond all the alligators, birds were the stars of the show. We watched this snowy egret strut around tempting fate. A gator made a lunge at him, and we weren’t sure what outcome we were rooting for, but the bird lived to wade around on stick legs another day.
The Anhinga who give their name to the trail were there in abundance, preening, calling, nesting, and posing like the Batman symbol to dry out their wings after diving into the water to spear fish on their beaks. Kate caught the one above in flight, and snapped pictures of a stately blue heron and the ridiculous yet colorful purple gallinule hopping leaf to leaf on the waterlily-like spatterdock.
We took a tour with a National Parks volunteer named John and he taught us a lot, otherwise the sentence about the purple gallinule on the spatterdock would have been closer to “pretty bird on big leaf.” We learned that because the Everglades are so flat, starting from only 12 feet above sea level on its journey to the ocean, that small variations make a big difference. An extra few inches of elevation and the sawgrass gives way to pines. (Our campsite is called Long Pine Key, “Key” being the Taíno word for island, because it sits on a bedrock ridge surrounded by water.) Add another foot above the water table and the pines give way to tropical hardwoods like mahogany and the delightfully named Gumbo-limbo tree. It’s also called “the tourist tree” because it looks like it has a sunburn. Kate calls them pretzel trees.
Our tour guide John said that unlike the parks out west, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, that shout at you their main attractions, the Everglades whisper. With fresh water meeting saltwater and temperate climate species meeting flora and fauna from the tropics, everything is happening at once in the Everglades, but you have to look and listen for it. For instance: the stands of trees we saw driving in were called cypress domes, and were created by alligators thrashing about to dig holes for water to collect in the dry season, deepened over generations by nesting mothers. Fish, and then birds and other animals, seek out these oasis when the summer wet season dries up, and over time matter accumulates, cypress take root, and the landscape is changed. These weren’t trees in a field of grass as we thought at first, they were tiny forests growing around gator holes in a massive grassy river. It wasn’t even noon and we were excited to find more whispers.