Skunked in our efforts to spot a Skunk Ape, Florida's Bigfoot cousin, we chose to make the most of our location and take in some of the more tangible attractions that the Everglades had to offer. Amazing wildlife can be found in the state and national parks, or in captivity at any of the many tourist traps that dot the highway.
These roadside shows have a long history down here, so we figured we'd start with some of them. They usually feature all sorts of snakes, mostly of the unbelievably huge variety, talking birds, and always the star attraction, alligators. Often the opportunity to touch, or even hold, an alligator is included. Making tourists heft a gator seems to be a kind of comedy bit in these parts, as we learned when we took in the show at the aptly named Gator Park.
We were seated in a theater-like grandstand overlooking a sand pit where a giant alligator was waiting for showtime. Little did we know we were about to be treated to some good old fashioned gator wrestlin'. Salvator, the human challenger for the day, explained the proper technique for sneak attacking huge carnivorous reptiles, then leaped on the monster's back and clamped shut its jaws with his bare hands.
Even though there are a couple tricks that give the human an advantage, don't try this at home kids! First, it is very important that the alligator is approached from behind, where it can't see. Second, gators can bite with incredible force, but they have very little jaw strength for opening their mouths, so it is imperative that the jaw be clamped shut before it ever gets opened. See how simple that is? Other than the pesky problem that one slight slip may cost an arm or a leg, there's really nothing to it.
After successfully winning his match, Salvator asked for volunteers to give it a try. With no takers, he chose Veronica to be the next challenger. He gave her just enough instructions to have us all questioning how crazy this guy really was, before relenting and handing her a smaller specimen to hold. After contemplating crawling into the ring with an eight foot long monster, this little four footer seemed rather harmless. Oh, and the park had the good sense to tape the little guy's mouth shut.
Gator Park also had something that we'd been wanting to try for years, airboats. Here's a fun fact: Back in 1905, nearly twenty years after his "Watson come here" moment, Alexander Graham Bell, that's right, the inventor of the telephone, led a team up in Nova Scotia that built the world's first airboat, the Ugly Duckling.
As incredibly groovy as that little tidbit of information might be, we, like most folks I suppose, were more interested in careening through the swamp at insanely high speeds. We got our fill of that, but the ride included much more.
As the boat proceeded into Everglades National Park, we got to see an amazing array of wildlife up close, while we drifted slowly and quietly through the glades. We were within a few feet of all sorts of water fowl and reptiles, including little baby gators. This got us wanting to go exploring in the non-tourist areas of the glades, so we headed off to see what we could find. Oh, and by the way, even alligators are cute when they're babies.
Undeniably less adorable are the full grown variety, especially when encountered in the wild. We had one such run in while riding our bikes along a dirt road in The Big Cyprus National Preserve. The ridiculously large lizard was sunning himself right on the edge of the road and by the time we noticed him we were right up on him. What followed was a study in just how fast a bicycle can change course.
We stumbled upon some more alligator action when walking the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk at Fakahatchee Preserve State Park. After an easy walk of just over half a mile, the trail ends at an algae filled pond patrolled by several big gators. We happened to be just in time to see the rarely observed sight of a gator chowing down his prey. If that doesn't keep people from straying off the boardwalk, nothing will.
But this walkway into the everglades is about a lot more than just alligators. Markers along the way pointed out all kinds of plant life and we even got to see baby bald eagles. They were several hundred yards away from the trail, but a ranger had set up a telescope for an amazing view every time the eaglets popped their heads up over the side of their nest.
Caught photographically unprepared for such a Wild Kingdom situation, we had to improvise and managed to get a shot of the birds through the telescope eyepiece. While the pictures won't be winning any wildlife photography awards, it did capture the moment.
Just a few miles east of the boardwalk on the Tamiami Trail we stopped off at the smallest post office in the United States, Ochopee, Florida 34141. The tiny structure was a farm shed until 1953 when a fire destroyed the town's previous Post Office. With only a few dozen folks to serve, the little building seemed to do the job, so it has remained in service ever since.
It didn't strike us as even remotely out of place in this sparsely inhabited area. The people of the everglades have a long history of getting by on the basics. First the Calusa and the Tequesta peoples lived off of this secluded marsh land, later the Seminole came to escape being forced onto reservations in Oklahoma.
The strangler fig is a vine-like tree that
often kills its host
The first road wasn't built until 1928. Unfortunately that Tampa to Miami (hence the name Tamiami Trail) highway contributed greatly to the destruction of this fragile ecosystem. While the glades may look like a stagnant swamp, it is actually a running river. Fresh water from Lake Okeechobee flows slowly southward to the sea, and the highway acted as a dam.
Doesn't this one look like the
sculpture in Beetlejuice?
Culverts and bridges were placed to help resume the flow but, between the road and the many intentional drainage projects around Miami as the city grew, the glades have been badly damaged and water levels severely lowered. Projects to reverse the destruction began in the 1980s, and in 2000 congress passed The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but the outcome of the clash between environmental concerns with the politics of development and economic expansion is far from settled.
While politicians perform that delicate balancing act, the fate of the Everglades hangs in the balance.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com