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Published: January 9th 2011
Early Everglades settlers used canoes and small boats to move over the shallow waters of the pahayokee, much like the Indians did before them. NPS Photo.
Florida Everglades Safari 2010
I have been a casual visitor to the Everglades many times. It is such an interesting place that it keeps calling me back. I have had my camera in hand, of course, but because of time and family constraints I followed the tourist track, followed the road, took my pictures and left for the next roadside exhibit; went to the end of the road and back out before the sun had set. The Everglades are a large and complicated ecosystem, unique in the world, and I always felt I was shorting the ‘Glades the time they required. With that in mind, I planned a tree day trip for the beginning of December. That would be after the heat of the summer, and hopefully before the onslaught of the winter tourist traffic.
It took a bit of gentile persuasion, but I was finally able to convince my friend, Tom, to come along on the photo expedition to the Everglades. Surprisingly, I learned that Tom had been a Florida resident all these years and had never paid the Everglades a visit. Oh, he had gone past on his way to other places, like Key West, but he
Robert's Roadside Fruit Stand
Located not far outside the main entrance of the park, Robert's is an oasis of sweet fruit, cold drinks and a shady spot on a hot afternoon.
had never gone into the ‘Glades themselves. Even though I was going back to learn and experience more, I would be guide and mentor for his first trip into this fascinating land, the Pahayokee, the river of grass.
Considering the size of the Everglades and the associated preserves, including the Big Cypress National Preserve, I did considerable planning, trying to cover as much ground as possible in the allotted days, on what may be my last opportunity to see the Everglades. An early start from St. Petersburg would put us in Flamingo, at the end of the road, by mid day, in time to claim a spot for the RV. The remainder of the day would be spent exploring around Flamingo and the visitor center. An early start the next day would take us back out of the park and then back along the Tamiami Trail to where the boundaries of the Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve meet. I planned to retrace an earlier trek on the loop road through magnificent stands of cypress trees. There were raptor and wading birds of all kinds and enough alligators to keep the camera busy. Shark Valley was
Tom at the Entrance Marker
Tom standing next to the marl boulder that marks the main entrance to the Everglades National Park
to be the next stop. The next day was to be an early start and stop at each of the unique habitats, the hardwood hammock, the pine lands, the Pahayokee, the ponds and lakes, and the always exciting ‘gator holes at Royal Palm. After a picnic lunch, we would retrace our steps back to camp, giving us a morning and afternoon picture of the activities in the various habitats. After our last night in the park, and early morning departure would give us one last opportunity to film any wildlife activity on the thirty mile long park road. Now then, if we could only keep to schedule… After that there would be a small detour to Key Largo for a treat totally unrelated to the Everglades.
The RV had been packed the night before. In the morning all that was needed was to roll it out onto the driveway and the wife helped me attach the tow car. A quick check of the lights and brakes showed everything was working normally. I drove by Tom’s place. He was waiting on the sidewalk. We boarded and were off. We crossed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at 8:00AM. By 10:30 we had
All settled into our shady spot in the RV camping loop at Flamingo. The campground was all but empty.
passed Naples and were on the Tamiami Trail. A short rest stop at 11:00 gave us an opportunity to snack on some ham and cheese roll-ups. By noon we were approaching Homestead. With only about one hundred miles worth of gas let in the tank, I decided to fill up.
I pulled into a Chevron station. The price for regular, $2.97, was boldly displayed. I swiped my card and started to pump gas. Reading the fine print at the pump I learned that the large posted price was for a cash purchase. My credit card price was to be $3.049 a gallon. I have come across that same deceptive practice before. It does miff me a bit. Since most people buy with plastic, especially fuel-hungry RV drivers, the price should be listed as such and then, in the small print, offer me a discount for cash. That would be honest. Oh, and the second part of this story; I keep record of my travels which means I want a receipt for my purchase. The stations should be required to put printer tape in the machines to print the receipts. I get really irritable when, after pumping my gas, I
Florida Bay Sunset
Looking west, the sun is setting behind the clouds bring rain and cooler weather for tomorrow. At the edge of Florida Bay at the deserted tent camping grounds.
have to walk over to the store, usually have to stand in line, and then ask the clerk for something that should have been available at the machine. Couple that with the cut-off at a predetermined total and the need to re-swipe my credit card, and even another trip to the cashier for a receipt, I left with partial fuel. I would have more than enough to enter and leave the park before needing to refuel again. That is one Chevron station I will never patronize again.
My first visit to the Everglades, back in the mid-1990s, was on a hot day. Turning the corners at the section line rods, in the midst of farmland, a bit before you actually get to the park entrance, there is Roberts Produce Stand. A shaded and cool oasis in the middle of seemingly nowhere, Roberts offers fresh fruit and vegetables, some from their own adjacent fields. Mangos, papayas, oranges, apples and bananas await to quench the thirst or hunger. They also have a juice and ice cream bar if that is more to your liking. Aside from the fresh produce, there is a whole section of locally produced jams, jellies, pickles, salsas
Sea water on the left, fresh water on the right. We are standing on the plug dam that separated the water habitats. The marina is the only operating business left in Flamingo. Photo by Tom Galloway.
and sauce of every description. I have enjoyed the rest break at Roberts on each visit to the Everglades. We picked up a few pieces of fresh fruit for the dinner table later in the day.
We entered the park a little after 1:00PM. We stopped at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center. From previous visits I knew that there were some great displays to help Tom orient to the park. The center was closed for renovation. So much for that! We continued on to Flamingo, at the very end of the park road.
Several days before, I had called for reservations and paid the camping fee with a credit card (a reduced price for seniors with a National Park Pass) but received no assigned space. The policy is first come, first served. That was the impetus for the early start from St. Petersburg. On-line information said that this was the beginning of the busy tourist season and that the campground had a history of filling up fast.
The rangers at the entrance kiosk were expecting us, calling us by name. Small challenge considering there were only six other vehicles in the RV section of the camp ground. The
A rare bird, dependant on a single food source, the apple snail, we found this snail kite perched on a snag overlooking Florida Bay.
rush had apparently not yet begun. We picked out a spot, parked and unlimbered the tow car. Loaded with cameras, we drove out of the campground, reporting our chosen spot to the rangers in the kiosk. All the formalities accomplished, it was time to explore the Everglades.
The Everglades were hard hit by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, some eighteen years ago. Flamingo, only inches above sea level, was inundated by the storm surge. A hotel and restaurant was swamped. Some of the National Park buildings, on pilings, were damaged but survived. Much of what you see in the park is nature rebounding after the damage caused by Andrew and subsequent hurricanes. And, sadly, much of what you see is indecision on the part of the National Parks about what to do. Repair, rebuild or raze and do nothing, turning it all back to nature. In the eighteen year interim the damaged hotel became a moldy health hazard and was eventually torn down. Satellite imagery from 2004 still shows the hotel buildings. They were absent this visit. The roadside gas station is a vacant shell providing no services for the park visitor. The National Park building, needed by the Park Service
Empty Chekika Parking Lot
The eeriely vacant Chekika parking lot.
for administrative functions is undergoing repair. The only concessionaire operating is the marina and that a needed service for the Park Department for their own water craft. Even the campground where we parked the RV has evidence of the indecision. It is wired with excellent distribution module for electricity to the RVs. The ranger explained some mumbo-jumbo about voltages and transformers and that was why there was no electricity available to the campers. Hasn’t been since the hurricane and will probably never be again even though it would be an easy fix as the infrastructure is already in place; just being allowed to molder into the ground like the hotel. One day I suspect the Everglades, Flamingo particularly, will be a day use only area, and probably the aim of the Park Department all along.
The cold front bringing harsh weather all across the United States was being felt as far south as the tip of Florida. The afternoon had become noticeably cooler; the wind had a decided chill and there were building clouds all around bringing darkness ahead of the clock. We stopped by the tent camping area at the edge of Florida Bay. It was empty. Not
Loop Road Pond and Alligator
An alligator in a small pond in the cypress swamp alongside the Loop Road, Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo from 2008 Everglades excursion.
a single tent camper was there. A few quick photos of the sunset and then off to the marina where the American crocodiles sometimes gather.
American crocodiles inhabit Western Mexico, Central America, Northern South America and some of the larger islands of the Caribbean. In the United States less than 2000 crocodiles exist and they are concentrated in southern Florida, the Everglades. Said to be tolerant of salt water, they seem to prefer fresh water and have frequently congregated near the plug dam at the Flamingo marina. It was a chilly afternoon and it would seem to prove another adage about the crocodile, that they are less tolerant of the cold than their alligator cousins. Not a single crocodile was to be seen, even alligator for that matter.
In the declining light we did find what we believe was a juvenile snail kite perched on a snag alongside the road. If indeed a snail kite, we were fortunate enough to see a rare bird. Mostly dependant on a single endangered food source, the apple snail, the kite is also an endangered species. So ended our first day in the Everglades. It was back to the RV for some hot
Loop Road Alligator
An alligator lurking in the shallow water of a borrow pit alongside the Loop Road. From a 2008 Everglades excursion.
open-faced turkey sandwiches (some recycled Thanksgiving turkey). A short stroll before retiring provided us with a sight that is seldom seen from the urban environment, the Milky Way. Light and air pollution in the city obscures the fine detail of the night sky. It was inspiring to look up and see the night sky in all its glory much as it would have looked to our ancestors.
The morning was chilly but the bright sun promised for a warm, pleasant day. A lingering breakfast as we talked about the sights of yesterday and what we expected to find today actually made us tardy for the day’s exploration. With cameras and an ice chest with eats for lunch we started off on our first full day of wandering the Everglades. By plan, it called for backtracking to the Tamiami Trail and the Big Cypress National Preserve on the northwest boundary of the Everglades.
Along the north-south Highway 997, on the east side of the Everglades National Park, I had seen a small, very unobtrusive brown National Park sign on previous visits. Simply, it said, “Chekika. Open Seasonally.” Although it wasn’t on the list of things to do, impulse over
Hungry Loop Road Alligator
A hungry alligator eyeing us for lunch. Best to keep your distance from animals in the wild. Seen along side the Loop Road, Big Cypress National Preserve. 2008 Photo.
came plan and we turned left onto Richmond Drive. Six miles later, we entered the Chekika Hammock day use area. It was an eerie arrival. The entrance kiosk is boarded up, the windows dirty and streaked. The large, weed encroached parking area only had one other automobile. From some interpretive signs and a little research later we learned about this underused and under-maintained jewel that is close and convenient to the Homestead and the greater Miami area.
In the 1940’s wildcat oil prospectors Mark Grossman and Mack MacCord sunk a deep exploratory well. They didn’t find oil but they found water, sulfurous water, under enough pressure to flow from the well like a spring. When you have lemons, make lemonade. Grossman filled a depression with the sulfurous water. The malodorous water was thought to have therapeutic value and attracted many visitors to this new spa, Grossman Hammock Mineral Springs. He built a picnic area and campground that he continued to operate until he retired. In 1970 he sold the land to the State of Florida which continued to operate the facility as Chekika State Recreation Area. Chekika was a Seminole chief during the Seminole Wars. After raiding a nearby
Red Shoulder Hawk
A young red shoulder hawk perched on a limb just overhead. On the loop Road in Big Cypress National Preserve.
settlement, his Seminole band took refuge on a hammock similar to Grossman Hammock located in the Shark River Slough. He was tracked down by U.S. Army troops and Chief Chekika was killed in the skirmish.
Fears about polluting the aquifer caused the State to cap the well in the 1980’s. Pumps were installed to keep the lake filled with clean water. After passage of the 1989 Everglades Expansion Act, 44,000 acres of state land were transferred into the Everglades national Park. Hurricanes, Andrew in 1992, Irene in 1999, Wilma and Katrina in 2005 caused considerable damage to Chekika and the area was closed. After some remedial work the area was reopened in 2008 on a seasonal basis (the land floods during the wet season).
It would seem that the public took little note of the reopening of Chekika. And it would seem that the National Park has delayed bringing Chekika back to its glory. The pumps are silent, the lake shallow an almost dry, the campground closed. The public won’t come until it is complete and the Park Service won’t invest more time and resources until the people come. It is a nice picnic area, offering pavilions and
Turner Loop Road
A hungry alligator seen across the borrow canal from Turner Loop Road, Big Cypress.
tables, porta-pottys and a nature walk through the hammock and surrounding prairie. It is a close and convenient place to take the kids for a day outing, a picnic and to learn about the Everglades. Be cautioned because there is at least one large old ‘gator who lives in the remaining pool.
From a previous visit to the Everglades in 2008, I learned about a loop road through the Big Cypress Preserve, a small, hard to find gravel “borrow” road open to the public. Any road built on the surface of typical Big Cypress or Everglades land would in short order be nothing but a mud hole. The road has to be elevated to keep it above water level. Rather than truck in the thousands of cubic yards of material to build a road, early road builders devised the borrow system. A dredge digs material, borrows it from alongside the proposed road bed. The now elevated road bed is now alongside the borrow pit. The borrow pits quickly fill with water and become prime habitat and migration routes for the native animals.
The Tamiami Trail, Highway 41 traversing Florida west to east from Naples to Miami, and the loop
Big Cypress Gator
An alligator in Big Cypress. The alligator is able to swin with just the nostrils and eyes above water. The alliator is very stealthy.
road were built using the same basic procedure. Whereas the construction of the loop road caused only minor local changes, the construction of the Tamiami Trail, and much later the Interstate Alligator Alley, had a much larger, more profound impact on the Everglades. The Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley were in fact a low dams controlling water access to all the land south of the roadways. That water is the life blood of the Everglades and its control and use is a continuing source of controversy.
The loop road, although on the edge of the controversy, provides an access to some amazing examples of cypress swamp features and a view of an amazing number of alligators. I first learned about the loop road when I stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center on the Tamiami Trail. Set back off the road with only small signage, the visitor center itself is easy to bypass. Mostly administrative, it does have a small educational display and an information desk. There you can learn how to find the places to explore some of Big Cypress. From the visitor center I was directed back along The Tamiami Trail to the abandoned Monroe Station where a
Big Cypress Swamp
It is an alien but beautiful and fascinating world in the cypress swamp.
small gravel road disappears into the tree line with only a small sign, Loop Road, giving no hint as to what it was or what awaited. It was a fantastic journey through cypress swamps, Pahayokee and rife with wildlife, especially alligators.
Tom and I stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center, both to inquire about local conditions and to acquaint him with the area through the displays. Oasis was a disappointment, much less than I remembered from two years ago. When we asked about the loop road we were told it was closed except to local traffic. Heavy rains and high water had washed several culverts and road repair was not yet complete. We were shown an alternate loop, much farther west, on the north side of The Tamiami Trail and were assured it would be equal the southern loop. It was not.
We turned north at the H.P. Williams Roadside Park and followed the arrow-straight road. The road borders the borrow canal some distance off the road. We did see some alligators, some egrets, anhingas and a few cormorants, to be sure, but they were few and far between. What we did see a lot of were sportsmen,
Shark Valley Observation Tower
The Shark Valley observation tower at the end of a 7 mile road. You can hike, bicycle or take the tram to the tower. It offers a wonderful overview of the pahayokee.
either boats or ATV’s on trailers behind their speeding trucks, delightfully showering all with gravel and billows of dust. There are a lot of private inholdings along the road and much of the land is posted “No Trespassing.” We continued following the loop. The spirit of adventure bade us to see what was at the end. There was nothing but the end of the road. Both Tom and I were glad when we had completed the loop and were on our way back along The Tamiami Trail.
We had tarried way too long and by the time we reached Shark Valley it was closed. It was still a long drive back to the campsite in Flamingo. We reentered the park at the Coe Visitor Center. Along the park road we stopped to observe some turkey and black vultures feeding on some carrion alongside the other side of the road. The turkey vultures were distinct with their bald, red heads. The edge of the road sloped away sharply and we were unable to see what they were feeding on. We were unwilling to disturb them so we kept our distance and photographed them from inside our vehicle, our mobile blind.
Black vulture along sidee the main park road near Long Pine Key. Black and turkey vultures are a common sight in the Everglades.
On a later passage of the road from the opposite direction, we were able to get a better view over the edge of the berm. The vultures were picking the bones of a Burmese python, an invasive species introduced by non-thinking owners who tired of their huge snake pets. The vultures were helping to rid the Everglades of an invader.
Returning to the Flamingo area, we stopped at the marina to look once again for the elusive crocodiles. We were approached by a National Park law enforcement officer. He was checking us out because there had been some reports of breaking into cars n the area. We were quickly sent on our way but it rang a sad note that way out here, at the very bottom of Florida, in the depths of the Everglades, petty crime of the urban streets had come to roost. A walk along the marina jetties in the fading twilight revealed no crocodiles, none at all.
The next morning, against my better judgment, we exited the park directly and headed for Key Largo. For those of you with a penchant for old movies may remember a thriller with Bogart entitled Key Largo. As
What do you do when your pet python gets too large to handle? Some unthinking people have released them into the Everglades. The invasive species destroy the ballance of the native predator and prey. NPS Photo.
coincidence would have it, there is a relic of another Bogart movie, The African Queen, in Key Largo. The 1951 John Huston movie, adapted from a C.S. Forester novel, starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. There was one additional star, one not given credit in the movie rolls; The African Queen herself.
Built in 1912 and originally christened S/L Livingstone, she was used by the British East Africa Railway from 1912 to 1968 to shuttle cargo and passengers across Lake Albert. Leased for the movie, the little ship was returned to cargo duty until it was beached and left to the elements in 1968. About 1990, a Bogart fan discovered the boat, purchased it and brought it to Key Largo. It was restored and was used for a time to give tours around Key Largo. As I understand it the owner died and the boat has been the center of litigation. Although it has been entered into the Register of Historic Places, the fate of The African Queen is in doubt.
Curiously, the Wikipedia article states the Livingstone/African Queen hull is of wooden construction. Various scenes in the movie also depict a wooden construction, especially the protruding torpedoes
The African Queen
The African Queen on a boat lift in a small canal in Key Largo.
and at the very end when Charlie and Rose discover the hull piece with the name African Queen floating in the water (Remember, close-ups were done with fabricated sets and long shots were done on the Queen). The African Queen in Key Largo is of riveted iron or steel construction. The Queen is on a boat lift, out of the water and has a canvas canopy over it. It is somewhat protected but the idle years in the slat laden seaside air have taken toll upon the Queen. However, I did get to touch Bogie and Kate’s boat, The African Queen!
Our first stop, back inside the park, was Paradise Key and the Royal Palms Visitor Center. Named after the Royal Palm, the tallest of the palms, the area was the first part of the Everglades to be set aside as parkland in 1916. The 120 acre park was transferred to The National Park System to form the nucleus of the Everglades National park. A road was completed to paradise Key in 1915 and for a time a lodge that was built in 1919.
Paradise Key and Royal Palms are adjacent to Taylor Slough, one of the two
Tom and I standing next to Bogie's boat, the African Queen. Rescued from Africa by a Bogey fan and once was restored. It is in need of some TLC.
major waterways in the Everglades. Only inches deep in the wet season, Taylor Slough carries water that originated near Lake Okeechobee and discharges it into Florida Bay at the southern tip of Florida. The area features a canal and a pond, actually borrow pits from earlier road construction, that retain water even in the dry season. It is an artificially enhanced habitat for the native animals and plants. Many alligators make their home here as well as the major birds, the cormorant, anhinga and egret.
Of the two trails, the Anhinga Trail, a bit less than half a mile, borders a canal for much of its length. A loop off the main trail is an elevated boardwalk around the edge of the ‘gator pond. Even in the dry season there is some water in the canal and provides a corridor and haven for the alligators. The waters also are home to a lot of fish and turtles. Anhingas, cormorants, egrets and heron are frequent visitors to the area. From the boardwalk you have an excellent view of examples of most habitats in the Everglades. The saw grass in Taylor Slough reaches out to the horizon. The edge of the pond
Paradise Key and Royal Palms
An aerial view of Paradise Key and the Royal Palms Visitor Center. You can see the Anhinga Train leading to the gator pond in the Taylor Slough. The Gumbo Limbo Trail is hidden in the trees left of the visitor center. NPS Photo.
is lined with mangrove trees, their roots, a hiding place for small fish and amphibians, holding newly formed soil in place. Behind the visitor center is Paradise Key, a hardwood hammock, and the Gumbo Limbo Trail.
The gumbo limbo tree has a red and peeling bark, much like the early sunburned visitors to the Everglades. That explains the other name for the tree, the tourist tree. The trail, named for the gumbo limbo tree, is a popular walk through an almost alien world. Recovering after the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, the hammock features tall royal palms, oak, pine and mahogany trees on the higher ground. The wetter edges of the hammock have bay, willow and cypress trees. The dense island forest is home to strangler figs, trees that are parasitic to other trees. Lush ferns carpet the shady nooks. Orchids and bromeliads offer flashes of color among the green. The hammocks are also home to the mammals that inhabit the Everglades such as the raccoon, skunk, opossum, bobcat, and white-tail deer. It is no wonder that Paradise Key and the Royal Palms Visitor Center is one of the most popular stops in the Everglades.
Leaving the Royal Palm area, the
Royal Palm Gator
Alligator seen along the Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palms Visitor Center.
view to the north is a freshwater marl prairie. To the south are forested pinelands. The prairie is slightly elevated ground, on limestone bedrock, that separates the major drainages, the Taylor Slough and the Shark River Slough. The saw grass covered marl prairie is the top of an ancient reef that originates in the ocean of the shores of Miami and runs southwest through the Everglades. Traveling west from Royal Palms you cross the top of the reef at Rock Reef Pass, elevation a mere three feet above sea level.
The higher ground to the south of the road is a series of interconnected pine forest covered hammocks, Long Pine Key. The Park Service maintains a primitive campground for both tent and RV campers as well as a day use picnic area. The campground is the staging area for the Long Pine Key Trail, a seven mile trail for hiking and bicycling. Additional trails, over the remnants of the old logging and farming roads, form a forty-three mile net work of interconnected hiking trails. Although most of the pines in the area were logged off before the formation of the National Park, there are still many slash pines and
Royal Palms Gator Gathering
In cooler weather the gators beach themselves to warm their bodies in the sun. Thes are at the far end of the Anhinga Trail.
a variety of broadleaf trees. There was considerable damage caused by Hurricane Andrew. There are many downed and broken trees but the forest has made a comeback and new growth is tall and seems healthy. The area is also a refuge for the rare Florida panther.
A bit farther west on Long Pine Key is the Pinelands Interpretive site. The off road parking area allows access to a winding trail through a spacious slash pine grove with palmettos and wildflowers. In many places the underlying reef is exposed. Rain water, dissolving carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, becomes mildly acidified and has dissolved solution holes in the limestone. These holes provide a home for many small animals and insects. The holes also collect plant material that decays and helps to form soil. The keen eye will find the colorful shells of the Florida tree snail.
Lightning cause fires are a natural part of the Everglades ecosystem. Some of the mature trees show the charring of a forest fire. The dry grasses and brush burn but the trees survive the fire. The ashes of the fire return to the soil to nurture the trees and the new growth grasses. On our
Cormorants, a fishing bird, are a common sight near the water ways in the Everglades
walk through the Pinelands we came across two National Park Rangers who were cutting back the foliage that had overgrown the trail. The fast growing ground level vegetation, ferns, saw palmetto and coontie (Indian for flour root), had encroached onto the pave trail over the exposed limestone. We talked for a bit, asking about any apple or Florida tree snails. The ranger directed us to the far end of the interpretive trail where they had seen some of the hard to find snails earlier in the day. The apple snail is the exclusive food of the snail kite, a raptor bird. The Florida tree snail is unusual in that each individual is colored differently, the colored band of exotic colors in unique combinations. If we could find the apple snails, with patience, we had a chance to see another snail kite. If we found the tree snails we had an opportunity to see one of the smaller creatures of the ‘glades usually overlooked by the casual visitor.
As we walked along the trail, I pointed out to Tom the solution holes that dot the marl off the side of the trail. Some were small, some gaping pits, each with
The heron is a patient bird, waiting motionless in the shallow water waiting for a fish to get close enough to snare.
its own unique gathering of plants. The rustle of the wind through the tops of the trees was clearly audible even though there was only still air on the ground where we were. The palmettos and coontie are dense and the when ever there is a curve in the trail it disappears in the brush. I suppose it is only natural that you look back over your shoulder to see what else may be strolling through the forest. At the far end of the trail, just after it loops back towards the starting point, we found a colorful Florida tree snail on a gumbo limbo tree. It was the only one we were able to find. I would liked to have had photos of other snails to compare the colors.
A bit further along the Park’s interior road is the Pahayokee Overlook. Pahyokee is often translated as meaning river of grass. At the edge of the freshwater marl prairie, occasionally flooded ground, the site overlooks the Shark River Slough. The saw grass expanse is dotted with hardwood hammocks, their elongated shape in line with the slow flow of the water through the slough. The site was devastated by Hurricane
Little Blue Heron
A smaller bird, the little blue plies the shallow waters of the Anhinga Trail borrow pit for fish.
Andrew. The elevated observation platform has been rebuilt and the trees have grown amazingly tall since 1992. Some are beginning to encroach on the view from the platform. If you look due north from the platform you are looking in the direction of the Shark Valley observation tower. At about fifteen miles away, it is very near the horizon. I have yet to see it even with binoculars and I suspect some of the intervening hammocks obscure the direct line of sight. Looking out across the flat terrain, the flat level horizon, I am reminded of the Serengeti Plains of Africa.
Our next stop was Mahogany Hammock. Hammocks are elevated ground, high enough that they are only rarely flooded. The drier conditions allow the formation of soil and hardwood trees find a hospitable niche. A boardwalk leads from the parking area, across and expanse of periphyton and saw grass covered marl prairie and into the dense foliage of the hammock. The bright sun is left behind as it is always twilight in the hammock. The early Indians used these hammocks, shady spots, as a refuge from the intense summer sun. It was dry ground to camp on. There was
Saw grass covered Taylor Slough, wth Paradise Key in the background, as seen from the boardwalk on the Anhinga Trail.
wood to make tools and boats and to make a fire to keep warm and cook the food gathered from the forest of the hammock and waters of the surrounding slough.
Leafy evergreen trees predominate. Gumbo limbo, ironwood, pigeon plum, lignum vitae and mahogany trees make the upper tier of the canopy. Below, palmetto, coontie and ferns cover the open ground. Strangler figs are there, their tendrils wrapped around their host trees. The hammocks also provide a home for smaller mammals and deer. Mahogany Hammock is well visited and small animal encounters are rare. We did spot a barred owl high up in the trees. Not completely nocturnal, the barred owl is commonly seen hunting rodents, snakes, snails and fish.
Our next stop, Mrazek Pond, is a favorite of bird watchers. Both local resident birds and migratory birds frequent the pond. The gently sloping grass banks offer an unobstructed view of the pond. The most noticeable bird was a large white pelican out in the middle of the pond. A migratory bird, the white pelican spends the winter in Florida and returns to nesting areas in the Midwest or even as far north as Canada. Once endangered, the
Rock Reef Pass
Sign announcing Rock Reef Pass, a mere three feet above sea level.
white pelican is different from the common brown pelican. The brown pelicans fly over and then dive into the water when they see a fish. The white pelican hunts from the surface, submerging its head and beak to scoop up fish.
Cormorants and anhingas are common sights near the ponds. The anhinga is frequently seen roosting in the trees with its wings outspread, drying its feathers. The anhinga’s feathers are not oily like other “floating” birds. That allows the feathers to get wet and that lets the anhinga swim under water to hunt for fish. The anhinga can still fly with wet feathers but not as well as when the feathers are dry. The anhinga hunting strategy is to spear the fish with its sharp beak. Sometimes the anhinga has to come ashore to pry the fish off of its beak using a stone or tree trunk.
Roseate spoonbills wade in the shallows, swinging their wide spoon-like bills in the shallow water and muddy bottom. When the spoonbill feels a morsel it snaps the bill shut. Food can be small crustaceans, shrimp, small fish and even some plant material. A threatened species, the soft pink feathers were once prized
The pine lands near Long Pine Key are one of several habitats for the endangered Florida panther. NPS Photo.
for decorating women’s hats; the spoonbill is making a slow comeback. There are only about a thousand mating pairs in all of Florida.
The larger wading birds, egrets and herons, were well represented. Patient hunters, they often stand motionless for long minutes before spearing a hapless fish that ventured too close. The snowy white egrets were once hunted for their plumage to be used as fashion accessories. Although these birds are common in Florida, they remain exotic everywhere else.
We made an almost panic stop at Coot Bay Pond. A local alligator had beached itself and was basking in the sun. We kept a respectful distance but were able to get some good shots of the rather large ‘gator. With the sun setting we left the alligator to its beach and headed back to the RV for a bite of dinner.
Arriving overnight, with gusting winds and falling rain, colder weather greeted us in the morning. We ate a leisurely breakfast before hooking up the tow car and stowing the gear for departure. Driving out, we made one last stop at the marina to see if the crocodiles had returned. I carried my camera under my hat to
Slash Pine Forest
Slash pines in the Pinelands area of Long Pine Key
keep it dry in the drizzling rain. Almost as if they were waiting for us, two crocodiles were slowly swimming together right at the edge of the marina seawall. No need for a telephoto lens. The crocodiles were right there in front of us, close enough to touch. The water, the color of tea from decomposing plant material, colored the bottom half of the crocodiles a light tan. They were there for several minutes. The smaller of the two submerged and quickly disappeared from sight in the murky water. Slowly the larger of the crocodiles swam back across the canal and was soon lost to view in the branches overhanging the bank of the canal. We got some great closing shots for this trip to the Florida Everglades.
Now only the cypress and mangrove swamps of the western Everglades remain to be explored. Most of that is only accessible by small boat or canoe. That further adventure will take more planning and preparation. I look forward to paddling a canoe, loaded with cameras and camping gear, through the tangle of mangrove thickets, along the Everglades Wilderness Waterway. Much of the camping for the week to ten day long excursion
The narrow paved Pinelands trail quickly disappears in the palmetto along side the trail.
would be on chickees, platforms with rain roofs on poles in the water that are patterned after the thatched huts of the Florida Indians. Now, when will that be….
Did You Know?
Everglades National Park ranges from sea level to 20 feet above sea level on an Indian-made shell mound located on the Gulf Coast portion of the Park. (US Park Service)
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