|Alligator lurking in the Everglades|
Most U.S. National Parks wow visitors with the massive, awe-inspiring scale of its landmarks. Stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon and gaze down at its depth Cast your eyes upwards to take in the height of towering Sequoia trees. Admire how Yellowstone Valley is framed by Bridalveil Falls plunging downwards on one side and the imposing El Capitan on the other. Breathe deep and greet the day as the sun's rays touches the United States for the first time every morning atop Acadia's Cadillac Mountain. These are the grand vistas visitors expect from national parks.
|Patchy rainstorm over the Everglades|
Everglades National Park in the southern tip of Florida is different. There, it's all about focusing on the details. A cursory look around shows you miles and miles of grass spreading out into the distance with tree lined channels breaking the monotony here and there. If you are impatient, you'll think you've seen all that needs to be seen after a few minutes.
|Birds taking flight|
Starting in Miami, we drove west on SW 8th Street for almost an hour. After exiting the city, the road was as straight as a ruler and as flat as can be. A huge canal ran along one side of the road with acres of swampy grassland behind it. Trees lined the other side of the road, and we had trouble figuring out which was the native landscape -- the trees, the grassland, or both. Every now and then, roadside attractions advertising gator encounters, shows and airboat tours popped up along the way. As my daughter noticed, you could see an alligator in the wild, view one in a cage or eat one in nugget form. Step right up, folks! You won't believe your eyes.
I'll admit that it was the airboats that drew me to the area. I wanted to feel the rush of wind on my face as we skimmed over the water, propelled forward by the massive fan on the back of the boat. Some of the operations along the road looked designed for large groups. Numbered docks and huge boats sat waiting for the crowds. I wanted something less touristy. Is that possible? To do the same exact activity as the masses but somehow make it more unique?
|River of Grass Airboat Tour|
We opted for a private tour with Everglades River of Grass Adventures and was very glad we did. After meeting a tour rep at a gas station, we followed him to an unmarked location where the small airboat waited for us. Leading up to the vacation, my husband kept referring to our would-be captain as "Bubba" whereas I kept calling it "Alistair and Jeeve's Bespoke Everglades Tour." Neither of us was right. Captain Steve was at the helm.
Tip: Pull back long hair and wear glasses or sunglasses. Also, keep your lips closed and don't smile while the boat is speeding along unless you want a mouthful of bugs and grass. Ear protection was provided by our tour company.
|This bit of grass is this alligator's permanent home.|
I never could quite figure out how Steve knew where we were or where he was going. It all looked the same to me. I could see no other landmarks other than a multi-story building waaaaaaay far away on the edge of the Wildlife Management Area. Steve has been riding around this area day after day, year after year. He knew it like the back of his hand and could take us directly to an animal's minuscule territory as if it were a street address. We rode around the Everglades and, other than one brief encounter, never saw any other people in this wide, open space.
Knowing that most visitors are interested in alligators, he first took us to a little patch of grass where a male and female alligator live. The nine-foot male was lying out in the open, but the female was hidden away. Do you know one way of determining how long an alligator is? The distance between its nose and eyes in inches is equal to the total length of the alligator in feet. This method is best used on alligator skulls when the rest of the skeleton is missing. I do not advise novices try this on living alligators.
|One of the man-made canals that run through the Everglades|
I felt as if the Everglades was slowly revealing itself to us as we rode around for 90 minutes. Gradually, variations emerged even though we were in the midst of what I had previously judged as a monotonous landscape. If I looked straight out, all I saw was waving grass, and I half expected to see cattle grazing on it. But if I cast my gaze downwards, I noticed that shallow water surrounded us between the blades of grass. It was a strange sensation to feel that we were on a boat but moving over solid land. Suddenly, we'd reach a part without any grass to slow us down, and the boat would pick up speed. Next thing I knew, we were in a canal lined with pond apple trees which I initially mistook for mangroves. How did I not see the trees in the distance? I'm not sure. It's as if they weren't there, and then, all of a sudden, they were.
In the 20th century, canals and levees were installed all across the area to control flooding and provide water for agricultural needs. Thankfully, some of this ecosystem is protected by its National Park and Wildlife Management status, or else I'm sure greedy developers would be tempted to "drain the swamp" and build houses, golf courses, and business on this land.
|Male Purple Gallinule|
Along with the at least 25 alligators that we saw, Steve pointed out birds and flowers. I still marvel at how he knew exactly where animals lived. We'd be speeding along, then he'd slow the boat to a stop to point a nesting pair of colorful Purple Gallinule birds. The male hopped up on the running board of the boat while the female remained on the nest. Despite its bright colors, these birds seemed to fade into the surrounding dark water and vibrant greenery.
|A big ole heap of baby alligators|
Next, Steve took us to a spot where a first-time mama alligator had laid her eggs a few weeks ago. Being new at it, she picked a place that didn't have enough shade, and she had abandoned her nest of baby alligators to find a place where she wouldn't literally bake in the sun. Steve said that the previous week, this nest had about double the number of babies, and that nature was taking its course by letting them die off. Unlike adults, these small babies had yellowish stripes on their bodies. When Steve threw a bit of meat into the water, they swarmed after the chunk and instinctively started death rolling with it. That chunk of meat didn't stand a chance.
|Alligator next to the pathway at Everglades National Park|
We made sure to stop at the Shark Valley Visitors Center at Everglades National Park, too. Electing to skip the 2-hour guided tram tour, we explored the area on foot. Staying on the path is very important as alligators lurk in the surrounding swamp. Sometimes, it was difficult to stay the recommended distance away as the gators were lying right next to the path.
The Everglades is a great spot for birding, and I saw numerous birders with their tripods and big camera lenses trying to check off different species.
The most interesting sight was of a black bird standing mostly submerged in the water with only its long neck and head rising above the surface. I think it may have been an Anhinga cormorant. The next thing we new, it sank further until it disappeared under water. We stood watching for awhile, but it didn't come back up. I had no clue that birds could hold their breath for that long! (Or maybe it died. Who knows?)
I'm no expert, so I took photos of anything and everything, then relied on the internet to try to identify each photo's subject. (In other words, don't quote me.)
Take this White Ibis, for example. I'm not 100% sure it's a White Ibis... because it's not completely white like most of the pictures I found on the web. However, it did match some White Ibis photos on the internet.
|Do you know what this is? I don't.|
I never could identify other birds. I poked around on the internet for a while researching the one in the photo above and then decided that my time was better spent sleeping. Please enlighten me in the comment section below if you know what this is.
There were other creatures, too, like turtles and lizards.
|Check out that neck on the lizard!|
Make sure you watch where you step.
Once you step off the paved asphalt tram road, the trail gets a bit treacherous. Ankle-turning solution trails are all over the ground.
|Solution holes big enough to swallow a foot.|
The Everglades is definitely one of those places that I didn't appreciate until I visited it for myself. It was so much more than I expected. Just make sure to focus on the details.
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