At over one million acres, the Everglades is the third largest national park in the United States — after Death Valley and Yellowstone. But one of the first things I learned today was that it’s only one-sixth of what it once was. Until the white man came just a few centuries ago, everything in Florida south of Orlando was like the Everglades. Development has made this gorgeous wetland a mere scepter of what it once was.
At every corner surrounding the Everglades, you witness the suburban hell that makes up most of southern Florida. As we pass the agribusiness and new real estate development a mere minutes away from this treasure, you can’t help concluding it was a really bad idea.
The Everglades Hostel offers a full-day guided tour of the Park, and it’s worth the money. I left this morning with five other guests to the park, and the Hostel took care of our entrance fee, provided us lunch, and took us on a canoe trip. For years, I had been told to bring lots of mosquito repellent to the Everglades … but I never had to use it. It’s February (not July), and there are no mosquitoes this time of year.
What’s the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? Florida’s the only place where you have both. The picture on the left is a group of alligators at the Everglades Visitor Center, who are a dime a dozen in the park. Alligators are all over the South, going up as far as North Carolina.
Crocodiles, on the other hand, only exist in the lower parts of the Everglades where you have salt water — and they are a threatened species. I saw a lot of alligators today, but I saw very few crocodiles … save for these two. In most cases, crocodiles and alligators were “sunbathing” — sitting near the bank of a river to wait until their blood warms up. To be honest, I didn’t see much of a distinction besides their color — although they are different species who cannot reproduce with each other.
The advantage of going on a guided tour is — assuming you don’t have several days to camp in the Park — you experience parts of the Everglades that a casual tourist would never know about. Graham, our tour guide from the Hostel, took us to a cypress dome off the beaten path. These domes are literally created by alligators, who manipulate the weak limestone ground to build a sort of “hut.” They are quite visible from the roads, but you must get out of your car — and walk through muddy waters to experience the inside.
We were told to put on shoes we didn’t care got damaged, and to not take anything we risked losing in the mud. I asked about cameras, and he said, “you’ll want to take pictures … it’s beautiful.” With my digital camera broken, all I have to take pictures is my iPhone. So I trod through the ankle-deep mud, watching out for holes in the ground that could slip you further down — all the while clutching my iPhone for dear life, hoping not to make a false move.
Before Graham took us back to the Hostel for the night, we went on a one-hour canoe trip through some of the Park’s shallow marshes. Leisurely paddling our boats was a real meditative moment for me. I thought about the whole purpose behind this road trip … I had assumed I would find spiritual enlightenment by driving on the open road, with my favorite music blaring in the CD player to help keep me sane. Here, I was getting solace from the sound of silence — with the fish floating through the water, and the egrets flying around us.
I even heard a few crickets chirping occasionally — which was truly unexpected, as I’d never heard crickets during the daytime. Graham was in the boat behind me, steering us through the marsh. He said I could paddle if I wanted to, but it wasn’t required. I manned my oar for most of the trip, but would then occasionally stop to relax and look at my surroundings. Here I was … on the other side of the country from San Francisco, with just the Everglades around me. This place has kept me sane … it must remain!