Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gliding through The 'Glades

Florida is flat and watery. I worry that with global warming revving up like it is, it will all be under water sooner than anyone thinks. All that water makes the place very humid. Most places this humid are green and jungly, but southern Florida is mostly flat expanses of sawgrass with little tiny islands of hardwood called "hammocks" popping up here and there. At least in nature it's that way. An alarming amount of Florida has already come under the nasty grip of developers and in the humid flatness, there's also an abundance of strip malls and housing developments. Thankfully, once you're in the Everglades National Park, it's mostly just nature.

"I have never been to a place in the U.S. with so many people who don't speak English!" exclaimed K. She's Big Dog's sister-in-law who was supposed to have joined us in Costa Rica but had to cancel after we aborted our stay. This was the make-up trip.

"People come from all over the world to the National Parks, don't they. The natural wonders of this country are simply astonishing, breathtaking, unsurpassed... The landscapes, the flora and fauna are the real treasures of this continent," I gushed.

And we kept encountering proof that the world thought so, too. German, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, French, Italian...you really did hear dozens of different languages spoken as you wandered around the Visitor Centers and meandered down the well-designed walking trails.

Much of the Everglades is best seen by boat, canoe or kayak, but even on land, there are moments of pure wonder. The Mahogany Hammock walk, where you go into a lushly vegetated "hammock" filled with palms, gumbo limbo trees, strangler figs and air plants, has America's oldest mahogany tree, a marvelously regal tree with long, gracefully curving branches that host giant blooming bromeliads.

For fauna, the Anhinga Trail can't be beat!
"Is that an anhinga?"
"Looks like one. Do you think that's a great blue heron?"
"There's a snowy egret!"
Even those of us with only a rudimentary knowledge of birds become avid bird watchers!

And then, there are the American alligators. The first sighting is like seeing Elvis.
"Oh, oh, oh...look! An alligator!!!" I squealed. It was dusk and dinner time and the one I spotted in the canal was probably looking for a tasty morsel. Just then, there's a sudden movement in the water, a big splash and the alligator had a fish in its mouth.
"Did you see that?" marveled Big Dog. "He curved his body around the fish to trap it against the reeds and when the fish swam towards its mouth...wham! He's so clever!" He was impressed. (Animals of indeterminate gender always become male for him when he's impressed.)

As you go further down the trail, though, you realize that the place is crawling with 'gators! Big ones, little ones, eating, swimming, resting. In the mangrove-rimmed lakes, they happily co-exist with the water birds and turtles.

Today, we braved huge black clouds to drive down the Tamiami Trail ("Do you think it's an Indian name?" asked K. who is as curious as I am in almost everything. We found out that no, it's just short for Tampa-to-Miami) to Shark Valley where we saw ponds filled with baby alligators, more birds, turtles, and never saw but heard a chorus of pig frogs making hilarious farting sounds.

The Tamiami Trail is dotted with air boat businesses. Somehow speeding through the marshes on an air boat doesn't really appeal to me. It feels like you are disturbing the sanctity of nature too much. Like carrying a boombox into a cathedral. A canoe or kayak would be much better, but without a guide, you could get so lost in the reeds and water lilies. The landscape made me think of Carl Hiassen's novels.

"You'd like him," I mentioned to Big Dog. "The main guy in Sick Puppy is just like you."
He scowled. Big dogs don't like to be associated with sick puppies, I guess.
"In a really good way!" I added.

From the Tamiami Trail, you can take the Loop Road through Big Cypress National Preserve, dense with big cypress and bromeliads. It's really wet here but just about halfway down the Loop Road, the clouds broke and poured celestial buckets on us as if to say "heh heh heh, you ain't seen nothin' yet!" It was true.

A couple of days in the 'Glades can hardly do it justice. One day we'll be back, with canoes and tents to pitch on those charming perches called chickees that rise out of the water, to do a real tour of the Everglades, but for now, this will have to do.

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