Alligators, Snakes and Lizards! Oh, My!!! Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park
February 15—Flexibility has become the name of the game on this trip. We left Pine Island (St. James City, FL) with a plan to stay at an RV Park located at the north side of Everglades National Park. Our trip to the park was very interesting with each of the girls seeing over 100 alligators (yes, they counted) in the water that is along US-41 and a lot of water birds. Once we got to our new park, however, we knew right away that it wasn’t going to work out. It was not a well maintained park and there were no bathrooms. We called several RV and state parks but couldn’t find any with vacancies. Our only hope was to head back on US-41 to Midway Campground which is part of the National Park. They don’t take reservations and it was already late in the day. Our relief was very great when the park host greeted us with, “This is your lucky day. We have one spot left!” He gave us our information and then put out the “No Sites Available” sign.
Midway Campground is not far from Big Cypress National Preserve. After a quick set-up, we headed over right away so Eva could get her Jr. Ranger Badge and the girls and I could get our National Park Passports stamped. This particular Jr. Ranger book is for Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. It is very comprehensive and while she only had to complete three pages for each of the three parks, it took a quite a bit of time at each. We found the book to be very helpful in furthering our understanding of the very diverse eco-systems of these three national treasures.
After Eva got her badge, we went out on the boardwalk where we saw a lot of alligators, fish, lizards and water birds. The ranger who had previously sworn Eva in as a Jr. Ranger spent a lot of time with us on the boardwalk. She answered our many questions and taught us so much about Big Cypress and its relationship to the Everglades. Several lizards ran around as we talked. We learned a great deal about them from her as well.
This was our first time camping at a National Park on this trip. While it was a very beautiful and peaceful campground, it didn’t take us long to figure out that it was a dead area for our phone and internet service; both of which are critical to our businesses. It was with great regret that we went back to the camp host and told him we would have to leave the next morning.
That night, I woke up around 3AM and realized that we were in complete darkness. When I left the farm on which I grew up to go to college, I had a hard time getting used to street lights outside my dorm at night. Having lived in cities or towns since then, I felt almost claustrophobic in such complete darkness. I’m sure that the remarks the ranger made earlier in the day about pythons didn’t help my feeling of well-being either! : )
February 16—We packed up bright and early the next morning and headed out once again. This time we had no clue as to where we could to stay, no phone service with which to call ahead and a hope that we weren’t leaving the only campsite available in southern Florida. Before leaving US-41 we stopped at Shark Valley Visitor Center which is part of Everglades National Park. Barry was able to get a signal so he sat in the truck for awhile with the computer open and phone in hand trying to book a campground while the girls and I went exploring.
When Barry and I were discussing this part of the trip I had told him that I really had no desire to visit the Everglades but that I thought be should at least stop long enough for Eva to get her Jr. Ranger Badge. I thought the Everglades was just a huge, alligator and snake infested swamp. Last summer we sat with friends around a campfire and heard their stories about Shark Valley and look at the pictures of them biking a trail on which they often had to swerve to miss large alligators. They told us what a wonderful place this was and that we had to go. We all remained steadfast that we would never walk or bike that trail but would happily view the alligators from atop a deck. About a week before heading to Shark Valley, Barry got a facebook message from one of them saying, “Promise me that you’ll go to Shark Valley!” We decided to stop but we would only look around a bit.
As the the girls and I headed into the Visitor’s Center, we saw the trail. There were already several walkers, bikers and photographers out there…and ALLIGATORS!! We decided to just go to the beginning of the trail for a little look. Emboldened by so many other people, we were soon on the trail ourselves. The farther we walked, the more we saw and then the more we wanted to see. There were so many water birds nesting, hunting or just seeming to stand ready for their picture to be taken (Jenna now calls me the ‘bird paparazzi). There were turtles, alligators of all sizes-even babies, lizards, butterflies, and beautiful plants and flowers. We soon realized that we were beyond the crowd and agreed that we would feel better if Barry was with us. On our way back, there were more people and MORE alligators. As a matter of fact, the trail looked quite different because the alligators were moving out of the water and up onto the trail to sun themselves.
We soon found Barry who was a little shocked that we had become so brave. He had found us a spot for the next few nights in Florida City which made us all very relieved. It wasn’t far so we could spend as much time as we wanted at Shark Valley. The girls and I were eager to show him all the things we had discovered, so we headed back out to the trail.
We walked the trails for quite a ways and then headed back to take a boardwalk that went into a thickly wooded area. About half-way in, Eva jumped and said that she had seen a snake. Barry and I thought it was probably just a lizard but then Jenna said that she not only had seen it but was looking at it. Sure enough, there was a small snake coiled up under some leaves. I quickly snapped a picture and jumped out of the way. Rangers later identified it as an adult Dusky Dwarf Pygmy Rattlesnake. They were very glad we had left it alone. After reading about it, so were we!
The Visitor’s Center at Shark Valley is small but worth the stop. Knowledgeable rangers and volunteers eagerly answer questions. There are some good hands-on displays that were of special interest to the girls. We bought an interesting little book about where animals go during hurricanes from the bookstore. One of the volunteers took us to a map and explained more of the relationship between Big Cypress, the Everglades and the coastal waters. He also explained to us the threats the Everglades face and what is being done to protect this beautiful and valuable ecosystem.
We’re very thankful to our friends for persuading us to stop at Shark Valley. Our time there was just the beginning of a few days in this area that is truly a wonder of the world. The Everglades cast a spell over all of us and we were eager for more!
That afternoon, we moved to Southern Comfort RV Resort in Florida City, Florida. (It’s a very nice, clean place!) We hit the books hard for the rest of the day. Eva and I went for a walk later in the day to look for leaves she needed to finish a Science project. As we were heading over to an area that was outside the park a man yelled, “Hey! You aren’t going into those trees are you?” I told him that we were just going to the edge of the woods to collect leaf samples. He told us that the area is infested with snakes and that we best stay away. He then asked us why we needed the leaves. We told him and he very graciously invited us to look through his garden and take what we wanted. He pointed out the different types of plants (many we had never before seen), gave us all the samples we wanted, and an impromptu Botany class! He even gave her a prickly pear bud to replant. The world really is our classroom and I’m so thankful for those who take an interest in the girls’ education!
February 17—We started the day with school in the camper and then took school into the Everglades to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, FL, where the rangers and an interesting movie became our teachers. Here Eva finished her requirements for the Everglades portion of the Jr. Ranger book. The Visitor Center is quite interesting and gave us a deeper understand as to what the Everglades really are and are not. Barry and I had always learned that the Everglades is a large swamp but it is really a very complex ecosystem that makes up the largest subtropical wetlands in the United States. We were expecting a dark, cypress filled area with alligators and snakes at every turn. It is a river of grass where the slightest change in elevation can produce different types of fauna and thus different habitats for a wide variety of animals.
We had it in our heads that we needed to take an airboat ride into the Everglades. Because they take place within the National Park, we assumed it would be educational even though they are run by concessions that aren’t a part of the National Park Service. Our experience was far from that. We paid a lot of money for a 20 minute ride on an airboat in which we saw only about a dozen alligators and some water birds. The main part of the ride consisted of going out into the Everglades as fast as we could to do three 360 degree revolutions in the airboat. Our admission fee also included two short shows; one featuring snakes and the other alligators. Both were less than 15 minutes long. During the snake show, the handler pressured a woman from the crowd who was obviously very afraid of snakes to hold a small ball python. He conned her into going down to the front with him where he sneakily put a very large python onto her shoulders. He seemed to delight in the control he now had over her and would not remove the snake until she said, “I’m not afraid of snakes.” To make matters worse, she didn’t speak English very well so not only was she frightened but also couldn’t understand what he was trying to get her to do. The alligator show was nothing more than stunts concocted to abuse the poor animal in the name of entertainment. I could go on and on about the insufficient and dirty areas in which the animals live. Our girls were not impressed and asked us if we could just stick with the National Park from here on out.
The next day I relayed all of this to a National Park Ranger. She told me that there are a handful of airboat rides that are educational and worth the trip. If you ever go, please investigate these concessioners thoroughly so you too don’t waste your time or money and further encourage people in the abuse of animals. Better yet, take the tram ride with the National Park Rangers at Shark Valley or hike the boardwalks in Everglades National Park where you will see many, many alligators in their natural habitat. There are also privately operated boat tours of the Florida Bay area at Flamingo Visitor Center.
February 18—Driving through the Everglades is interesting because there are so many new things to see. Besides alligators there are water birds of all types, subtropical plants and Panther Crossing signs! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any panthers but the signs kept reminding us that they are indeed there. Our first day driving through, we saw prison work crews working on the roads along the canals where we saw so many alligators! We also passed many fruit and vegetables farms. It was very interesting to see corn that wasn’t “at least knee-high not by the 4th of July” but by the middle of February. Migrant workers swarmed the fields from morning until dusk picking everything from berries to beans to papaya.
We drove past such farms on our way to Flamingo Visitor Center in Flamingo, Florida, which is also a part of Everglades National Park. After you enter the park, it’s a long but very interesting and pleasant drive back to Flamingo. When we arrived at the park, we walked under the flamingo colored buildings and right onto Florida Bay. Spotting a ranger, I turned to Barry and whispered, “Can you imagine being a ranger at this park. It’s paradise!” This same ranger lead a fascinating class on the mosquito which we attended. After hearing how thick the mosquitoes are in the summer months at the park, we decided that it’s not always paradise and wondered how they can take it! She told us that the first thing she was given when she was hired was a set of keys and a special mosquito coat, which she passed around for us to look at. It was also interesting to find out all the ways in which they deal with the pesky insects, how their pants literally look like they are crawling when they are outside of the buildings and how camping at Flamingo is free during the worst of the mosquito season because they figure anyone who can handle the mosquitoes deserves free lodging. We also learned a lot about the life cycle of mosquitoes and the part they play in the ecosystem of the Everglades. She also discussed the various types of repellants and what are most effective. The class made me think about those t-shirts we often see in Michigan that have a large mosquito on them with the caption, “Michigan’s State Bird!” I think that honor goes to southern Florida!!
After the class on mosquitoes, we headed into the Visitor Center where we learned so much about this area of the Everglades. It was a very busy place but there were plenty of rangers present to answer questions. There was also a “mobile museum” outside the center that was attended by a ranger. We were eager to see more wildlife so we walked around the water’s edge where we saw more manatee and a couple of fearsome looking crocodiles!
On our drive out of this part of Everglades National Park, we stopped at Snake Bight Trail[1. This trail is used by the military and Miami University to study mosquito repellants due to the high density of mosquito swarms. This time of year, the mosquitos were not around.] and hiked for a bit through the mangroves. We saw a lot of beautiful water birds, interesting plants, seed pods and butterflies. We met a photographer on the trail who had been hiking through the Everglades for a several days. He encouraged us to hike Anhinga Trail which is located at the Royal Palm area of the park. When we asked him what we would see there his was reply was, “Everything!!!!” He was right. I can’t say how many alligators and turtles we saw because there were so many. The many species of birds must have decided to put on a show that day because they were out in full force hunting, diving, soaring, nesting and preening. They all seemed to want our attention because the chatter was incessant. The path was well marked with plaques that not only identified the various types of fauna but also gave brief descriptions of each. This was especially helpful for our youngest, whom I have mentioned before is studying Botany for this school year. For the rest of the semester she has to work on a field guide the explores the plants in our backyard. Our backyard is very large right now and this part of the Everglades was very helpful.
As we left the park, we made one final stop at a ditch where we had seen scores of baby alligators earlier in the day. There were only a few at this point, but they were very cute and the girls enjoyed finding them as they were well camouflaged in the water.
Our initial lack of interest in the Everglades turned into four days of exploration and a strong desire to return one day. The hours we had spent at this National Park had only allowed us to scratch a very tiny part of the surface of this amazing place.
Big Cypress National Preserve: http://www.nps.gov/bicy/index.htm
Everglades National Park: http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm