Friday, March 2, 2012

The Everglades

The Everglades, river of grass, is an awesome wilderness.  It's massive.  And it's fantastic.  If you're going to do 2 things in South Florida - do Key West and the Everglades.

The Everglades is one massive river, 60 miles wide and over 100 miles long, flat as a pancake but with a slight tilt (6 feet over a few hundred miles) making the water flow very slowly from the north to south.

There are different places and ways to experience the Everglades.  My recommendation is to get out into it, as far in as you can go.

We did two day trips this year, both very different.  Note you cannot do both one one day.....

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Loxahatchee is a 45 minute drive from Fort Lauderdale.  It's a massive park with lots to do.  In fact, you get 3 for 1 here! - you get cypress forest, Everglades and a great visitor center.  See below for more on each.

We started off with the Everglades.  This is the coolest thing.  Taking a kayak out into the Everglades on a 5.5 mile water 'trail'.

This is not for the faint hearted.  We thought this would not be difficult and (even though the signs say this takes 3.5 hours) we thought we would go this in 2 hours.  Read on to see what really happened...
Here is the canoe station.  Lots of choices from one man kayaks to 10 men canoes.  A kayak is $25 per person per day.

Here is the 5.5 mile Loxahatchee trail.  This 5.5 mile loop only overs a minute part of the Loxahatchee park, which itself is only a small part of the Everglades. It really re-sets your perspective on the size of the Everglades.

We were hoping but would we really see one?....

We start off - very easy going to start.  In fine spirits!

Quick break.

Everglades means River of Grass and there is a lot of sawgrass.  It well named, I've cut my finger on Sawgrass - it's vicious!

It's pretty flat! It's 80 degrees and the wind is coming up which makes paddling harder.

This picture below shows 2 things.  The dense vegetation just below the water surface which makes paddling harder work and less efficient per stroke.  Plus the wind does not help.  Oh, and second, you can just about see our first alligator up near the bend!
More than 45 minutes in we must have done a few miles now....

There are millions of pretty lilies like this.  In fact, there was loads of amazing plants and wildlife on the trip.

There were a dozen self-guiding signs like this on the route.

There are MM (mile marker) signs like this on the route.  This is MM1. Of 5.5 mile route.  We could not believe it.  We are 1 hour in and knackered and we thought we were at least half way round!

Do we turn back or continue the other 4.5 miles?

We decided to continue....

The only place you can stop, and get out of your canoe/kayak if you wish is this tiny wooden pontoon which is 2.2 miles into the trip.  I did get out to stretch my legs and my back which was aching by this point.  Not even half way yet!  And the sun is very very hot.  We took 2 litres of water each.  We reapplied factor 15 sun lotion too - and we were still red the next day!
Almost Half way pontoon.  Leg stretch.  Getting back in the kayak was interesting.

Alligator ahead.  Can you see him?  It's almost impossible to make out from the other pieces of vegetation and wood.  Hint: look towards the middle of the image.
One minute later and we were closer.  He obviously knew we were there and he just carried on swimming very slowly for another 50 meters, us following less than 10 meters behind him.  In the end he was going too slow and we had to overtake!  So we just went by keeping to the other bank. It was an amazing experience.  I wish I could say I was cool but I wasn't - it was an adrenaline moment!
Alligator up close.  
Here's how I (rather gingerly) passed another alligator on this trip:
Lily type #2.  There were millions of them!
Battling through the yellow lily forest.  Not as easy as you might think, actually!
Me doing the paddle thing.  OK laugh, but seriously I did this for 4 hours.  It's 82 degrees.  The wind is blowing against me.   I have blisters.  It's really hard work.
Grass of the Everglades.  
Apart from the alligators, the strangest thing about today was spending 4 hours at sea level, unable to get up higher in any way to get a view.  We get so used to being at body height level or higher. It's human nature to get a high viewpoint.  But today, not.   All we saw for 4 hours was this kind of view above.  It's a strange perspective.
We were VERY tired at this point.  Aching back and arms.  Drenched with sweat and water from the paddling.  Blisters formed on hands!  MM4 was a sight for celebration!  Only a mile to go...
MM4 at Loxahatchee.
Grass, grass and more grass.
Finished!  But now to get out of the kayak, there's no graceful way to do this!
Back on dry land after over 4 hours on the river.

The end. Wow what a brilliant experience.  We saw millions of lilies, 1 person and 10 alligators up close. Probably the highlight of the whole vacation.  Totally shattered but satisfied.  Getting out into it, even for a few hours, really makes the Everglades a different experience.

That was Loxahatchee.  Which is the far north of the Evergaldes.  A few days later (do NOT do this on the same day!) we want south.

Day 2: The Everglades to the South

A new day and today we're doing a multi-stop, 100 mile each way, tour along I-75 (known as Alligator Alley), through Big Cypress National Preserve, then turning south and heading for Chokoloskee, one of the Ten Thousand Islands.  All of it Everglades.
Perfect weather today.  Just right temperature, not very humid and a fair breeze.  That's why March is the perfect month for visiting South Florida.
The view from I-75.
Alligator Alley sign, I-75 North.  This road slices right across south Florida west/east from Fort Lauderdale, 50 miles right through the Everglades. 
What you see from I-75.
The rare Florida panther lives here - we didn't see one today!
We were fairly sure that we would see an alligator or two today.
We were also going to learn lots about the Everglades from all our various stops.  Here the variety of land types in the Everglades.
Wildlife sightings this week in Big Cypress Bend boardwalk, our first stop.
The Everglades is very slow flowing - taking a year to move through the system.
An inch makes all the difference!  This really came home to me earlier in the week when we were at water level kayaking. 

Big Cypress Bend boardwalk - about 900 meters walk was excellent.
Saw this ibis on the way busy dibbing.
Epiphytes sign - and the main types.

Red shouldered hawk in a tree on the boardwalk.  We were lucky - it's not often you catch one of these guys.
Red-shouldered hawk. 
These places are BIG!  We drove through Big Cypress today and then down south into the Everglades national park.
More driving and we're out at our furthest south point - the island town of Chokoloskee.  And in that town the amazing museum called the Smallwood's Store.  Founded in 1906 it was the town's first post office, general store and trading post with the Indians.
This is what the main counter looked like 100 years ago....
...and this is the same view today.  They're done an amazing job of restoring it.  As well as all the provisions, there are lots of stories about the locals and their exploits and life 100 years ago.  This place is a real wilderness town so the stories are amazing.
The Smallwood Store back onto the ocean.
View to the Everglades from the Smallwood's Store.  A lone red mangrove, and early adopter, starting the long process of colonisation.
A little about the remarkable Ted Smallwood.
Here is Ted Smallwood outside this very store I am in now. 
Totch Brown - Another local character from the past.  He was an alligator hunter.
Totch Brown and an alligator.
Pit Pan, Totch Brown's boat which he used to catch alligators.  Wow!
The full length of the Smallwood's Store
Smallwood's Store from outside.
Smallwood's Store entrance
Chokoloskee, one of the larger of the Ten Thousand Island group, in the Everglades, is a good looking town.  Not much there, but nice anyway! This is 'out of the way' Florida.
Fishing is great in Chokoloskee Island.  A small island, the sea is everything.
Chokoloskee fishing pier - more pelicans than people.
Chokoloskee.  Just imagine living here.  This is your view.  You're home is right by your boat.
This is one of the Ten Thousand islands.  
This is some of the natural life the Everglades support.
Everglades natural life.  Apparently you can see manitees at one of the visit centers close to here.
You can do lots of kayaking in these parts.  This picture from a visitor center.  How cool would it be to stay for the night on one of these
More driving and onto the final destination.  Turner River Road has a canal with dozens of alligators.  Here's a small one.

And that's the end of our Everglades adventure, for this year anyway.

Here's what I've learned:

  • The Everglades is massive
  • There's so much to do
  • In 2 days I've only scratched the surface
  • Why go to a 'gator farm' when you can see them in the wild?
  • Why go on a noisy, busy, stressful airboat ride when you can get out on a kayak?
  • The kayak tour is totally awesome!
  • I want to come back to the Everglades soon!