Leaving the keys was sort of bittersweet. I really do hope I can keep a little of the keys attitude with me. I strung things out a it by going all the way back through Crocodile Lake Preserve at the north end of Largo — even though I could have cut the drive shorter by sticking to the US 1. It was a nice morning. And I still recommend Card Sound Road for a drive when you’re down this way.
Once on the mainland, it was a straight shot up FL 997 to US 41 — which is actually 8th street in Miami, where I hung a left and headed into the Everglades. I had two things on the agenda today — nose around Big Cypress National Preserve and take a 2 hour private airboat ride through the Everglades with someone who could actually explain everything to me. The latter ruled out “Safari World” or “Flying Ernie and his Master Blaster Airboat Tour” sort of things. I used a group called Everglades Nature Tours and, while a shade on the pricey side, they were absolutely what I had hoped for.
All the online advice was for an early morning departure — not possible for me — and I actually wanted the late afternoon light for some photos. So I booked a 2:30 departure for a 4:30 return. With the time change, that meant a pretty low sun angle for the second half of the trip. I got not one, but two calls from the booking company while I was in Key West to see if I was sure I wanted that time. It’s the heat of the day and we like to make sure you know that. You know you might not see any alligators. Etc. I stuck to my guns and I am glad I did.
First of all, it meant that I could make a loop through Big Cypress via Hwy94 and return to my boat launch. And that experience helped me understand the Everglades a lot better when the time came. Big Cypress is, in fact, a swamp. A Big Cypress Swamp. We have those in other parts of the south, but Big Cypress is a couple of things that set it apart — 1) it’s big — bigger than the state of Rhode Island at 720,000 acres, and 2) it represents the first National Preserve. Basically, the latter means that diverse groups of interest compromised and banded together to get something all of them wanted and to stop something none of them wanted. In the 60s, Miami was about to build its International Airport in a section of land in the Big Cypress. In fact, they had already built one runway — it’s still there. Two different Indian tribes — the Seminole and Miccosukee — sportsmen, and environmentalists got together and caused the creation of a new type of federal protection/management called a National Preserve. The airport went elsewhere. The Native Americans got continued rights for subsistence hunting and gathering as well as first rights on any future profitable revenue streams, the sportsmen got continued access and regulated hunting and fishing, and the environmentalists got no airport in the middle of 720,000 acres of pristine habitat. There is some argument that Big Cypress was meant to be part of the Everglades National Park when it was formed in the 40s, but I don’t buy that. The Seminole and Miccosukee could not survive with the National Park restrictions on Big Cypress. There is ample evidence that the tribes used the Everglades as well, but those trips were periodic — Big Cypress was fundamental to their subsistence. So today, the two coexist — a National Park with all its restriction protects the Everglades, and a National Preserve with access and regulations for use, protects Big Cypress. Some efforts are being made to limit ORV (off road vehicle) access in Big Cypress, and the government would like to buy out the two oil leases that exist within the Preserve boundaries (it already has oversight of them), but so far, the compromise is holding. I for one hope it continues to. I’m certain that ORVs create issues, but without them sportsmen can’t get into Big Cypress — it is a swamp. And without the sportsmen, the compromise fails and we may end up with an airport yet. Today, Big Cypress was a glorious fresh water timber laden ride through time in, ahem, an ORV of sorts, to be honest.
As for the Everglades, I am smitten. Technically, the Everglades is the world’s slowest moving river. It flows at about one quarter of a mile per day. Basically, a little water from Lake Okeechobee and a lot of water from rain falls along an ever so slight gradient from central Florida to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Historically, the Everglades started at the south end of Lake Okeechobee, but if you look on a map, the National Park and protected area starts well south of that. About 50% of what was once part of the “River of Grass” is farmland and ranchland in central Florida now — drained and regulated by a series of canals. I could spend a bunch of time talking about whether that is good or bad, but the folks who love and care for the Everglades now are more focused on just that — loving and caring for the Everglades now. In addition, they (at least the ones I talked to) recognize the value and benefits of the agri-business that was created. While I might prefer an unadulterated, free flowing Everglades, I have the ability to absorb the impact — higher food prices and lower employment in Florida. Many here do not. As I’ve often found out here on the edge, the people who are here are better arbiters of natural resources than the people who read about these places. So, enough of that. Let me tell you about the Everglades.
I said yesterday that I saw some similarities in the areas along the Card Sound Road to the great Prairies of the Midwest. Turns out I was not just making stuff up. The Everglades is a prairie. It is what is called a Marl Prairie. It is also a river. This is confusing to an English Major, but it is wonderful in application. For as far as you can see, sedge grows in the shallow water, interrupted periodically by hummocks of holly and other hardwood, packed with waterlillies and other aquatic species, and filled with fish and alligators. Most of what you see in the Everglades is not grass, technically, it is sedge. It is named sawgrass for the razor sharp three edges each blade maintains, but it is a sedge. A careful tug will reveal a soft base that is edible — it tastes like hearts of palm with less flavor — and the sedge is responsible for the slow flow of the water to the south. The river — all 50 miles wide of it — is, in fact, a river of sedge. Not a river of grass. Ever the marketers, Florida figured out that a river of grass sells better than a river of sedge and so we have the moniker.
I spent two hours sailing over the river of sedge on an airboat. We stopped often to study different vegetation, watch alligators, marvel at spear fishing herons, and look at how the light changes everything you see out here. I could have stayed for days. The weather, despite the threats from the lady on the telephone, was delightful. The water is gin clear and the fish are as present as in an aquarium. Everything grows and everything contributes to the complex give and take of the ecosystem. It, like so many of our other National Parks, is something to be preserved and protected — if for no other reason than to see how complex systems with different needs can coexist.
I am tonight at the western edge of the Everglades, on the coast at Everglades City. Tomorrow I will follow US 41 north along the western coast of Florida. For the next few days, I will see the challenges, even tragedies, of living on the edge, as I witness the red tide and the devastation of Hurricane Michael. I expect to learn from what I see, and to be better for having seen it. Just as I am today, after a day in the Big Cypress and the Everglades.