Unsurprisingly, even a short trip to Everglades National Park yielded the longest confirmed species list I’ve yet compiled in a National Park. We certainly spotted more species than those listed here, particularly trees and insects. Nevertheless, the following are the identifications I am confident in.
Our final stop in Everglades National Park was Mahogany Hammock, a hardwood hammock or island of dense trees and vegetation rising inches above the sawgrass prairie. It was the afternoon of Sunday, April 12, and our two-day visit to the Everglades was coming to its end.
Beyond the opportunity to visit a hammock ecosystem, we were attracted to this particular hammock because it boasts the largest Mahogany tree in the United States. The hammocks are areas of higher ground that are not flooded in the wet season. They are able to support an array of trees and plants are feel dense and jungle-like.
After our boat tour of the Everglades backcountry on Sunday, April 12, it was time to say goodbye to Flamingo at the end of the park road and begin the journey back to Lake Ashton. Although it was early afternoon, none of us was particularly hungry. So instead of grabbing a bite at Buttonwood Cafe, we began the drive, knowing that we’d stop at least a few times before we left the park.
The first stop, not far from Flamingo, was small Mrazek Pond, visible from the road with an area to pull over and park. We’d noticed the pond and that it boasted bird life on the way to Flamingo the previous afternoon. Now we were going to have a look.
It was late morning on Sunday, April 12. After visiting Anhinga Trail and Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, my parents, Sean, and I were on the pontoon boat, The Sawfish, waiting to depart Flamingo Marina for the concessionaire-operated Backcountry Tour of Everglades National Park.
The tour would give us just a taste of the Park’s vast mangrove estuaries, where the freshwater of the Everglades spills into the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay, creating a fertile nursery for fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and birds. The tour travels the first ten miles of the ninety-nine-mile Wilderness Waterway, a marked paddling trail that stretches from Flamingo to Everglades City.
They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in their simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.
-Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1947
Everglades National Park was established in 1947 and protects more than 1.5-million acres of sawgrass prairie, mangrove estuaries, pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and Florida Bay. It was the first National Park created specifically for wildlife, to save a threatened ecosystem. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
Yet for all that, it is one of the most threatened landscapes on the continent.
Sunday, April 12, Sean, my parents, and I woke up at 6am at our hotel in Homestead. We wanted to get an early start to be able to see much along Everglades National Park’s scenic drive before we had to be in Flamingo for our 11am backcountry boat tour. Our first stop that morning would be Anhinga Trail, not far from the Park entrance in a section of the Park that had been a Florida State Park before the National Park was established. The trail was highly recommended by my Openlands coworker and friend, Linda, as well as by various guides.
With four of us sharing one bathroom, it took a bit of time for everyone to be ready. We breakfasted in the hotel bistro before checking out.
We had tickets for the sunset tour of Florida Bay on Saturday evening, April 11 at 6pm. From our hotel in Homestead, the park entrance was about a twenty-minute drive. Flamingo, where the marina was located, was another thirty-eight miles away at the end of the park road. We didn’t want to be late, so after we’d dropped our bags at the hotel, used the restroom, and refilled our water bottles, we set out toward Everglades National Park.
Our journey to Everglades National Park began on Saturday, April 11 at Lake Ashton, the retirement community my parents were renting a house in for March and April. Sean and I had flown from Chicago after work on Thursday. Friday evening we’d spent packing for the Everglades and preparing a picnic lunch for Saturday afternoon.
Our first destination was Big Cypress National Preserve, which protects 729,000 acres of the northwestern section of the Everglades ecosystem. Because of the habitat diversity in the Preserve, it is critical for the endangered Florida Panther. Some 30-40 panthers live in the Preserve, compared with 8-10 in Everglades National Park. Although it was part of the original proposal for the National Park, the Big Cypress Swamp was ultimately not included in the Park when it was established in 1947. Two major east-west thoroughfares bisect the Preserve, I-75 (nicknamed Alligator Alley) and US 41 Tamiami Trail.
In the decade after Everglades National Park was established, developers from booming Miami proposed and began building the world’s largest jetport on Tamiami Trail near the center of the swamp. The developers had not anticipated the evolution in public understanding of the importance of protecting open space, wildlife, and water in south Florida. The outcry from conservationists and the general public was intense, leading to the cancellation of the jetport and the creation of the nation’s first National Preserve.
My parents rented a house in central Florida for March and April 2015. This was the third year they’d spend part of the winter there to escape somewhat the cold and snow of Michigan. For the second year, Sean and I were to visit them for a long weekend. In 2014, we’d stayed four nights, but this year we’d decided to stay for five. The previous year, we’d made some day trip excursions to Bok Tower Gardens, near to Lake Wales, where the senior development they rented in was located. We also, with my Mother, ventured an hour away to the Atlantic coast and Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. And Sean and I drove the hour and change to the Gulf and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see manatees.
This year, since we were staying longer, I thought I might be able to convince everyone to do one of the three Florida National Parks. Dry Tortugas was both too far away and already claimed as a trip by others. Everglades seemed to big. So my initial focus was on Biscayne, south of Miami. As I began investigating Biscayne, I discovered that the park currently has no contracted concessionaire to provide visitor services. So we wouldn’t be able to take a glass-bottomed boat tour. Or get out onto the water of an almost all-water park.
By default, then, the 1.5-million acre Everglades National Park at the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula would become my fourteenth park, Sean’s twelfth park, and the first National Park I’d visit with my parents.