Everglades Escape Among the Alligators

A traveler revisits Florida's untamed wilderness

As Everglades National Park celebrates its 50th birthday this year, I decided the time was ripe to revisit a part of this Florida wilderness.

Despite drainage programs, development, and agribusiness that have taken their toll on the Everglades, enough remains to be enjoyed by the traveler who is disinclined to spend a vacation lolling on the beach or chasing a golf ball.

Leaving Miami always has its complications. There's gas to get, last-minute provisions, and traffic lights that always seem to be red - reluctant to let anxious tourists escape into the sweet-smelling openness of the glades.

Levees on the north side of the road built to hold back the water block the view of the sawgrass prairie. Scrubby growth on the south side does the same. It felt strange and wonderful to speed along in a tunnel of human construction in the middle of the biggest roadless wilderness east of the Mississippi.

Cycling near the marshes

From the levee over one of the water control structure bridges, ducks, egrets, herons, and rare wood storks can be seen feeding in the water below. Airboat trails spread out into the horizon.

After a dozen miles, the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park comes into view. I got out my bike and cycled the eight miles to the observation tower. Some people do this at night under the full moon. The marshy grass and wading birds made it feel as if the ocean were nearby, though it's at least 30 miles away. In fact, this whole plateau was under the sea only about 5,000 years ago.

Every so often I was forced to pull over to let a tram tour go by. Alligators basking in the sun right next to the road didn't even bother to flinch.

From the tower, as far as can be seen in every direction, lies a beige and yellow carpet of sawgrass interspersed with scrubby green "tree islands" or hummocks.

Down in the pond are the ubiquitous alligators again. As the water shrinks away during the winter dry season, more and more gators come to this watering hole and fight for space, creating quite a spectacle.

On to the Big Cypress National Preserve for a hike on the Florida Trail, which runs the length of the state and will eventually join the Appalachian Trail. From atop a levee, my route wound through cypress swamp, pine trees, and patches of jungle-like woods called hardwood hummocks.

Swamp buggies with their immense wheels have left dozens of deep tracks that scar the plain. A struggle across them permits a look at some cypress trees with pineapple-like air plants clinging their branches. Before turning around and hiking back, I took time to look around an immaculate hunting camp with a cabin up on stilts, tin cups hanging in a row, and a watchful resident alligator.

My driving excursion continued across a beautiful stretch of the Trail to the Ten Thousand Islands' isolated Chokaloskee Island. Peter Matthiessen's 1989 historical novel, "Killing Mister Watson," has drawn many a curious traveler to the Ten Thousand Islands.

Ed Watson's homestead on the Chatham River now serves as an Everglades National Park back-country camp site along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. His ambitious plantation is gone. The historic house burned down during the park's formation.

On to the sparsely populated Everglades City, that was developed by landholder Barron Collier to be a bustling population center. All that remains of his grand vision are parkways, a few formal city buildings, and some fancy street lamps. Hollywood transformed the town into early Miami for the 1958 movie "Wind Across the Everglades" in which Christopher Plummer and Gypsy Rose Lee traded barbs in a "saloon" filmed at the Rod and Gun Club.

This lodge, with its graceful white columns, dark wood interior, and mounted animal heads and fish, played host to presidents Eisenhower and Truman. German chef Claus (Snookie) Senghaas invented Thousand Island salad dressing here for his prominent guests.

Chokoleskee was built on an ancient Calusa Indian mound, the effective old-time way of avoiding flood damage during hurricanes.

Overlooking the bay on tall stilts is a museum called Smallwood's Store, an unparalleled relic of Old Florida. The dark red, rustic wooden building contains animal skins, bottles, dry goods, and other accoutrements of the trading post it once was, and has perhaps the best selection of quality south Florida souvenirs in the region.

A bird's eye view

The next day, a flight over the Everglades was the best way to grasp the magnificence of this natural wonder.

At the Everglades Airstrip (where President Harry Truman dedicated Everglades National Park 50 years ago), John Apte, owner and operator of 10,000 Islands Aero Tours, whisks me into the air in a sea of mangrove tree islands, leaving all signs of human settlement.

Almost immediately we flew into a double rainbow. Down below were rounded clumps of cypress trees called "domes"; sawgrass beaten down in different directions by the wind; mangrove islands burnt orange by the frost; hardwood hummocks studded with palms; the winding Turner river, the Turner River Canal (now being filled in and restored to wetlands); alligators; manatees and their calves; sharks; bald eagles; conspicuously pink roseate spoonbills; pelicans; and coots. It's clear to see where hurricane Andrew flattened the mangroves. The plane even swoops over Watson Place a couple of times.

Afternoon calls for a short hike in the Fakahatchee Strand, a long, wet forest of cypress and other trees. Only 40 years ago this area was a center of cypress and pine logging operations.

Minute towns in the vicinity give no inkling of what went on here. On the boardwalk are huge trees that escaped the lumbermen, some locked in the embrace of strangular figs.

Interspersed are tall royal palms, more commonly associated with grand hotels but growing wild here.

As dusk approaches, mosquitoes make their presence known with ferocity. Running to my car, I slammed the door while a seemingly immune Seminole Indian fished in the nearby canal.

Gliding back to Miami under a ceiling of stars, I began to wonder what will be become of this wilderness that has no parallel. But for now, it's enough to be out in the heart of this strange wonderland, away from the huge street lamps of Dade County.

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