Manacled by Mangroves: Lessons of Blocked Passage

One hundred years ago, two men in two canoes made their way up the Harney River from the Gulf of Mexico and started across the vast, wet Everglades for Miami.

They were Hugh Willoughby, a well-to-do explorer from New York, and Ed Brewer, a Florida hunting guide.

One hundred years later - and 50 years after this vast wetland became a national park - Monitor photographer Bob Harbison and I are setting out to follow in their footsteps. We aren't seeking to travel all the way to Miami. We merely plan to take their route into the famed saw grass for a few miles.

The Willoughby trip is interesting for two reasons. It offers one of the most accurate descriptions of the Everglades before it came under intense pressure from plume hunters, flood-control projects, agriculture, and urban development. It also helped lift the veil of mystery that long shrouded the remote region in misconception.

"The popular impression has always been that the Everglades is a huge swamp, full of malaria and disease germs. There was certainly nothing in our surroundings that would remind one of a swamp," writes Mr. Willoughby.

Instead he writes of passing through an ocean of nesting white egrets, of seeing thousands of otter trails, of seeing saw grass more than 10 feet tall, and of traveling over clear, clean water that flowed through the saw grass from beyond the northern horizon.

"This water is quite wholesome to drink. Whenever the canoe stopped," Willoughby writes, he took "two or three glasses at a time."

Who wouldn't want to be on that journey to see the grassland before humans began to change it. Bob and I plan to follow the Harney River into the grass. We want to record the difference between Willoughby's Everglades and today's.

But we immediately run into problems. The nearest dry-land campsite to our destination, a place called Canepatch, is deemed off limits by the National Park Service because campers have burned down the toilet. So we decide to follow the Broad River. According to our charts, if we follow the Broad southeast 3-1/2 miles, we should emerge from the mangrove-rimmed river into wide-open grassland. From there we could intersect with the 1897 route.

To get there, Bob and I double up in one canoe, leaving our gear and the other canoe at Camp Lonesome.

With two men paddling a nearly empty canoe we move with enough speed to leave a steady wake. It takes less than an hour to reach the point where the river narrows and where, according to the chart, it would lead us to open grassland. Instead, we run smack into an unending line of mangroves. We paddle into the dense brush pushing branches aside, but the roots block our path. It's as if someone has erected jail bars across the waterway.

With the help of a machete we could slash our way through to the grass. But we do not have a machete, nor do we wish to destroy anything in the park for the sake of our trip. The mangrove stand is too thick to drag our canoe over. We can't even see the grassland through it. Reluctantly, we turn back.

A second place we try to break through is also blocked. For me, this is the biggest disappointment of our entire journey.

Such an extensive stand of mangrove is a surprise so deep in the Everglades. The water here is supposed to be fresh. Mangroves thrive only in salt or brackish water.

Willoughby reported no difficulty in facing a mangrove blockade during his journey.

So what has changed?

The quantity of fresh water that flows through this region has dramatically fallen ever since the first drainage canal was built extending the Miami River to Lake Okeechobee in 1909. Today, there are 150 canals stretching for 1,800 miles. They slash across the region for flood control, diverting fresh water away from the River of Grass, into the oceans.

The lower volume of fresh water has allowed salt water to reach farther north into the park from the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. As brackish water presses northward so do the clogging mangrove trees.

This is one more piece of evidence of the decline of the Everglades. It demonstrates how water is central to maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. Flood-control efforts have disrupted the natural water cycle here, reducing the level of high water and curtailing periods of draught. It was during the winter dry season that fish were forced into small pools, providing abundant food for hundreds of thousands of wading birds. Today, the wading-bird population is down 90 percent from what Willoughby saw.

South Florida's premier environmentalist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, has said: "The Everglades is a test, if we pass we get to keep the planet."

The final report card isn't in yet. But there is reason for hope. Virtually every aspect of this wetland is under investigation by scientists, and within the next 20 years the state and federal government will spend more than $1 billion in what is being called the world's largest-ever environmental restoration program. It includes a plan to restore the natural flow of water.

This restoration effort is significant and promising, not so much because of the money already appropriated, but because for the first time in the history of this nation, there is broad consensus on the importance of saving the Everglades.

After our trip, we hire a pilot to fly us over the Everglades. I am still disappointed about being unable to break through to the grass, but I feel much better when I see our aborted route from 1,000 feet. The mangroves are so thick, even a chain saw wouldn't have helped.

* Dec. 16: Why Florida's crocodiles are smiling. Dec. 18: Stuck in the mud flats. Dec. 22: Midnight paddling and heading home. The first two parts ran Dec. 5 and Dec. 9.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.