February 13, 2013
Last week we took the kids out of school for a fun family adventure. I was in Florida speaking to two organizations and have had a life-long goal to explore the Everglades, and not just by loud airboats that drown out the sounds of wildlife, the typical mode of travel for tourists, but by kayaks where you’re moving quietly only inches above the surface of the water.
So we took this opportunity to meet up for a family expedition: It was my brother Eddi and his kids, as well as my dad and his wife, and lots of friends like Remembrance and her husband Joe - locals who helped organize the trip...and, of course, Ellie and my children.
We based out of a lodge on Chokoloskee Island, near Everglades City, and worked with an outstanding guide company, Everglades Area Tours. John, one of our naturalists and guides, met us outside the shop playing his harmonica and then immediately taught all of us how to cup our hands against our open mouths to make different octaves of sounds. And just to show us what was possible with practice, he played “Swannee River.”
That day we explored the Turner River with its narrow, shallow channels between cypress and mangrove. I was in the front of the kayak with Ellie steering from the back, and it fell on me to forge the trail and push aside the thick mangrove branches and spider webs to pull our way through.
Within fifteen minutes our group was thrilled to spot our first gator, and then as we paddled on, a second, third and fourth. They were everywhere. John told us that gators are territorial and there’s one male who claims his domain with an entourage of concubines. The gator that claimed this particular territory is probably 40 years old with plenty of battle scars, gained through fierce protection of his kingdom.
I remarked aloud that it wouldn’t be too bad a life to be a male gator – protected from hunters and surrounded by a harem of gator gals to spice up daily life. Unfortunately, I was within range when Ellie hit me with her paddle.
For me, I loved hearing the native birds, for instance, the Moorhen with a shrill jungle cry, and the American coots with a lower call like the squeak of a screw being drilled into a metal beam.
The Everglades are about the farthest thing from mountains as you can imagine. In fact, within the entire park, the highest elevation is only eight feet above sea level. It gets progressively and dramatically drier with slight increases and there is even cactus growing near the highest parts. In the mountains, changes in habitat occur within hundreds of feet of elevation, but as John said, “in the Everglades, inches matter.”
The other thing we learned from John was that it’s not really correct to call the Everglades a swamp, which implies stagnant, foul-smelling water. It’s more of a series of sloughs, which are fed from inland lakes. The water flows towards the sea in slow moving shallow sheets and that makes the water fresher and chillier than you’d expect.
That afternoon, John had us walk through the sloughs in knee-deep water and he pointed out amazing plants like different species of bromeliads, ferns, and delicate wild orchids that I could touch. John said that poachers often steal these flowering plants. Even worse, many invasive plants have been introduced into this habitat, crowding out the native species. This goes for animals too.
A bunch of yahoos actually let their Burmese pythons free in the Everglades, and with no natural predators, they have proliferated, almost wiping out some bird species. Now they have hunting season on pythons with a reward, but these creatures are incredibly resilient and blend in to such a degree that people often step over them without knowing they’re right under their feet. If that’s not bad enough, some ultimate yahoo actually threw a four-foot Nile crocodile into the Everglades, but thank God it’s not able to breed with the local native crocs and gators.
At the end of the day and as night came on, John was not slowing down. His passion for the plants and animals of the Everglades was immense. “Check out these apple snails…” he said excitedly, placing my hand on one. “You’ve got to feel this royal palm. It’s fallen down and another is actually growing out of it... “Look at these fish skeletons on this stump. It’s where a mink has been picnicking...” “This is a pond apple. It produces these large, bitter, yellow-green fruit and it’s a staple for a lot of animals...” “Feel the leaves on this gumbo limbo tree...”
And as the night became still and began to quiet the sounds of wildlife, John got philosophic: “This place has given me so much energy over the years. Whenever I feel low or exhausted, I come here and it fills me up again. So when I die, I’d like my energy to flow back to this place.” It made sense and gave me pause.
On our second day, we explored the Ten Thousand Islands region where we paddled up more narrow rivers, which would then open, into remarkable inland bays. These kinds of areas are a mixture of fresh and salt water, called estuaries. Like the day before, we passed plenty of alligators, with two huge ones, probably 11 feet long. Even though I couldn’t see them, I still got a little prickle up the spine knowing they were only a few feet away eye-balling us.
Earlier, I’d felt a stuffed gator about that same size and was blown away not just by the length - longer than our kayak - but by the huge girth of its torso, plenty big to fit a human body.
Even though they could catch you if they wanted, alligators are actually very docile. There have been no unprovoked gator attacks in the Everglades, so I felt pretty safe. So safe In fact, I dared 10-year-old Arjun to wade 20 feet through knee-deep water with a spongy, quicksand-like bottom so he could touch a mangrove. He finally did it, but it cost me $20.
That afternoon we pulled up onto a sandy, crushed-shell island. Here we learned the improbable way islands are formed in this region, first by oyster beds collecting and building up until above the surface of the water. And then mangrove “propagules,” which are long narrow airtight seeds that float around until, under very specific conditions, they take root on one of these shell beds.
The red mangrove is on the front line and seems to grow first, and then the black mangrove and white mangrove come soon after to back it up. The Calusa Indians, now long vanished, actually made islands from their discarded shells, building these islands into a horseshoe shape with the lagoon protected from the open sea. Periodically, they’d block off the lagoon in order to catch fish for dinner.
The beauty of the Everglades was only half the joy. The other half was having my family together sharing this wild place. I loved listening to Emma and her cousin, Brooklyn, catching lizards and whispering back and forth in secret girl language. And Arjun and his cousin, Edwin, typical goofy boys, giggling hysterically as they chased each other around with coconuts they found.
Yesterday, back in Golden, I walked Arjun to school and, on the way, we started talking about our trip, the gators, the pythons, the crazy bird calls, the striking shells we found, and all the fun we had. It made me reflect how precious this time is that we have together. Cherish it always.