An open space of light
I'm not sure that I can do justice to either my experience in or the place of the Everglades in just a thousand word blog post. I spent one of the best weeks of my life in one of the most unique places in the world exploring all that I could soak up in our time there. Without too much prior knowledge I naively expected Everglades National Park to be the iconic 1000 Island Mangrove forests. In fact Everglades National Park inland is mostly the 50 mile wide “River of Grass”. A sawgrass prairie dotted by tree islands that sprout up in portions of the park that are mere inches higher in relief than the surrounding prairies. These islands range in size but are mostly teardrop in shape due to the way the water runs from Lake Okeechobee in the northeast towards the southwest out into the gulf. Or should I say used to?
South Florida is a very wet place where everything is sticky and hot. Our clothes and sheets cling to our bodies making us feel claustrophobic. The damp air collects in the fold of my neck and the backs of my knees. In the morning the condensation drips off everything we left outside to dry. When it has rained that water came down in buckets. The fattest juiciest drops of rain that I've only experienced in the Southeast of America. This is south Florida's “dry” season and it's winter. We're definitely not in California anymore. The Everglades average about 4 inches a month during the winter. This is the same average for San Francisco's wettest month of January. Needless to say there is still water to be seen in the Everglades during their winter drought. Other parks close parts during the winter but in the Everglades parts of the park close down because it's too hot and way too buggy to be comfortable to visit much in the summer. Because of the very low relief of the area all the fish get concentrated into burrow ponds throughout the park. Historically, these burrow ponds were dug out only by alligators. They dig out a hole in the sawgrass so they don't dry out. This has the added benefit of collecting the fish in the area as they move into deeper waters. This concentration of fish gives predator birds a place for a feeding frenzy. And in turn supplies the alligators with all the food they need for the winter. There are so many alligators in the Everglades that we jokingly mentioned getting sick of them. As it turns out these dinosaur like creatures who can take your hand off in a matter of seconds are quite gentle in matters of life. Mating consists of gentle stroking and nuzzling and alligator mothers protect their young for a year or even two. We got lucky at a little pond looking for tadpoles and instead found a very young clutch of alligators with what looked like their older sibling and mom nearby. The babies would walk up to each other to “cuddle” and made noises not unlike puppies. The they would open for a big yawn before settling down. (See Tim's photo on the just photos page)
In order to develop south Florida the run off from lake Okeechobee has been channelized and now water that isn't used for urban centers or agriculture spills out into the ocean. While there is a massive, 30 year, restoration plan in play currently 80% of the water in the Everglades now only comes from rain. A big portion of the restoration plan includes restoring more historic water flow conditions that puts the right amount of water into the river at the right time of the year. Of course clean water is of the essence. The Everglades are a low phosphorous environment and the plants are uniquely adapted to growing in those conditions. Too much phosphorous will kill off the sawgrass. With the surrounding agriculture it's not hard to see where the excess phosphorous is coming from. Another issue is mercury in the water from an unknown origin.
No doubt the glue of the Everglades is the base of the food chain, something called Periphyton. Periphyton is a mixture of algae, bacteria and microbes. It looks much like over soggy catails and smells a bit like rotting foods. We had the pleasure of kayaking in very shallow water thick with the stuff. This made for a long stinky slog it what was otherwise an amazing kayak outing. Periphyton holds and traps in moisture so that the Everglades don't dry out in the winter months. Periphyton also helps keep the water clean by absorbing contaminants. However, it's sensitive to too much pollution and reacts very quickly under stress.
On top of too little clean fresh water the park is battling some formidable invasive species, most notably the Burmese python. The Everglades is the most unique biological region in North America. It's not just a National Park but is also listed as an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance. It's at once temperate and tropical. A place where the pine and the palm intermingle, the last known place for the American Crocodile and a refuge for the Kempler's Sea turtle. Saved by the Passionate Marjory Stoneman Douglas it was made a park in 1947. Many people since then have continued the fight to protect and restore the park to the best of their abilities. The park makes no bones about the dire situation the Everglades are in. The park brochure spells it out the best with this line “The Everglades is currently on life support, alive but diminished”. Knowing this I feel very grateful for the abundance of wildlife we saw while we were there, even if the bugs are also abundant.