Gators and Glades

Itinerary: 

  • Saturday- Tuesday: Miami and Biscayne National Park
  • Tuesday- Friday: Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park
  • Friday- Sunday: Everglades National Park

Dates: December 26, 2015 to January 3, 2016

Our Odyssey: 

Friday, January 1 we made the
drive back east through the keys, heading to Homestead, Florida, a small,
sleepy town near the entrance to the Everglades National Park.

During the drive we stopped by
the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, which rescues and
rehabilitates injured birds in the keys. The goal with each bird is to release
into the wild, but it’s not always possible if the bird’s injuries are very
severe. Birds at the center are kept their temporarily during their recovery,
and there are some long-term residents too who aren’t healthy enough to be
released. While we were there, we saw countless pelicans that would walk right
alongside us on the boardwalks through the park, as well as owls, blue jays,
and parrots in cages. While I always hate to see birds in captivity, I respect
that this organization is only holding them there if they aren’t healthy enough
to survive in the wild.

We also stopped back at the
Biscayne National Park visitor center, to see if we could spot any manatees
that are said to be near the area. We didn’t see any, but we did go on a long,
hot, sweaty walk…

Before our walk in Biscayne National Park

That evening we decided to go out
to dinner to celebrate our engagement, so even though we were in a dull town,
we got a little dressed up and went to a nearby Cuban restaurant. With me in a
sundress and Tim in a button down, we were overdressed but unbothered by it.

Engagement photo in the parking lot of the Cuban restaurant 🙂 

After dinner, we Googled the best options for a drink on a Friday night in this
town, and ended up at a country-style bar called Dade Country Jail that is
connected to two other bars – a cocktail bar and a sports bar. So, all side by
side, all connected by doorways, there are three bars where you can carry your
drinks freely and experience a completely different vibe in each. I thought
this was a really cool and fun concept. The country bar had a jail theme, which
was hokie but lent itself to some fun photos later. Tim and I ended up having a
great time getting to know the bar tender, playing Photo Hunt and Buck Hunter,
and casually enjoying a few beers. It was actually one of my favorite nights
out during our whole vacation.

Yeah, the bar was this goofy

The next morning was leisurely,
as we didn’t have to be anywhere until around noon, when we were scheduled to
meet up with our guide for our kayaking and hiking trip into the Everglades
National Park! There were 5 other people in our group – 3 friends from Germany
and 2 other Americans (who were scheduled for only half of the day). Our guide
was a friendly and smart young man, and he ended up being a fantastic guide.
Right away when we got into the park, he knew where to look in some of the wet
areas to spot alligators. We saw a baby, about 3 years old, swimming in some
water by the roadside, and then large adult male gator a few miles further into
the park. Only a half hour into the tour, and we’d already seen two gators!

Our first gator sighting – an adolescent – in the Everglades!

Our first activity was a wet walk
through a cypress dome. When these bald cypress trees grow in the swampy land,
the taller trees grow towards the center and shorter trees towards the edges,
forming a dome-like shape. These domes are important homes for alligators and
birds because it is a source of water year-round.

Cypress dome

The walk through the cypress
dome felt very adventurous. Water was up to our knees in some places, and there
was no trail or any markers that would guide our way. It was an experience Tim
and I would have never set out on by ourselves – pulling over on the side of
the road and walking into a forested swamp. We didn’t see any alligators during
the walk, but while we were looking at an alligator hole to see if anyone was
home, we heard the hoot of an owl. Following the sound, we found a barred owl
sitting in a tree not too far from us. We were able to walk very close to the
tree he was in (maybe 15 feet away). Our whole group quietly observed for
several minutes, and it was amazing to be so close with such a stunning animal.
The only other time I’d ever seen an owl in the wild was when I was a child,
and an owl sat on the roof of my childhood home during a snow storm. This was
before the days of digital cameras and smart phones, and I’ll never forget my
mom lugging out the big camcorder and tripod to go outside and get video of the
owl up on our roof.

Tim and me on our wet walk

Sloughing through the cypress dome

After our walk through the cypress
dome, we drove a bit further into the park to the spot where we would be
kayaking for a few hours through mangrove forests. At times we were kayaking
through what seemed like mangrove tunnels, where branches were not only on
either side of us but also stretching out above us as well, creating a low
canopy over us. Our guide also had us try some fruit that grows from these
trees (another thing Tim and I would have never done on our own).

Perfect reflection in the still waters we kayaked through. 

Kayaking through the mangroves

When we returned ashore from our
freshwater paddle, Tim and I each snacked on sandwiches we had packed while our
guide took us to the location for our salt water paddle in Florida Bay. While I
took a bathroom break, Tim saw a crocodile- the only one we saw on our
vacation! He said the croc didn’t look any different from gators we had seen
already, although crocs are said to have pointier jaws and are more adapted to
seawater, whereas alligators prefer fresh water.

The lone crocodile

Our group then headed out in our
kayaks into the mouth of the bay. Along the way we saw many jumping fish and
birds. When we reached the point where the bay opens up to the sea, our guide
pulled out some white wine for us to enjoy before paddling back to shore with
the sunset.

Sunset in Florida Bay

 

Our last activity of the day was
a night walk on the Anhinga Trail. We saw countless gators from the safety of
the  boardwalk. We learned from our guide
how to spot alligators in the dark by using lights from flashlights to reflect
off of their eyes. Their little red eyes glowing back at us told us there were
many swimming in the water. The first one we saw was smaller, perhaps a
juvenile or a female, and swam along the boardwalk for a while. It’s rare to
see alligators swimming and being active – they are typically very still.
During the walk we also saw a small turtle swimming in the water as well as
many big spiders.

Night gator

That night back in Homestead Tim
and I ventured out again to the trio of bars – though since we were exhausted
we didn’t stay too long.

The next morning we leisurely
made our way back into the Everglades on our own. We headed to Shark Valley, an
area of the park (that has nothing to do with sharks) that we hadn’t yet
visited. This area is known for being home to many gators, and for its
informative tram ride through the area (which includes a stop at an observation
tower). During the tram ride we saw many alligators lounging along the road and
several birds (egrets, herons, and male and female anhingas). While at the
observation tower we also saw a large alligator in the marshes, as well as a
turtle swimming nearby.

A gator swimming

During the tram ride we also
learned about the devastating impact humans have had on the region. Over time
we’ve completely changed the flow of water in southern Florida with dams and
canals. Runoff and pollution from nearby farms flow into the park. The Burmese
python (a non-native species) has reproduced at an alarming rate within the
park, eating native species. The Florida panther, sea turtles, manatees and
birds of the Everglades are all disappearing, with several species on the
endangered list. The everglades are half the size they were a century ago, and
will continue to diminish unless improvements are made to how we protect the
environment.

Incidentally, the last thing we
saw on the tram ride was an errant soccer ball that had ended up in the marshes.

After the tram ride in Shark
Valley, we drove to Big Cypress National Preserve. At the visitor center here
we again saw many alligators before venturing out on some scenic drives around
the preserve. Driving the loop road was particularly fun, since we saw many
alligators during the drive as well as more egrets and anhingas – and, somehow,
we also saw a pink flamingo! It’s very rare to see flamingos in the wild in
Florida, so even though we only caught glimpses of the bird through the trees,
it was a special sighting indeed!

This was our last day of a
fabulous vacation exploring nature in Florida and making special memories
together – the next morning we flew back to our respective work locations, sad
vacation was over but, as always, grateful for the fantastic time we had
together!

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