Updated: Apr 18, 2018
An account of my first trip over to the Gulf side of the State.
February 09, 2018
“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in the Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Pt 1 - Journey West
In the six years I've been a Florida resident, this February would mark the first time I've ventured Westward to explore Gulf-side. My parents have established themselves a nice spot on the Southern end of Estero Island. In my days as a Floridian, I've done many a long, hot adventures into the various wetland habitats of the East, but this trip would also contain my first time ever going into the Everglades proper.
Upon my arrival, I was quickly introduced to the condominium group that has made their way into the hearts and minds of my hosts. Of every person that has met my parents, they have always professed their Love and fondness for them. They think my mother is hilarious and my dad is always up for a friendly get together.
Over the years, those friendships have percolated their way down to me and provided some of the most worthwhile and lasting friendships of my own life.
In meeting this new group of vacationers, it's been a continuation of that trend and an inspiration to reciprocate those feelings of fondness and appreciation for the good things in life. They might spend their days bitching about heinous forms of traffic, seemingly drastic encounters with weather patterns and/or any other societal grievances that might be on the public radar, but each day as they routinely gather upon those white sand beaches to take in the colorful displays of day-ending panoramas, I realized that these people were openly inviting me into their life.
As for the wide-openness of the water, it is of a much more subdued state than I am accustomed to. Having spent the day prior captaining a dive vessel in 4-6 foot seas, I was mesmerized by the mere, inches-high waves lightly lapping upon the shore. The water was an inviting turquoise green color and the fine white sand beach had plenty of width for all its travelers without any steepness to its slope whatsoever. This area, existing as a barrier island, was composed of a multitude of mangrove-lined keys that nestled into one another.
The island road starting at Bonita Springs is two lanes and known to be a rolling crawl with traffic. In the beginning Southern section, the island showcased the tall and elegant but narrow and squeezed to a broomsticks length next to one another homes. After these comes the variety of more toned down, beachy and colorful rentals before reaching the hub of activity at the far end, Times Square and Fort Meyers Beach.
Florida, with a roughly 300 mile long vertical Western coast and a 100 mile width, has a rich and diverse history unlike any other place in the world. I will begin by describing some of the facts and information I picked up, while also later sharing the experience of an "Everglades Adventure" and the characters within.
Beginning with the passage of Siberian migrants, known as Paleo-Indians, in through the NW portion of the North American continent and making their way across, they too found themselves 'glacier-birding' in the warm and inviting habitats of sunny, South Florida. Attempting to take refuge from the receding glaciers, these natives took well to the rising sea levels and existed in a preoccupation similar to the areas' modern-day inhabitants, that of avid fishermen.
Considering the land mass was open for passage for 33,000 years and we've only just counted up to 2018, this is a long history of time, relatively speaking. Dating back to as most recent as 4000 years ago, these inhabitants began what was known as the "Shell Age" and constructed their homes in a very similar fashion to our also modern-day inhabitants with elevated "mounds." For the same reason we see the houses of today built on stilts, the natives built their mounds out of harvested sea shells to avoid the steady rising and falling waters of the Florida estuaries and inevitable storm surges.
The word Caloosa translates to "fierce warrior," but even they were unable to endure the hardships of a European presence.
By the time Spanish exploration reached the North American continent, we've advanced the time clock all the way ahead to the 1500's. Conquistadors like Hernando De Soto, who'd already encountered and battled Incans in Peru, had now splashed his Spanish boots onto the shores of Tampa Bay. It was through the recorded accounts of De Soto and other Spaniards like Ponce De Leon, that their encounters expose us to the Caloosa Indian cultures in the West, the Tequesta Indians to which I'm familiar with in the East and the Apalachee's that took residence in Florida's panhande.
A period of trading existed between these natives and Spanish explorers until the 1700s, but as most know, the story unfortunately ends for the natives with Spanish diseases spreading like wildfire and these cultures dying off entirely and in rapid succession. The word Caloosa translates to "fierce warrior," but even they were unable to endure the hardships of a European presence. What emerged from their ashes were the Seminole Indians, which translates to "People of Wilderness."
This brings us to the natural habitats of Florida. Almost the entire state of Florida is sitting atop a limestone structure. Limestone, which is formed from decomposing marine organisms, is the basic building block of our coral reefs. It is granular and porous, which means water can permeate and carve its way through it, thus creating channels and underwater caverns. With an annual rainfall between 55-90 inches, a freshwater lake so big you can see it from outer space, more shoreline than any other continental state, vast systems of rivers, estuaries, border islands, archipelagos, wetlands and a network of underground aquifers, this makes for one wet state!
However, since this story is about the Everglades, were only interested in one very specific part of this wet state, and that's the large expanse below the big outer space lake (Lake Okeechobee) and its slough region. When dealing with wetlands in Florida you have swamps and sloughs. Swamps are the stagnant, shallow and low-lying portions found within sloughs, whereas sloughs are obviously similar in terrain, but found to have some water movement. Not much movement, at an average rate of 100ft per day. In what is known as "sheet flow," these slow-moving, marshy rivers are filled with grasses and trees which purify the water before it discharges into the Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands estuaries.
Plight of the Marshlands
This system of filtration worked perfectly until the Industrial Revolution started happening in the United States. Through its duration, the wetlands suffered roughly a sixty percent reduction in size, taking the glades from a whopping 11,000 square miles to a meager 4500. This series of ecological changes brought about a very grim and ongoing issue to the regions' ecosystem.
The Spanish were credited as to having intentionally brought in the Melaluca tree for its 'swamp sucking' abilities. Those and the rampant, unintentional influx of Brazilian Pepper have been an ongoing plague to the areas' natural aquifers.
What drew settlers to these lands in the first place were its very nutrient rich peat soil, often referred to as, "Black gold." This soil was great at reducing salinity and providing nutrients to the bay waters when it finally got there, but these marshy lands were not easily tamed. The development of a wetland into an agrarian region meant sucking out the water before it could be suitable to farm crops like sugar.
Sugar cane and other big-agro industry that had set up camp here in The Glades began a process of land redevelopment by diverting the water into man made canals. A once snaking Kissimmee river was dug out to be 300' wide and 60' deep, preventing its tributary feeders from existing and in 1926 the Army Core of engineers completely encapsulated the Okeechobee lake with a four foot tall dyke.
These changes drastically altered the flow and paths of the water basin. Not only that, but the run off that did manage to make it to the estuaries now contained high levels of phosphorous chemicals, sulfides and nitrates that continue to collapse the ecosystems to which they come in contact with still to this day. Beds of sea grass, the primary diet of manatees, sea turtles and other marine species are dying off by the tens of thousands of hectares. Salinity near doubled and devastated the stock of fisheries, like the spotted sea trout. Algae blooms, known in the area to the West as the "Red Tide" block out phytoplankton's light sources and create toxic conditions known to cause skin infections, vomiting, diarrhea and linked to liver cancer.
If that wasn't enough, old Mother Nature has a few tricks up her sleeve and you guessed it, hurricanes. At the time, a lot of the agricultural laborers working in Florida lived in small, pop-up towns, like Clewiston, which is on the Southern edge of Lake Okeechobee. In the same year the Army built the dyke, a hurricane made landfall in the state and breached its walls causing mass flooding.
Two years later, in 1928, the mother of all Hurricanes, the Okeechobee Hurricane struck the Eastern seaboard. The brunt of real estate damage was on the lofty shores of West Palm Beach, but the death toll happened in those rural farming parts of this developing region. Entering into the middle of the state with 160mph winds, it hit the then 6000 person town of Clewiston and drowned half its population making it the second worst US natural disaster short of Galveston, Texas.
Since reptiles are amphibious, most of them can float out the storm waters and manage well enough, but woodland animals, like White Tail Deer, Black Bear, Red Foxes and Florida Panthers are drowned in these weather related events. It was known that in the 1928 Hurricane, many Seminoles living in the Glades area started retreating once the scurry of these animals appeared days before the storm.
Last year the federal program CERP, which stands for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan got its biggest investor yet, Hurricane Irma, with its 10 foot wall of storm surge and 16 inches of state-wide blanketing rain. The storm actually quasi-benefitted the Glades by restoring a lot of the depleted water and reshaping the altered topography.
Poaching, Plumage and Passengers
For animals like the Florida Panther, its biggest culprit nowadays is the development of highways and thus getting ran over. Ten percent of the Panthers lost each year was on this particular highway we were traveling on. In total, the area has thirty-three endangered species. In 1900, crocodiles lived in excess of three million total. By 1960, that number had been dropped to 2000. Over-hunting of Florida wildlife approached near extinction numbers. Obsession with feathers sparked the plumage industry and wracked bird populations.
After all the destruction, loss of habitats and waterways, finally in 1947 the Everglades National Park was created and shut down fishing and trapping of animals on its ground. The Great American Egret was saved before its feathers went ghost.
Then things got kinda weird for the area. The hippy movement had begun and the harsh, overlooked terrain of the Glades became the primary entry point for marijuana importation to the US. With all the unused fishing and crabbing boats available, people who lost their livelihood took what seemed like a million dollar idea: Run out into the Gulf and retrieve what were called, "Square Groupers" which were large, floating bales of South American heirbas sent by the cartels using US pilots.
In 1983 the largest drug bust to hit the US occurred in Everglades City, which still to this day doesn't have a full time population of more than 500 persons. With over three hundred arrests made, this town would lose everything. Reagan, alongside the FBI, DEA and state prosectors realized these were just barefooted kids and made a compassionate decision to reduce sentences and enact them on a rotating schedule so families would not be ripped apart. The ringleader was sentenced to 11 years and even that was reduced to 4 years with probation.
After this, Florida hit the tourism boom and it has not stopped yet.
Pt 2 - The Land of Gators
Weren't we here to explore the wetlands and see us some gators? Well, this was the soul-enriching preface that our fantastic tour guide, Dwight, had been so kind as to entertain us with on the 1.5 hour journey down the Tamiami trail to Everglades City.
Myself and thirteen, squat-waddling, white-shoed, senior-citizen yankees were stuffed into a van chomping at the bit listening to these heart warming tales as the pride of our nation slipped into the plight of indigenous people and destruction of the state's greatest ecosystem. But Dwight was as nice as southern gentlemen can be. He masterfully captured the essence of this region and painted for us an elaborate picture using the brush strokes of history so we could gain his (and later to be corroborated by other Florida natives) perspective of this strange, marshy world.
It wasn't until lunch that I came to find out Dwight's great grandmother was full blooded Cherokee, thus giving explanation as to why he finds these topics of our nation's history so important and not to be forgotten or overlooked. His family had a 2000 acre cotton farm in Alabama and when the building and construction started up in Northern Florida, they relocated to get in while it was good. At thirteen he got his first gator bite, earning him the nickname he still honors to this day, Gator D.
I enjoyed watching him and my two table guests eat their basket of long, sinewy fried frog legs while he described his grandmothers jet black hair. He said when she took it down from the hair pins it fell well below the waist and him and his siblings would stand mesmerized, combing, the then longer than their own bodies, lengths of hair.
But like most children, he would go on to grow up. He served 14 years in the secret service as a detail to the White House, 21 years in the Air Force and 2 years in the Army National Guard where he learned to cook. I quickly attempted to add up the figures in my head as I wrote down notes, but most the stories he told amounted to more reasons why he had the gray in his beard. Though, his muscly, gator-tattooed forearms could tell you, that should you want to try and get him going in an arm wrestling match, he'd be as good now as he was ever.
Before lunch we had walked over to the airboat docks and gotten into our aluminum hulled skiff that would take us roaring through the tall, water-filled, prairie grasslands. The waters were 50% shared with red mangroves as a habitat and then opened up into wider, prairie-lined banks of the main winding waterways.
Stephen, our fanboat operator was a young, dark-skinned, dark-haired man my age with ragged jeans and an appetite for speed. He swung the fan boat around whipping us into sliding 180 degree turns to cut back through a sliver of the grasslands and showed us how well these machines could move. The heavier boats need at least one inch of water and the lighter ones can go right over solid ground.
The soil, from my experience is very silty and slick so it just slides right along. It was mostly just a boat ride as we only saw two alligators. It was completely impressive to be at the whim of Stephen's all-out driving, sliding the corner of the boat around the narrowest of S-curves. He operated that boat within a fraction of an inch in all aspects. He would slow down and cut engines telling us a little about the environment and there was a stillness to him, that he didn't just yack all the time. He would sit and wait for nature to make itself come alive before your eyes and I liked that.
He gave us more information on the alligator, like its conical teeth which are intended for crushing its food. It cant chew, but it can break apart the carapaces of turtles, ingesting the calcium which aids in the digestion of those large meals. An average sized alligator can have over 2000lbs of bite pressure, which is like two steel plates pressing down obliterating any bones inside the animal. For reference, it wouldn't take much more than 6lbs of bite force to remover a finger. It can leap out the water up to three quarters of its body length and run on land at speeds close to 21mph.
Stephen brought us back to the dock safe and sound and we walked across the street to hop into a 15' tall swamp buggy to go for a ride with Shelly. Shelly was an 8th generation, Everglades native. Describing herself as an exotic, endangered specie, the Florida Cracker. She had a mhm, yuh-huh, type of Southern talking and said things like, "Yes, ma'am, I got more guns than Sarah Palin." She told us about Al Capone coming down to the Everglades to hide out and the Union and Confederate outlaws that would hunt and trap here after the war. She explained more about the local environments and species and gave us MORE information on alligators without seeing any. I asked about Hurricane Irma and how animals respond to events like that, and she said most the reptiles are good in the water, so they just float it out. Other species will be drowned and it has serious impact to the land mammal populations.
In Irma, there was a 16-18' storm surge that ran right through the outer islands and into the Everglades. Forty percent of Everglades City homes were condemned. The storm hit as a Cat 2-3 and most the news didn't report about this area, just about Marco Island to its South and the tourist areas to the North. Having eaten lunch in Everglades City, the town was small enough if you stood on the roof of one of the parked campers, you could maybe hit a golf ball across the span of this town. There was one strip of cabins for rent that all had new roofs and Dwight explained theirs were tore off and piled into the mangroves. Newer homes were now mandated that they could not have a bottom floor sitting on the earth, but had to be up on stilts. The older ones had been jacked up to have much smaller stilts put in. Piles of debris had lined these streets and most were just now completing the repairs. In this town of 500 full time residents, it can swell up to 5000 visitors in the winter season. The town was currently setting up for the Seafood festival which will get quite a big draw.
Shelly had finished her tour with a couple of black bears that were on the side of the logging trail we were bouncing along. We were well above their height, but they weren't interested anyway as they were nosing in the soil, carefully selecting out the pieces of scattered corn. They brought in the wildlife with food, which I do not condone, but it was cool to see a black bear that close and not have to worry about a stand off. She brought us back to the standalone wood platform where another bunch of short, stumpy, waddling guests were waiting for their turn. There wasn't anything out here other than the swamp buggy, a wood platform for boarding and a trail.
I must admit, this story has been somewhat like my experiences of Florida. With overwhelming promises of gators and only a few, slow-coming, elusive encounters and still this desire to see the multitudes exists. I shall now leave you with...
Trail of Crocodilian Tears
We finished up lunch and piled back into the van, now slightly wider than we started. I was losing my bearings as the sun drove high towards noon-time and we made the backtracking and zipping turns along the rural, saw-grass lined highways. We pulled onto a dusty road just past signs for Turner River. As we came onto the road, the canal was fifteen feet to our right and wasn't much deeper than two or three feet by the looks of it. Pond cypresses lined the far edge of the canal, which meant they carried heavy smatterings of wading birds.
We were greeted by the fleeting, flocking, white flapping feathers of all the Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Ibises - young and old. Anhingas in numbers I've maybe seen in total of my time in Florida were congregated on this little stretch of water. Herons of the Great, Blue, Green and Tri. I even got to lay eyes on not one, but three different Black Crowned Night Herons for the very first time. These are a real rarity to see. Fish popping and sucking bugs off the surface and there.. absolutely up, down and all around, not one, but hordes of the great, esteemed, prehistoric American alligator.
Laying in piles. Laying with their tails curled around the Cypress trunks. Laying with their noses sticking out of the Cattail weeds. Swimming with their rudder-like tails, steering them along like a spring-loaded ambush. Floating idle in the water as if any sort of attention makes them antsy. Creeping along in the waters behind the long legs of birds who rightly jump to a safer spot when they feel the menacing, blood-red eyes of those beasts sizing them up. There were more gators than one could imagine ever being in one spot. At the end of the day, I jokingly remarked that I thought I saw all three million of them there in that canal.
And then, Dwight hit the brakes good and hard. We stared slack jawed at the green and yellow cheeky grin of the fanged, steadfast profile of a 13' monster. If there's ever a time and place to use that word, I think attributing it to the nightmarish hordes of these reptiles would be the right time to do so. I also strongly believe no one out of our group nor any resident for that matter hearing this exclamation would come together and say, "Oh, they are just a misunderstood creature!"
I learned they don't eat as much as I'd think and progressively slow down until they become the fat, bumpy sun-soakers, but that doesn't mean the 200 alligators next to the one lazy lounger weren't hungry!
In the span of one mile, along a dusty, well-traveled, sight seer road, there must have been 50 or more fully grown alligators all hanging out in plain view. We, on the other hand, would not be in plain view. We stayed well inside the confines of Gator D's passenger van. Even I, the daring trekker could smell blood in the water and realize this was not the place to be out on foot.
Along the way home, I counted the gators on the river banks and rather then trying to keep a tally, would get averages of how many I could see in 5 minutes of zipping back up the Tamiami highway. I was averaging 20 gators for every 5 minutes, so you do the math until you reach three million. It wouldn't take long when you consider the vast swaths of land here in the adventurous Everglades!