Outside magazine, June 1992
Box 279, Homestead, FL 33030
The Big Picture: Subtle, even brooding, Everglades leaves the traveler with a complete sense of isolation. A humid warmth and the soft buzzing of mosquitoes permeate its vast network of snaking canals, deserted keys, cypress sloughs, mangrove forests, and rich marine estuaries, giving the park a complicated, secretive air. Yet Everglades, by all counts our most environmentally besieged national park, is competing with the rest of southern Florida for water. Agricultural runoff has devastated much of its fragile biodiversity, and until last February, when a major lawsuit was settled forcing the state of Florida to clean up water flowing into the Everglades, it seemed the devastation would soon be complete. Many of the park's mammals and birds have left; nesting birds alone have declined by 90 percent since the 1930s. Not surprisingly, Everglades is home to 14 endangered species, more than any other national park.
Where Everyone Goes:
In high season, January through April, Everglades is defined by crowds of people scuttling after crowds of birds. They promenade the Anhinga Trail to watch the anhingas hatch. They flock to Mrazek Pond to see wading roseate spoonbills and ibis. They gather at the Flamingo concession complex at sunset to watch clouds of egrets and herons returning to the mainland to roost.
Where You Should Go: Paddle camping is the best and really the only way to explore the park; stick to the western half, the spine of which is the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. Along the route are 32 designated backcountry campsites on beaches, Indian shell mounds, and small wooden platforms called chickees. Before setting out (go during dry season, November through April), you'll need to file a float plan and obtain a backcountry permit--only in person and a day in advance--at the Gulf Coast ranger station (813-695-3311) or the Flamingo visitor center (305-253-2241). You can rent canoes in Everglades City from North American Canoe Tours (813-695-4666) and at the Flamingo marina (305-253-2241, ext. 180).
If you're up for paddling the entire length of the Waterway, from Everglades City to Flamingo, allow nine days. Otherwise, head south along the Gulf Coast from Everglades City and thread through the Ten Thousand Islands, where less-swampy habitat supports sea turtles. Or maneuver the narrow, orchid- and fern-draped hammocks along the 11-mile Wood River.
From Flamingo, paddle to Hells Bay (just west of Whitewater Bay), one of the few marine areas in the park not accessible by motor craft. Stay overnight at its secluded chickee and lose yourself in a labyrinth of creeks, ponds, and lakes. And remember your fishing rod: You'll find bonefish in the shallows of Florida Bay and snook and tarpon in Coot Bay Pond and Whitewater Bay. The sawgrass glades all the way up the eastern side of the Waterway are brimming with largemouth bass, but always throw 'em back--Everglades water has one of the highest mercury levels in the country. Call Flamingo's marina or Outdoor Resorts (813-695-2881) in Everglades City for licenses, rentals, and guided-trip packages.
Don't Forget: The deet--67 species of mosquitoes rule the backcountry virtually all year.
Where to Bunk: The Flamingo Lodge's rental houseboats are big enough to sleep eight but nimble enough to negotiate the park's narrow back canals ($325-$454 for two nights; 305-253-2241).
Food Is: Best when you bring your own. But try the piña coladas at the bar at Flamingo.
Park Lore: In the 1970s a plane crashed in the Everglades, spilling its cargo of thousands of floating foam-rubber falsies.
Your Park Service at Work: "Everglades Park looks the same as it did 20 years ago, but it's not. It's our version of Silent Spring," says John Ogden, one of the park's senior wildlife biologists. What Ogden refers to is the dwindling and compromised water supply, which over the last 50 years has been mangled by a system of canals, levees, pumps, and floodgates. As a result of this meddling, wet-and-dry cycles are now utterly disrupted. During an unusually dry period in the early eighties, park officials increased the flow of water into the Everglades and inadvertently drowned 90 percent of the park's alligator eggs. Since 1983, the park's Water Delivery Studies Project has tried four different water-release plans. But in 1988 it happened again; the park's entire population of newborn wood storks starved, and 50 percent of its alligator eggs were destroyed. Getting the right people into the right jobs is another problem in Everglades. Park scientists are sometimes assigned to areas outside their specialties, and rangers increasingly double as drug agents; since 1987, the Park Service has seized or assisted in the seizure of drug shipments worth $309 million in Everglades and nearby Fort Jefferson National Monument.
On a brighter note, last February's lawsuit settlement mandated a cleanup of the water that flows into the Everglades (at an estimated cost of $386 million), and the Park Service has allotted $160 million for wetland restoration in East Everglades.
Where the money goes:
Flashlight Reading: Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Pineapple Press, $17.95); William Trusdell's Guide to the Wilderness Waterway (University of Miami Press, $9.95) and its companion, Boat and Canoe Camping, by Dennis Kalma (Florida Flair, $4.95).
Fun Index: Variable, plus or minus one point, depending on whether you just came from Disney World. 3.5