Without a Paddle
Journey with us through the watery heart of the largest subtropical wetlands in America: the Everglades. Why? Because it's thereor used to be.
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“WAKE UP, HODDING, WE’VE GOT TO GET GOING.” A kick in the ribs accompanies these grumbled words.
A six-foot-six-inch redheaded monster stands over me. Without hesitating, he starts swinging his arms in full circles like an irate baboon, rocking our makeshift canoe campsite. The monster’s name is David Conover. He’s a 42-year-old documentary filmmaker, and he’s been swinging his arms all night long for two nights straight. Something’s gone wrong with his wrists and hands after six days of poling a canoe through the Shark River Slough, in Everglades National Park. The windmilling makes his arms feel better, and under different circumstances I might feel happy for him.
“Up yours,” I snort. “It’s not even morning yet.” A half-opened eye reveals the lie in this. I’m dazzled by a sparkling array of fairy poops strung across a never-ending expanse of man-tall saw grass set afire by the earliest rays of the sun.
From a foot away, another of my companions chimes in: “If we don’t find a way through today, I really think we should turn around.” That’s Steve Robinson, our grizzled, ponytailed 50-year-old Everglades park naturalist, rising from the floor of his canoe like Count Dracula from his coffin. Feeling uncharitable, I scoff. Steve’s worked in the park for 25 years but seems to be slightly daunted, having never done what we’re attempting: a complete north-south crossing of the Everglades, from the Tamiami TrailÂ—the causeway that cuts through this vast inland sea of cypress trees, mangrove thickets, and alligators from Miami to the Gulf CoastÂ—heading due south to Florida Bay. He’s tried cutting through from Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, as well as boating up from Whitewater Bay, but was halted each time by an impenetrable labyrinth of mangroves. Now, after six days of all-out poling, averaging less than half a mile per hour, we’re stuck in the same labyrinth. “Well, then! I say! It’s time to make an early go of it, isn’t it?” my third companion trills as she smiles and unravels herself from her mosquito netting. I think she even says “knackered.” This is Saranne Taylor, a sparkling, fit 60-year-old Brit turned Mainer. I’ve asked her along on the advice of mutual friends, because she’s led Outward Bound trips for decades and tackled adventures from Nepal to New Hampshire. Her optimism is driving me crazy.
My mind quickly starts to ask the hard questions: Where am I? Who are these people? Why won’t they let me sleep? And why am I surrounded by water?
Oh, yeah, now I remember.
About three years ago, in the midst of a personal quest to locate an adopted manatee, I stumbled across a not-too-surprising fact about Florida: Its environmental programs are poorly run. Take the manatees. They’ve been on the endangered species list since 1973, and that makes it a federal crime to feed the animals, let alone touch one. In one part of the state, environmental officers would barely let you look at the beasts; in another, people were practically humping them. And more get killed by boats every year. This got me thinking: If they’re mismanaging something as simple as a bunch of John Goodman-size sea cows, how might things be going with the bigger environmental projects? That’s when the word everglades popped into my head like one of those fluorescent-orange South of the Border billboards.
The Everglades has been a nightmare for decades, even before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government’s go-to guys when it comes to massive hydrological projects, took over managing South Florida’s water system in 1948. The Corps hit the gas pedal, drying up much of the Everglades in an attempt to balance the ever-encroaching needs of the cities with those of the farms. As a result, the Everglades has shrunk to less than half its original size and has been pushed to the brink of ecological collapse.
So here I am, stuck on the southern tiptoe of America, floundering in the watery outback in a desperate bid to learn if the state of Florida, the federal government, and the Corps have, in fact, figured out a way to turn the clock back and save this place. But what isÂ—or wasÂ—the Everglades? A glorified swamp? A pristine landlocked water world? A polluted cesspool?
“Hodding! See if you can plot our location on the chart, would you?” the monster growls. “It’d probably help to know where we are before we get lost.”
Right now, whatever the Everglades may be, I just want to get the hell out.
THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE EVERGLADES restoration project can be summed up inÂ five words: ink, money, pipes, and hot air. Even President George W. Bush has lent his considerable voice to the chorus. “The Everglades and the entire South Florida ecosystem are a unique national treasure,” he said in January 2002, upon signing a joint federal-state water agreement with his brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush. “The restoration of this ecosystem is a priority for my administration, as well as for Governor Bush.”
That’s all to the good, except for one thing. The real EvergladesÂ—the fabled “River of Grass” that everyone is trying to save, restore, return to its natural state, or whatever the current claim isÂ—doesn’t exist and hasn’t for well over a century. It may be one of the largest wetlands in the Western Hemisphere and the primary source of South Florida’s drinking water, but at this point it’s not a river. After 150 years of reclamation projects, the Everglades is now little more than a compartmentalized swamp.
The Everglades was one of the youngest ecosystems on the planetÂ—only about 5,000 years oldÂ—when Florida was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1819, and entirely unique: a 50-mile-wide river, with an average current of half a mile per day, masquerading as a floodplain during the summer rainy season and a vast swamp the rest of the year. It covered four million acres with some of the purest water in the world and was home to more than 40 indigenous plants and 300 species of birds, plus black bears, panthers, and gray foxes.
Of course, to its new neighbors it was just a swamp, and swamps are meant to be drained. To that end, Floridians petitioned the U.S. Congress incessantly until, finally, the 1850 Swamp Act gave them ownership of the Everglades and the right to make it arable. From then on, everyone and his mother had a scheme to drain the land. No one was successful until the early 1900s, when Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward dynamited the Everglades to help speed canal construction. But that didn’t stop developers from selling nonexistent “reclaimed” land. Dumb Yankees bought it sight unseen, packed their bags, laid eyes on the quagmire, and took up hoboing.
But some stayed and hit the big timeÂ—most notably, the brains behind what would eventually become the U.S. Sugar Corporation, an agribusiness giant and multimillion-dollar player in the development of the Everglades. With the help of the state and a hodgepodge of levees and canals, farm acreage grew. By 1928, 48,000 people were living in and around the Everglades. The ecosystem was stressed, so much so that when a hurricane-engorged Lake Okeechobee broke its southeastern levee that year, the deluge killed 1,800 people. You callin’ me a swamp? the Everglades seemed to be saying. I’ll show you a swamp.
To make sure that never happened again, in 1930, President Herbert Hoover had the feds throw up a new levee, dubbed the Hoover Dike, all the way around Lake Okeechobee. With its perennial flood source cut off, and the canals multiplying, the Everglades just got drier. Large swaths of peat caught fire. Salt water edged into the aquifer, tainting the drinking water of the burgeoning urban areas. Then came back-to-back hurricanes in 1947. Far fewer people died than in ’28, but $59 million in property was ruined. Congress quickly ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a permanent fix. In 1948, the Central and Southern Florida Project was implemented. Over the next 50 years, the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) built a complicated water-control system that would eventually employ 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees, and more than 200 pump stations, spillways, and culverts to maintain water levels for flood control and farming, while mostly ignoring the needs of the ecosystem.
In 1996, thanks to the threatened extinction of 68 species (from the Key Largo cotton mouse to the American crocodile), a completely fragmented water flow, the despoilment of Florida Bay, and intense lobbying by the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and a persistent homegrown group called Friends of the Everglades, Congress ordered the Corps to undo what it had done. In 1999, after a lot of number crunching, the Corps presented a new plan called the Comprehensive Review Study, or, simply, the Restudy. The Restudy was fed into something called the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 and came out the other end as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)Â—a pet project of the Clinton administration, spearheaded by Al Gore.
Phew. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of CERP for a while now. Despite all the talk, mandated restudies, and moneyÂ—$7.8 billion over 30 years promised (but not allocated) by the feds and the state of FloridaÂ—this is not, as far as I can tell, a restoration plan. It’s just another in a long line of well-intentioned but ultimately destructive water-management schemesÂ—in short, a compromise touted as a vague but important-sounding solution. While it might halt further degradation of the ecosystem and save billions of gallons of freshwater that are currently being dumped in the ocean, it will not return a natural flow to the Everglades, no matter what Clinton, Gore, or the Bushes have to say.
But then, “the Everglades Stopgap Plan” isn’t so catchy, is it?
IT’S A WARM NOVEMBER AFTERNOON when David, Saranne, Steve, and I first step through the saw-grass curtain. We pull off the Tamiami Trail about an hour west of Miami. It’s a desolate spot, the kind of place where dead bodies are tossed. Not a very auspicious launching point for our 50-plus-mile voyage.
It’s hard to imagine that the boats are going to float, much less squeeze through this brush, since the combination of no rain and impeded flow means there’s only a few inches of water. The Park Service doesn’t promote this area, preferring to funnel tourists down to its overused water trail along the Gulf Coast or the visitor center in Homestead. But I’ve been that way and don’t intend to go there again. My first two excursions to the Everglades, back in 1993, with my wife, and in 1999, with a friend, were canoe rides down the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, where you sleep on wooden platforms called chickees and either come equipped with food or fend for yourself. On the second trip, my friend Russell and I paddled the route without any food. Our goal was to find out what the EvergladesÂ—and weÂ—were made of. We found out we’re made of stomachs; it was fun until the hunger pains and hallucinations set in. We ended up begging food off fellow canoeists by the third day. I remember the mangroves beckoning us like evil sirens. Climb in here and end your troubles, they crooned. Twist your leg and fall flat on your face as crabs no bigger than your eyeballs scour your bones.
No, thanks. This time I’ll take my chances in the tall grass. “I give the order to proceed,” I announce, and David laughs. Saranne and Steve look puzzled, so I have to explain that Hugh Willoughby, a gentleman explorer who crossed the Everglades with a local moonshiner and avian-plume poacher named Ed Brewer in 1897, started his own journey that wayÂ—an odd bit of theatrics, given that they were traveling alone. Willoughby wrote an unexpectedly entertaining account of their travails, Across the Everglades, which unveils the place as considerably more than swamp and stands out as an excellent handbook on what not to do when attempting to traverse a great morass. For instance, don’t stand up on a slippery deck over a shallow coral reef the day before setting off, because you might fall and slice your nose off and have to sew it back on yourself.
I’m thinking about this as I stand in my canoe. I’ve never poled one before, and the 12-foot PVC pipes we’re using are not ideal. A pole should be light and svelte; mine feels like some plumber forgot to flush it out. I find myself glancing resentfully at Steve, who pushes his streamlined Kevlar canoe along with ease. He notices me struggling. “You gotta go with the flow here,” he cautions. “Don’t fight it. Less is more. That’s what works in the Everglades.”
I consider whacking Steve over the head, but we’d be screwed without him. Instead, I jam my pole down hard and cause my body to fly backward, exiting the canoe. As the boat shoots forward, I take the Nestea plunge, and then my pole whacks me. Less is more, except when it comes to good footing.
Floating on my back, I am surrounded by the softest scene, the softest light, the softest water I’ve ever encountered. Imagine what it was like in the womb, coddled by all that nurturing amniotic fluid. Well, I don’t have to. I’m in that pH-neutral oasis, feeling fine. I’m able to pause just long enoughÂ—a few seconds, on account of my fear of alligatorsÂ—to soak it all in. Sunlight swarms through and over the pale-green saw grass, plays along the surface, dives down to the dark, mucky bottom, and spreads back up to engulf our little group. It’s as if we’re in some century-old sepia-tone photo.
We only go about two miles our first day, but already we’ve left CERP and all its confusion behind. As the sun sets, Saranne, David, and I stop in a patch of shorter grass, lashing our canoes together and laying plywood boards over them. This platform will be our bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom for the next eight days.
As Saranne and I heat up dinner, Steve pulls out his sleeping bag, sets up a cushion in the stern of his canoe, and goes into a kind of twilight trance state, looking out over the “pond” we’re floating on. David, on the other hand, has put on a white two-piece hazmat-type bodysuit and is rigging an oversize mosquito net over the platform to protect the sanctity of our blood. As it turns out, the mosquitoes aren’t bad at all.
The river flows imperceptibly, and the water’s clearer than Paul Newman’s eyes. I want to drink it unfiltered, and almost do, but I’m leery of giardia and dysentery. I drift off to sleep thinking of something else Willoughby said, and feel a little envious.
“The popular impression has always been that the Everglades is a huge swamp, full of malaria and disease germs,” he wrote. “I had no hesitation in drinking [the water] whenever the canoe stopped, taking two or three glasses at a time… It agreed with Brewer and myself perfectly; we did not know a sick hour.”
THE FIRST TIME I MET STEVE ROBINSON, he took me on a hike just off State Road 9336, which skirts the southeastern edge of Everglades National Park. He showed me how to deal with saw grass (rub up against it and you’re fine, rub down and it slices your skin like butter) and gave me a seminar on periphyton, nature’s finest fish food. A spongy, Dijon-colored city of algae and microscopic creatures that floats on the surface, periphyton cleanses the Everglades of excess nutrients and pollutants. The chemical equation is pretty simple: Saw grass likes neutral water, and periphyton neutralizes acidity. Without periphyton, the saw-grass prairie is overrun by invasive vegetation like cattails (which is already happening in parts), the river’s flow is interrupted, and the periphyton gives way to slimy green algae, which doesn’t nurture fish the way the periphyton does. Fish diminish. Birds diminish. The Everglades withers.
On our second day out, we pull into a campsite that drives this point home: a series of concrete chutes and floating barriers built in the late seventies by the South Florida Water Management District to test the effects of phosphorus and nitrate runoff from the Everglades Agricultural Area, 700,000 acres of sugarcane fields and citrus farms parked on the south side of Lake Okeechobee.
The effects are still glaringly obvious. No saw grass grows behind the chutes where the nutrients were loaded. Instead of periphyton, there are floating mats of green algae. To Steve, this sight is an indication of the compromises made in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Currently, the phosphorus levels in agricultural runoff range from 50 to 300 parts per billion; CERP is supposed to impose a reduction to ten parts per billion by 2006. That’s an ambitious goal, but it seems to have been shoved into political limbo. In late May, omnipotent ag-industry lobbyists, led by U.S. Sugar, pushed the Florida Legislature into passing a billÂ—which Jeb Bush signed into lawÂ—giving them a ten-year extension to comply. Florida senator Bob Graham, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Jeb’s big brother in 2004, called the bill “a divorce filing in the federal-state partnership for Everglades restoration.”
“I’ve been wading in waters like this my whole life,” Steve tells me as we inspect the chutes. “I’ve never seen so few fish. These were historically very productive waters. This new plan, while a wonderful step, isn’t going to change any of that. We’ve ‘saved’ the Everglades five times since I’ve been around, and I haven’t seen an improvement yet. They want to fix it the same way they broke it: water manipulation, control of nature. They don’t want to allow natural fluctuationsÂ—’My heavens, we can’t do that. The animals and fish might die.’ Well, I hate to break it to them, but that’s already happened. I say let nature take its course. If you can accomplish more by doing nothing, then do nothing. Open everything up and let the water flow.”
Right now, most of the water that used to flow so gently across this delta is shunted into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as a flood-control measureÂ—1.7 billion gallons of unused freshwater every day, an amount made even more unfathomable by the fact that South Florida suffers regular water shortages from drought. As this water makes its way through canals to the sea, a host of pollutantsÂ—sewage, agricultural runoff, garbage, and outright criminal contaminationÂ—join the flow, altering Florida’s coastal waterways to such a degree that the U.S. mainland’s “only living coral reef,” in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is fast becoming America’s largest dead coral reef.
CERP isÂ—or wasÂ—supposed to change this. Instead of dumping all that water into the ocean, the Corps and the SFWMD have a cunning plan to pump it into South Florida’s aquifer. Their method? A series of aquifer-storage-and-recovery (ASR) systems, 330 to be exact, that are being incorporated into the existing matrix of water-control structures. Basically, up to 1.6 billion gallons a day will be pumped 1,100 feet underground, where, theoretically, it will push aside the naturally brackish water, forming a kind of freshwater bubble that will simply hang out until it’s “recovered” for agricultural use, drinking water, and recharging the Everglades.
Sounds great, except that no one’s quite sure if it’s going to work. The National Research Council, a federally funded consortium of independent scientists, warns that the increased water pressure may fracture the limestone that seals the aquifer. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen to that limestone over time,” says Hal Wanless, head of the geology department at the University of Miami. “Pumping that amount of water in and out on a year-round basis might just destroy the aquifer.”
It’s worth noting that of the 100 municipal underground treated-wastewater-injection units in use in Florida, 33 percent leak into the aquifer. When you consider that a healthy flow of freshwater isn’t projected to return to the lower Everglades until 2018, the future looks bleak. “There’s no ‘restoration’ in the restoration plan,” says Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University who has advised the Corps. “This whole thing is a sham.”
Stu Appelbaum, CERP’s program manager, gets a little miffed when folks tell him that. “What do people mean by ‘restoration’? Put it back the way it was? Obviously we’re not doing that,” he says. “Restoration does have a precise meaning, but in common usage it means ‘Get something back as best you can.’ While we’re not going to put the system back to the way it was 100 years ago, we are going to make up for the mismanagement of the 20th century.”
Appelbaum sees himself as part of a new wave: the greening of the Corps. He believes he’s doing something that his children will be proud of. That may be. His work is certainly a far cry from the Corps’ dam-dredge-and-dike heyday, but it’s still a doubtful enterprise. As Senator Graham told me himself, “anybody who thinks that there is an insurance policy that this project will sustain itself for the next 20 years is a very optimistic person.”
This is what we wake up to the next morning. It sounds like the biggest frog I’ve ever heardÂ—a cross between a lion roar and a human burp.
“That’s an alligator,” Steve says, leaning on one elbow. “It’s a big daddy warning someone where his territory is. If you were a young male alligator, you’d listen to these sounds and then try to find a nice, quiet spot far, far away. Eating small alligators is not so much a delicacy for larger alligators as a territorial necessity.”
David is strapping on his camera. It’s already hot and he’s sweating, rubbing his wrists. The obsessive windmilling will begin in a few hours. “How about humans?” he asks as an even louder bellow emerges, this time about 20 feet to our right.
“Evidently, we’re not very tasty,” Steve says. “An alligator would much sooner scurry away from a human than bite one. We present a pretty big profile, except when we’re just dangling a limb in the water.” I yank my left foot out of the river. A chorus of dyspeptic gators accompanies everything we do for the next few hours. We eat oatmeal to the growls. We start poling south by southeast to the growls. I fall face first into the water to the growls and scare a two-foot alligator resting on a lily pad. Our progress is radioed from one alligator to another all morning long.
After lunch, we abandon our canoes and slog through knee-high water to Panther Mound, a raised piece of land, or hammock, thick with gumbo-limbo trees, loblollies, and strangler figs.
“It’s completely unreal,” Saranne murmurs, holding back the branch of a poisonwood tree. She’s wearing gloves, so I don’t say anything about it being poisonous to the touch.
“Primordial,” notes Steve, momentarily stalled by a tangle of mangrove roots.
“Elemental,” David chimes in.
“Disgusting,” I say as my foot sinks into two feet of mush.
Saranne leads our approach with a running monologue: “Yes, this is quite difficult…We’re almost there…I think I see land…” What she finds difficult, we find impossible. After about half an hour, we reach the hammock. I had imagined an open meadow, ringed and shaded by a few towering royal palms, maybe even a pine or two. There’d be a spot for sunbathing, another for bird-watching. Instead, we get more jungle. The trees are low-slung, with vines hanging to the ground. We have to crouch like apes.
“Limes,” Saranne says. “They’re all over the place.”
“Key limes,” I say, picking one up and biting into it. “I love hunting and gathering.”
“This is how my granddad did it,” Steve says, carefully cutting away the top of a lime. “It’s a natural juice box.” He clears a clean area for his lips and has at it.
“What kind of bone is this?” David asks, holding up a deer jaw.
There are thousands of bonesÂ—all in the center of the hammock, under a sour-orange tree. Something here likes deer and wild pig. We discover a big sleeping nest, and then we notice the scat. Achtung! We’re in a minefield of Ho-Ho-size poops.
“This is great!” I announce. “There’s scat everywhere.”
“What’s so great about that?” David asks, camera on. He’s wearing a big smile. I figure he’s as excited as I amÂ—tasty limes, indications of a sizable predator alive and wellÂ—but within days, when every rumble in my stomach means trouble, I will regret eating those limes.
“Well, these scats can only be from a large carnivorous or omnivorous animal,” I say, peering into the camera. “There’s hairs and some sort of fibrous materials in here.” I peel apart a scat. “This part of the Everglades can still sustain some large animal that is dining on what the place has to offer. Isn’t that great!”
“Yes, it is, Hodding,” Steve says, mournfully. “We should be seeing signs like this on every mound, but I bet we won’t.”
The Florida panther is generally considered to be on the verge of extinction. Only about 60 live in the wild, and a lot of these are the offspring of cougars brought in from Texas to breed with the panthers. The new hybrid blood is supposed to revive the Florida pride. Things are so bad, though, that in March the St. Petersburg Times made a big deal about the first panther seen in Hillsborough County in 25 years. Unfortunately, it was a roadkill.
A loud crack sounds in the jungle beyond the hammock, the kind that makes three grown men jump. Saranne seems oblivious. Backing away, Steve relates how important it is to leave the animal alone, especially if it’s a panther. “But we haven’t explored the entire island,” Saranne says. “Isn’t that what we came for?”
“OK, Saranne, we’ll meet you on the other side,” I whisper, and slink manfully back to my canoe.
OVER THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS, our journey becomes deceivingly pleasant. First we happen upon an airboat trail, which makes for easy poling. Then we hit Rookery Branch, where Shark River Slough pretty much becomes Shark River and heads southeast. Here the water gets relatively deep for the EvergladesÂ—five feet or soÂ—and you can see clear to the bottom. The ubiquitous saw grass rattles in the wind, while pond-apple trees, yellow pond lilies, and pickerelweed, with its iridescent purple flowers, line the riverbanks. From time to time, a huge bass slaps the surface, or a little blue heron, still in its white phase, swoops down, spies us, and flaps out, fast.
Such are the joys of Rookery Branch. Then things get really tough. Shark River eventually dumps into the Gulf of Mexico at Whitewater Bay, but in an Evergladean reverie I decide that we should cut straight south to Florida Bay. Someone should have hit me with a pole.
Almost immediately we run up against a wall of gnarly mangroves and are unable to find a way through its rat’s nest of crisscrossing roots and limbs. That night, our fifth in the Everglades, I lie on my plywood board, slowly being driven mad by the lonely bark of a pig frog. I think of what Willoughby said about the Everglades after dark: “Everything had been so desolate and quiet during the day that one would naturally think the stillness of the night would be quite appalling,” he wrote. “But as the hours advanced, new combinations of sounds broke upon the ear…The first to tune up were the frogs. Those frogs do not have the respectable croak of their Northern brothers; they make a noise like a creaky sheave on an old block…But the worst sound to sleep through is the cry of the limpkin. We have seen them almost all day and they seemed like a quiet, well-behaved bird, but their conduct at night is something most disreputable.”
Alas, the cry of the limpkin, a hair-raising screech. Like so many other birds that used to nest and feed here, these three-foot-tall muddy-brown birds are mostly goneÂ—we’ve seen oneÂ—because their main food source, the apple snail, is disappearing.
I’ve almost dozed off when David starts swinging his arms. About half an hour later, he stops. Our platform is still. Then, in a pained whisper, he begins his lament: “The hands, the hands…ohhh, the hands.” Kurtz in the Everglades.
The next morning, we charge into the mangroves. Six lousy miles, that’s all we have to cover, then we’ll be on more navigable streams. In no time we’re pushing, dragging, bending our canoes through an endless series of S-turns. The water is black from tannin and rot. It’s up to our chests, and the stench of methane engulfs us. Little green tree frogs ride on our shoulders. Orb weaver spiders ensnare us. But we push on. We must reach the end, see freshwater meeting salt!
By noon, we can’t go more than ten yards without using a saw. By 2:30, we’ve gone less than half a mile for the day; the last 50 yards have taken us an hour. A phalanx of mangroves at least 20 yards deep covers the entire stream. We can’t even see through to open waterÂ—a pathetic first.
I climb a thick trunk. There’s a pool just 20 feet ahead that we couldn’t see from water level. Past that, it’s worseÂ—much, much worse. I look back. To my utter astonishment, I can see that we’ve actually been following a path for a long ways. But that’s gone now. I turn and look ahead again. Oh, no. The trees seem to be… marching toward me.
It’s time to make a decision. Steve has to be back at work in two days; David is supposed to fly home in three. It’s hopeless. The mangroves have beaten me again.
We retreat. It means giving up, not reaching Florida Bay, but there’s not much choice.
“Hodding, I’m concerned you might feel this is a mutiny,” Saranne says.
“Yeah, I do, but it’s a welcome one. I’ll take saw grass over mangroves any day.”
GOING BACK ISN’T AS HARD, physically. We trudge and pull and swim in silence. It crosses my mind how fast we’ve adapted to our surroundings. I’m not glancing around for the next cottonmouth or even the clamping jaws of an irate alligator.
It takes two days of poling before we reach dry land. The periphyton is so thick I start using it as a sponge. At first I don’t get it. Why is it so healthy here? Then it dawns on me: Much of Everglades National Park remains healthy because it no longer receives its historical water supply. Thanks to the canals and levees farther north, most of the polluted runoff from the sugarcane farms, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards is dumped in the ocean, fouling Florida Bay and the coastal conservation areas but sparing the lower Everglades. It’s a classic, if upsetting, paradox. Whenever the SFWMD has seen fit to unleash a man-made flood, the effect has been devastating; the nutrient-rich freshwater flushes through Shark River Slough, messing with the fragile pH balance and, ultimately, contributing to algal blooms in Florida Bay that have killed off pink shrimp and sponges and driven away pompano, redfish, and sea trout. Left alone, the park seems to be getting byÂ—as long as South Florida receives its average 60 inches of rain. Even if the Corps doesn’t restore the Everglades, the lower section will probably survive; it’ll just be a bit drier than it was 100 years ago.
This isn’t good enough for Steve. “Some scientists believe the lower Everglades always had a dry period,” he says as we approach the park road, near a spot called Ficus Pond, where we’ll pull outÂ—crestfallen, covered in muck, but still essentially in control of our faculties. “But a dry-out only allows for small fish. We know that there were big fish here. I think water was here year-round except in the driest of years.”
Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no one agrees on anything in the Everglades. That’s not a big surprise at this point. And it doesn’t really matter. The old Everglades is gone forever. Yes, the park will always be here, standing tough like some old-growth forest surrounded by the latest gated community. Inside its mangrove walls, a bit of the past will live on. But the Frankenstein’s-monster versionÂ—with its ASRs, massive pumps, and miles of readjusted canalsÂ—will be waiting in the shadows.
Is that such a bad thing? It’s the future, after all, a 21st-century recreationist’s dreamÂ—a stop-and-shop subtropical car-camping paradise, with plenty of put-ins, concrete boat ramps, and septic-tank disposal areas. Once CERP is implemented, we will all be able to feel like we’re part of the natural world, in a Disney kind of way. On your left, you’ll find man-made hammocks with reintroduced deer nestled beside concrete-lined swamps housing fattened alligators. On your right, a genetically altered Florida panther will lurk behind greenhouse-raised saw grass, waiting for one of you lucky tourists to fall overboard. It’ll be fun!
Yep, no matter what, this is the New Everglades. And despite what we like to tell ourselves, despite what we may wish for, no oneÂ—not the panthers, not the coral, not the periphyton, not even Steve RobinsonÂ—can ever go home again.
In 1996, Congress asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem. Four years later, the Corps came up with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Here’s how it’s supposed to work. A vast amount of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee and surrounding waterwaysÂ—1.7 billion gallons a dayÂ—is currently sluiced into the ocean for flood control. To save that water, 330 aquifer-storage-and-recovery systems (ASRs) are being built around the lake and near the coast so that up to 1.6 billion gallons a day can be pumped down into the Floridan Aquifer, where it will be stored until needed for irrigation, drinking water, and recharging the ecosystem (see legend and ASR diagram, above). An additional 180,000 acres of surface-water reservoirs will store up to 500 billion gallons, while 36,000 acres of storm-water-treatment areas will use artificial wetlands to clean runoff from the lake and the Everglades Agricultural Area. In an attempt to improve the historical flow from north to south, the Corps will remove old levees, raise parts of the Tamiami Trail causeway, redirect stored water through miles of new pipes and readjusted canals, and time-release it into Everglades National Park. Two wastewater-recycling plants south of Miami, in Dade County, will treat 220 million gallons a day, which will also be reflowed into the park. Strictly speaking, CERP will not “restore” the Everglades. But by 2030, 1.6 million acres of national parkland will have cleaner waterÂ—and more of it.