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Happy Swampentine’s Day

For Valentine’s Day, Tim and I celebrated amongst all the romance of the Florida Everglades.  Alligators, Spiders, Crocodiles and Mosquitos all add to this special day.

Gator #206?

The Everglades

Well we wish they did…

This weekend, Florida is once again awash in an atypical cold front.  With lows in the 40’s and highs barely hitting 60, even the mosquitos don’t bother to show up.  The result is a very unusual Everglades experience.  Bundled up our wool and sweatshirts, we’ve explored the mangrove coves, 3 foot deep manatee filled Florida Bay and gator holes.  We’ve found out some surprising misconceptions about this amazing place:

1. The Everglades are not a Swamp.  All the water that trickles through this wetland is on a constant move.  Nothing is stagnant or still.

Ingredients

Ingredients of the Everglades

2. You come to the Everglades to see the Alligators.  Nope.  Gators are here for sure (we counted 206 in one day), but most of the travelers are here for the birds.  Pink, White, Green, Blue, Tall, Small, the wading birds that feast on the fish, shrimp and bugs are vibrant, plentiful and gorgeous.

3. You’ll see Flamingos in Flamingo.  Wrong again.  Apparently Flamingos are tasty eating in addition to being that lovely pink color.  They used to stop at Flamingo Florida, site of the current camping area in the Everglades, on their migratory path north.  When Plume Hunters (bird poachers) discovered this in the early 20th century, they decimated the flocks.   Flamingos aren’t dumb.  They just stopped coming here, choosing safer routes.   Every once in a while a Flamingo will appear here, but it’s very rare.

4. Everglades are infested with spiders, beetles, snakes and mosquitos.  We’re told that this is actually true.  But based on our experience (in the chilly air), it’s quite pleasant.

Our factoids were easy to gather with our various tour guides of the weekend.   Ah but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Perfect Campsite and Florida Keys Sunset

Camping on Picture Perfect Long Key

Thursday afternoon, Tim and I made a decision.  It was time to leave the Keys.   We’d spent an amazing 3 days at our favorite camp spot on Long Key.  Here we had beach front camping, ocean breezes and warm weather.   We could have stayed longer but we’d delayed our plans for too long already.  Friday morning as we got packed up, the Camp Host swung by to ask if we were staying.  “There’s high winds predicted tonight,” she said.  We told her that we were leaving and she responded “Good timing.”  That seemed like our cue.

We drove up through Key Largo and settled into Homestead, our reluctant basecamp throughout the last few months.  Arriving at the large local Starbucks, we got comfortable for the work day.

Homestead Storm

Storms

As promised, by 5 pm the winds picked up.  Suddenly the doors of the Starbucks were banging open and shut and an uprooted palm tree flew down the street.  Sirens started blaring up and down Route 1 and we were glad we’d hunkered down.  While we sipped on coffee and watched chaos outside, Sylvia called with some news.  She and Leroy were at the Celebration of the Century of UNC Tarheels Basketball.    We wish we could have been there to share the fun!

The storm blew through quickly and 2 hours later, we emerged from Starbucks, ready to tackle our “big city” errands.  We grocery shopped, cleaned up Frank and finished the last of our Cracker Barrel Xmas Gift Certificates from Ann and Scott.   We also learned that Cracker Barrel is happy to shelter traveling RV’s so we parked Frank for the night.

Next morning we finished our errands with a trip to the Homestead Mrs. Kleen’s Koin Laundromat.  Clean and restocked, we drove 15 miles west past Key Lime pie stands and alligator farms to the entrance of the Everglades National Park.

Mantees in Flamingo Marina

Manatees in Florida Bay

This 1.5 million acre area is totally unique from any ecosystem in the US.   We took a backcountry boat tour through the floating mangrove forests with Captain Frank.   Here we saw mahogany trees,  endangered manatees, pineapple-like airplants and the deadly manicheel tree.   Calusa Indians used this toxic tree’s sap for their poison arrows that killed Ponce De Leon.  A favorite torture was to leave unfortunate captured Spaniards tied to the tree.  “Don’t eat the apples,” Captain Frank deadpanned.

Air Plants

Air Plants

Captain Frank was quite the character.  70 years old and still sporting an earring, he had stories of the Everglades from the early days.   “We’d come out here, kill a wild pig and barbeque it with pineapple and swamp cabbage (hearts of palm)”, he’d reminisce affectionately.  He also loved to pepper his stories with cliffhangers.   He’d tell us, “Next,  I’ll tell you about the one thing that gives life to all else here in the Everglades…Things could get interesting,”  and kick the boat into overdrive for 10 minutes of silence.  We were a captive audience waiting for the next installment.

Tour on the Pelican

Aboard the Pelican

Off the boat, we set up camp at Flamingo Campground.  As promised, there were no flamingos.  But we were surrounded a dozen exuberant kids that were equally entertaining.

Sunday we woke up to another chilly and blissfully mosquito free day.  We decided it was finally time for a bike ride and we pedaled 4 miles up the road to Snake Bight Trail.  A bight is a bay within a bay, but as we pedaled through the dense mangroves we appreciated the cleverness of the name.  A few degrees warmer and I could imagine a  Burmese Python dropping on us from the dense canopy overhead.   Yep, Burmese Pythons are the newest local of the Everglades after multiple Floridians decided this was the best place to dump their unwanted exotic snakes.

Emerging from the forest, we reached a platform over Florida Bay.  Ahead of us showy Roseate Spoonbills, snowy Great White Egrets and frisky Ibus feasted on the shrimp embedded in the mud exposed by the low tide.   It was one of the most peaceful places Tim and I have seen on our trip.

River of Grass

River of Grass

We pedaled back to the campsite in time for a gorgeous pink Valentine’s Day sunset.

Monday we decided it was time to see some alligators.  We drove to Anhinga Trailhead after hearing we may see some wildlife.  That was an understatement.  We walked around the side of the ranger station and saw alligators sunning themselves, anhinga peppering the trees and hundreds of herons, egrets, ibuses and ducks.   It was hard to stop taking pictures of the locals.

The Anhinga

The Anhinga

Tri-Colored Heron

The Great Blue Heron

Roseate Spoonbill

Ibus and the Roseate Spoonbill

Hunting

On the Prowl

Not Gators.. Vultures

The Gators are no Threat...it's the Vultures!

After a delightful hour we then packed up again and drove out of the Everglades around the perimeter of the Park and back in at Shark Valley.   On our bikes, we pedaled the 14 mile loop out to Shark Tower, a 60 foot tall observatory.  Here we found the Everglades we expected.  Pedaling down the path you would look over and there was a 12 foot alligator 2 feet away.   It was a little unnerving….fortunately they were far more interested in getting some warm sun than Tim or I.

Stay on Trail

Riding through the Everglades

Pecking Order

Gator Pecking Order

After the bike ride we made our way up to Fort Myers Beach which will be our home for the next week.  We’re steadily heading north up the Gulf Coast of the Florida, even if the weather isn’t cooperating.  We’ve got a date with Austin in March and we don’t want to be late!

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