The Everglades: A fragile river of grass

  • Sunset in Everglades National Park.

The Florida Everglades, the River of Grass, feels fragile, like any moment a hurricane will wipe it off the map, or humans, after decades of abuse, will finally kill it, or invasive species will forever alter it.

The longer you’re there, the more fragile it feels.

We started driving through the River of Grass on the main road through the park, a road that rises only a foot or two above the swamp, where elevation in measured in inches.

Once, this river covered the lower half of Florida, its sawgrass bending in the freshwater that would move, imperceptibly, from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee to Biscayne and Florida bays. The river was 100 miles long and 60 miles wide. Today, only half the original wetlands remain, and 90 percent of the wading birds have vanished.

The Everglades had been on our list from our first days in The Epic Van, but its location on the far southern tip of Florida, hundreds of miles south of anything else, meant it wasn’t until year four that we got there.

We stopped first in Miami, where our son’s college roommate, Corbin, now lives with his fiancée, Acacia, who is attending medical school. Corbin, an avid outdoorsman, loaned us his copy of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald, and promised to come hike later in the week.

The history of the Everglades is a story of man’s ill-considered fight to change nature, his too-often corrupt craving for riches, and nature’s struggle to survive both.

The Swamp outlines the ignorance, corruption and greed that led settlers in the 1800s and 1900s to dam, dredge and drain much of the lower part of Florida, claiming it for agriculture and development. The results were devastating for the ecosystem, and for the earliest settlers, when a 1928 hurricane drowned 2,500 people when the poorly conceived and executed plans caused massive flooding.

You find the road to Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida, just past the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand, a famous, oddly named farm stand on steroids, where you can buy local fruits, vegetables, honey, coconut candy and get amazing milkshakes with unique flavors, like tamarind or Key lime. If you’re lucky, you can even meet Robert who, it seems, is nearly always there.

When we visited in March, a road sign warned of no services south of Homestead. The gas station at the park was blown away in Hurricane Irma in 2017, along with the restaurants, marina store and other niceties.

That’s OK by me. It added to the otherworldly nature of the place.

Water stretches for miles on either side of the road, dotted by tiny islands called hammocks (a name derived from the word hummocks) that rise just enough to support hardwoods and wildlife.

Wood storks, the only stork native to North America and one of its largest wading birds, wheeled past our windshield. Flocks of roseate spoonbills and herons perched in the trees. Alligators lolled in the sun, their snouts nearly resting on the roadway. We stopped for a turtle ambling across.

Along the side, huge swaths of mangroves denuded by Irma, struggled to rise from their knees and regenerate. NASA studies show 60 percent of the mangroves were damaged.

At the end of the road, farthest south in the park is Flamingo Campground, its trees were battered, some uprooted, the fresh-water spigots not yet repaired. From our camp chairs, we watched a young osprey perch on the edge of its stick nest, calling for its parent.

At the nearly deserted marina, we glimpsed mating manatees, and a sailboat heading for the Keys. That night, on a ranger-led walk at the Gumbo Limbo Hammock, we watched spiders spin huge webs that they would pack up when the sun rose.

Perhaps the strangest sight was a Nike Hercules Missile Base, a relic of the Cold War. As the Cuban Missile Crisis played out in October of 1962, when America became aware of Soviet missiles housed in Cuba within striking distance of major U.S. cities, Army missile battalions were rushed to the Everglades to set up mobile sites. A permanent base was built in 1964, just 160 miles from the coast of Cuba. The buildings, berms, and a decommissioned missile are preserved.

We walked the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm, where alligators slid through the clear waters, purple gallinules walked on the lily pads, and anhingas dried their wings after diving for fish. Eerily, Royal Palm was saved by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, the year Everglades National Park was established. She was a journalist, playwright, and environmental crusader, who fought for feminism, racial justice, and conservation long before these causes became popular.

We visited just after the shooting at the high school named in her honor.

Corbin arrived, and we hiked the Coastal Prairie Trail, past mangroves to the waters of Florida Bay.

We visited Mahogany Hammock, where we saw hardwoods growing just inches above the water and caught a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker.

Our last day, in the drizzle of rain, we took a ranger-led canoe ride through the mangroves to spot alligators sunning on high spots in the fresh water. We learned about the oatmeal-looking periphyton mats, a mass of algae, cyanobacteria and microinvertebrates that float under the surface, an important part of the food chain for the plants and animals in the swamp.

The ranger also told us of the invasion of pythons that have eaten 95 percent of the small animals of the Everglades, including rodents, raccoons, rabbits, even small alligators. The park has tried everything, including ongoing python hunts, to no avail.

As we watched the sun set over the park through the haze of controlled burns, herons squawked as they headed for their evening perches.

Shortly after we left, hurricane season started early, and it seemed it would all blow away.

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