Anarchy in the Everglades National Park
As the U.S. Federal Government shut down moved into its 28th day, we wondered what we would find as we drove through the unmanned entrance to the Everglades National Park. Would it look like something out of Deliverance or the Paper Boy? Or would it be filled with entitled travelers who don't know how to pack out their own trash and bring their own toilet paper?
Our plan was to check out the park and, if possible, camp there overnight. We figured, with no one home, we could park our van just about anywhere. We didn’t see any official vehicles anywhere along the road. Also missing, the stream of cars that usually accompany entrance into a National Park. The road was virtually empty.
The road was straight and flat. Mirages of water loomed on the roadway ahead then quickly disappearing as we approached. We passed by groves of Long pines, the naked branches of greyish-white Cypress trees, and a grassland that stretched to the horizon in both directions. David and I both felt like we had been here before in the Serengeti. The only thing missing was a pride of lions, elephants, and the towering frames of giraffes. The Everglades is the Serengeti of the United States. Instead of crocodiles and hippos there are the American Alligator and Manatees. Like the Serengeti, there were lots of creatures that could kill you.
The dry season grasslands transitioned into the true saw grass water lands that spread from coast to coast and drain out of Lake Okeechobee to the north. The Everglades is 1.5 million acres and one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. It is a network of swampy grasslands and waterways that are habitat for thousands of species of birds, alligators, and twenty-three species of snakes, turtles, and the elusive panther. There are also lots of nasty insects that like to bite you.
As we drove deeper into the glades we saw lakes and ponds along the roadway. Then islands of trees called hammocks. Roads turned off to other destinations within the park but we were headed to the end of the road to Flamingo campground and the gulf coast where the fresh water of the Everglades met and mixed with the salt water of the gulf coast ocean.
We passed by a marina and then entered a park with a sharp Florida grass meadow with rows of picnic tables and a bathroom at a boat launch. What we saw surprised us. Tents were set up near the beach on the far side of rows of picnic tables. Another camp was set up near the boat launch. People were fishing in the ocean on kayaks or from shore. Again we didn't see an official vehicles. We found a pull out that looked toward the beach and thought it might make a good place to camp for the night.
Just as we were throwing around the idea, a middle-aged woman with an NPS hat and blonde hair drove up on a camouflage ATV. She was wearing an official looking NPS jacket and looked agitated as she said, “ You can’t camp here”. I looked a little closer and saw that her jacket said National Park Service volunteer. I realized that she might be one of those vigilantes that are running loose in our national parks or maybe she was a member of the Minute Men militia. She didn’t say a word about our dogs as we unloaded them to go for a walk and take photos of sunset.
We walked down to the water as the sun was dropping in a muted sky along the waterline. I stood on a picnic table to take some photos of the sun to the west lighting up the sky. The shoreline was dotted with people enjoying the evening. As I took photos I felt small specks of fire on my skin like burning pinpricks on my scalp. No see-ums. I tried to focus on taking photos but they kept biting. The irritation finally sending me back to the van and an insect proof barrier. I could imagine being in the thick of the Everglades being eaten alive by swarms of no see-ums and mosquitoes.
David came back with the dogs and we drove over to the campground. On a message board were a list of available campsites and a list of sites with reservations. What we saw surprised us, open campsites. As we drove through the campground Loop A we saw campers quietly enjoying a warm evening, cooking dinner, and setting up tents. We looked around and we couldn’t find anything out of place other than the place had lots of empty campsites on Martin Luther King (MLK) holiday weekend. There weren’t any bands of banjo playing youth. No shredded meadows from someone doing donuts on the grass. No piles of garbage spilling out of overflowing dumpsters. No off duty marauding gators looking for children or fluffy small dogs to eat. It all looked so peaceful.
Images of the Flamingo campground at in the Everglades
We parked and David headed for the bathroom but on reconsideration returned to grab a roll of toilet paper. We had heard about the paperless national park bathrooms. Upon returning David informed me that there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and hot showers. We were shocked.
We slipped off to sleep assured that we were safe from being robbed by unemployed federal workers looking for food.
In the morning the sun was shining and the National Park was still closed. As we left the campground we met up with the woman who had yelled at us the night before. We struck up a conversation and found out the volunteer jacket was borrowed and that she was actually an employee of the concessionaire that ran the campground and marina. They had a contract that said that they would continue to run their business through a government shutdown.
They were the buffer between order and chaos. I can’t help but believe that if they were not able to continue making money this shutdown would already be over. Our president and his cronies were all about the money. Letting federal workers go hungry is one thing. Letting their donors profits suffer, that is quite another matter.
Since the official NPS Visitors center was closed we stopped by the concessionaires marina store to buy our Everglades National Park sticker to place on the boxes on the back of our van. The electricity was on and the ice cream was cold.
Our plan for the day was to visit the most interesting places we’d seen on the way in. We stopped at West Lake and a number of ponds.
At the Coot Bay pond we met two older women and an older man getting ready to set off in canoes. We talked to them and found out that the man’s name was Roger Hammer, he was setting out with the two women, who would be in another boat, to take photos of them for the upcoming release of a book he was writing on paddling the water trails of the Everglades. Turns out he has published quite a few books about the Everglades and also a book on wildflowers of Florida. He explained how the lakes and ponds are interconnected by waterways. They were heading out through this pond to another one along the waterways trail.
Want to learn more about the Everglades? Here are links to some of Roger’s books on Amazon.
Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers: Over 600 Wildflowers of the Sunshine State including National Parks, Forests, Preserves, and More than 160 State ... (Wildflowers in the National Parks Series) Kindle Edition
Then we stopped at the Mahogany hammock. A slight elevation of the ground measured in inches made the difference between swampy grassland and islands of trees. Along the islands were natural moats of open water. The trail left the parking lot along a boardwalk over the saw grass and water and then through the forest of tall trees of mahogany, palms, a few strangler figs, and other native trees. The trees in this particular hammock were predominantly the mahogany.
Then we visited the dwarf Cypress forest. Islands and dwarf cypress trees stood stark and greyish white against the tawny grasses. The bases of the cypress bulb out, then the trunk narrows before branching out.
We did the tourist route, leaving the back country for travelers who were braver than us. I just don’t have an affinity for risk taking that includes random encounters with alligators and venomous snakes or biting insects. We finished our tour with the Anhinga trail at Royal Palms. Earlier, I met a photographer that told me we would see lots of wildlife there and of course lots of gators.
We ventured ten feet from our car out to the trailhead. There on the other side of a low concrete wall were our first gators. There was a large momma gator next to a tiny baby alligator. She was situated between her little baby and us. If you didn’t know better you’d think she was dead or sleeping. Don’t be fooled! As I saw later (at the Everglades Alligator Farm) when motivated they can scale walls and move very quickly. I imagine trying to pet her baby would result in quick movement.
Farther down the trail a beautiful black and white Anhinga fanned out it’s wings and tipped its head. What a poser! The trail was a paved walkway around a large open body of water. Then the pavement ended and a boardwalk led out into the pond where islands of higher ground created resting areas for different types of turtles and basking alligators along with herons, egrets, anhingas, and Purple Gallinules. In the clearer water of the pond we saw lots of different species of fish and a turtle swimming. This pond habitat was teeming with lots of different species that called the Everglades home.
Great Blue Heron
Two species of turtles
Photo 1 & 2: Eastern Chicken Turtle.
Photo 3: Possibly a Florida Cooter
Photo 4: Definitely a Florida Softshell Turtle
We were lucky to stumble into a government crisis that afforded us the opportunity to camp in the Everglades on a holiday weekend. We saw another part of our natural environment that is one of the largest National Parks in the lower 48. I can’t imagine falling in love with the Everglades, or Florida for that matter, but I’m glad that we got to visit this unique natural environment.
I have a better understanding of the geography of a landscape at or a few feet above sea level, why hurricanes are so devastating, and the impact of expanding development on the Everglades ecosystem.
We just dipped our toes into the surface of this diverse ecosystem and luckily an alligator didn’t bite them off.
More info on visiting the Everglades National Park
If you only have a little bit of time to explore the park visit the Royal Palm / Anhinga Trails.