Of all the places in the world I have traveled, the Everglades is still #1 on my list. Unique and ever changing.
America’s Everglades once covered almost 11,000 square miles of South Florida. Just a century ago, water flowed down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, then south through the vast Everglades to Florida Bay, the ultimate destination of uninterrupted sheetflow. Because of efforts to drain the marshland for agriculture, development and flood control, the Everglades is today half the size it was a century ago. This “River of Grass” is a mosaic of sawgrass marshes, freshwater ponds, prairies and forested uplands that supports a rich plant and wildlife community. Renowned for its wading birds and wildlife, the Everglades is home to dozens of federally threatened and endangered species, including the Florida panther, American crocodile, snail kite and wood stork. The mix of salt and fresh water makes it the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side.
The Everglades/Florida Bay system is an internationally recognized ecosystem that covers approximately 2 million acres in South Florida and contains the largest subtropical wetland in the United States. This area has been described as a vast sawgrass marsh, dotted with tree islands and interspersed with wet prairies and aquatic sloughs that historically covered most of southeastern Florida.
Three and half hours from Tampa and Orlando and 30 minutes from Downtown Miami, the Everglades is still an untouched oasis of wildness in a state where over-development abounds. The Shark Valley Visitor Center at Everglades National Park has an entrance fee ($10 per vehicle), and bike rental. Renting bikes costs $7.50 per person per hour. The trail is organized into one big loop consisting of one 7 mile length, then an observation tower, then an 8 mile length back.
There is a big sign at the beginning of the trail that notes a 15 foot policy must be maintained between people and alligators at all times. “No problem,” I thought to myself. Over the past 60 years, I have grown particularly fond of the use of both of my hands.
However, the alligators apparently did not receive “the 15 feet rule” memo. There is no barrier separating the bike trail and the gators’ natural habitat, so the alligators go wherever they darn please. I was not 100 feet from the starting line when I saw my first alligator–five feet away from the trail.
This would seem very alarming at first, but alligators are nocturnal, so during the day they are relatively inactive. They prefer to sun themselves on the banks of the marshes, and if they are left alone, that is precisely what they do. When asked of the frequency of alligator attacks, park rangers and guides will basically tell you the same thing: People only get attacked by alligators when they attempt to harrass or feed the alligators. They really want as little to do with humans as possible, and will only act aggressively if they feel threatened.
With this in mind, it’s still a little, shall we say, unnerving to have an animal that looks like a small dinosaur chilling out only a couple of feet away from you and your bike. At one point I got yelled at by a tram driver (there is also a tram available if biking 15 miles isn’t your thing) because I didn’dt stop when he drove by. The reason I didn’t stop was that stopping would have put me in touching distance of an alligator sunning itself on the path, mouth open. Getting my bones crushed in the gaping jowels of an alligator or getting reprimanded by a tram driver? I chose the lesser of two evils.
On the first part of the ride, I do not exaggerate when I say that I saw no less than 100 alligators–big gators, little gators, baby gators with their mothers, gators by themselves and gators in packs of 10 or more. The first part of the ride was also coincidentally the part where the wind was against me, so I could not pedal perhaps as quickly as I wanted to past an alligator if it was a little closer to the trail than I would have liked.
But finally after an hour, reached the observation tower. There, got off my bike and walked the the top. Since south Florida is flat as a pancake, I could see for miles and miles. I was definitely in the heart of the Everglades.
The ride back was with the wind, so it was much easier. However, on the 8 mile length, there were significantly less alligators. The terrain of the second length was more like a savannah prairie, and the alligators prefer marshier, wetter grounds. In any event, it was still a good ride, and to tell the truth a lot less nerve-racking due to the lack of reptiles.
So would I do it again? Absolutely. It was really fun to see alligators up close and get some excercise at the same time. However, I have a couple of suggestions to make the experience a good one. One, and there is no formal rule against this, but I wouldn’t take children under 10, children (or adults for that matter) who don’t behave themselves, or small pets. Overall, alligators will not attack you if you leave them alone. Keep in mind that they are still wild animals and you will probably lose a limb, or if you’re lucky, just a finger, if you antagonize them. I’d rather keep all of my fingers, personally. It certainly makes typing up these stories easier. And if you are one of those people who has to bring his or her pint-sized pooch everywhere, I’d keep my little Taco Bell dogs at home. You may love them, but to an alligator, they look tastier than a Chalupa to a drunk college student at 3 AM.