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EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
HIKING, CANOEING AND BIRD WATCHING

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Located on the southern tip of Florida, an hour from Miami, Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the contiguous U.S. (after Yellowstone and Death Valley). The 615,000-hectare Everglades park is the only park in the northern hemisphere that is an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance.

Everglades National Park sign. Florida.
Everglades National Park sign. Florida.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Himalayas have the Abominable Snowman, British Columbia has Bigfoot and, according to naturalist Rob Parenti, the Florida Everglades have the Skunk Ape. "Witnesses say that dark hair covers its large body except its chest which is white," he reported. "The creature walks upright, like a man, and has a skunk odour."

On our recent visit to Everglades National Park, the Skunk Ape was as elusive as the endangered Florida panther. "There are less than 10 panthers left in the park and 30 in all of Florida," explained Parenti.

Homestead Florida

There are four Everglades National Park visitor centers. Flamingo Visitor Center is about a one-hour drive from Miami. Shark Valley Visitor Center is on the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), about 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Naples. Gulf Coast Visitor Center is in Everglades City.

We visited Ernest Coe Visitor Center, in Homestead FL, after following signs to Everglades National Park on Palm Drive in Florida City. Ernest Coe Visitor Center is a must-see, not only for maps, brochures and schedules of ranger-conducted hikes and slide shows, but also for fascinating information about the Everglades.

What's in an alligator's belly?

Do you know, for example, what an alligator's bulging belly might contain? A wading bird, a turtle, an otter, bass, shrimp, rats and even another 'gator — according to one display.

Another diorama depicted an alligator's nest at night, complete with sound effects. A third display was a dental impression of an alligator's bite.

Everglades wildlife

Eager to see wildlife, we followed the Ingraham Highway, which ends 61 kilometres further, at Flamingo Marina. The Anhinga Trail was our first stop.

Minutes after starting the half-mile (0.8 kilometer) trail, we spotted an anhinga, perched on a branch, holding its wings out to dry like a cape. (Anhingas' feathers lack oil, so they must dry them, after each fishing expedition, before they can fly.)

Viewing birds from Everglades boardwalk
Viewing birds from Everglades boardwalk
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Looking down, we saw another anhinga swimming underwater, weaving his snake-like neck as he searched for fish. With dropped jaws, we watched the bird skewer a fish with his pointed beak. He emerged from the water, and tossed the fish into the air, swallowing it head first so the scales didn't scratch.

Hiking trails

Further on, an iridescent purple gallinule walked across green lily pads like stepping stones. Using its red and yellow beak, it plucked an insect from under a leaf.

We could have spent the whole morning here, but other trails beckoned. The trees on the nearby Gumbo Limbo Trail are also called "tourist" trees, because their red bark peels like a visitor's sunburn. Here too, are lush ferns and descriptively named clamshell, mules-ear and spread-eagle orchids.

Sawgrass is the most common vegetation in Everglades National Park. On the Pahayokee Trail, an observation tower offers panoramic views of the "river of grass." The 81-kilometre-wide swath of golden sedge ripples like prairie wheat. Shallow water, below it, slowly seeps southward 160 kilometres, from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bird watching

For a different Everglades environment, we hiked along the Mahogany Hammock Trail. (A hammock is an elevated island of hardwood trees.) In the shady, jungle-like thicket, we viewed the largest mahogany tree in the USA, measuring four metres in circumference.

Rhythmic tapping drew our attention to a red-bellied woodpecker drilling a hole in a royal palm. A squawk led our eyes to a gumbo limbo tree, where a red-shouldered hawk devoured a rodent.

Along the half-mile (800-meter) Eco Pond trail, we watched a little green heron cleverly bait minnows with feathers and seeds.

A snowy egret stalked fish. Above, wing beats of great blue herons penetrated the sultry air, as their 'S'-curved necks and bodies made black silhouettes against the tangerine sky.

Everglades tour

We took a backcountry boat cruise with Rob Parenti. "Most people think that the Everglades has only freshwater marsh," he said. "But that's only one-third of the park."

Another third is mangrove forest and brackish water, which you'll see around Everglades City. The final third is the salt water and 130 islands of Florida Bay."

Parenti pointed out some brown pelicans making clumsy dives into the water to stun the fish below them. Pink spoonbills perched in the mangroves, decorating the branches like Christmas ornaments. Parenti later identified sea turtles and dolphins in Florida Bay, and recounted the history of the islands and their early settlers.

Canoeing the Buttonwood Canal
Canoeing the Buttonwood Canal
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Canoe trips

Flamingo Marina rents motorboats and canoes. On our final afternoon, we paddled red canoes along the tranquil Buttonwood Canal. As we gazed at Spanish moss dripping from the limbs of the mangroves, lining the banks, twin periscopic eyes silently surfaced from a floating "log".

Suddenly, in a froth of bubbles, two enormous jaws clamped shut on a passing fish. Before we could grab our cameras, the alligator swished its leathery tail, and disappeared with its catch.

Buttonwood is the final stretch of the 160-kilometre Wilderness Waterway that runs between Everglades City and Flamingo. The well-marked route winds past islets and mangroves, and takes eight hours to navigate by motorboat and eight days by canoe. Having sampled its delights, we resolved to return for the full canoe trip.

Maybe then, we'd glimpse a Florida panther, or even the Everglades Skunk Ape.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

When to Go: The months between November and April are cooler and drier, with more birds and fewer mosquitoes.

What to Bring: Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, sneakers, insect repellent, bottled water, binoculars, a camera with a zoom lens and lots of memory cards.

Everglades National Park: www.nps.gov/ever

Visit Florida: www.VisitFlorida.com

More information on the Everglades National Park:

Guide to the National Parks of the United States

The National Parks - America's Best Idea

More things to see and do in the Miami area:

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Miami Tours

Little Havana Miami - Cigars, Dominoes and Carnival