Sports

Matthew Dickerson: Two days enjoying nature of the Everglades

AN EASTERN LUBBER grasshopper sits on a railing overlooking the alligators at a visitor center in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

My cousin-in-law Ken likes to go for swamp walks in the Florida Everglades, making his way from one hardwood hammock to the next through the knee-to-waist-deep waters of the famed River of Grass. He mentioned this casually to my wife Deborah and me as he guided us on our nature walks through the Everglades, occasionally pointing out the locations of past swamp hikes. Upon hearing of his exploits, my thoughts turned quickly to alligators (of which there are an estimated 200,000 in the Everglades) and to the invasive Burmese pythons (which number closer to 1 million in South Florida).

ROSEATE SPOONBILLS, SHOWN in Big Cypress National Preserve, are named for their ruddy-colored feathers and characteristically shaped beak.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

Ken shrugged off my concerns. The water, he explained, is clear enough for him to avoid the sorts of creatures he has no wish to surprise or be surprised by. He seemed more concerned about falling through occasional holes in the ground into deeper water — a problem he mitigates by carry a hiking staff. 

Ken is a longtime Floridian with family roots in the South American nation of Colombia. Deborah’s cousin Meredith is a New Hampshire native who grew up within sight of Vermont’s Mount Ascutney. After getting a nursing degree, she moved to Florida, got a taste of beaches and warm weather, met Ken, and decided to stay there. When a book project gave me a chance to visit Florida, I immediately thought of them. They generously took time off work, with Ken offering to provide his wealth of local knowledge to guide us on our excursions through the ’Glades. Thankfully, his guiding did not involve any swamp hikes. Deborah and I were quite content to keep our feet on dry ground. Any adventurous outdoors part of my brain — the part, for example, that has often prompted me to go fishing on Alaskan rivers in the midst of brown bears — urging me to wade out into the River of Grass, was quickly squelched in the first hour of our journey across the Big Cypress National Preserve where every little creek, stream or pool of water we passed had at least one alligator in it. Although most of the gators we saw were only three to five feet long — mere “swamp puppies” — we also saw quite a few in the seven-to-10-foot range.

A FEMALE CROCODILE rests comfortably half in the water and half out on a boat ramp at the marina in the town of Flamingo, Fla., in the southeast corner of Everglades National Park.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

On the first day, Ken led our excursion into Everglades National Park. We actually saw surprisingly few alligators there, but I did see my first crocodile in the wild: a female out sunning on a marina boat ramp at the mouth of a river in the town of Flamingo. Ken said an even larger male croc was known to rule that area, but we never saw it. We did watch several manatees eating seagrass near the park visitor center. By “watch manatees eating sea grass,” what I really mean is that we saw their several-hundred-pound bodies rise out of the murky depths to catch a quick breath at the surface before disappearing again back down into the brackish water for several more minutes. Eventually, however, a couple of them were generous enough to stay on the surface for several minutes just a few yards away from us, offering us a good long look. 

The following day, after a sunrise walk around Biscayne National Park less than 20 miles to the east, we toured Big Cypress National Preserve in the portion of the Everglades just north of the national park, taking several more walks along various nature trails — still careful to stay above water level. That was where I lost track of the number of alligators we saw, which exceeded even the number of turtles. The most memorable parts of the day might have been the bird watching. I might have missed the huge flock of roseate spoonbills if Ken hadn’t seen them in the trees just off the road ahead. He pulled over at once and jumped excitedly out of the car to point them out to us. We spent the next many minutes watching the large, graceful birds with their eponymous rose breasts and duck-like bills alternately soaring from tree to tree or roosting in the high branches above a wide wetland. Later along our back road tour, we also saw little blue herons, green herons, great blue herons and wood storks.

And then came the grasshopper: an enormous female eastern lubber, big enough to span the length of my hand, whose yellow and steel-hued hinged plates made me think of the armor on a medieval knight — or perhaps on some futuristic sci-fi creation. It was crawling along the railing of a scenic walkway above a river where nine large alligators were sunbathing. When I leaned my camera down on the railing to photograph the lubber at its eye level, instead of moving away from me as I would expect a grasshopper to do in Vermont, it began to stalk me. I had to keep retreating with my camera in order to get my photos.

WOOD STORKS SHARES a tree with roseate spoonbills in Florida’s Big Cypress nature preserve.
Photo by Matthew Dickerson

Amid all the beauty of a tremendously rich and diverse ecosystem, however, were some important ecological lessons, perhaps the most important of which is how easy it is to do a lot of ecological damage and how much harder it is to repair it. As we were driving southward across Florida, letting the car’s map app guide us, I kept seeing grids of blue lines all across the area. At first I thought they must be local roads, but I soon realized it was a vast system of canals that had been dug over many decades with the goal of draining and developing the Everglades and its vast unique ecological treasure of over 4,000 square miles. The federal government made it an official goal with the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850. The effort would continue and intensify through most of the 20th century until January 2002 when President George W. Bush signed an agreement committing $8 billion to a 30-year restoration plan. The full story is worthy of several books and far too extensive to cover here. The restoration is proving as difficult and costly as draining the Everglades was, in part because only about a third of its historic water supply now flows down into the River of Grass, and that water is laden with pesticides and agricultural runoff.

And yet the area is still full of beauty, and though it might not compare in ecological richness to what it was like 200 years ago, it is very much worth a visit — perhaps for Vermonters looking to escape mud season for a few days. Everglades National Park, which has famous road signs marking passes at elevations of three and four feet above sea level, has a very different feel from Big Cypress National Preserve, though they are part of a continuous connected road system. As with many national parks, getting out away from the roads and parking lots and going for walks is a great way to enjoy the beauty of a landscape about as different from Addison County as you could imagine.

Share this story:

More News
Sports

LaRose Surveys wins third straight outhouse title

The annual outhouse race amidst Bristol’s July 4 festivities never disappoints. 

Sports

Middlebury Marlins top Essex

The Middlebury Marlins Swim Team on July 2 topped visiting Essex, 249.5-195.5, in the team … (read more)

Sports

Politano wins big golf tournament

In a busy recent stretch for Ralph Myhre Golf Course and its members, the highlight was me … (read more)

Share this story: