A sliver of the Everglades

By Christopher Percy Collier
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2004
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EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. -- Dark clouds saunter across a cobalt blue sky as our driver swerves to avoid a four-foot alligator tail protruding from the roadside. Fleeting spangles of sunlight fall upon a lily-white ibis standing in the shallows amid a sea of undulating sawgrass.We're on a tram tour through Everglades National Park, the second stop on a four-day trip along the new Everglades Trail, which takes road trippers to 20 natural areas throughout South Florida as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Everglades conservation. We've already seen alligators, a snake, a turtle, schools of fish, deer, and more birds than I can count.

As we return to our car, though, and get back on the road -- where canals act as a constant reminder of what the Everglades once was -- I have this sinking feeling we're chasing an idea.

The Everglades used to be a great incubator. When seasonal rains came, this fabled ''river of grass" flowed sluggishly southward across South Florida, spreading 50 miles wide, though only a few inches deep, moving less than a mile each day. One hundred miles later, it spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Fish populations boomed. Alligators and crocodiles were plentiful. Flocks of wading birds were so thick they blocked out the sun when they took flight.

Now, 1,400 miles of canals run through the Everglades. In the last century, this vast wetlands has been reduced by half. Human settlement and agricultural development have changed much of the landscape irrevocably. Water has been diverted into canals, held back by earthen dikes and dams, polluted. Now the Everglades is home to one of the country's largest concentrations of threatened and endangered species. Wading-bird populations are down 90 percent and acres of sawgrass die each day. According to literature put out by the National Park Service, Everglades National Park is on ''life support." The Everglades we were exploring, though grand in places, was just thready remnants of what was once a rich tapestry of plant and wildlife.

The Everglades contains the largest federally designated wilderness area east of the Rockies. It is home to the coral snake, the most venomous snake in North America. Some salamanders in here grow to be three feet long. Some birds here have reflexes so fast they can catch a fish in 25 milliseconds, faster than any other vertebrate. It's the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side. On hundreds of small islands here, mangrove roots are so thick you cannot walk on them. Blades of tall native grass can be so sharp they slice through flesh. There are biting bugs, poison ivy, and even a manchineel tree that has poisonous fruit and which, if burned, allegedly can be fatal for those who inhale its smoke.

It was a cool cloudy morning in the middle of March when we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the 80,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. We started with a short boardwalk hike through the swamp. Minutes after setting out, though, my friend and I were bombarded with wildlife: a great blue heron swaggered out from under the wood planks, a family of deer sloshed through stands of cypress, fish went ''bloop bloop" as they kissed the surface of the water below. By the end of our walk, we wanted more.

The Fakahatchee Strand contains the largest concentration of orchids and native royal palms in the country. It's a linear swamp that drains much of the neighboring 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve. It also happens to be where Susan Orlean's nonfiction book ''The Orchid Thief" is set. (The book was turned into a fiction movie, ''Adaptation")

The Everglades Trail follows the natural progression of water as it works its way from the headwaters at the Disney Wilderness Preserve, down the Kissimmee River to hiking trails at Lake Okeechobee, passing the last remaining tract of northern Everglades at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatcheee National Wildlife Refuge, along swamps like the Fakahatchee Preserve, into the Big Cypress Preserve. From there, it goes through native sawgrass inside Everglades National Park to the edge of the mangrove jungles of the 99-mile Everglades Wilderness Waterway before spilling into Florida Bay. There's a map to follow, kiosks (being erected at various stops along the way), and an interactive CD available at visitors centers. Created as a joint project between The Nature Conservancy, US Senator Bob Graham's office, and the Wilderness Graphics company (that came up with the idea in the first place), the Everglades Trail was created to educate visitors about the park's ecosystem.

Pop one of the CDs in your laptop and watch an interview with Graham or singer Jimmy Buffet about the Everglades. Click on icons to hear the calls of baby alligators and native birds. Watch video footage of helicopter rides over the Everglades during wet and dry seasons. Load one of the disks into a CD player and hear songs about great blue herons, warring environmentalists, and water management issues sung by artists like Buffet, Marie Nofsinger, and Herb Reichert. Try the other CD for history and wildlife of the Everglades narrated by CBS news commentator Charles Osgood. Driving down the trail, we realized it's not so much what you see while driving this route -- though expanses of sawgrass certainly offer moments of roadside beauty through the windshield -- it's what you can reach once you get out of the car that takes your breath away. Slog through a swamp. Canoe a portion of a 99-mile wilderness waterway. Take a tram tour through the sawgrass. Hop on an airboat. Take a buggy tour.

The Everglades Trail doesn't just go to natural areas. We saw the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area where fields of sugar cane, citrus fruits, and winter vegetables sit on the edge of the natural Everglades. Canals are filled with diverted water. There are locks, culverts, and drainage ditches. In essence, we saw the Everglades for what it is now. Before our trip, I had heard that the Everglades had ceased to exist, that this ''river of grass" was a thing of the past. But it took driving the trail to actually understand this.

On our last night, we headed north toward the headwaters, just a few miles south of Disney World, for a buggy ride through the 12,000-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve. We had seen the other end of the Everglades down in Florida Bay earlier that morning, a great turquoise estuary filled with such things as juvenile shrimp that rely on infusions of fresh water from this watershed. Over the last few hours, we had seen the miles and miles of farmland inside the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Before reaching the headwaters, we had one last stop: Lake Okeechobee. When we saw this 730-square-mile body of water, which was so big we couldn't see the other side, it clicked. Water once flowed freely and widely across South Florida from here. It spilled over the edge of this shallow lake on its slow journey to the sea. Now we had to drive to the top of a big man-made hill circling the banks just to see it. Houses had been built around it. Businesses had set up shop on the other side of this earthen dike.

We had heard there were plans to try to replumb the Everglades. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which has been called the largest ecosystem restoration plan ever attempted, promises to restore the Everglades' natural flow through an elaborate 68-part plan that will take 30 years to complete.

But as the sun sank below this watery horizon, we sat in the car, surrounded by human development, with a profound sense of what the Everglades once was -- and what it could never again be.

Christopher Percy Collier is a freelance writer in Lookout Mountain, Ga.

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