Life is a mystery in the Florida Everglades

March 8, 2015 00:37
Alligator in the Everglades National Park

Alligator in the Everglades National Park. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)


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Think of Florida and you conjure up Disney World, Orlando, Miami, sun, sand and oranges.

But there’s another destination on the state’s tourist map – one of the world’s most enticing subtropical regions, Everglades National Park.

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Paul Bithorn, a specialist in South Florida exotic birds and a tour guide, says the Everglades hold three very impressive world designations: as an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site and Wetland of International Importance, adding that “the Everglades is the largest wetlands national park in the country.”

It sure is! The South Florida Everglades comprise one of the most interesting and unusual wetland areas in the world. The park itself makes up about one-fifth of the original area of the Everglades, still containing over 607,000 hectares (about 1.5 million acres).

Located southwest of Florida City (itself a suburb of Miami and the southernmost municipality in the South Florida metropolitan area), the Everglades are basically “a river of grass,” covering about 1,950 The area is so huge that it reaches about 160 km. from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, and is 113 km. wide.

“No one has ever fought his way along its full length. Few have ever crossed the northern wilderness of nothing but grass,” wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her classic, The Everglades: River of Grass.

Indeed, the mystery of the Everglades is the grass, called sawgrass – which is really a fierce, ancient cutting sedge, according to author Douglas. Below that grass is water.

Everglades National Park itself is about 970

and guide Bithorn ( or US 786-202-2473) takes us on the boardwalk of Anhinga trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center as well as the Gumbo Limbo trails. The latter loops through a canopy of hardwood hammocks.

The tour is a big hit among camera clubs and bird and nature groups, which voice excitement and interest as they proceed above a sawgrass marsh.

“There they are!” shout out a few members of our group, who have spotted three American alligators sunning themselves on a patch of land. “Three of them,” someone whispers, though from where we are it is unlikely the reptiles heard us.

Everyone has their camera ready, as there are plenty of marsh and wading birds and turtles. Some of the birds we spot are American bittern, wood storks, great egrets, great blue herons, turkey and black vultures, and short-tail hawks.

We then stop at Long Pine in a nearby park where we have our packed lunches, as there are no eating facilities in the park. Here, some of our group voice their opinion on what they have seen.

Richard Emory, a former lead attorney for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigators, stresses that “we need to know and understand the Everglades, and we really have to preserve its natural beauty and life. But it’s not just the wildlife that is at stake for people such as Emory, who see this area as “unchanged since the beginning of time.”

“This site,” says the Boynton Beach resident, “is a rest for my eyes after suburban sprawl and urban development.”

The trip causes Craig Small, an astronomer, to recall a memory. Once he went to the area for an observation of the heavens and was in the Everglades at night – an activity he does not recommend due the natural dangers. He, too, emphasizes that we need to protect the area.

According to a US National Park Service brochure, threats to the park include regional growth. “South Florida development has made people and the everglades ecosystem compete for a finite water supply.

Each day, 800 people move to Florida; 39 million people vacation some years, 12 million come in winter’s dry season when water supplies naturally drop. The historic everglades- – four-fifths of which lies outside the park – feel this population pressure.

Today, only California, New York and Texas outstrip Florida in population.”

Small, the astronomer who is also from Boynton Beach, will later comment on the trip: “We got a taste of what the environment is like in the Everglades.

“ After lunch, we drive past the Pinelands – with its tall stands of pine forest on either side of the road and the most botanically diverse ecosystems in the Everglades.

Next stop is Rock Reef Pass, with our first look at the cypress communities of the Everglades. We make our way to Pa-hay-okee Overlook, where we walk the short boardwalk and again spot a variety of birds.

“Birders from all over the world come here,” says Bithorn, who takes us to an observation tower to look out over the stunning vista of the sawgrass river of Shark Valley Slough.

Bithorn also served as mayor of his hometown, the Village of Virginia Gardens, for nine years; he encouraged his residents to “xeriscape” by planting native species of plants and shrubs to attract birds and butterflies.

By the way, in other areas of Florida, one can board vessels for airboat rides in the Everglades, though not in the national park.

I was surprised to learn that Everglades National Park houses one of Florida’s best-preserved relics of the Cold War. The historic Nike Hercules Missile Base, dubbed HM-69, remains virtually the same as it was when official use of the site was terminated in 1979.

The missile base was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers and completed in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. At the time, when national security against Soviet attack was America’s main priority, the US Army chose this strategic site within the park. It was, after all, about 257 km. from the Cuban coast and a good spot to build an anti-aircraft missile site.

“The area includes 22 buildings and structures associated with events that have made a significant contribution to American history,” says a brochure.

Some of the extant structures include three missile barns, a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel and barracks.

Access to the site is only available through National Park Service ranger-guided tours. (For specific tour times and information, stop by the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, check out the website at ever or call US 305-242-7700.) Regarding that visitor center named after Ernest F.

Coe: Well, he was one of the leaders who dedicated his life to the preservation of the Everglades.

“The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we get to help the planet.”

Certainly, if you tour the Everglades, you’ll likely agree.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company). Blog:, Twitter: @bengfrank

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