I’d made the mistake of not booking accommodation ahead of time. It was 9pm and the Everglades were getting dark fast. Motel after motel turned me away and the prospect of spending the night in my car was becoming increasingly likely. Finally, in the middle of Everglades City, I stumbled across the Captain’s Table, which miraculously had a room. Minutes later I was swimming in the motel pool beneath a sky crowded with stars, only a wooden boardwalk separated me from the nocturnal noises of the sweaty glades. I knew I’d found someplace special.
This was my introduction to the enigma of the Everglades: human habitation precariously balanced on the edge of nature. Occasionally the later takes charge, such as the direct hit taken by Everglades City from Hurricane Donna in 1960, which wiped out many of the town’s buildings and its entire infrastructure. However, as I discovered during my stay, when it comes to long term destruction, human hands are causing far more damage.
Barely twelve hours after my night swim, I was pulling on water shoes and preparing to trek through Big Cypress National Preserve. The preserve was created in 1974 and is one of the large parks at the southern end of Florida, which links into the area known generically as the ‘Everglades’. Located between Miami and Naples north of Hwy-41, its 729,000 acres act as a watershed to protect southern Florida’s other large conservation area – Everglades National Park. Hugging the tip of the state, Everglades National Park contains more than 1.5 million acres of complex natural habitats, half of which is water.
Underpinned by oolitic limestone, the Everglades is North America’s largest remaining subtropical wilderness, and as such is often misleadingly referred to as merely a swamp. In fact, at the heart of the Everglades is a fifty-mile wide, freshwater river fed by Lake Okeechobee, fifty miles to the north. The term ‘Everglades’ refers to the miles of partially submerged sawgrass – the most visible feature of the habit whose unrelenting flatness stretches to the horizon and beyond, drowning the land with limitless sky.
Before human intervention this whole area, lake to sea, was one unified environment, its vitality controlled by the ebbs and flows of the waters that feed it. Although vastly reduced, a large expanse of surrounding land is still soaked by this river’s overflow which creates a jigsaw of habitats including mangrove waterways, sawgrass marshland and tree islands, all of which lean, very gently, towards the sea.
The ‘Glades’ are as vulnerable as they are beautiful and one of the best ways to discover them is on foot – preferably with a guide whose knows the dangers as well as the delights. Entering from the edge of Hwy-41 near Big Cypress Gallery, I ventured into a cypress swamp. Cypress are Florida’s most flood tolerant trees and this dense area was crammed with all shapes and sizes draped with Spanish moss and decorated with native orchids and bromeliads. Short stubby roots called ‘elbows’ crowd the ground, while above low branches merge together to form a rich green canopy which fragmented the harsh morning sunlight. This fertile habitat teamed with wildlife from muscular gators to fragile insects. Far from silent, the air was filled with the hammering of woodpeckers and the cries of short-tailed hawks. It was February, dry season, and the ground was spongy, if it was summer I’d have been waist deep in water.
Human invasion of this intricate environment followed the completion of Hwy-41 in 1928, as loggers, oil riggers and land speculators all descended onto the Everglades with their own individual brands of economic exploitation. Wildlife has suffered ever since. Although I’d passed many road signs asking motorists to watch out for panthers, the truth is you’d be extremely lucky to see one. In the late 1800s, as Miami was developing, Florida panthers were considered a threat and hunted to near extinction. Estimates claim around 30 remain alive in Big Cypress, inbred and dying of chemical poisoning. Another species bearing the brunt of human expansion is the West Indian manatee. Although not hunted, the manatee is as endangered as the panther – a third of their deaths are related to human causes such as pollution and collisions with boats.
Like most tourists I’d planned to take an airboat ride into the aptly named ‘river of grass’. It hadn’t occurred to me that these trips are also part of the environmental problem, as many boat operators are more concerned with profit than preservation. Although most pollution in the Everglades is a result of agricultural and industrial waste, airboats also leak oil and gas into the river. Their constant use of the same routes leaves scars in the environment, and their attempts to ensure wildlife sightings can be downright alarming – some operators even provide passengers with marshmallows to feed alligators, an illegal strategy in the park as it causes the animals to lose their natural fear of humans and become aggressive. In the hands of responsible operators, such as the National Park rangers, airboats are not a problem, but more environmentally friendly options, such as kayak or canoe tours are readily available.
After leaving Big Cypress, I travelled east to Florida City on the southern outskirts of Miami. Here the landscape changes from green glades to parched farmland and I began to realise that water, or rather the surprising lack of it, is a problem in the region.
For years water has been systematically siphoned away from the Everglades, through an elaborate system of canals, to urban areas. The sobering truth is that if the Everglades continue losing freshwater, and the sea invades, the small aquatic organisms that anchor the food chain will not survive and the whole complex habitat will die.
And so the one of the great conundrums of travel writing stared me in the face. In this fragile, complex environment, it’s clear that tourism can play a direct role in its destruction. But, it can also play an important part in its preservation. By exposing visitors to the beauty of the Everglades, a larger coalition can be built to save them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but every year an increasing number of tourists leave inspired by the area and more sympathetic towards environmental campaigns and government initiatives to save this and other endangered habitats. A naïve dream perhaps, but one thing is clear, unless we all tread lightly in the Everglades, they won’t remain glades forever.
© Lesley Anne Rose. A version of this article was previously published in Rough Guides’ Rough News.