The Everglades is the extraordinary, shallow river that once flowed over most of South Florida.
Long before farmers drained the wetlands for crops or sunseekers flocked to the beaches, nature graced the peninsula with a miraculous ecosystem of birds and plants, reptiles and mammals, all dependent on a slow-flowing flood of sweet water.
Miami was built on a swamp.
Today, we know, that swampland is an intricately linked environmental chain. As cities and farms developed, they began to vie with nature for the sweet water and land intertwined in the chain.
The Glades narrowed, and animal populations decreased.
Those links can still be explored in Everglades National Park, less than hour from the Miami Beach. Drive U. S. 1 southwest to Homestead, then to Route 9336; the park’s main entrance is about 10 miles from this junction.
You’ll soon be walking along boardwalks under cypress trees, eyeing what Spanish settlers calle el lagarto (the lizard), a word that the English corrupted to ‘alligator.”
“There are no other Everglades in the world” wrote Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in 1947.
In defense of what so many then considered nothing more than a mosquito-plagued swamp, she struck the defining phrase for this strange wilderness when she titled her plea for the marsh’s conservation, The Everglades River of Grass.
The Everglades begins in central Florida where Lake Okeechobee, photo below, spills water like a tipped cup, water which originally spread out to form a 50- or 60-mile-wide sheet that the Seminole Indianscalled Pa-hay-okee or “grassy water.”
This sheet, three feet at its deepest and often as shallow as six inches, rolls down a flat landscape.
Hitch a microscopic ride on a drop of this slow-moving water, and it will take you a year to make the 100-mile journey that ends in the estuaries of Cape Sable and Florida Bay.
Along the way, you will have drifted through swamps and seen grass prairies and inland seas that are home to black bears, deer, marsh rabbits, panthers, rattlesnakes, American crocodiles, loggerhead turtles, oysters, blue crabs and manatees, plus 350 bird species, including hawks, wood-peckers. ibis, ducks and the bald eagle.
Stand on one of the thousands of islands that pepper the grasslands and view a tropical jungle of orchids.
Canoe through the mangrove swamps, photo below, that form a boundary between freshwater and salt, shelterig nurseries of baby, shrimp and coveys of seabirds.
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