It was nearly dawn, and I was sleeping soundly in my tent at Lard Can campsite in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Suddenly my slumber was penetrated by a creeping dampness, which I mistook at first for my own sweating. Then the damp spots became tiny puddles, and I felt a chill.
I crawled out of my tent and stepped into an inch-deep puddle of coffee-colored, brackish water, which had seeped up from underground and collected in the slight concavity my body had made in the earth. My tent, sleeping bag, and most of my gear were soaked.
Momentarily demoralized, I considered paddling my canoe back to civilization. However, the impulse quickly passed away as I beheld the lovely predawn sky and breathed the fresh air.
My reason for visiting the back country of Everglades National Park had been to forge an acquaintance with one of the largest, most interesting and most endangered swamp areas in the world. But as I stood at Lard Can that morning, waiting for the sun and wind to dry my equipment, I realized that any relationship would be molded on the Glades’ terms, not mine.
This country does not reveal its secrets readily. Yet, for the persistent, the rewards can be considerable: hearing the cries of a pair of ospreys as they guard their offspring and giant nest atop a slash pine; listening to the splashing and snorting of a dolphin as it swims near shore in the middle of the night; discovering rare tree snails, which are found only in south Florida and the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, clinging to the bark of a gumbo limbo tree.
There is also an unfortunate corollary to one’s Everglades discoveries. One finds evidence - in what one sees and does not see - of a major ecological problem that threatens this vast park, which is about the size of Delaware.
The problem is simple but foundational: water. In the past, seasonal floods of Lake Okeechobee, 150 miles north of the park, sent a river of water 50 miles wide and 6 inches deep moving slowly southward. But much of that water is now diverted for agricultural and domestic use in south Florida, upsetting historic water flows.
Changes in the quantity and quality of water have proved calamitous for some Everglades wildlife. The wood stork relies on fish stranded in evaporating pools during the dry season to provide enough food for its young. But when too much water is released unnaturally, the fish disperse, and the wood stork doesn’t even try to breed.
Poisoned water may prove to be the downfall of the Florida panther, the only big cat left east of the Mississippi River. High levels of mercury are flushed into the Everglades with agricultural runoff, affecting raccoons, which the panthers eat. Recently, park rangers found a dead panther with enough mercury in its body to kill a man.
In spite of these grave problems, Everglades National Park teems with life. It is marvelous to witness the way the region’s myriad creatures - many of them found nowhere else in the United States - meet the demands of survival on this southeastern tip of North America.
In the estuarine area around Hell’s Bay, near Lard Can campsite, mangrove trees serve as infantry in the eternal battle between land and sea. The tropical trees, with their prop roots and predilection for salt water, edge farther and farther into the channels, creating new land. The sea’s weapon, hurricanes, beat them back, but new mangroves eventually repopulate even the most devastated areas.
The morning I woke up soaked, I had to cut through those mangrove forests to make it to Whitewater Bay, a major canoe highway in the park. My pan was to traverse Whitewater Bay and go around Cape Sable, the southernmost tip of the U.S. mainland.
I soon became lost in a confusing maze of mangrove-lined channels and bays. After several frustrating hours, I returned to Lard Can, feeling even more humbled by the Glades than I had in the morning.
The next day I paddled back to the main park road. I knew the only way I could get to Cape Sable now would be to go west from Flamingo, a village at the southern end of the park. From there I could go across Florida Bay, the shallow estuary between the mainland and the Florida Keys.
I did not know how Florida Bay was supposed to look, for I had never seen it before. People say the water in the bay used to be as clear as a bottle of white Caribbean rum. Now overly salty from a dearth of fresh water, it has a dull, greenish color.
Though tainted, the waters of Florida Bay attract large amounts of bird life. Brown pelicans crash-dive into the water for fish. Herons, egrets and other waterfowl tiptoe on the banks, hunting stealthily. More often than not, the birds’ lightning-fast thrusts into the water come up empty, but they catch just enough fish to get by.
A northwesterly wind opposed my every stroke, making paddling difficult. It took me four hours just to make it to East Clubhouse Beach, a break in the mangrove shoreline 4.5 miles west of Flamingo on Cape Sable.
But the labor was worthwhile. I was alone there, except for a squadron of mosquitoes that greeted me as soon as I pulled my canoe onto the beach. When night fell, the mosquitoes mercifully retired, and I was able to stargaze in peace. I also watched earthbound stars - fireflies - orbiting my camp and twinkling.
As I relaxed my sore muscles, I thought of the future of this beleaguered and beautiful park. The Everglades most likely never will be completely ruined. But whether future explorers will see a faint reminder of the glories that once abounded here, or a restored, healthy ecosystem, is very much an open question.
The answer depends on whether all of us are prepared to accept the Glades on its own terms.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story and photos by Craig Brelsford Special to Travel