Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Patrick's Day Everglades National Park Hike

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I have no shred of Irish in me, but my husband and kids do. Every year I prepare Corned Beef and Cabbage in the pressure cooker splashed with a healthy dose of Guinness (Extra) Stout. Not beer-drinkers, we buy and save the stuff just for this yearly occasion.

This year we decided to do something different. We headed out for two trails at the Everglades National Park. Even though the entrance to the park is only about 45 minutes away from our home, the kids and I have never set foot in this place. Intimidated by stories of a teenaged Daddy stepping into the brackish waters to consort with alligators and oh yeah, also test for substances, I had decided it was best to avoid the area until we didn't have any more young ones who looked like bait.

However, we need practice. We're planning a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, in the late Spring, which involves plenty of hiking opportunities. We've only hiked some small trails in Pennekamp State Park and other local areas in our neck of the woods. We needed practice, but there was nothing much around here. At least I didn't think so until Husband piped in with, "We can go to the Everglades." The land of gators? With a two-year-old in tow? I really don't want to go back to a four-person family, honey.

He reassured us and regaled us with the promise of practice trails, varied wildlife, no mosquitoes, and cooler weather than usual. Certainly, winter was the time to explore this treasured national park.

As soon as we drove into the park, we were sure we had made the right decision. All of us clad in Irish green, the five of us must have appeared like a five-leaf clover. The visitor center was pleasant, and did a good job of evoking the spirit of the park and its natural resources. The children enjoyed the exhibits, especially the video showing an alligator chomping on a raccoon.

The friendly volunteer at the desk handed me a map and told me that the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo trails were just the right thing for kids. I felt much better. If he knew that kids had had fun on that trail, they must have been alive, and intact. This is sounding better and better.

He was right. The Anhinga trail was loaded with wildlife - anhingas perched on top of low-lying branches, turtles basking on rocks, cormorants flying about, black vultures eyeing us suspiciously, and the alligators, oh my.

They were everywhere. Sun-bathing on the side of the river of grass, on rocks, a multitude of them on a muddy bank further down the trail. Besides the perpetually motionless dark gray mass that passed as an alligator at the zoo, I had never seen so many active, open-mouthed, free alligators roaming about. If I had not heeded the park's rules, I could have touched one's tail. I was inches from its tail.

I took close-up pictures. I'm not sure I wanted to get another opportunity. I was fine for myself, but seeing Ballerina and Explorer so close to alligators made me nervous; they are oblivious to their power. Builder had a sense of propriety around them, knowing full well the dangers of their jaws. Husband looked confident he could overpower one if he needed to, because, gosh, he had seen the Seminoles and the Crocodile Hunter do it.

Explorer, only two years on this earth and certain she knows it all, lost her temper a few times trying to go play with them. What ever could she see in these rubbery, bumpy, giant lizard-like grey masses? People smiled knowingly as they were passing her crumpled little figure lying on the sun-drenched boardwalk.

Later on the same trail I saw anhingas mating, mother herons feeding their gangly-looking offspring, and pretty blue herons posing, then flying away as if to say, "enough gawking already".

The Gumbo Limbo trail was an entirely different experience - secluded, quiet, abundant in plant life but only a few catbirds to be seen. It was nice to be in the shade, and my oldest and youngest were starting to get tired. I liked the jungle feel.

Each trail didn't go for more than a mile, but our young adventurers kept going back and forth, stopping at innumerable places. These were, no doubt, the longest two miles of my life. If it weren't for my middle nature girl, Ballerina, we would have missed the curious catbird and the stately green dragonfly on the leaf.

We would have to go back and go on the Mahogany Trail. The rich diversity of wildlife here in the Everglades is something to behold, and something to protect.


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