There isn’t another river like it anywhere else in the world.
Ninety-seven km wide and with an average depth of just 15 cm, its whiskey-colored waters drift so slowly across the flat face of southern Florida that for centuries most people did not know the waters were moving at all.
The river itself has no name. It rises at Okeechobee, the second-largest lake in the U.S., then lazes south through some 4 million hectares of rippling saw grass, dwarf cypress stands and mangrove forest before mingling with the salt water of the island-studded Gulf of Mexico. It offers some of the most spellbinding scenery imaginable, much of it accessible only by boat or canoe.
Of this area, one-seventh is protected in the form of the Everglades National Park. The adjective here is “biodiverse.” As Miami-based writer Carl Hiaasen puts it, “Name another park that harbors panthers at one end and hammerheads at the other.”
Not just big cats and sharks either. Florida has 1.5 million alligators. Although they’ll haul up in the most unexpected places (we passed one dozing in front of a state penitentiary), gator concentrations are at their highest in the Glades.
The Glades are also home to the Florida bear, bobcats, white-tailed deer, huge turtles, thousands of birds – and, here’s the rub, 19 indigenous species of mosquito, plus another 28 mosquito species inadvertently imported by meddling mankind.
Which is why you should think twice about visiting during the wet, humid days of high summer.
Our first hint of what was to come was provided by the owner of The Grove Inn in the very pleasant town of Homestead, 40 km from Miami airport and gateway to the ENP.
After a Deep South breakfast of biscuit and sausage gravy, he presented us with fruit from the inn’s garden. Also, and more significantly, a bottle of Avon’s Skin So Soft bath oil, to be applied liberally on all exposed skin surfaces.
The second hint, rather more pointed, arrived via the park ranger upon check-in at Flamingo, a hotel and marina that is the only accommodation actually within the ENP. The ranger handed us a complimentary voucher to be exchanged at Flamingo’s shop for two mosquito hats and two bottles of insect repellent, Glades Plus by name.
Then he suggested amiably that we have a nice day.
We didn’t. We had a memorable day. An extraordinary day. But nice? Not the right adjective.
First stop was Eco Pond, just a couple of minutes away from Flamingo. The ENP’s network of raised boardwalk trails is good and the views from them better.
Great egrets strutted imperiously through reeds, using their yellow feet as lures to attract curious fish. Hefty soft-shelled turtles paddled away. Two racoons sifted busily through the grass just below us. An osprey, seemingly oblivious to our presence, ripped something fishy into bite-sized shreds.
We managed 10 minutes in this naturalist’s paradise, donating pints of blood in the process. On a scale of one to five I’d rate the winged insect action at Eco Pond 10 going on 11.
We fled for the hotel. We drenched ourselves in Everglades Plus. We added Skin So Soft. We did not don our complimentary mosquito-proof hats on the grounds that they made us look like half-assed beekeepers.
We then joined a back country boat tour. We saw an American crocodile, a species so overhunted in times past that only perhaps 300 remain. Alligators the size of ironing boards cruised to and fro with insouciant swirls of the tail.
The difference, incidentally, between an alligator and a crocodile lies most obviously in the snout and eyes. Gators’ snouts are rounded and their eyes protrude. Crocs have V-shaped heads and the eyes are less obvious. Visitors who feed either species or who take plump children into the enticing water for a wade can expect to encounter a third physiological difference which lies with the teeth.
If you don’t bother either species, however, they won’t bother you.
This rule doesn’t apply to stinging deer flies. The guide explained that deer flies can attain speeds of 90 kph. She didn’t add that these miracles of arthropod aviation expend their energies by flying straight into your ear, thwack into your eyelids and unerringly for your mouth. She didn’t need to. All her fellow Americans on board held these truths to be self-evident.
Day two wasn’t nice either. It was tragic. Weighing blood loss against photo opportunities we shelved plans to rent a fully equipped houseboat and chug off through the countless channels and islands toward Ponce de Leon and Shark River.
As for dreams of canoeing the 159-km Wilderness Waterway canoe safari – well, the prospect of spending seven to 10 nights on remote sleeping platforms cloaked with swarms of insects was frankly appalling.
Summer’s not all bad, though. For one thing, few tourists visit. Strange. For another, it’s the rainy season and the storms are brief but intensely beautiful, with lightning splitting the roiling thunderheads and even the chance of seeing waterspouts.
The rain-fed saw grass glows a brilliant green and the amphibians are at their most ebullient. If you take a canoe or motorboat out into Florida Bay the breeze disperses insects and it’s just you, birds, the mangrove keys, dolphins, sharks and swirling shoals of tarpon.
Overall, though, it’s probably best to experience the Glades in the dry season (October to May). Water levels sink and much of what remains concentrates in “gator holes,” around which otters and birds congregate to prey on the trapped fish. The saw grass prairies bleach gold. The insect action is comparatively negligible.
Combine your visit to ENP with the adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve. It is the area that is big, not the cypresses, thanks to logging in the 1930s, but the densely packed trees are festooned in beards of Spanish moss and orchids. The 6,216 sq. km of Big Cypress constitute the classic image of a Deep South swamp: dim, shadowy with still pools of algae-covered water occasionally swirled by gar and the omnipresent gators.
For a dip into a very different world, just 40 km from the Glades are the coral gardens of Biscayne National Park. Of Biscayne’s 72,844 hectares, 95 percent is azure sea sprinkled with uninhabited cays and first-rate snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities.