Everglades National Park

Things to do in Everglades National Park for front-country visitors entering from Florida City, part 3

West Lake, mile 31

Another--you guessed it--half-mile boardwalk. This one takes you into a mangrove forest. Somehow, I missed this stop on my last trip, and if I've ever been down this trail, I don't remember it. Nevertheless, if it has to do with mangroves, I can tell you about that.

The word "mangrove" is an inexact term that refers to a variety of species around the world. In Florida, we have three species: red mangrove, black mangrove, and white mangrove. Another type that is sometimes called a mangrove is buttonwood.

The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle)is highly tolerant of saltwater. It is normally the first mangrove you encounter coming in from the sea. Red mangrove is supported by a massive tangle of prop roots. The plant produces seedlings about half-an-inch thick or so, and maybe six or eight inches long. When these fall into the water, they take take root in the mud, producing a new plant. Sometimes they drift long distances--thousands of miles even--before making a suitable landfall and taking root.

Red mangrove

Black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) is normally found slightly farther inland than the red mangrove. Instead of prop roots, the black mangrove is known for its pneumatophores, little root-like structures several inches long that stand straight up out of the mud. Their purpose is to allow the plant to breathe. In the old days of the 1930s in Flamingo (our next stop), the residents used to burn black mangrove as a smudge to keep mosquitoes away. They would first line a five-gallon can about six inches thick with oyster shells. Then, they'd add punky decayed bits of black mangrove to which they'd set light. The smoldering mangrove apparently did a pretty good job, because these smudges were ubiquitous in Flamingo. The settlers were reported to have lived "eternally in smoke."

White mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) is normally found slightly farther inland than black mangrove. The same with buttonwood. Buttonwood, by the way, was often used to smoke mullet, a favorite food along Florida's west coast.

Now, on to Flamingo.

Flamingo, mile 38

Flamingo may not be the end of the world, but they say you can see it from here. You have finally arrived at "Mingo" as the old-timers sometimes called it, and are now officially "down at the Cape,"--Cape Sable, that is, that most wild and remote land mass relatively few have ever heard of.

Flamingo in Everglades National Park

Lest you think this is some recent place, Cape Sable was a sparsely inhabited settlement for more than a century. It was a going community up until the Labor Day hurricane of 1935--a Category 5--blew it all away. "...Swept bare of all buildings," reported the Coast Guard.

Just the name "Flamingo" brings to mind visions of things tropical and exotic. And Flamingo is mostly that. The coconut palms around the marina where Hector the 10-foot saltwater crocodile skulks,

Flamingo marina

plus the mangroves and other tropical plants,

Flamingo campground

as well as the open vistas of salty Florida Bay all combine to remind you that you are located squarely within the nation's lowest latitudes.

View of Florida Bay from Flamingo in Everglades National Park

Now, regarding crocodiles (not alligators, I'm talking genuine saltwater crocodiles here), Flamingo is a great place to see them. Usually there are several that hang around. Hector, the big guy, is of course the star attraction.

American crocodile at Flamingo.

Eyeball to eyeball with Hector...Wonder what he's thinking.

Looking an American crocodile square in the eye

The extreme part of south Florida is the only place in the country you'll see crocodiles. There are about 1,000 of them now. At one time, their entire population was down to about 400 or less, but they've made a comeback.

Their actual name is American crocodiles, but I sometimes loosely call them Florida crocodiles because, well, they live in Florida. It's true, though, these same pointy-snouted beasts also inhabit parts of the West Indies, Mexico, and South America.

According to Dr. Frank Mazzotti, a wildlife scientist and Associate Professor at the University of Florida, the American crocodile is the least aggressive of all the large crocs. He says they don't have the same fierce nature as that found in the man-eating species of Africa and Australia. Even so, the big teeth, powerful jaws, and massive size all tell me to keep a safe distance. These are wild animals, well equipped, if they so choose, to have me for lunch. I'm not going to allow them that choice. I suggest you do the same.

Hurricanes at Flamingo

The 2005 hurricane season dealt severe blows to the facilities at Flamingo. Used to be, they had a restaurant and a comfortable lodge facilities, complete with screened-in pool. My family and I enjoyed some great meals in the restaurant, and the lodge was an inviting place to clean up and relax after a few days in the backcountry. A storm surge--8 feet, I think I heard--destroyed the lodge's interior, and as far as I know there are no plans to re-open it.

The remains of the Flamingo Lodge

They're working on some other facilities designs, though--some things that can be moved out in a hurry in case of another hurricane.

Everglades is our third largest national park, and, in the opinion of this American and Floridian, it deserves a fine lodge in the best tradition of the National Park System. Get enough architects and engineers together, and I'm sure it can be made sturdy and quite hurricane proof, with plenty of fitting Everglades ambience. Let's prove to the world and to ourselves we're not going to give up on the Everglades. Let our actions announce to all that we intend for this great wilderness to be here for generations to come.

Even though the lodge and the restaurant are closed, the marina store remains open. Plus, canoe rentals are available as well as limited boat tours of the area. Call 239-695-3101 for current details. If they still do the boat tours the same way, the boat goes out either into Florida Bay, or up through the Buttonwood canal into the interior.

Tour boat at Flamingo in Everglades National Park

Another activity at Flamingo you might enjoy is charter fishing. Captain John Griffiths goes out for tarpon, snook, trout, and redfish. (While kayaking past the East Cape canal one day, I once saw a huge tarpon jump. Must have been as long as I am. Made a huge splash when it hit the water. Very exciting. ) They tell me Captain John has been around Flamingo for a long time. I met him only once, and my first impression was favorable. He's a quiet, soft-spoken guy who looks like he knows what he's doing. According to his business card, he's United States Coast Guard certified, as well as licensed and insured. To contact Capt. John, call 305-297-2656. Good luck.

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