The Everglades National Park Story

An alligator relaxes on a hot June day

An alligator relaxes on a hot June day

"We came all this way, and there's nothin' to see here," said the young woman from Kentucky. It was late afternoon on a hot June day in Flamingo, the southernmost tip of the Florida mainland and the last outpost of Everglades National Park. As we stood in the cool, conditioned air of the marina store, the look on her face made her disappointment with the place plainly evident.

After all, here one finds no impressive geographical spectacles--no grand canyons, no raging rivers, no snow-capped peaks--just miles of mostly open water and sawgrass stretching out beneath the merciless rays of a hot, sub-tropical sun.

The true grandeur of Everglades National Park is, in most respects, not immediately imposing as is that of, say, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. Instead, the wonders of the Everglades tend to be hidden in plain view. You can look at the place, but to really see it, you must first know the story behind it all.

That story was first told effectively and on a wide scale by the late Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in 1947 when she published Everglades: River of Grass. In this beautifully written classic, she spells out the history, the nature, and the impending destruction of this unique place. Her story begins with this profound truth: "There are no other Everglades in the world."

This truth helped lead to the establishment in 1947 of Everglades National Park. In its dedication on December 6 of that year, President Harry S Truman had this to say, "Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country." The park was established not because of its magnificent geography, but because of its one-of-a-kind ecology.

To help you understand the park story, in addition to Everglades: River of Grass, you may also wish to read The Everglades, a Time-Life book by the late Dr. Archie Carr, a brilliant and renowned University of Florida professor of zoology who had the gift of presenting the wonders and complexities of nature to those of us who aren't research scientists. Also, don't miss Everglades: The Park Story by William B. Robertson, Jr., Senior Park Biologist. The more you understand the place before you arrive, the more you'll enjoy it.

My quick-and-easy version of the Everglades National Park Story

Okay, maybe you won't get a chance to read the books I just mentioned. In that case, here's my condensed, quick-and-easy version of the story. It's not complete, mind you, but if you have no other knowledge of this area, maybe it will be a suitable orientation for your visit. So, here goes:

Porous limestone rock forms the foundation of the Everglades

It all began about six or eight thousand years ago when the sea waters lowered due to an ice age. What was sea bottom became the recognizable peninsula we Floridians call home. This now-exposed, but still very low-lying, sea bottom consists of porous limestone rock, formed over time by the calcified remains of zillions of sea creatures.

Pinnacle rock in Everglades National Park

Soil--several feet thick in some places, only a few inches in others--was built up over thousands of years by dying vegetation. In the northern Everglades, rotting sawgrass formed a layer of rich, black muck several feet thick. In other areas, there's not enough soil to cover the pinnacle rock, making walking in those places a vigilant exercise in trying not to twist an ankle.

The entire bit of Florida from great Lake Okeechobee southward slopes ever so gently to the southwest. Historically, as rainfall would fill Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest lake fully within the U.S. boundaries, most of this water would spill southward in a great shallow sheet--usually only a foot or two deep--until it reached the Gulf of Mexico.

Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest lake fully within the U.S. boundaries

Along this gently sloping route, there are oh-so slight changes in elevation here and there. These elevation changes of only a foot, maybe two, can make a huge difference in what grows in any one spot. The lowest portions of the topography form "sloughs" (pronouced "slews"), an Everglades name for a slightly deeper, although still shallow channel of water along the great drainage route to the sea. These one-or-two-feet-deep and very wide sloughs tend to hold water year round. Plants, such as willows, which favor permanent moisture, flourish in the sloughs.

Higher than the sloughs are the areas of what I'll call "base" elevation, because these areas can be used as a base from which to compare higher and lower areas. These vast base areas contain mostly sawgrass, not really a grass at all, but a sedge with tiny razor-sharp edges that can cause small, irritating tears into the flesh of anyone who walks through it with skin exposed.

Sawgrass prairie in Everglades National Park

Sawgrass prefers alternately wet and dry areas. That's just what it gets here in the Everglades where rainfall normally occurs in annual cycles. Here, there aren't four seasons, only two--the hot, wet rainy season from about May to October, and the cooler dry season from about November to April.

Alligators like water, and will go to great lengths to find it. During the winter, dry season, where there was once a foot or two of water, there may now be only dried, cracked earth.

Dried, cracked earth of the winter, dry season in the Everglades

Something in an alligator's walnut-size brain tells the creature to use its powerful claws to dig for water. (By the way, there are a lot of people who don't know to dig for water if they find themselves lost in the wilds and can't find water above ground. See my book, Surviving the Wilds of Florida, for information on how find emergency water in the wilds. )

The digging efforts of alligators form what research scientists brilliantly call, ahem, gator holes. During times of droughts, these depressions serve as watering holes for all sorts of species. Around the deep gator holes, you'll find plants that favor deep water such as alligator flag. Why the name? Its large, spearhead-shaped leaves signal from a distance the likely presence of deep water. Alligators like to hang around deep water. Where you see alligator flag, you'll often find a gator or two. Around the deeper holes, there may also be some water-loving cypress trees.

Alligator flag--notice the large spearhead-shaped leaves. See also the alligator on the left.

Speaking of cypress trees, you'll often see in the Everglades what are called cypress domes. Cypress domes form around low-lying areas--usually saucer-shaped depressions where the limestone bedrock has crumbled away. The larger trees are found toward the dome's center where the water is deeper. In the dome's absolute center, however, water can be too deep for even cypress trees to grow. The dome's shallow edges support smaller trees that may be just as old as the the larger trees near the dome's center. These smaller, but old cypress are called dwarf cypress. Essentially a ring of cypress trees with a hole in the center, a classic cypress dome looks from the air like a big doughnut.

Cypress dome at sunset

Where the land is only a foot or so higher than the base, you'll find bayheads--usually oval-to-tear-shaped thickets of bay, magnolia, and holly. These thickets are shaped by the natural flow of water through the 'glades.

Bayheads in the Everglades

Higher land--maybe two feet above the base--tends to support hardwoods and forms what is called in Everglades parlance a hammock. Here you may find sabal palms, mahogany, strangler fig, live oaks, and more. Acidic decaying vegetation at a hammock's edges tends to eat away at the limestone bedrock, forming a relatively deep moat that serves to protect the hammock from fires that can sweep through the sawgrass during the dry season. Abundant shade makes it cooler inside the hammock than out on the sawgrass. No wonder earlier Everglades inhabitants built their dwellings on these high, dry, protected hammocks. To experience the wonders of a hardwood hammock for yourself, be sure to visit the Gumbo Limbo Trail at Royal Palm Visitor Center, and Mahogany Hammock, located about 20 miles along the road to Flamingo.

Royal Palm hammock in the Everglades

The abundance of flora and fauna in the Everglades is stunning. Here, you'll find a diverse mix of temperate and tropical species. By the way, did you know this is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles are found together? Did you also know that the Park is home to the endangered Florida panther? Only about 80 to 100 of the big cats are known to remain.

Regarding plants, this place has some you may have never heard of--poisonwood (metopium toxiferum), for example. Found mostly in the hammocks and the pinelands, just touching it can cause severe dermatitis. Breathing the smoke from burning poisonwood can cause severe lung problems. Standing under a poisonwood tree during or after a rainstorm can allow the water-soluble, poisonous sap to drip on you, causing dermatitis. Poisonwood is related to poison ivy.

Poisonwood tree in the Everglades

The crushed leaves of the Gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), another park plant you may never have heard of, is said to be an effective antidote to poisonwood.

Gumbo limbo tree

To find more information on poisonous plants in Florida and how to deal with them, see Chapter ten of my book, Surviving the Wilds of Florida Twentieth-century development drastically changed the historical Everglades water flow. In the early part of that century, the Everglades was looked on largely as useless swamp land, a place to be tamed for human purposes. They wanted to drain it, cut it, farm on it, build on it, or do anything with it other than let it lie there and fester. These predominant ideas of an earlier day seemed to make sense at the time. Only with experience did we learn that when you mess with one thing in nature, you end up messing with everything else. John Muir stated this same idea with more eloquence than I just did. "When we try to pick out anything by itself," he said, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

For various reasons--flood control and hurricane protection to name a couple--the natural flow of South Florida's water was interrupted when a web of dikes and canals was built to drain the land and to control water flow. Due to man's efforts, only about one-third of the original Everglades remains, and humans now largely control the area's water supply.

What's left of the Everglades has been compared to a patient on life support. The prognosis is uncertain. A thirsty and growing South Florida population leads to increasing demands for water. Yet, if the Everglades doesn't get just the right amount of water at the right time, it could get so sick, it may die. Politically, it's all too easy to point fingers and pronounce this group or that group totally to blame for any situation you can imagine. But finger pointing usually doesn't solve much. Our only hope is to work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect to come up with reasonable and workable solutions to save this place that is unlike any other. That's a big challenge, but if we lose Everglades, we won't get another one. Plus, there's no telling what else we may lose.

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