No Sharks in Shark Valley
Hear someone mention the Everglades and you, perhaps like myself, conjure up images of fast moving air-boats cutting through eerie black swamp waters and mosquito infested thick cypress forests. The early settlers drained the swamp and logged the fields and in the name of progress planted sugarcane to strengthen Florida’s economy.
Over time awareness was brought to the endangered ecosystem and The Everglades National Park was established in 1947 to preserve and protect the biological diversity and resources of the Everglades. It is a huge place covering over 2,357 square miles making the park bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware. It is the third largest park in the lower 48 states.
Often referred to as The River of Grass, the Everglades is actually a river and not a swamp as many believe. It is a shallow very slow-moving river that is just a few inches deep in some places and more than 50 miles wide. Lake Okeechobee, the largest fresh water lake in Florida, provides the waters for this 100 mile stretch of watery plains before ever so slowly moving onto the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the most fascinating places to explore the Everglades is at the north entrance to the National Park at Shark Valley. No, there are no sharks but there are lots of reptiles with sharp pointy teeth to be seen. What makes this so especially magical for us is that there are only a few roads that go into the Everglades, and this 15 mile loop road is truly right in the heart of it and it’s only for bikes or pedestrians. Shark Valley does offer a narrated tram tour that carries visitors once an hour around the road, but we opted to ride our bikes to allow us to get up close and personal with nature. Plus, it made it easier to stop and take as many pictures as we wanted along the way too.
We peddled past alligators lazily basking in the sun and stopped to snap off a few pictures, all the while holding our bikes in front of us like shields. We oh’d and ah’d over a baby Anhinga in its nest when it’s mother dropped food into it’s open beak. This place is absolutely bursting with wildlife. It’s home to 36 protected animal species and is one of the most significant breeding grounds for tropical wading birds in North America.
Last year when we visited Shark Valley there was an abundance of colorful tropical birds, sweet furry little otters and lots and lots of alligators that lined the loop road to welcome us. Upon speaking to a Ranger in the park, we learned that Florida has had the most rainfall this winter since 1876 and we were witnessing the Everglades typical summer environment in February. So, the wildlife that normally hung-out in the Glades for the water it provided in the winter were not as plentiful since there was no problem finding water anywhere in Florida.
We didn’t see as many bird varieties as last year but the old favs were still hanging out. The Great Blue Heron, Black Crown Night Heron, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill made an appearance and there were still enough gators, (we stopped counting at 100), to let you know that you were definitely in Florida. Though we heard many people complaining about the excess water and lack of wildlife, we felt so honored to be here to see this magical place in a time that will be recorded in history as being the wettest season since 1876.
The observation tower is about half way around at the 7 mile marker and usually is a great place to stop for a bathroom break and lunch. But, today the Tram had just stopped with a load of kids and the tower was full so we kept on riding on the lookout for another lunch spot. Finding a nice dry place on the side of the road to eat our lunch was challenging as the roadsides were rivers of swaying gold saw-grass. The waters crossed the road in many places and we actually peddled right through the rolling wake, making this ride even more memorable.
We did finally find a semi-dry spot to stop for lunch and sat in the middle of the Everglades and munched on tuna fish sandwiches keeping an eye out for the mother gator of those cute little babies just across from where we sat.
The remaining 5 miles back had us lost in our thoughts as we pushed against the strong winds that had moved in. If you do come to Shark Valley on a windy day, I suggest that you start out into the wind. Having the wind at your back on the last 7 mile trek is much easier than biking into it.
With the visitor center in sight, we slowed down to a crawl to stretch out the last 1/2 mile. A baby Anhinga was right in our path. It was obviously a baby with it’s downy feathers still attached and most likely making it’s maiden flight…. right into the path of a huge gator on the side of the road. We stopped and cheered the little guy on until he finally stretched his wings and took a very tentative flight right towards the gator. But, as luck would have it, the wind kicked up and he soared up, up and away. We sighed in relief and the gator closed his eyes and went back to sleep with a bit of smirk in his massive jaw.
This is a place like no other and a true American treasure. As we drive away and watch the glades turn from wild and mysterious quickly into the suburbs of Miami, we leave feeling so grateful for the fighters and preservers of this ecosystem. I’m not sure who started singing it first, but somewhere along the road we were singing as loud as we could John Anderson’s Seminole Wind.
(The two of us “trying” to sing Seminole Wind one night in our camper at Monument Lake – Everglades)
Ever since the days of old men would search for wealth untold.
They’d dig for silver and for gold and leave the empty holes.
And way down south in the Everglades
where the black water rolls and the saw grass waves
the eagles fly and the otters play
In the land of the Seminole
So blow, blow Seminole wind
Blow like you’re never gonna blow again
I’m calling to you like a long lost friend
But I know who you are
And blow, blow from the Okeechobee
All the way up to Micanopy
Blow across the home of the Seminole
The alligators and the gar