Visit the Everglades late in April? To me, this was absolutely foolish but, due to personal circumstances, necessary. I prepped like I’d never prepped before. Long sleeved shirts. Long pants. Mosquito headnets. Gallons of water. Many cans of bug spray. A healthy paranoia about getting out of the car. We stopped at Robert is Here for shakes, and jumped out of the car at the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, figuring we’d dash right in and beat the mosquitoes … and there were none. The sawgrass prairie: dry. The sloughs: dangerously low. The periphyton: dried to a crispy crust, a muddy webbing across karst and grass.
This was not the Everglades I expected. But the lack of mosquitoes were only the first of several surprises. I’d not been to Flamingo since September of 2005, and in the interim, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma did their dirty work, with storm surges of 6 and 9 feet crashing over the seawalls at Flamingo. As evidenced by the photo to the right, the canopy of the tropical hammocks suffered rather badly, and the forest floor at Mahogany Hammock was littered with the fallen. It was unsettling to see these drastic changes to the ecosystems and yet, nature kept to its own pace of life. Lush ferns filled the spots where large trees had crashed, and vines (a lot of poison ivy, I’m afraid) plugged the gaps in the verdant wreckage strewn across the forest floor. A bright blur in yellow and black, perhaps a finch, flitted from tree to tree. Green anoles lazed on the stone-like shapes of strangler fig roots. And for the first time ever on this boardwalk, which I first set foot on when I was about eight years old, I noticed the paurotis palms in abundance. Not just in their spectacular stand at the beginning of the boardwalk loop, but poking out of the tangled understory all along the walk, especially on the southern side of this lush tree island.
As we drove south on the Main Park Road, I noticed islands of palms all along the south side of the road. I’d never noticed them before.
At West Lake and around Flamingo, the white mangroves and buttonwoods are dead. They aren’t salt-tolerant, and the storm surges pushed enough salt inland to wipe them out. But it’s all a part of succession of habitats in the Everglades. The marly muck of the coastal prairie is typically deposited by hurricanes and becomes a base for salt-loving plants like saltwort and glasswort. As they draw out the salt, the buttonwoods and white mangroves can take root here again. In the meantime, it was interesting to see the thick coating of salt on the red mangroves fringing West Lake. A new and different phenomenon, which reminded me of reading that in parts of India, table salt – a precious commodity – is collected from mangrove forests.
I was sorry to see the jumbled mess at Flamingo. The cabins are being torn down, and Eco Pond was destroyed by salt intrusion and the storm surge – the boardwalk wrecked, trees dead, birds gone to find another roost. The lodge and restaurant won’t open for a couple of years, if at all. They may need to be rebuilt. A chunk of the Guy Bradley Trail washed away, and the Coastal Prairie Trail is closed, probably because of the amount of new thick muck deposited there from the storm surges. It isn’t something I’d want to struggle through. Part of the campground is open. Walking the shoreline, I looked off into Florida Bay and the water was murky. I don’t recall it being like that before. But there in a tree, a young osprey tore apart a freshly caught mullet while a crow fussed. Over at the marina, which is partially open, an American crocodile snoozed just offshore. Life goes on for those who actually live here. The Wilderness Waterway will reopen again, and the Gumbo Limbo Trail will get its canopy back someday. But for now, the Everglades are in recovery, at nature’s pace and in nature’s way.