All the promises of Spring are alive on a day trip to Shark Valley, in Everglades National Park.
The dawn of a new day in South Florida provides sunshine and optimism as I begin my adventure from Fort Lauderdale to the Everglades National Park. The series of turnpikes and twelve lane highways snarl along like an inter-connected patchwork of circuits popping. I remind myself that all this development would not be possible without the freshwater provided by the regal National Park and surrounding protected lands.
Seemingly all at once, two lanes appear in front of me with a wide expanse of open horizon — only flat marshland framed by engineered canals. The sun has established a firm place in the blue sky casting a bright glow over the swirl of greens and blues around me. The South Florida light energizes me, and I can feel the vitamin D soaking into my pale Pacfiic Northwest pores.
It’s a weekday in February, so the crowds are mellow and the popular Shark Valley attraction feels unencumbered. The two-hour tram is available but I opt to rent a rickety bicycle for the 15-mile adventure through the grasslands that often flood in the rainy season — which they tell me is in Summer.
Slathered in sunscreen and bug spray, I take my first few pedals as the sun beats down on my open forehead and a breeze of 70 degree air graces my cheeks. I gently glide along-side a canal filled with varieties of fish that dodge aqua-vegetation that include lilies in bloom. Out of the corner of my eye I see something that takes a few seconds to register in my wandering mind — a ten-feet long alligator resting on the muddy bank of the canal. My bike seems to come to a halt on its own.
Guests to the park are instructed to stay at least ten feet away from all wildlife, and I happily oblige this rule since there is nothing separating me from this ancient reptile except a few blades of sawgrass.
The alligators seem to love this canal accompanying the roadway, probably because of the mixture of sun, shallow waters and plenty of food around to eat — including the long and narrow Florida gar (fish) I see swimming in the same waters. Alligators in Florida were misunderstood as a predator to people (and proactively killed) for many years. I learn from the park ranger that the animals only attacked because of an association of humans with the tasty food fed to them, like chickens and steak. A successful campaign to prevent feeding wildlife, especially alligators, has helped their numbers increase all the while reducing attacks on humans to virtually none. It turns out the alligators do not like the taste of humans — in fact it gives them indigestion.
This reassurance is helpful, but I still maintain a healthy respect to these giant reptiles that appear harmless but exist very close to the path. The crackling ridges of ancient armor blend in so easily with the landscape and several times along my ride alligators seem to pop out at the last minute, startling me.
To the left of the path, the landscape opens up to a wide view of grasslands that are surrounded by low water levels. Blue heron and snowy egrets carefully step through the marsh on a quest for food while turtles hobble along the bank and turkey vultures circle in the blue sky above.
The main (man-made) attraction is a concrete monstrosity that feels like a mix between communist-era Berlin and Cinderella’s castle, with a spiral ramp winding above the canopy of cypress and other jungle-like vegetation. I park my bike and make the short walk to the circular ramp. The view from the top of the 45-feet-high structure allows a 360-degree unencumbered lookout to the Everglades, as far as the eye can see.
For about fifteen minutes I have the entire platform to myself and enjoy the surrounding nature in a way that takes me to another world of peaceful contemplation — a connection with the land that feels heart warming. I notice a family of alligators basking in the sun on a muddy bank directly below the tower and birds call out in the distance as the powerful Seminole winds blow.
The winding path on the return adds variety to the journey. While the alligators seem to prefer the canal waterways, many different species of birds are visible and I notice a pair of American white ibis waddling on the side of the path looking for bugs to eat with their long protracted orange beaks.
I pass a grove of dormant cypress trees, huddled amongst a watery marsh, bark and branches a pale white color. They appear dead to the world but the needles fall off the conifers each Winter and new growth of electric green emerges later in the Spring. I bet that’d be a sight to see — bright green needles contrasting with the white branch structure.
My bike is stopped and I marvel at the serenity of this scene when all at once my eyes adjust to the water and I notice yet another alligator, eyes popping up from the water. He lazily looks at me without a care in the world, submerged amongst all this beauty and we seem to have a moment together, just the two of us until a blue heron makes her way into the scene. Nothing seems to come between me and this abundant natural world only an hour away from the bustling metropolis of Miami.
I speed through the open air, honing in on the final stretch of the tour and I notice the mileage markers painted onto the faded blacktop below my feet. Mile 4, snowy egrets, Mile 3, blue heron, Mile 2, yellow wildflowers, and Mile 1… the Shark Valley Tram. The guide calls out wildlife on a megaphone, and I’m glad I’ve had some peace and quiet on my self-guided tour.
The Everglades National Park might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one speaks of South Florida, but for me it is a magical world of effortless connection with nature — where the open space allows the spirit to wander. I’m thankful for the tireless work of visionaries of the past who fought to create this park, ensuring the marshy landscape would forever be protected from further development.
The beauty of travel, and connecting with nature, allows the spirit of the alligator, Florida gar, blue heron, cypress, and wildflowers to remain near my heart even now, as I gaze outside to gray rainy Seattle skies. I can close my eyes and travel instantly back to this place of bright sun, gentle wind and inspiring wildlife.
What travel experiences remain close to your heart? Can you close your eyes and be transported back to that world? No matter where you “go” may you be filled with inspiration and connections that allow your spirit to fly.