Category: Everglades.

Where gators rule the Sunshine State

Nature, and not the Mouse, rules in the Sunshine State’s Everglades

One of hundreds of alligators that inhabit Everglades National Park.

One of hundreds of alligators that inhabit Everglades National Park.

LAKE TRAFFORD, Fla. – A small girl was standing on the edge of a dock, looking at perhaps a two-metre alligator sunning itself on a bank about six metres away.

“It’s not that big, Mommy,” she told her mother. “Is it even real?”

“It’s pretty big,” her wary mother replied. “And it’s real.”

Pause.

“This isn’t Disney World, honey.”

You could be up near Tallahassee and be farther away from the Mouse as the crow flies. But psychologically or, perhaps, spiritually, this southern tip of the Sunshine State is about as far from Orlando as you can get and still be in Florida. It’s roughly a third of the way between the chi-chi shops of Naples and the social butterflies of South Beach, but it’s a place that has far more in common with the broken dreams and working-class America of Bruce Springsteen than it does with Jimmy Buffett and salty margaritas.

And it’s a place where nature – the real thing – is front and centre. Lake Trafford has alligators up the wazoo. Not to mention pterodactyl-like herons, soaring black-and-white kites that dart gracefully above the cypress trees, pelicans with a wingspan the size of a Cadillac, and iguanas that can be found sunning themselves in lakeside trees. This is also panther country, although you’d be extremely lucky to ever see one of the lithe, muscular cats that have managed not to get squeezed out by condos and carburetor shops.

You can do airboat tours all over South Florida, but Lake Trafford, just west of Immokalee, has one of the best. Unlike some pilots, the guys who work here don’t carry marshmallows or pieces of fish to get the gators to act cute for tourists.

Bubba and his fellow guides at Airboats and Alligators will explain just about anything you want to know about gators and their habitat, usually in a southern drawl thick enough to spoon onto your peach cobbler. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable hour for about $40, and you’ll likely get a lot closer than you’d really like to dozens and dozens of alligators, some of them three metres long and not all that happy to be disrupted by noisy air boats filled with pale-skinned folks on a southern holiday. Airboats and Alligators also does quiet boat rides and tours geared to photographers.

(They say they are eco-friendly but the snakes they keep on display are in pitifully small glass containers and the baby alligators they bring out for people to hold don’t seem to have much space, either.)

It’s about an hour’s drive south from Immokalee to Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. Neither is much to look at, but as jumping-off points for Everglades National Park they’re terrific. You can stop in at JT’s Café and Gallery on Chokoloskee and register for a three-hour kayak trip in the Ten Thousand Islands with Everglades Area Tours. They’ll take you out into the mangrove islands offshore in a larger boat then let you paddle about for a non-strenuous tour, with lots of time to walk lonely beaches and learn about the history and geography of the area; a pretty good deal for about $100 over three hours.

There are tons of cormorants, and even the odd bald eagle, which makes for a majestic sight as it sits atop a cypress tree scanning for a midday snack amid the stunning, shifting colours of the mangrove islands.

Everglades National Park is billed as the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

It’s also the only thing of its kind on the planet.

Guide Garrick Huber knows just where to find incredible, giant conch shells and can explain the sad tale of the long-gone Calusa Indian tribe, as well as how certain mangrove trees live by “sweating” the salt out of their leaves. You can sometimes spot loggerhead turtles coming to the surface for air and, if you’re lucky, kayak amongst a pod of dolphins.

Captain Charles Wright tells the story of a Canadian who came down last year with his daughter, who has severe Down’s syndrome. He explains the dolphins normally just go about their business when humans in their boats glide around. But this time he said it was like they could sense something was amiss with the girl.

“A mother dolphin swam by the boat with her baby and came up to the water. The little girl leaned over and it was like they were communicating. Pretty soon, the mother brought a bunch of other dolphins and their babies over to the boat, and they circled around and around us for maybe half an hour. I swear, it was like they were talking with this girl. I’ve never seen anything like it and I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

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Category: Everglades
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