On Monday we traveled southeast from Lake Okeechobee to our southern most destination for the winter, Homestead, Florida. The trip down US Highway 27 was great, this major highway being four lane and very little traffic all the way to our turn onto State Highway 997 shy of Miami. I was certainly glad to stay west of Miami and this highway was perfect. It was only two lane, but the traffic was not heavy all the way to the Everglades RV Resort which is just off the state highway. The terrain along the trip was flat, as expected, and consisted of sugar cane, vegetable farms, and cattle ranches the entire trip. As we were to find out over the next couple of days, this area is actually part of the Everglades which are created when summer rains overflow the banks of Lake Okeechobee beginning the long and slow flow to the coast. Partly to control flooding, but more to drain the land for agriculture the entire area from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve has been drained for agriculture. There is continual conflict between the farmers in the region and conservationists over the water which today is shunted off in three large canals to the Atlantic and Gulf. The problem is not just the quantity of water needed for the health of the Everglades (which are severely threatened), but all the quality of water due to the fertilization of the agricultural land, especially the thousand of acres of vegetable farms. Once we got to the Everglades RV Resort west of Homestead, it was time for “sticker shock”. We knew it was going to be expensive which is why I only booked for a single week, but a price tag of nearly $500 eliminated over half of our budget for site fees for the month for a single week! The Resort is very nice with grassy sites, concrete patios, and picnic tables. Of course all the sites have full hookups and nearly all of them are pull-through, which is still my favorite! The clubhouse/store/laundry are fantastic. They have a beautifully manicured activity area with very nice shuffleboard courts, swimming pool, volleyball court, basketball court, and an 18-hole miniature golf course. I am still not convinced it justifies over $60/night, but it is very conveniently located to the National Parks and the Florida Keys, all of which are close and can be accessed without having to go through any major metropolitan centers, just a huge number of tree and plant nurseries and residential neighborhoods.
We did have one problem that had arisen from the truck. Even though I had it inspected just a few days before, there was a noticeable shimmy that was most noticeable at 45 mph, although you could feel it at any speed. We looked at the tires on Sunday, before we left but could not see any problems. We were both nervous the entire trip down to Homestead and even stopped once along the highway to remove some air pressure under the assumption they were over heating. This did not do any good, but Kal noticed that the left front tire looked rounded on top, instead of flat like the other tires. Therefore, once we dropped off the RV at the Everglades RV Resort, we went in search of a tire store. There was a Tire Kingdom store just a few miles down US Highway 1 from where we were and we had them give it a quick look. It was already getting late in the day, so they did not have time to do anything that day but asked us to drive the truck up to 45 mph and let off the gas to see if the shimmy changed any. They thought it was likely one of the tires was separating, but it could also be the U-joints. We agreed to try this out and come by first thing in the morning.
On Tuesday, we were anxious to visit the Everglades National Park, however, we had to drop by Tire Kingdom at 7:30 to check on a tire. We had not noticed any change in the shimmy by letting off the gas, which meant it was likely a tire. Their technician took one look at our tires and was convinced the right front tire that Kal had noticed was rounded on the top, was indeed experiencing belt separation. They did not have any tires of the size we needed in stock and would have to get one from the warehouse, which would be delivered late the following day. So we had another two days with a questionable tire, but decided to take our chances and headed over to the Everglades. There is a Welcome Center just outside the formal entrance to the park (where you have to pay your fee) that provided a good overview of the National Park with a short video, a list of ranger led activities at each of the Visitor Centers, and good information about hiking and canoeing opportunities. At the Welcome Center we started to understand that the Everglades are not at all what I had expected. I was under the false impression that the Everglades are a huge swamp full of brown stagnant water and mosquitoes. In actuality, the Everglades is actually a huge slow moving river beginning at Lake Okeechobee and extending all the way south and west to the Gulf. The drop in elevation is only 8 feet over this distance, which means the water does not have the energy to cut much in the way of rivers. In addition, the area is geologically young having emerged from the ocean since the last ice age. Consequently the Everglades is a sea of sawgrass broken up by hardwood hammocks that are a foot or so higher and cypress domes that are a few feet lower in elevation. The water is crystal clear, except in stagnant areas around the sloughs and cypress domes. The two seasons at the Everglades are the wet summer and dry winters. During the winter months when the rainfall is less much of the grass prairie will dry out and the cypress trees will lose their foliage. Alligators congregate around the sloughs and domes that still have water and even help this along by enlarging the depressions, often called “gator holes”. The fish, turtles, frogs, etc follow the gators into these holes making a rich and concentrated habitats around the remaining sources of water. Of course, the birds also congregate around this food source, making the winter months an excellent time to see the wildlife. I also found it interesting that the water in the grass prairie is very low in nutrients favoring the growth of a blue-green algae complex known as periphyton. As the prairie dries out in the winter you can see mats of the periphyton covering the ground among the sawgrass providing a moist ecosystem for micro-organisms even during the dry season. Another good thing about the dry season is the lack of water limits the mosquitoes population to tolerable levels. We only had an issue once in all of our time in the Everglades and surrounding area.
The first ranger led talk was at 10:00 at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, about a 15 minute drive into the park, so that was our first stop. There are two short walks at Royal Palm, the Anhinga Trail along a man made canal and the Gumbo Limbo Trail in a hardwood hammock. The ranger led talk was along the main portion of the Anhinga Trail that is a paved roadbed constructed by removing limestone from the area alongside the roadbed. This is the common road building technique used to raise the elevation of the roads in south Florida. This creates a man made canal next to the road which is a common sight. It also retains water throughout the dry season providing an excellent attractor to fish, birds, alligators, and other wildlife. We saw the anhinga bird, also called the snake bird, swimming underwater to catch small fish, as well as, ibis, herons, and egrets. We did see a few alligators right along the trail in the warm sun, but for alligator viewing, you have to wait until the end of the trail. Here there is a relatively large pool of water and in excess of 20 alligators laying next to each other filling up the open area. It was an amazing sight and they were so used to visitors that they did not even notice our presence. The ranger did an excellent job of talking about the profusion of wildlife we were seeing, which was more concentrated then most zoos I have been to. The rest of the trail is a boardwalk that circles through the wetlands beside the canal.
After lunch at the Long Pine Key campground in a section of slash pine flatwoods, we hurried on down to the Flamingo Visitor Center about 40 miles through the Everglades to the coast. We had learned about a ranger led canoe trip when we were at the Welcome Center that we wanted to check into, plus there was another ranger led talk at 1:00. The drive through the Everglades is amazing!! You can literally see for miles through the “Sea of Grass” and even though the cypress tree were missing their foliage and looked dead in comparison, it was worth the trip by itself. As you approach the coast the water begins to turn brackish and you there are mangrove trees along the sloughs, eventually completely covering the landscape. The multiple root structures of the white and red mangrove holding the trees above the water are so much more impressive seeing live then in pictures and it certainly makes a terrain that would be impossible to traverse on foot, besides the fact that most of it is underwater. At the Flamingo Visitor Center we first found out about the ranger led canoe trip and were surprised to find out it was totally free! There first openings were for Friday and Saturday, which were fine with us, and we signed up for the trip on Saturday. I was surprised that the canoe trip was not along the coast but at Nine Mile Pond, a mangrove swamp back about 10 miles and that the canoe trip started at 7:45 in the morning. This would be another very early morning on Saturday with an hour drive from the Resort and possibly a cool start to be on the water. That taken care of, we joined the ranger led walk along the coast to the campgrounds and learned a lot about the history of the Everglades. Starting with the geological history that formed the Everglades, the most interesting part of the talk was the history of the Indians of the area. The Calusa Indians were living throughout Florida when the Spaniards first came. They were fierce warriors and being physically larger than the Spaniards (over 6 feet versus 5 feet average height), kept them at bay for hundreds of years. However, warfare and disease eventually eliminated the Calusa by the 18th century. The remaining Indians were incorporated into the Creek Indians that migrated to Florida in the 18th century forming the Seminole tribe. Most of the Seminoles were removed to Oklahoma and Texas in 1842, although about 200 Seminoles remained hidden in the Everglades. The Everglades has a long history of being “outside the law” as a place of refuge. From escaped slaves in the 1800s to war dissidents from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Flamingo and Everglades City to the West have been a mecca for those escaping society. Flamingo was a major location for stills and rum running activities during Prohibition in the 1920s, the center for the disastrous period of harvesting of bird plumage for ladies hats that led to the beginning of the Audubon Society, and now part of the Everglades National Park dedicated to the restoration of the Everglades.
Although we already had a full day in the Park, we took in a couple of the short boardwalks along the road. The Mahogany Hammock is a very nice boardwalk through a small hardwood hammock. It is noteworthy due to the very large mahogany trees in the hammock that were somehow missed when most of the mahogany was logged before it became a National Park. Kal was fortunate to catch a barred owl coming out of its nest in a cavity within one of these large mahogany trees and got some pictures of it sitting on a branch after soaring over her head!! I got a good view of the natural moat that these hammocks produce around the hammock that protects the hammock from fires during the dry season. The moat is created from the tannic acid of decaying leaves along the edge of the hammock slowly dissolving the limestone rock and creating a water channel that surround the hammock. Pretty neat system.
The Pa-hay-okee Overlook is another short boardwalk through the sawgrass prairie to another hardwood hammock with an observation tower. The tower is just high enough to get above the trees and give a spectacular view of the surrounding sawgrass prairie all the way to the horizon. After a very enlightening day, we enjoyed a quiet evening in the Resort looking forward to our canoe trip on Saturday.
Without being able to get the tire fixed until later in the day, we wanted to stay close to the Resort and Biscayne National Park was the obvious choice as it was just 10 miles to the coast due east of our location. In addition, since we knew that Biscayne National Park is primarily the barrier islands and the reef in Biscayne Bay, we did not expect it would take much time to visit since we don’t have a boat. As expected there was not much to do at Biscayne especially they had not yet identified a new concessionaire to operate the boat tours to the barrier islands. This was unfortunate, as we had enjoyed Cumberland Island very much even though we had to pay for a tour boat. However, it did mean we would be able to get the tire fixed later in the day. We spent the morning taking in the Visitor Center, which is not much except a few exhibits about the marine life and a short walk leading out into the Bay from the Visitor Center. I did learn about the history of the park, which is interesting. As Miami grew the barrier islands south of the city were viewed as prime real estate as early as 1890 when a causeway to the islands was first proposed, but never beyond the proposal stage. In 1962, billionaire shipping magnate, Daniel Ludwig proposed building an industrial seaport including oil refineries in the bay. In 1963 Florida Power & Light proposed two oil powered electric plants at Turkey Point. Early environmentalists headed by the local chapter of the Isaak Walton League tried to head this off by proposing the creation of a National Park. With the help of Florida Congressman Dante Fascell and Governor Claude Kirk, Jr. the idea gained traction. After the oil fired electric plants at Turkey Point can online in 1967-68 and it was apparent that the use of the waters of the Bay for cooling was heating up the Bay and killing the reefs the idea gained widespread public support. In October of 1968 the entire Bay became a National Monument and was expanded to in 1974 and again in 1980 when it became a National Park encompassing nearly all of Biscayne Bay. The bay and reefs are slowly recovering but are still challenged by the proximity of Miami and expanding urban sprawl all the way south to the Florida Keys. We also learned about the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which was a category 4 storm with the eye passing over the southern end of Biscayne National Park. All the buildings in the Park and barrier islands were destroyed and the park was over 2 years recovering. Consequently, the Visitor Center is a relatively new building that is beautifully designed. I also understand that the structures on the barrier islands have not and will not be replaced leaving only hiking trails and primitive camping sites. We ate lunch at the Visitor Center and then returned to the Resort and checked on the tire. Unfortunately the truck did not arrive early enough with the tire to get it taken care of that day, so we made an appointment for the first thing in the morning.
Thursday morning came early again with light rain and a forecast for more throughout the day. The day started at 7:30 at Tire Kingdom, where they had the tire replaced and ready to go by 8:00. We once again had the entire day to do something, but the weather was going to be nasty. So we headed to our other favorite location for entertainment, a casino. The Miccosukee Resort and Gaming establishment is on the corner of state highway 997 and US Highway 41, just a few miles north of the Resort. Since we were there mid-morning, it was not very busy and we had an enjoyable morning playing the slot machines. Once again Kal had managed to spend out her $40 while I was still on my first $20 by lunch time. We took a break for lunch at the grill in the casino and returned to the tables after Kal got an additional $15 from our stash in the truck. She ended up only losing $5 of this by the middle of the afternoon and I got lucky near the end of our time on a couple of machines and lost only $10. While we did not come out winners, it was still a lot of fun for only $55 in losses. The weather was still on and off rain, so we returned to the Resort to read and relax.
Since the front had gone through, Friday was cool and sunny, a perfect day to visit the Florida Keys. We did not have an particular objective in mind and did not feel the need to make it all the way to Key West. I have to admit the Florida Keys are not as developed as I had thought they would be, although it was still a constant stream of traffic along US 1 in both directions throughout the day. Most of the islands are small and linear with little room besides the road which jumps from one to the other. Some of the keys have State Parks in them and so just before lunch we pulled into Long Key State Park for a hike and a meal. Once we got off the highway, the State Park was pleasant with a nice loop trail down to the beach and around an interior pond. Lunch was at picnic tables along the small beach in the Park.
After lunch we debated about whether to continue on or head back, but I wanted to experience the 7 mile bridge from Marathon on Knights Key over to Little Duck Key. It was the longest bridge in the world when it was built and it is still impressive. I had thought that it would be long enough to lose all sight of land in the middle of the bridge, which is not true, unfortunately. You can still see land or at least trees in both directions the whole time. Another interesting sight was older bridges that still span much of the distance along US 1 in the Keys which are mostly used for fishing bridges if there are not missing sections restricting access.
Once we got to Little Duck Key we were at Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, which Kal was hoping to make when we left that morning. Even though the Visitor Center is in a strip mall/grocery store, we found out about some hiking trails in the Refuge. We also found out that the primary purpose of the refuge is to protect the habitat of the Key Deer which is an endangered sub-spieces of white-tailed deer. While this may not seem all that important, the Key Deer are special due to their size. Full grown Key Deer are only the size of a medium size dog!! With hopes of spotting a Key Deer we headed out into the Refuge. Little Duck Key is a fair sized key with the center high enough above sea level to be primarily a slash pine flatwood, which is different then most of the keys which are basically mangrove swamps. Being a pine flatwood also implies that there is very dry, except when it rains. It turns out that the limestone that is the bedrock of all the keys has two layers. The top layer is somewhat impervious to water creating a freshwater lens that concentrates the rain water into small and medium sized pools and thus supports the Key Deer population. However, being an island off the coast of Florida it is prone to tropical storms and hurricanes. Salt water intrusions are deadly for slash pine and there were a lot of dead trees from a recent storm. As much as we looked, we did not see a Key Deer until we were leaving the Refuge and there was an adult feeding on the side of the road. Kal got some pictures, but I am not certain you can tell the size of the deer. It was about the size of a medium sized dog, but was certainly a deer in miniature! On the way back north out of the Keys, Kal got some great pictures of the shore and colors as the sun was going down. I missed seeing Key West, especially for the colorful history of the area, but we enjoyed what we did see.
Saturday morning started very early as we needed to be on the road by 6:30 in order to be at Nine Mile Pond by 7:30. We made it with plenty of time to get ready and prep our canoe. Since we were advised to park our truck on the road to keep the vultures from damaging the rubber seals (it seems they like to chew on them??) I did not have my camera with me to get any pictures and Kal was certainly not going to take her camera. So, even without pictorial evidence, believe me when I say the experience was AWESOME. The entire trip lasted just over 3 hours and we traveled about 6 miles. Most of the time was in narrow channels through the mangrove trees which were fun to steer through. It is good to know I have not forgotten how to steer a canoe and we didn’t have any problems staying with the group. The only challenging part was the short-cut from one side of the trail to the other (the whole trail is 9 miles long). This short-cut was out in the open with a stiff cross wind and water less than a foot deep. I could not get a good bite with the paddle and ended up pushing off the bottom more often than not. Consequently, it was difficult to deal with the cross wind and keep us on anything like a straight course. Thankfully, everyone in the group was having the same problem except for our guide who seemed to have no problem with his one man canoe. Our ranger did point out a lot of the plants and birds we saw, giving interesting information about the life history. I especially liked his explanation of the bladderwort that we were paddling through and its importance to the health of the ecosystem, which is very nutrient poor. He also pointed out a few cattails that are indicative of the changes in the Everglades as more nutrient rich water from the agriculture lands to the north (especially potassium) favors the growth of cattails instead of the sawgrass. We did see a couple of alligators and surprisingly a large Florida crocodile that are unusual in these fresh water ponds. It was a great experience and one both of us would seek out in the future.
Following the canoe trip we ate lunch West Lake where there are restrooms, picnic tables, and a nice boardwalk through the mangrove trees along the lake. The boardwalk actually extends out into the lake about 100 feet so you can get a good view of the mangrove covered shoreline and birds.
After traveling on south to Flamingo, we took a short walk around Eco-Pond which is an old water treatment pond that now is a haven for a lot of birds and other animals. After the walk we were treated to watching an osprey up close eating a fish it had caught. We had seen a few osprey (we think they were osprey) flying around, but this was our first opportunity to see one up close in the wild. On the way back we took another chance at the Mahogany Hammock to see if we could catch the Barred Owl again (no luck).
We stopped along the road to get a picture at the Rock Reef Pass, which is a linear limestone outcrop that has a lot of small pools for the a forest of dwarf bald cypress. We thought it was funny since this “pass” is only 3 feet about sea level.
We took a drive out to the Nike Missile Site which was established following the Cuban Missile Crisis, completed in 1964 to house the Nike-Hercules missiles. These missiles were anti-ballistic missiles to protect Miami from any Cuban missile threat. This site is the western most site ringing Miami at the time. It was closed in 1979 when it was turned over to the Park. Unfortunately, the only way to see the site is by the daily tours given by the National Park earlier in the day, so all we could see were the buildings behind a fence and some earthen berms that we guessed enclosed the below ground silos. We were disappointed, so we decided to take one more short hike and headed back to the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Besides the Anhinga Trail we had taken earlier in the week, there is also the Gumbo Limbo Trial through a sub-tropical hammock. This trail was a show place for the Everglades back in the 60s and 70s before it was nearly destroyed in a hurricane. Today it is still a nice walk through a much younger forest.
Sunday was spent on chores around the RV and getting everything ready to move west towards Naples.