Olde Island Charm
A big, pale-blue sky capped the glorious greens and golds of the savanna, as dumpling clouds drifted lazily above overgrown alligator holes and rustling hammocks. The day before, I might have driven past this very spot, on my own, and not seen what I was seeing now. But today, my eyes had been opened by a man named Dow.
Dow is a professional guide, and each day he works, he handily dispels the myth that The Everglades is just swamp buggies, poisonous snakes, Indian villages, and insects. I admit my own notion of the big swamp was not dissimilar to this. But after hearing great things about Dow and his fellow guides employed by Sanibel-based Everglades Day Safari, I decided upon a day of adventure. Each 'safari' is in a supremely comfort- able, ten-seat passenger van that departs early for a day of subtle and not-so-subtle surprises. Safari-goers are picked up at pre-arranged points from Sanibel to Naples. The day-trip includes exploration by foot and car, two boat rides, lunch, and more. At the helm of the van, and the day, is a friendly guide with a well-rounded knowledge of history, natural history, flora, and fauna. Our group was only a few miles down the road when it became apparent that a vast body of knowledge was about to be imparted.
Dow entertained us on the way down with a lively history of the 'river of grass,' including tales of Barron Collier and the Tamiami Trail, Lake Okeechobee, the Florida sugarcane industry, and glaciers. As he mentioned birds we might spot throughout the day, the serious Audubon types behind me pulled out their birding books, seeking photos of glossy ibis, black neck stilts, blue-gray gnatcatchers, mangrove cuckoos, limpkens, and the rare and beautiful purple gallinule. Dow didnŐt let them down.
Upon our arrival in Everglades National Park, we were given an introduction via boat to the mangrove estuaries and tributaries of the Glades. Sharing the waterway with canoeists, we motored past nesting birds and foliage as our guide answered questions. At the end of the boat ride we got a big surprise ala Dow, one I don't dare give away.
Each safari-goer is provided with binoculars. These got a workout. En route to the second stop, Dow pulled over upon spotting a large crocodile, then again for a herd of manatees. Our list of wildlife sightings was growing.
We ended the morning on a boardwalk hike through a 'strand,' one of several types of swamps, including domes, heads, islands, and sloughs. The area was brimming with life. Dow pointed out sights we would have easily missed: an eagle's nest, a mother alligator and 26 young lying in the mud, a family of otters, just-hatched crickets, gigantic turtles. He easily identified everything in sight, weaving Latin names, homeopathic remedies, Calusa history, and more into one fascinating tale. The group ahead of us spotted deer.
After lunch, we were treated to a '30-minute thrill,' as our guide so aptly put it. A giant airboat awaited us, and moments later we were sliding sideways at 35 mph in six inches of water. Airboats are more fun than you'd ever imagine, and skippers will get a kick out of observing the tricky steering methods. While we did see 'gators and birds, this ride was for excitement, pure and simple.
Our little group had gotten to know each other by now, and we were all thoroughly enjoying the day and its discoveries. Dow had driven us to a seasonal hot spot for gators. In no time at all, we had seen dozens of 12- to 14-foot creatures on the opposite bank. While we were taking in the turtles, fish, and birds being identified for us, the gators were, for the most part, dozing. A few had their mouths open to the sun; such a pretty shade of pink in a prehistoric mouth is jarring. In a moment right out of 'Wild Kingdom,' one huge alligator caught and ate a two-foot fish. It was a very loud meal and held our attention.
Photo opportunities were limitless. Just before we headed home, we were driven through a stunning part of the Glades. In this, the savanna, we saw kingfishers and willows under an expanding sky. As the late afternoon sun swathed our environs in glowing hues, we were still learning - about alligator vertebrae, anhinga bone structure, and Calusa mounds. I was making a mental list of all the topics I'd like to research further.
Everything about the day was comfortable. Film, food, and drinks were readily available. We had more than enough rest stops, and insect repellent was provided. The safari was all-inclusive, except for gratuities, and the day was a tremendous value.
By evening, each satisfied passenger had been dropped at his or her car. One important aspect of leaving the driving up to someone else: Each of us was free to look out the windows. It was Dow's body of knowledge and sharp eyes, however, that made our day. He has probably forgotten more than most of us will ever learn about the fragile wetlands of Florida, and therein lies the truth about having a guide open your eyes in unfamiliar surroundings. The more we know, the more we see, and that includes beauty.
Treat yourself to an entertaining, informative introduction to the misunderstood Everglades. A truer perspective on any natural resource benefits not only the person gaining the knowledge, but the ecosystem as well.
- Libby Boren McMillan