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Everglades National Park, Florida

Posted 3/6/2021

Photos by Garl's Coastal KayakingPhotos by Garl's Coastal KayakingOne of the most unique and exciting experiences I have ever had was the day we spent in Everglades National Park. From pig frogs to crocodiles, from bromeliads to periphyton; I saw creatures and plants I had never seen in real life before. We went hiking through the cypress domes, kayaking through the mangrove tunnels, and on a night walk down the Anhinga Trail.

In November of 2012, our family flew to the southeast region of Florida. Although our family is very outdoorsy and adventurous, we knew that we were out of our element when we wanted to explore the Florida Everglades. T and I had been to Florida only once before in March of 2009 and had toured the sawgrass plains area by airboat, but none of us had been to Everglades National Park. I did some research ahead of time and booked us in for an excursion with Garl's Coastal Kayaking. Let me tell you, we hit the jackpot with this company!

 

Gator seen from Airboat ride in March 2009Gator seen from Airboat ride in March 2009

 

Garl Harrold has been sharing his love and knowledge of the Everglades with visitors for over 20 years. He has been compared to Steve Irwin because of his enthusiasm and familiarity with all of the animals and their habitats found in South Florida. When I first met him I imagined he could pass for the famed Skunk Ape of Florida fokelore. Garl was tall, shaggy, and barefoot. He was friendly, eager, and completely at home in the wilds of the Everglades. I was immediately confident that we were in good hands.

 

Garl, our amazing guide Photo credit: MARIE POUPART, GARL HARROLD AND MAC STONE. From Le Journal de Montréal (https://www.journaldemontreal.com/2017/12/02/explorer-les-everglades-avec-crocodile-dundee)Garl, our amazing guide Photo credit: MARIE POUPART, GARL HARROLD AND MAC STONE. From Le Journal de Montréal (https://www.journaldemontreal.com/2017/12/02/explorer-les-everglades-avec-crocodile-dundee)

 

Garl brought two fellow wilderness enthusiasts with him, including a herpetologist (frog zoologist). Since our family were the only visitors booked for the tour, we essentially had three guides for our group of four. We were beyond excited for what the day would bring! Our tour was to consist of three parts: a hike in a cypress dome, a kayak through the mangroves, and a night walk. We were ushered into a waiting van and driven into Everglades National Park. Before we even arrived at our first stop, Garl pulled our van over and showed us a pod of baby alligators that had recently hatched. He told us not to worry and he kept an eye out for Mama, he knew where she usually hung out. Seriously, there are over 200,000 alligators in the Everglades and this guy knew where Mama hung out!

 

American Alligator HatchlingAmerican Alligator Hatchling

  

Hike in the Cypress Dome

 

We were hanging out on the road near the van when Garl suddenly waved at us to follow and he quickly marched through the ditch and into the tannin-stained water of a cypress dome. A cypress dome is a freshwater forested wetland or swamp. Cypress trees will grow in the shallow standing water which usually remains during the dry season. Because I was worried about losing him, I forged ahead into the cool water despite being terrified of what might be lurking underneath. I have since learned that this is a trick he uses to get people into the water before they have a chance to think about it and chicken out!

 

Entering the cypress dome, "Are you sure about this Garl?"Entering the cypress dome, "Are you sure about this Garl?"

H exploring the cypress domeH exploring the cypress dome

 

The normally clear water is easily stirred up and were unable to see the bottom while exploring, but we trusted Garl when he said that any snakes or alligators would swim off as we approached. With his eagle eyes, he pointed out various creatures to us including brown watersnakes curled up in the branches of the trees just above water level and barred owls in the cypress above our heads. Our herpetologist pointed out the bromeliads (air plants) growing on the tree trunks and showed us how to spot the tree frogs hiding inside. I could have spent the entire tour just in this one location as Garl and his friends taught us about the cypress dome and all the life it supported.

 

Brown WatersnakeBrown Watersnake

Barred OwlBarred Owl

Finding frogs in the bromeliadsFinding frogs in the bromeliads

 

Kayak Through the Mangroves

 

After exiting the dome, we hopped back into the van and drove further down the only road through the park to Nine Mile Pond. I was eager to get aboard my kayak but nervous about paddling through territory belonging to alligators and also crocodiles. We were again reassured that all would be well and started out across the pond. I want to mention here that the majority of the Everglades is actually a grassy slow-moving river, not a swamp. During the rainy season, the river is 100 km wide and over 160 km long. This diverse and changing ecosystem is home to over 400 species of animals and birds, nearly 30 of these are listed as threatened or endangered, or are candidates for such a listing. It is vital to be conscientious of the impact you are having on the area as you visit. Choosing to use a tour company who can guide you in keeping your actions respectful while enjoying the park is a great option.

 

Nine Mile PondNine Mile Pond

 

Garl first led us past the home of a resident American Crocodile. He was beautiful with pale grey skin and rows of white teeth. We gave him the respect he deserved as he was longer than my kayak measuring at least 14 feet. 

 

American CrocodileAmerican Crocodile

 

I cannot remember the number of alligators we saw, only that it was more than I was expecting. Usually we only saw their eyes while they watched us float past. We saw many bubbles rising to the surface and were told that these were coming from the gators moving unseen beneath us. There were also numerous birds around us, most of which I had never encountered before. It was already an unreal experience and we had more to see. 

 

American AlligatorAmerican Alligator

Wood StorkWood Stork

 

The vegetation changed and we became surrounded by red mangrove trees. Florida is the only mainland state where red mangroves are found. They have aboveground 'prop' roots which give them a spiderlike appearance. The trees closed in around us and formed tunnels for us to paddle through. When the tunnels opened up again, we found ourselves in thick swaths of needlerush and periphyton (a complex mixture of algae, bacteria, protozoa and invertebrates that floats on the water). All the while we saw more animal and bird life including the ever present gator eyes. As the light faded, we headed for shore and tried to muster the courage for the night walk ahead!

 

Red Mangrove TunnelRed Mangrove Tunnel

Needlerush and periphytonNeedlerush and periphyton

Dusk on Nine Mile PondDusk on Nine Mile Pond

 

Night Walk

 

I had started the day worried about walking through the everglades in daylight. Now we donned headlamps and headed into the inky blackness down the Anhinga Trail. The trail winds through a sawgrass marsh which is one of the few waterways that retain water year round. This attracts an abundance of wildlife and the perfect time to find them is at night.

 

Gator on the Anhinga TrailGator on the Anhinga Trail

 

 

The best way to find creatures in the dark is to look for their eyeshine. Garl showed us how to keep our headlamps, or flashlights, near our eyes to best take advantage of this effect. The color of eyeshine can help you decide what species is looking back at you; red for gators, green for frogs, and white for spiders. We were amazed at how many little spider eyes we saw in the grass before even starting down the trail, and to learn that you can see eyeshine from fish through the water! Interesting note: snakes have little to no eyeshine so be aware that you cannot use this to find or avoid them! Our guides located and identified numerous Everglade residents as we meandered down the path, ever vigilant not to get too close to any alligators on the trail. Garl and his friends were particularly excited to see a rare giant salamander, although the four of us were awestruck by every animal and bird we saw. The turnaround for our hike was a platform over what I can only describe as an alligator bowl. It is a particularly deep area of the marsh that is home to dozens of gators. A terrifying site indeed!

 

Giant SalamanderGiant Salamander

 

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron

 

Pig FrogPig Frog

 

Unknown WatersnakeUnknown Watersnake

 

End of a Long Day

 

We once again crawled back into the van and started to drive back out of the park. We were exhausted. Our half day trip felt like two full days by now! Even as we were leaving, our guides continued to teach and entertain. I wish I could have retained half of what they said! Each part of our tour could have been a day-long adventure on its own. 

 

There is a memory that stands out to me. At one point during our night walk, coming back along the trail, we encountered a young Asian couple. They were alone and carrying a small flashlight with a dim bulb. They were giggling and asked if we had seen any wildlife as they had not. I was shocked and terrified for them. We had passed so many alligators, snakes and spiders that I would not have wanted to stumble upon blindly. Their English was not strong, but I believe our guides were able to communicate to them the numerous species that they would have already passed, and the importance of being cautious. I was surprised not only at their recklessness, but also at the discovery that this was not an uncommon occurrence. Garl said that many unprepared guests visit the everglades unaware of the dangers. With proper knowledge and care, touring Everglades National Park is safe and exciting. We visited again in January 2015, without a guide, and enjoyed it as well. But if you want to get to know the real heart and soul of this vibrant ecosystem, take a guided tour with a trusted company. And if you want to learn from the best, click on this link and look up Garl's Coastal Kayaking!

 

Just hanging out in a cypress dome!Just hanging out in a cypress dome!

 

 

 See You Later, Alligator!!

 

 

Note: I am not affiliated with Garl and gain nothing from this post. We just had an extraordinary trip through Everglades National Park with him!! Also, we took a kayak/snorkel trip departing from Key Largo with another of his guides in January 2015 and were delighted by this adventure as well.

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