Grassy Waters Visiting a Florida treasure.

Long before white people settled in Florida, Indian tribes gave the Everglades the poetic name “Pa-hay-okee”, meaning “Grassy Waters” . Famous conservationist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas later named it “River of Grass”.

Map from Everglades Foundation

What is called the Everglades (singular and plural) is a giant sheet of water that flows over 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee all the way to Florida Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. It is this drainage of water from Lake Okeechobee ("Big Water" in Hitchiti) that marks the beginning of the Everglades. Filled with sawgrass marshes (and nowadays a lot more cattails), it looks like an enormous grassy river. However, now mostly drained for relentless urban sprawl, very little of it is left, and that very little is crucial to our vitality.

The River of Grass from above.

Everglades National Park, the area south of US 41 and east of Everglades City, is a 1.5-million-acre wetlands preserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is no easy access from my hometown of Naples, Florida, rather you have to drive across the state and gain entrance from the eastern side near the town of Homestead, Fl. The beautiful drive itself, along US41, cuts through several nature preserves (Collier Seminole State Park, Picayune Strand State Forest, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Big Cypress National Preserve) - all forming part of the Big Cypress Basin, and all worth a visit. There is a northern access from US41 to Everglades National Park at Shark Valley, but it consists only of a 15-mile loop trail.

Sunrise at Anhinga Trail

Everglades National Park, as well as the other wetland preserves, has numermous boardwalks and hiking trails that are safe for wildlife viewing. Yes, there are plenty of alligators and snakes in the glades, and mosquitos, but if you follow visitors' guidelines and reasonable precautions, you will be safe. I can only encourage you to go out and experience Florida nature for yourself.

A lone tree in the prairie.
Rainbow at Pay-hay-okee trail

You can find amazing big landscape scenes in the 'glades, especially in the summer when the heavy rain clouds, thunder and lightning, add drama to the sky, but there are so many interesting smaller subjects. For instance, I was mesmerized by this forest of dwarfed cypress trees. What a magnificent painting nature makes!

Dwarfed Cypress Trees

Often, you just need to look down at your feet to find an interesting image...

Above and Below - at Shark Valley

... or look at the details in front of you. Colorful tree barks, for example.

Colorful tree barks.

The gumbo limbo tree is often referred to as the tourist tree, due to the red and peeling bark (skin).

Gumbo limbo with peeling bark.

There are small scenes like new life emerging from a fallen tree, or just a single leaf showing its elegant shape and texture. You just need to look around and beauty is everywhere.

New life emerging.

The Everglades are home to hundreds of animal species. Among the Everglades' diverse wildlife, just to name a few, are white tailed deer, bobcats, and grey foxes (the only fox able to climb trees). Some of the animals, like the marsh rabbit, have adapted to the "wet world", and marsh rabbits can sometimes be seen swimming. Panthers are extremely rare in the Everglades National Park, they are found more to the West in the wooded area of Big Cypress basin.

At Marsh Trail

The Everglades National Park is the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America, providing important foraging and breeding habitat for more than 400 species. Phosphorus in agricultural and stormwater runoff continues to degrade the water quality, resulting in loss of open water areas where wading birds feed, as well as loss of oxygen for fish, the food basis for many birds. In addition to this, pythons, after destroying the mammal populations (over 90% of the small to mid-size mammals have been devoured already), have turned to attacking birds to feed their 16-foot-long hunger. The snakes are not only eating the area's birds, but also the birds' eggs straight from the nest. We are looking at a catastrophic loss of possibly the whole bird population.

A few examples of the bird variety - Barred Owl, Great Egret, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Anhinga

Then there are vultures that have adapted to a new environment and eat the rubber gaskets of your car. No joke - you have to cover your car with a tarp while parked or they will completely strip the rubber.

The evolution of vultures.
Dry season in the marshes.

Besides sawgrass marshes, there are coastal mangroves, pine flat-woods, cypress and hardwood hammocks, coastal lowlands, to name just a few of the distinct ecosystems. For example, a hardwood hammock is like a tree island. It is a dense stand of broad-leafed trees that grow on a natural rise of only a few inches. Because of their slight elevation, hammocks rarely flood. Acids from decaying plants dissolve the limestone around each tree island, creating a natural moat that protects the hammock plants from fire. Shaded from the sun by the tall trees, ferns and air plants thrive in the moisture-laden air of these hammocks. With the hammocks being a bit higher than their surrounding, Native American Indians often used them as camp sites.

Saprophytic air plants
Pine flatwoods early morning.

By the time the Everglades National Park was established in 1947, irreversable human actions had changed much of the greater Everglades area. Native plant species had gradually disappeared and invasive species took over, some indigenous like the cattail and some exotic like Brazilian Pepper. Yet still today, thirty-nine native orchid species occur in the park, in addition to about 750 other kinds of native seed-bearing plants. But, within the park, a total of 164 plant species have been listed by the State of Florida, including 47 as threatened, 113 as endangered, and 4 as commercially exploited. That is nearly one out of every four of the park's native plant species!

In a way, humans are similar to this strangler fig shown below. A prolonged firm grip on the host plant eventually kills the host. I still have hope that will not be the destiny of the Everglades.

Killer embrace - Strangler Fig in Big Cypress
An interesting abstract but in fact eutrophication - overly nutrient enriched water causing algae growth and oxygen starvation of marine life.

The Everglades are unique in the world and vital for the survival of many species. This is why the Everglades are listed as a World Heritage site. But the Everglades are also on the list of "World Heritage in Danger" due to the continued degradation of the ecosystem. Water inflows have been reduced by up to 60 percent and nutrient pollution increased to the point where the site is showing significant signs of eutrophication, loss of marine habitat and a subsequent decline in marine species. It is in our hands to ensure the survival of this habitat and I urge you to take action, be it small or large. Apart from changing your own habits, there are plenty of organisations that will be grateful for your help.

Here are a two links to get you started: Everglades Foundation and Everglades Holiday Park. Exercise your right to vote, on national, state, and local level!

Sunset at Pine Glades Lake.

All images by Hilda Champion (unless stated otherwise). Special thanks to Larry Richardson and Carlene Thissen for critically reviewing my drafts.

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Hilda Champion


Images by Hilda Champion