Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Escape to Key Largo - A Walk in the Tropical Hardwood Hammock

Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park and John Pennekamp State Park
March 10-12, 2009
ECO -Every Child Outside Homeschool Nature Class

Escaping to Key Largo is always a pleasure - leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to enter a world of peaceful mangroves and aqua blue water. Just an hour and a half from Ft. Lauderdale lies two of the most unique and beautiful ecosystems left in Florida - the rockland tropical hardwood hammock and the mangrove/coral reef habitat.

We started our journey in Florida City, meeting up to drive together down the secluded and secretive Card Sound Road, Highway 905. Card Sound Road cuts through the southern tip of the Everglades, through the sawgrass marsh - allowing for a view of an occasional alligator, a handful of rare native Royal Palms tucked away on their tree islands, and many patient King Fishers waiting on the telephone wires - looking for fish to scoop up.

After we passed through the sawgrass marsh, and the patches of the unwanted invasive Australian Pines, the Red Mangroves start showing their faces - hinting at an influx of salt water. Driving further along, with the White Mangroves lining the road, there is a quaint little fishing "village"; delapidated and funky boats line the docks, with an occasional one sadly sunken below the surface. After researching the area, I found out that it is not regulated by any one government agency, so the residents are "squatters" and are able to access electricity and sewage. I love it - a tiny settlement, peacefully living and fishing and crabbing (stone and blue crabs), 20 minutes from Miami - practically hidden from view!

We stopped, checked out the mangroves, threw some rocks in the water and got back in the car. Once through the floating village, we came to Alabama Jacks - an excellent little "dive" of a restaurant, built upon a dock over the water. If you want to hang with bikers, hear live music on the weekends, and get a taste of the local flavor (food and people), it's the place to go.

In order to leave the mainland - the peninsula of Florida, and enter the "keys", you must pay the toll. It is one dollar, each way, and you are not able to use your Sunpass. The Card Sound bridge looms in the distance (read Carl Hiassen's "Stormy Weather" for an exciting mention of the bridge). It rises high and spans across the Florida Bay and Card Sound, providing a fantastic view of mangroves and absolutely gorgeous, inviting blue water. The road was originally going to be the route of the Overseas Highway, but the plans were redirected to run the highway along the old railroad ties further west (where it still lies - aka US-1).

The mangroves here are home to our reclusive and surly native, the American Crocodile. South Florida is the only place in North America where they live, and the only place in the world where their habitat intermingles with the habitat of their cousins, the American Alligator. The crocodiles especially love the warm waste-water of the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant not too far away. They are protected and breeding - hopefully with the proper number of body parts (no nuclear mutants as of yet). The land all around - except for the exclusive retreat for the wealthy, the Ocean Reef Club - is home to the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Key Largo Dagny Johnson Botanical State Park.

The crocodile refuge is closed to the public; however, if you are of the more "rugged" type, you can obtain a back country permit to the botanical park and explore some of the more pristine, tucked-away spots.

At one point along the Highway 905, there is a fork in the road, if you go left you will enter the Ocean Reef Club, if you head right, you head to Key Largo and US-1. We went to the right, heading west, watching the foliage change from mangrove to woodland hammock as we drove. The woodlands are some of the last remaining rockland tropical hardwood hammocks left in Florida. The higher grounds of the keys were once covered in these forests - filled with fascinating and exotic trees like, Poisonwood, Lignum Vitae, and Mahogany. Many of the trees are exclusive to the Keys and the West Indies - their seeds spreading on the tides. The Key Largo Dagny Johnson Botanical Park protects these trees and the rare and unusual animals that make them home.

The botanical park was once destined to become a condominium development. The building began and ended in the 1980's. The developers dug a quarry, built a wall, a house, and several roads. Environmental activists, including Ann Dagny Johnson, fought to stop the building due to the presence of 84 protected animals and plants. The construction ceased and the forest was able to breathe and grow; the roads became walking trails and the quarry became an unusual little lake tucked back in the woods.

To the sound of a foghorn (really, it was me blowing through a cut conch shell), I called the naturalists together. We began our hike by learning about conchs (a large sea snail - pronounced "conk") and the other kind of "Conchs" - people who live in the keys. We learned that one of the first successful crops of the upper keys was the pineapple, that, in the past, if an animal stood still, it would turn black with mosquitoes, and that a hurricane without a name blew through on Labor Day in 1932 at 200mph and killed 800 people and destroyed the railroad. We also learned that the botanical park is home to endemic animals and plants (meaning they only live there - evolving away from their mainland cousins), including the Key Largo Cotton Mouse and the Key Largo Wood Rat, and the Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly.

As we walked we searched for signs of the wood rat - who builds tunnels out of scraps of wood and decorates with found shiny trinkets. In the canopy, we looked for Liguus (or Banded) Tree Snails. We only saw a few, as they are "hibernating" - they seal their shells during the dry season (or winter) and don't open up until the first rain. It was bone dry when we were there. The leaves looked so sad and withered, waiting and hoping for the missing moisture (we were 9 inches below in rainfall).

**I'm writing this today, March 18, one week after our trip, and our first rainy day of the year. My whole body is thankful for the rain, and, I bet the forest down in Key Largo - if they got rain too- is a new place, maybe the snails came out of their shells!**

I think the most exciting thing for the kids was the Poisonwood trees and the coral rock wall and quarry. The Poisonwood tree is in the Cashew family and is related to cashews, pistachios, mangoes, Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, and Brazilian Red Pepper (a much disliked invasive exotic). The tree itself looks poisonous - in some places it is, literally, oozing black sap. It's trunk is tall and thick with patches of beige, golden yellow/orange, brown, and black. If you touch any part, and are allergic, you will likely get an oozy rash that itches like crazy.

The coral rock wall and quarry were an adventure in itself for the children. Unfortunately for the families on our Thursday trip, we weren't able to go back there - too hot and far for the little ones. There is a "nature" trail to the side of the paved road, about 3/4 of a mile back. The front of the trail is lined with a very large and majestic-looking coral rock wall. The children loved it, I'm sure it brought to mind visions of castles and knights and princesses. We examined it, talked about coral and how this area was once covered with ocean water. Then we found the quarry. The kids climbed the rocks, played noble of the mountain, and threw rocks in the water. We ate "sea celery" or purslane and examined the mangroves. We felt special, being in a place that seemed hidden and undiscovered (even though we knew it wasn't).

On all three days that we were there, we had a very special mascot follow us- a beautiful giant green dragonfly (known as the Green Darner Dragonfly), it would fly into the middle of our group, and seemingly look at each one of us, check us out and then fly away. On the way home on Tuesday I saw a white-crowned pigeon flying overhead, but other than that and a few snails and insects, the forest was quiet. The animals were staying still, hiding from the heat and ravaging dryness - waiting for the rains to come...

Our next stop was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park - the story to follow in the next post.

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