Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stone Crabs, 10,000 Islands, and Cypress Trees - A Day in Everglades City and Big Cypress

Leading Nature Field Trips is a highlight for me. We get to go a bit further out of the way then our norm, which is staying local - near Broward County, and travel to places that are a bit more removed, less frequented, and somewhat more wild. I love guiding people to those places and sharing with them the sense of wonder that I STILL get when visiting special places in South Florida. This time we went west to the remote area of Everglades City, a small fishing and eco-tourism town tucked away against the 10,000 Islands of Chokoloskee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico; and, to Big Cypress - Fakahatchee Strand - a strip of Cypress trees known for wild orchids and beautiful native Royal Palms.

Chokoloskee Island street, 1916. Courtesy of the Florida Archives

Over the last few years I have worked for a company called Everglades Day Safari...they provide a wonderful, all encompassing trip out to the Everglades. It begins with an airboat ride in the Shark River Slough and ends with a boat tour through the 10,000 Islands area of Everglades National Park, in Everglades City. Working for EDS awakened me to the fascinating and somewhat "back-woods" nature of the Everglades City area.

As a child growing up in South Florida, we always visited the Keys, that was where my dad fished, where we shared a house with another family, and where we loved. The Everglades was a place you went to if you wanted to go hunting wild pig and to see alligator wrestling.

I had never been to Everglades City, that I can remember, until I worked for EDS and led tours through the area. Now, I'm in love with the place. The culture and history there is wonderful - rich, funky, and unique. There are old buildings, made before the 1950's, and the people are small-town folk, some of their families going back almost 200 hundred years. They fish, they pull gold up out of the water - stone crabs and blue crabs, and they do some under the radar stuff too (it's a very remote place, known for smuggling liquor during prohibition and other things in more recent times). Because of the natural beauty of the area, eco-tourism is now booming and giving the locals a healthy income.

A Cooper's Hawk on the phone line outside the museum.

Our first stop of the day was to the fabulous Museum of the Everglades, right in the center of town. The building is the old laundry establishment, used by the workers from the Tamiami Trail back in the early 1900's. Everglades City was set up as a "working" town, it was the headquarters for the western construction of Highway 41 - funded and facilitated by Baron Collier. Families moved down there to work and live - worked out on the road for a week or so and then went home to their families in town for a few days before heading back out. It became the county seat for a while, and had everything - laundry, mall, parks, movie theater, and more. Food was shipped in and offered for sale, amongst many other goods. Luckily for the Everglades, the depression came on and stifled Mr. Collier's dreams to fill it all in and make a huge town.

Hurricanes and storms also changed Mr. Collier's vision, Everglades City sits below sea level, so when it floods, so does Everglades City. Plus, the mosquitos in salt marshes are notorious for being aggressive - it did not make for the perfect place to live!!

After our very educational and enjoyable visit to the museum - thank you so much to the proprietors for facilitating a program for us, we visited the historic Rod and Gun Club across the street.

As we stepped through the doors, we stepped back in time...a rare thing to be able to do in South Florida - not too many old, historic buildings around here. As you enter the dark, but cool hallway, the walls are filled with old newspaper articles telling the tales of Everglades City and the people who live there.

As you enter the pool room it lightens a bit, but not too much because of the dark walls of the Florida Pine wood. The wood is shellacked with shiny varnish and filled with paintings, mounts of all kinds of animals and fish, and dim lights - so it instills a sense of awe and quiet. There is an old phone booth - complete with a working dial phone - ancient history to the kids. They were in there most of the time - calling people.

We enjoyed the cool breezes coming in through the open windows (no air conditioning) as we walked along the creaky wood floors. There wasn't any A.C. in the old days, so they built houses to be comfortable without it, you think we would have learned!

Outside, the back porch opens up to the dock over the Barron River. The Barron River meets Chokoloskee Bay here in Everglades City, the water is somewhat turbulent due to the water flowing south from the Everglads meeting the tidal waters of Chokoloskee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The water is deep brown due to the tannins from both the Cypress trees north and the mangrove trees in the bay. Bottle-nose Dolphins love this estuarine environment due to the large amounts of fish that live here.

Across the river there are two colorful Florida Cracker-style cabins - giving the visitors a feel of life in the area. The homes are now winter homes for snow birds, but were most likely at one time year-round housing for locals. The homes are replete with tin roofs. The kids guessed what they were for - rain water collection. The metal roof kept the water cleaned as it rolled off the roof into barrels waiting underneath. The rain water was used for washing, gardening, cooking, and more.

Down the street, we checked out the small elementary school and the crab docks. Gray and black sun-bleached wooden traps are piled high, waiting for Stone Crab season - which starts this week actually. The crabs enter the trap and can't get out, they are pulled up and the large ones have one claw removed. The crab is thrown back in and the claw is sold for food (really excellent food I might add). Stone crabs thrive in the water out in the Gulf of Mexico and the blue crabs live closer by in the shallows of the bay.

The natural beauty of the area is wild and diverse. North of Everglades City is the freshwater swamp - loaded with Cypress trees, wild orchids, and alligators.

As you head south, the saltwater tides come in, allowing for growth of Mangrove trees and maybe a Manatee or two swimming north into the canals.

At the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, there lies a bay, called Chokoloskee Bay. Within Chokoloskee Bay is Chokoloskee Island and the beginning of the area we call the 10,000 Islands. Chokoloskee means "old house" in the Seminole/Miccosukee Language. They named it thus because when the people moved there a few hundred years ago they realized that people had lived there before (for about 5-10,00o years, in fact).

They knew it had been inhabited before because there were islands made completely out of shells - discarded shells (a land-fill). The ancient people - Calusa Indians and those that came before them, ate lots and lots of shell fish. They would build higher ground and new islands out of the discarded shells and use the new land to live on and as ritual grounds. We call them shell mounds. Marco Island is also a shell mound island.

Chokoloskee Island is a quirky little town now, with a Cuban restaurant famous for its cuban coffee and for Ted Smallwood's store.

Ted Smallwood's store is now a museum, but was for many years the local trading post, post office, and community gathering place. The Smallwood family lived there and worked there - trading otter skins for eggs and flour and buying fish and alligator meat to sell to the locals and to ship out.

We visited the store and enjoyed it immensely. It is a learning experience and fascinating for the kids. They got to learn about living off the land, how people used to wash their clothes, and about trading. They also got to enjoy an old-fashioned coca cola, and learned how to open a pop top on the built-in opener (most of the kids did not know how to do it!).

The bay outside is filled with islands - not really 10,000, more like 14,000 or 20,000. The islands are mangrove islands, shell mounds, or naturally-higher ground islands. Some islands appear at low tide and then are no longer islands at high tide. Most of the islands are Red Mangrove bunches and are not really "islands" at all, they would be very wet if you went to stand on them.

Everglades National Park manages the 10,000 Islands area and protects it for its beauty and it's importance in the survival of the Florida marine fisheries.

If you want to get an up-close and personal view of the 10,000 Islands area - get out your kayak and traverse the 90 miles of water trails, you can even camp out on the islands - they have chickees and bathrooms set up!! Don't forget your maps, though, it's very easy to get lost. I've yet to set out on that adventure, but hope to soon, maybe this is the year!!

Within this estuarine environment, fish grow up, birds roost and feed, and manatees, dolphins and sea turtles spend their days eating and swimming. The bay is only about 4 feet deep and has tides that are determined by the wind. It is a vital part of the South Florida ecosystem and a wonderful place to visit.

We stopped in at the ENP Visitor Center. The chickee by the bay provided a bit of shade for us, despite the many holes in the roof. The park needs to call in the local Miccosukee tribes to repair the shelter. We had a quick lunch due to the mosquitos and deer flies buzzing around us. On Wednesday we had a good game of Oh Deer and Sharks and Minnows, on Thursday we opted to go straight to the water at Chokoloskee Island.

Over at Ted Smallwood's store on Chokoloskee Island, there is a pleasant little beach area underneath some not-so-native Australian Pines and Seaside Mahoe trees. Despite the trees being invasive exotic plants, they provide lovely shade. The sandy/shelly beach slopes slightly down into the Chokoloskee Bay. The ground is littered with shells of all kinds - remember it is a shell mound island. It's great fun to collect the giant clam shells and whelks all around. If you look super hard you might even find fossils of mammoths or tools used by the Calusa! We didn't get that lucky, but we got to check one out inside the store.

The beachy area was the only place on this trip where the kids could get in the water...so, most of them did - at least up to their ankles. The little ones frolicked at the shore, dipping their nets in the water to see what they could find, while the more adventurous tackled the tangles of red mangrove roots...

The distance we traveled amidst the mangrove roots was minimal, but the adventure was exciting and stimulating for all involved. Some people opted to try not to get their feet wet by climbing atop the propagating roots, while others (me included) went all out and splashed through the brown, tannin-enriched soupy water. Don't forget how important this water is for the baby sea animals, they need all those nutrients that are floating around in it to survive - but it makes for murky water and if you don't know what is in there it can be a tad frightening. The mangrove tree crabs skittering all over the trunks of the trees made some of the kids sizzle with adrenaline, they acted afraid, but kept going - loving and hating the thought of the crabs crawling around them. Some of the really dedicated kids and adults made it all the way to the other side, they were very proud and held their heads high and chests out - a very empowering activity!!

We caught crabs to look at, a baby needle fish, and lots of shells and rocks. We found Sea Celery, or Sea Pickle, or Sea Purslane (lots of names) by the shore and enjoyed a crunchy, salty seaside salad for a snack! The kids loved it. When done in the bay, we enjoyed a leisurley visit to Ted Smallwood's store - loved the artifacts and pictures and cool old-fashioned household items and food.

After our great visit to the 10,000 Islands, we hopped back in our cars and headed north and west to Fakahatchee Strand - home of old-growth Cypress trees, Bald Eagles, wild orchids, and alligators.

Our hike began on a gravel trail that runs along side a tall wooden fence. Behind the wooden fence is one of the many Miccosukee Villages in Big Cypress. Each village has several homes for the families in that particular matriarchal line. They live in homes and cook and visit in their chickees - shelters made from the trunks of Cypress and thatch roofs made from the fronds of the Sabal Palm.

At the kiosk that marks the beginning of the trail, there is a "Wanted" sign posted - it lists the $ reward for tunring in the people who recently killed a Florida Panther. Florida Panthers live in this area and are very endangered. They do not pose a threat to us, we do to them...most panthers die from being hit by cars on the dark roads as they hunt at night.

Florida Black Bears also live in this habitat. They, like the Florida Panther, are very endangered and much less threatening than their northern cousins.

The animal we did see that is also a top predator was the American Alligator. On Wednesday they were hiding in the trees, but on Thursday we visited with a baby Alligator in the canal alongside the highway and a big daddy alligator deep in the Cypress Strand.

As we walked we were awed by the majestic beauty of the old-growth Cypress that still live here. They are very tall, and some - very burly. Many of them have giant Strangler Figs hugging them and wrapping their tendril-like shoots around their bulks.

Most of the Cypress in this region were clear cut back in the 1940's for use in making coffins and baseball stadiums. Because the wood grows in water, it does not decompose easily and is resistant to bugs. Now the trees are protected (here, at least, they are cutting them down for mulch in Louisiana and elsewhere). The only people that can cut them down are the Seminoles and Miccosukees.

They use the trunks to make their chickees. They used to make dug out canoes with the trunks, but unfortunately the art is being forgotten.

Lovin Lubbers (Lubber Grasshoppers mating)

On our way to the boardwalk we were surprised by a landard crawfish - it seemed to have lost its way...it was quite big and looked like a mini-lobster. As we walked I pointed out Poison Ivy. I also showed everyone my rash that I had recieved the week before...still itchy and raw, they decided to stay far away after that!! The day after these trips I realized I had more rashes and that my backpack must have been infected with the oils. I've washed everything and am hoping there is no more oil to cause an allergy. I'm done with it - pine tar soap only works up to a certain point!

Ferns and wild coffee and other bush-like plants are interspersed all throughout the Cypress trees. Small Dahoon Holly trees were blooming - dotting the forest with bright colored berries, and Royal Palms of all sizes were mixed in - adding a tropical feel to the forest. We found a very cute little Green Tree Frog sleeping on the frond of a baby Royal Palm. It was very camoflouged and hard to spot, but quite exciting to the kids when found!

The water levels are high right now - it is the peak of the wet season here in Florida. Soon we will enter the dry time of year, with less humidity, less rain, and more cool temperatures (hopefully). On our hike it was anything but cool, it was hot and humid. Every once in a while there would be a lovely breeze passing through, but short-lived and taunting.

On occasion we stopped to look over the edge of the boardwalk to see what we could see, on Wednesday we saw a lovely little Brown Water Snake trying very hard to look just like a twig. It succeeded until movement on the boardwalk made it swim away in fright. We then knew what to look for and were able to find it again.

At the end of the boardwalk there is an alligator hole. Alligators are keystone species - meaning they are very important to everything and everyone else in that habitat. Alligators make holes, or ponds, due to their big feet and legs and the way they swim and push through the reeds and plants. These holes stay wet most of the year, providing a wet envrionment for food and habitat for birds, other alligators, fish, racoons, etc.

The pond here is wonderful and serene. The water is glassy, with a mirrored reflection of the trees above - tangles of Cypress covered with Wild Pine Bromeliads and Spanish Moss. I challenged the kids to be as silent and still as possible and for as long as possible.

What an amazing experience! We were all silent for quite a while. The longer we were quiet, the more the forest came alive. Birds sang and chirped, alligators grunted in the distance, fish plopped up out of the water, and cicadas chirped louder and stronger. Our heartbeats slowed, our muscles relaxed and we became part of the place.

After our moment of silence, we played nature bingo.

The kids were tested on their knowledge of mangroves and swamps, saw grass and sloughs. They did remarkably well and enjoyed it. On Thursday, during our game we heard a loud popping or cracking sound over to the side. I figured it was an alligator, but wanted to make sure. I had the kids stay seated and I quietly stepped over to check, and, sure enough, there was a big, giant papa gator hanging out right near us - letting us know he was there. Slowly and stealthily the kids and parents joined me and we enjoyed watching him for a few minutes before he casually swam off.

Seeing the gator here was different than in the zoo or at another park because of how wild this place is. I think the kids understood that we were truly in the wilderness and that the alligator we were watching knew nothing of golf courses and canals. The alligator hole is his domain, he reigns there and gets to enjoy the serenity and beauty of the place everyday while we only get to visit. That is one lucky Alligator!!

On the way back along the boardwalk we were greeted with a call from the Barred Owl..."who cooks for you?", the owl asked. We went home to find out!

The journey was satisfying and exhausting...another good day at the office!

Thanks to all my photographers!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic, we absolutely love your field trip reports and this is an especially interesting one, always so informative with nice pictures, and nice to see you are leaning toward some humor. Keep up the great work that you do, we feel like we are "getting something for nothing" when we are allowed to feast upon your artistic work. Thanks so much!


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