Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Everglades Day 1

Hello all,

Welcome to the first vacation-post on Crafty-Pursuits. I feel so organized.

We took off for Florida back at the end of February with the intention of spending some quality time at Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. 4 days hardly seemed like enough time when we booked the flights, but as I concluded my research on the two parks, I knew there wouldn't be enough activity to fill those 4 days. And nothing annoys me as much as relaxing. Fortunately the first two days were jam-packed with activity and it wasn't until Day 3 that I started to get bored.

Day 1: Friday, February 28, 2014

I think Dan finally roused himself from bed (with my prodding) around 9. We had landed in Miami at 10 the night before, and I was predictably nauseous. I told Dan as we landed, "I'm not going to pretend about this anymore, I hate flying." Apparently, this was not news to him. I vowed to take Dramamine on the return trip. Feeling sick, I asked him to drive us to the hotel in our newly rented mini-van.

"We're going to give you a free upgrade" the Enterprise man announced as he led us to a long line of sparkling white mini-vans. Two points: 1. When do they NOT give you a "free" upgrade? 2. Its hard to consider a mini-van an upgrade. But, I knew it would offer us more room for our bags so I just went with it.

While Dan slept on Friday morning, I drove over to the Publix across the street to stock up for the long weekend. And following my breakfast, I made us lunch for the day. By the time we finally left our hotel room at 10:30, I was getting excited to see some Everglades wildlife. So excited in fact, I totally forgot to bring our lunches. Oops.

The drive was fairly short, about 20 minutes from our hotel in Homestead to the Ernest Coe visitor's center. I had to admit, I was kinda enjoying some of the mini-van's features (like a spot to put your purse and the arm rests). I picked up the WPA poster at the Visitor's Center and got some information about doing a hike in the Flamingo area later that day. We spotted our first gator in the pond behind the visitor's center and then took off for the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga trails at Royal Palm.

Everglades National Park has 4 different areas: Royal Palm, Flamingo, Shark Valley and the Gulf Coast. Each area is wildly different from the other and has something unique to offer. At Royal Palm, the two trails I mentioned above feature Gumbo-Limbo "hammocks" (which basically means a tree cluster) and plenty of wildlife.

Pulling into the parking lot at Royal Palm we noticed that a bunch of cars had tarps haphazardly covering them, secured with bungee cords. We ventured a few guesses, but in the end we were wrong about all of them. As it turns out, vultures eat the rubber off of windshield wipers... for no particular reason other than to annoy people.

Taking off on the two "trails" we saw plenty of bright-red gumbo limbo trees, or "tourist trees" "sunburn trees". They are bright red and their bark peels away like skin off a sunburn. I continued to quiz Dan on the different tree varieties throughout the weekend. He continually named the "sunburn tree" though never remembered that the real name was Gumbo-Limbo.

The hammocks do make you feel like you have ventured into the rain forest, if only for a minute or so. The climate is so humid in the Everglades that plants grow almost everywhere. Air plants (or tillandsia) and ferns covered virtually every limb of every tree. We also encountered the Strangler Fig tree, which is incredibly cool and creepy at the same time. It grows over other trees and strangles them out completely.

gorgeous air plant

Strangler fig at work
On the Anhinga trail (named for the Anhinga bird) we saw plenty of wildlife! Birds, alligators, all kinds of wild and crazy stuff. There are so many fun facts that I learned about each creature over the course of our trip, for example: Anhingas don't have the waxy coating on their features like ducks, so after they swim to catch food, they have to spread their wings and dry off in the sun. Alligators have the ability to exert 2,000 PSI of pressure with their jaws (that's Pounds per Square Inch). However, they also have the ability to be so gentle with their teeth, that they often bite their eggs just enough to crack and force the baby alligator to "hatch". Another quick fact: baby alligators are the absolute cutest.

One thing really freaked me out on the Anhinga trail. We saw an alligator submerge itself in about 18 inches of water and swim roughly 4 feet away, completely 100% undetectable. Not even a ripple on the surface of the water was giving this guy up and I DID NOT like that. Apparently, alligators are exceptionally stealthy.

We also saw a bird on this trail that was carrying around a stick in its beak. Dan made a great joke of this, calling it the "Uncle Fred" bird insinuating how truly stupid this bird must be. I had a good laugh over this joke, silly Dan gets me every time.

Anhinga male drying his wings

Anhinga female
After we finished up the two trails, we decided to head down to the Flamingo area for a short hike and lunch. We stopped along the way at various hammocks and different/unusual flora groupings. In the Everglades, the highest elevation is about 15 ft above sea level. The difference from swamp to 3 ft to 6 to 10 in kind of crazy. It amazing how that small change in elevation creates an entirely new and different ecosystem.

Can you tell its humid here? Look how warped the wood along the railing is. 
ghost orchid?
From sawgrass to jungle palms
The one Croc we saw during our stay. The Everglades is the only place in the world where crocs and alligators can be found together. You can tell its a croc because of the pointed snout, the teeth (located outside of the mouth) and the color. Alligators are only black, whereas crocodiles are more green, brown and black. 
Luckily the "cafe", which is essentially a food truck that has been parked in the same location long enough to build a screened in porch all around it, was open in Flamingo. Our gourmet lunch consisted of a hot dog and french fries. It actually was delicious and the view was fantastic. We watched boats go in and out of the bay and appreciated the ability to sit outside in shorts and T-shirts. It was about 78 degrees in Flamingo... Columbia was about 12.

Following our lunch we strolled the bay, which was dotted with mangrove trees. I gawked at a tree covered in Spanish moss and continued to state what a beautiful day it was. Dan found this amusing. Before getting back in the car, I put on a layer of bug spray so that I would be prepared when we got out to do our hike. It wasn't going to be a long one, about 3 miles total, but I thought it would be a fun way to hike through the jungle-like environment out to another part of the bay. Plus, the ranger had recommended it as one of the more interesting options.

Flamingo Bay Mangroves
beautiful Spanish moss
Mangrove trees in the making. Once this shoot grows tall and strong enough, it will send limbs back down towards the ground to take root.
Mangrove limb growing towards the ground
Arriving at the Shark Bight trail head, we unloaded and did another round of bug spray before heading into the dense hammock. There were small lizards everywhere which amused us for about 30 seconds before I got obsessed with the air plants again. About 1/2 a mile in, Dan noticed the mosquitoes were really terrible, so he sprayed himself for a second time. We passed a couple who appeared to be power-walking back to their car. They both noted that without bug spray, we would never make it. I felt confident though, with my heavily loaded deet can, so we hiked on.

I don't remember when I noticed it was starting to get out of hand, but it happened quickly. I was getting bitten through my 2 layers of spray and through my long sleeves. It wasn't quite as dramatic as I imagine a plague might be, but it was really close. We were probably 1.2 miles in, but I couldn't stand it anymore so we turned around and power-walked out of there!

Snake Bight Trail (aka Mosquito Heaven)
When we were back in the safety of the mini-van we agreed to refrain from any additional hikes in the area, and headed back to the hotel. It was probably around 4:30 so we spent the last few hours of sunlight down by the pool reading, sipping on sangria out of a nalgene bottle. I not good at relaxing, but wine helps.

For dinner we went to a local pizza place that had wood fired pizza. The pizza itself was pretty good, but the waitress was terrible. Dan ordered mozzarella sticks that literally never came. We are still waiting for those mozzarella sticks. When he pointed out that he didn't receive them her response was that the chef forgot. No apology, no "Let me get you that order immediately (and for free)" just a shrug of the shoulders. That pissed me off. She was quite lucky they weren't my mozzarella sticks.

By the time we got back to the hotel after our hour and a half failed dinner experience, we were both pretty beat and promptly went to bed.