Sunday, November 11, 2012

Flamingo, Florida.

The fact that it was Election Day when I was cruising the Everglades on a boat may have accounted for the fact that the other passengers were foreigners. I had voted in Big Pine Key earlier in the week and was free to take a little road trip with my faithful sidekick, and Labradors don't vote in this backward state so we were both in fine fettle for an adventure.

It doesn't look like it but these flatlands are part of Monroe County whose seat is Key West, which fact may come as a surprise to some readers. Flamingo residents would have voted in Monroe County not in contiguous Dade, even though there aren't many residents at the headquarters of Everglades National Park.

It's pretty easy to guess there are more birds than people, even though the pink one seen above is a roseate spoonbill, not a flamingo. For humans that want to stay, temporarily in Flamingo there used to be a rather uninspired motel building on the waterfront. However a hurricane put paid to that and plans to build new accommodations have been shelved, the government preferring to blow up Afghanistan rather than maintaining our precious parks. So accommodations are reduced to bring-your-own-canvas:

I'm sure a monstrous sized RV would be accommodated as well. However Cheyenne and I had reservations in a dog friendly La Quinta motel up the road in Collier County so we were sleeping in luxury. The park is not very welcoming to dogs as it happens. They can only circle parking lots, and trails are outlawed to them which I think sucks. My dog is better behaved than most children.

So when I went into the Marina Store to pick up a refreshing fizzy cola and the clerk offered a ride on a boat as a matter of her corporate selling strategy I automatically demurred saying I had a dog. No problem she perked cheerfully, dogs are welcome. I'm not sure a hundred pound Labrador was what they had in mind but on she went and obediently laid down to snooze while the big old pontoon boat took off up the canal.

Our pilot and guide was a drawling laid back character who earned his tips by delivering his commentary in a manner that I can best describe as in the style of Garrison Keillor telling tales of Lake Wobegon. He entertained us in a dry witty way, converting measurements to metric for the benefit of the Spaniards, French and German passengers and a chattering group of Asians who claimed to be from Iowa. So much for stereotyping I was a bit taken aback to learn they were from the same place as my Vespa.


We got see a whole bunch of birds whose names as usual I barely remember. Start with another spoonbill.

I think this is a three colored heron, or some such:

An ibis?

An osprey having lunch.

An anhinga, whatever that is:

Aside from birds we also got to see some flora, much of which I knew, as I have been living among mangroves for quite a while. I've seen the manchineel (”man-chin-kneel") tree in the Caribbean were its dangerous poisonous properties are well known. In the Keys the common poisonwood tree inflicts unpleasant burns, similar to poison oak, but the manchineel sap is really nasty and it can kill if the fruit, which looks like a crab apple, is eaten

The easiest identification according to the captain was to look for drooping leaves which is the best identifier I've heard. Oh, and stay away if you do see those drooping leaves. I haven't seen any in the Lower Keys where the milder poisonwood is plentiful.

The canoeists looked cheerful as they toyed with manchineel death, and even though renting a canoe is an option in these waterways I'd rather go by big wide pontoon boat with a knowledgeable guide. The view doesn't change much. There is actually a 99 mile trail through the Ten Thousand Islands of southwest Florida, through the park. There are wooden platforms along the way for camping and I'm told the trip takes an average ten days of true wilderness travel. We passed a canoe dock available as the starting point for a short portage through the forest to a nearby lake.

We also passed an alligator resting on the bank.

And that got everyone's attention.

People do like to be scared when are safe on a boat . Alligators have a more fearsome reputation than they deserve unless you are going to be stupid and provoke them, when they will react. I find them much more fear inspiring than sharks, not least because they can run fast on land, and hunt even when they are not hungry, so I steer clear of them but they are also pretty docile unless provoked or unless you choose to swim in their backyard. An iPad as portable camera inspires me with fear for our electronic future.

Even shallow, low freeboard little boats can safely navigate among the alligators and crocodiles of Florida's waters.


The occupants of this canoe clearly thought their rental craft was going to tip and launch them into alligator infested waters when they saw our big pontoon boat rushing toward them pushing a wall of water in front. Which reminds me of the old joke about the difference between Canadians and canoes: canoes tip.

There was nothing to worry about as our captain knew what he was doing and slowed to idle speed in plenty of time. My dog wasn't worrying about anything.


As if the alligator (and all the birds) weren't enough by the time we got back to the marina an endangered American crocodile was basking in the weak November sun on the boat ramp. Crocs are much more shy than alligators and they are also much more rare, 200,000 we are told versus two million alligators. Crocs are also saltwater creatures that can cope with water that is only slightly salty (known as brackish) whereas alligators are freshwater creatures.

There was more pandemonium on the boat as we paused near the dinosaur and then we were back at the dock. The canal was built after World War Two when developers thought draining the Everglades was a good idea. By the time scientists had convinced everyone is was a very bad idea fresh water filled with agricultural chemical runoff was flowing past the natural filtration of the grasses straight into Florida Bay causing algae blooms and affecting turbidty putting coral at risk. So the Army Corps of Engineers plugged the canal and flow is returning to normal, even though there are still too many canals in the Everglades that are wrecking water quality elsewhere. The plug:

And the marina store, home sweet home:

It was an overcast day making it pleasant for a picnic at the tables on the docks.

Cheyenne and I had places to go and people to see, so off we went, back up the 38 miles to Homestead, through the River of Grass, as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas famously called it in her eponymous book.

It is quite flat around here.

A long straight road it is.

But because Cheyenne was prohibited from visiting the alluring side trails and boardwalks we pressed on. Happily the speed limit is mostly a sensible 55mph, so it doesn't take long to get back to dog friendly country.