EVERYTHING FAMILY GUIDE TO COASTAL
by Bob Brooke
|Marshland teeming with ten-foot-high sawgrass dotted
with small pockets of trees. Slow-moving rivers abundant with fish.
Ponds alive with alligators and crocodiles. This is the Everglades,
stretching 100 miles south from Lake Okeechobee and one of the most
unique ecosystems in the world. The lifeblood of "The Glades,"
as the locals call the area, is water. Not only do its plants and
animals need it to survive, but it’s also what gives the Glades their
unique character. Over 400 species of birds, twenty-six types of snakes,
and forty species of four-legged animals call the Glades home. Plus it
harbors fourteen endangered species, including the American crocodile,
manatee, Florida panther, Everglades mink, peregrine falcon,
short-tailed hawk, and three kinds of sea turtles–hawksbill, green,
and loggerhead. A family vacation here is not only a fun adventure but
educational as well.
Getting to Know The Everglades
At the southern tip of the Florida peninsula
lies Everglades National Park, a small portion of this vast wilderness,
plus a part of the Ten Thousand Islands and much of Florida Bay which
has been set aside as a preserve. It contains over 1.4 million acres of
land and water with an average elevation of only five feet above sea
Fresh water from the north flows slowly and gently
through the Glades in a shallow river, known as the Shark Valley Slough,
fifty miles wide and only six inches deep, that empties into Florida Bay
on the Gulf Coast. The local Seminoles called it Pahayokee, or
"Grassy Water," because of the tall sawgrass rooted in the
|Sawgrass gets its name
from the its sawtooth-edged blades. It remains green year round and
protects fish, as well as provides food for animals.
The Everglades rests on a foundation of solid limestone
bedrock, which geologists estimate to be over 100,000 years old. A substance,
much like peat called marl, accumulates in pockets in the limestone
bed. Over time, this builds to a thickness that can support trees, which grow
into hammocks. In some areas of the Glades, clusters of hardwood trees,
including mahogany, form dense hammocks ranging in size from a few feet to
hundreds of acres. Here plams, live oaks, pond apple, and woody vines grown in
profusion. On these trees in the dim light of the hammocks grow orchids,
ferns, and vines. The Park has a total of 1,000 species of plants, including
120 species of trees.
As the river nears the ocean and fresh water mixes with salt
water, the marshy grasses–muhly grass, Everglades beardgrass, arrowhead and
sawgrass–hammocks, and pine woods give way to dense thickets of mangroves,
important for the food and shelter they offer both land and sea life. The
level of the river changes with the seasons. Spring rains turn into torrential
downpours and thunderstorms during the summer, dumping up from sixty to one
hundred inches of water on the Glades. But during winter, the water slows to a
trickle, leaving only puddles.
|The origin of the name
"Everglades" is obscure. According to legend, early maps
designated the area as the "River Glades." On later maps the
name became "Ever Glades" and finally, the term
"Everglades" appeared on a map in 1823.
The Calusa Indians roamed the Everglades before Columbus
discovered America. And it was into this area that the remnants of the proud
Seminole Indian tribes retreated before the advance of white settlers. A few
Miccosukee Indians still live within the vast wilderness of the Glades outside
the Park. The Glades originally encompassed all the marshland south of Lake
Okeechobee. Until 1915, only explorers, hunters, and local Native Americans
knew these wild sawgrass marshes and dense hammocks. The following year, the
Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs acquired the Royal Palm Hammock and
turned it over to the State of Florida, which then established Royal Palm
State Park as a wild-life sanctuary. Ernest F. Coe, known as the "Father
of the Everglades," began a campaign to create an Everglades National
Park in the 1920s. Civilian conservation workers, under the WPA program, built
shelters and trails between 1934 and 1935. But it took another twelve years
until President Harry S. Truman signed a bill setting aside 2,000 square miles
of the Glades as Everglades National Park, dedicated on December 6, 1947.
During that same year, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her book, The
Everglades: River of Grass, which created a public awareness of the
fragility of the Glades. But the Park covers only twelve percent of the
To further draw attention to the plight of the Glades, the
United Nations designated the Park a Biosphere Reserve, and in 1979, it
designated it a World Heritage Site. Both put Everglades National Park under
further protection against encroachment by developers.
It’s here in this protected environment that you become
aware of the vital links that hold the Glades together–the alligators, who
dig for water with their tails, the tree hammocks that provide sanctuary to
animals during the wet season, and the importance of the cycle of wet and dry
seasons. The alligators have become known as the "keepers of the
Glades." It’s they, during the dry season, who dig "gator"
holes, which provide temporary homes for other wildlife until the rains
return. Wispy willows surround these gator holes. Tree islands or hammocks dot
the endless sawgrass expanse. Though only a few feet above sea level, they’re
fertile enough to support various types of trees. In the slightly higher
areas, pinewoods prevail.
But the biggest danger to the Glades is development. As
Florida’s population grows, the demand for fresh water and land for farming,
roads, and housing is causing damage to this fragile ecosystem. Over 1,500
miles of canals have been built to divert fresh water away from the Glades,
plus the poison from agricultural chemicals from farmlands around Lake
Okeechobee is making its way into the Glades.
Everglades National Park is huge. Plan on spending at least a day
exploring its wonders.
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