In a word: Canoe through calm rushes and tangled mangrove trees that harbor wading birds, gators and at least one croc. Don’t worry though because you’re with a certified wildlife expert, and it’s all 100% free.
More words: The low slush of oars thrum a steady beat on open water as we cross a man-made borrow pit. Nearby, an impenetrable tangle of red mangrove trees clump together like bushy, oversized bouquets. Snail Kites circle noiselessly above our heads, eyeing us calmly with curiosity. We reach the far side of the water and a narrow arched tunnel materializes from the regular rhythm of roots.
We disappear into the Everglades.
“Canoe the Wilderness” is one of the ranger-led programs put on by Florida’s Everglades National Park and it’s the one thing you need to do when you visit. It generally requires advance reservation, but is completely free and includes the use of canoes, paddles, and life vests. Previous canoe experience is not required.
We began the activity by meeting our park ranger and wildlife expert Christi — along with eight other travelers — at Nine Mile Pond early in the morning. Christi handed out oars and life vests making sure each couple had at least one whistle attached in case any boats were separated. After some basic canoeing tips, we helped Christi pull down the canoes and put in.
Christi guided us along a five mile loop marked by occasional PVC pipes standing upright in the water. We followed in single file. It took us first through deep open water, then through a tunnel of thick mangroves, followed by a series of shallow ponds. The knee deep water was filled with tall grasses, Bladderwort, and spongelike “breadstick” algae (periphyton).
Dividing the shallow waters were small tree islands boasting a wider variety of vegetation including Cocoplums, Buttonwood trees, and the rare Paurotis Palm.
One of the coolest parts about being led by a ranger is the expert knowledge they have about the local vegetation and wildlife in the park. Whenever Christi saw something interesting, she would stop, let everyone catch up, and then share some interesting tidbits about whatever plant or animal she pointed out. As we chatted, we’d anchor ourselves by holding an oar alongside the canoe with the tip nestled in the bedrock.
Near the end of the trail, we went through two smaller borrow pits. In the first one, Christi let us know that if we were lucky, we might see a crocodile. We were lucky.
The crocodile was basking in the sun on the edge of the pit, his tail in the water and body on the land. Even though we kept a safe distance, being eye level with a crocodile in the wild less than fifty feet away is absolutely thrilling. In the second borrow pit we saw several much smaller alligators floating in the calm water. South Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles naturally co-habitate.
All in all, “Canoe the Wilderness” was a fantastic way to get an up-close experience of the Everglades, and took between three to four hours to complete.
— Laura Rowley