Ten passengers fill the craft's two rows of seats - like ascending bleachers - just like watching a high school basketball game, except we are mobile and race ahead quickly. Sitting at the bottom, protected by only a small guardrail, I must employ both arms as a cradle to protect my camera lens from spray as we manoeuvre through large sections of reeds, thrashing and splashing water cascading backwards at the passengers. The droning
aircraft-like propeller noise emitted from the huge fan blades at the rear scare off any animal in our path. Suddenly dislodged birds scramble from
perches to avoid the technological monster that threatens their peace.
Blue herons gracefully soar, large legs parallel in flight; the white ibis and other less flamboyantly-coloured denizens as well as many of the smaller variety of alligators all flee. It reminds me vaguely of Margaret Atwood's poem, Cyclops in which she portrays the quiet, dark forest and its denizens, assaulted by a flashlight.
For years, I wanted to experience an Everglades
airboat tour; here I am on the eastern fringe near Parkland, Florida.
Captain Dave assures us that the big gators up to fifteen feet long like to hang out in denser, more remote areas - as long as there is an abundant food supply. We meander amidst a floating ecosystem, and for 50 minutes, our agile craft slices and dices, cruises and and carves out an easy passage amidst tall cattails and abundant Sawgrass. Flat-bottomed, the alligators require no protective helmets. Around since the dinosaurs, they have inhabited Florida's marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes for centuries, and are found in all 67 counties. With Florida's upward population growth and residents seeking waterfront homes and sport, there have been more frequent alligator-human interactions, and greater potential for conflict.
Our tour includes an informative historical and geological description of the Everglades. Once stopped, we take off our large plastic ear muffs and are instructed to view bubbles floating to the fresh water surface from decomposing matter below.
In this subtropical wilderness wetland, there are
hundreds of species of birds including Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Cormorant, Limpkin, Anhinga, Barn Swallow, American Kestrel Falcon, Red Shouldered Hawk, Mottled Duck, Purple Gallinule, Stilt, Tri-Colored Heron, Eastern Pheobe, Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Brown Pelican, Eastern Blue Bird, Roseate Spoonbill, Avocet and the Belted Kingfisher to name a few! We manage to tick off herons, ibis, osprey, vultures and even a snake bird during our exploration.
The Anhinga or snakebird lacks oils produced by other birds to repel water from feathers, so it dries its wet wings in the sun in order to fly with less effort. Unable to float, it swims with only the neck held above water, looking like a snake ready to strike.
The graceful Great Blue Heron was almost hunted to extinction in the 1920's for ladies' feathered hats; we watch one adroitly catch a fish with its quick sharp beak stabbing at the water. Impressive creatures, they enjoy a six foot wingspan and stand four feet tall!
Most of the region is covered in Sawgrass but there are also Red Mangrove trees, Black Mangroves, Bald Cypress trees, Gumbo Limbo, Royal Palm, Dwarf Cypress trees, the Brazilian Pepper, Spanish Moss, the Strangler Fig, Ferns, Spatterdock (yellow pond lily), tropical hardwood hammocks and various wildflowers to round out the flora.
Dave points out a Primrose willow tree - considered a good guy, for it's the species that gave us aspirin before it was synthesized. The bad guy is the Melaleuca tree imported from Australia to help drain the 'glades for farming and housing. It drinks up to 250 gallons a day and is hard to control. If burnt, it disperses hundreds of seeds.
Ear protectors replaced, we zoom off again, appearing to hover over dry land but actually it's a floating plant called water hyacinth, an exotic, not native to the Everglades, and another problem because it spreads quickly and chokes off the water. As Captain Dave zooms in and out, I wonder just how he finds his way with this boat.
The water system begins near Orlando with the Kissimmee River, which discharges into the vast but shallow Lake Okeechobee to gradually form a slow-moving river 60 miles (97 km) wide and over 100 miles (160 km) long, flowing southward across a limestone shelf to the southern end of the state. The amazingly adaptive Seminoles resided in the Everglades after being forced here by the U.S. military. I'm staggered by how they could prosper in this aqueous environment.
Soon, we surprisingly navigate our way back from where we had started. Loxahatchee Everglades Tours is easy to locate. We drove from West Palm Beach, taking I-95 south to Hillsboro Blvd. (west exit), drove west to the end and turned left on Loxahatchee Road. Look for fast moving bleachers!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
Churches & Synagogues: http://www.floridasmart.com/local/counties/broward/community_church.htm
Loxahatchee Everglades Tours: 15490 Loxahatchee Road, Parkland, FL 33076,
ph: 1.800.683.5873, http://www.evergladesairboattours.com/
Parkland, Florida: http://www.cityofparkland.org/
What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
Parkland, Florida Weather
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