Navigating the wild, wonderful (and a little bit weird) national park that’s made out of water.
Just a few hours into my exploration of the Everglades, and already my sense of time seems to be warping. Maybe it's the primordial beauty of the place—a dinosaur wouldn't look entirely out of place here, sloshing through the wet prairies. Maybe the British couple I met the night before, inside a small twangy barroom with a giant stuffed alligator in command of one corner, contributed to this time-warp spell: They were girding themselves for a road trip through the park with the giddy trepidation of 19th-century explorers embarking upon an expedition, anticipating not the highlights we associate with modern leisure travel—hot restaurants, hotel spa treatments, luxurious Instagram moments—but the wildlife, the exotic heat, the immersion into a gorgeously alien landscape.
Or maybe it's just the laggardly course I've plotted through this corner of one of the nation's biggest and most sublime national parks. The Everglades move slowly—it's not technically a swamp but rather an incredibly wide, incredibly sluggish river—so I thought I should do likewise. This means planting myself in a kayak and an old-timey pole boat and meandering, as the water itself does, through that tangled hinterland of mangroves, cypress, and sawgrass.
The Everglades, it seems to me, is best viewed from two vantages: from way up in an airplane (or, failing that, Google Earth), to see just how vast and sparsely peopled it is, and then up close, from the water, to see how lush and complex it is. From both vantages, the scale is mind-boggling. At 1.5 million acres, the designated wilderness area inside the Everglades National Park (established in 1947) comprises the largest protected stand of wilderness east of the Mississippi. Some 360 species of birds call the Everglades home, at least part of the year, as well as more than 50 species of reptiles. Of the resident Everglades species, 30 are endangered or threatened, including the Florida panther and West Indian manatee. On the flora side: 39 species of orchids, for one thing, and each one of them capable of leaving breathless even a flower-immune guy like me. The deeper and slower the gaze, I'm finding, the deeper and more vivid are this teeming soup's rewards.
The first day's expedition comes through Everglades Adventures, an eco-tour provider that operates out of the Ivey House Bed & Breakfast, where I'm staying in Everglades City. Everglades City sits at the northwest corner of the 'glades, but with a population of 402 (403 during my stay), the urban affectations of its name are a bit misleading. (If you need toothpaste after 5 p.m., for instance, and the Circle K is sold out, your only options are to drive an hour north to Naples or go without.) The Ivey House, like the town itself, confers an Old Florida feel, a down-home vibe marked by plastic ferns, gator kitsch, pine lattice, and checkered tablecloths. It has fish-camp charm.
We slip our 14-foot kayaks into the water at the Turner River access—me, a young German couple touring the States, and our guide, D.J., a nature writer who divides his time between the Everglades and North Carolina's Outer Banks. The word "river," in this case, might strike a visitor as being as misleading as the word "city" in Everglades City is—the kayak trail is often so narrow through the vegetation that paddling is impossible, forcing one to propel the boat by pulling branch to branch, the way monkeys swing through trees. We ease through stands of moss-draped cypress trees, their knobby knees snorkeling up from the water, and within minutes encounter our first alligator—a little guy basking on a branch. Gators are the mascots of the "glades, and the wildlife most travelers want to see—or avoid. "Just last week I had two Swiss girls back out of a tour at the last minute," D.J. tells me. "They were too afraid of the gators. They'd spent the night before worrying one another to death about them. You'd be surprised how often that happens. People get to the water's edge and just can't go through with it."
The threat posed by alligators is way overblown, but there is an intimidation factor the deeper you drift into the Everglades: One trembles at the thought of getting lost in this infinite water maze. It's like nature's circuit board in there, its overpowering intricacy tinged with the menace of disorientation and disappearance. If that sounds negative, it's not: It's thrilling. This is nature with the volume cranked to 11.
The prospects of disappearance have been part of the Everglades' allure stretching way back. Outlaws, for instance, found it an ideal place to vanish. The most notorious of these was named Edgar Watson, and his story can be readily absorbed at the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island. Watson, who was hiding out from an Oklahoma murder charge, was a sugar-cane planter with a nasty habit of killing his workers rather than paying them; in 1910, he was gunned down beside the Smallwood Store by a crowd of vigilantes. The store is a homemade museum now, filled with animal hides and dusty medical remedies and nail kegs and canned food, and it's a lavish spot for soaking up the area's weird history. Gary McMillin, a retired stone crabber who married into the Smallwood family, is the hearty bearded fellow behind the counter, and he's everything you could want in a raconteur. So much so, in fact, that here I experience another variety of time warp: The quick visit I'd intended, I discover upon leaving, stretched three hours.
Edgar Watson, and the men who shot him, would've navigated the swamps in pole boats—flat skiffs that one pilots by standing at the stern and poling the boat through the shallow water with a long cypress staff. An outfitter called Everglades Adventure Tours sets me up with this experience, reminiscent of a gondola tour through Venice—but through the intense snarls of the "glades. "The Gladesmen culture is still very much alive here," my guide, Tommy Owen, tells me as we glide beneath a canopy elaborately festooned with lichens and orchids and air plants, alligator eyes submerging as we slip by.
Later that day, Owen hooks me up with a kayak, and, armed with a fly-fishing rod, I take off, solo, in search of some snook. I follow an inlet off a bayou, casting in that slow water as I ease my way upstream. Everything around me feels ornately alive, the screech of my reel as a snook strikes the fly just one more screech in this seething landscape. As the sun goes slinking downward it casts an amber glow on the sawgrass prairies, so thoroughly distracting me that I fail to notice a tremendous alligator I'm about to paddle into. Without a sound the gator sinks into the darkening water, the ripples of its presence still visible as my kayak skims over it.
Not quite unnerved, but with a tousled mind, I paddle a bit farther, then pull over to the bayou's edge, where water laps the grass or the grass laps the water. I sit there for a spell, surveying the golden sawgrass and the cypress stands in the distance, and for a moment my mind seizes upon what it must have been like for those early settlers, in Watson's days and before, to have surveyed this same liquefied, exotic landscape. Then, just as fast, I find myself wondering what its fate might've been without the park's protection. But these thoughts dissolve as dusk begins purpling the view. After a while, there is no past or future in that view. There's only, as in me, the fluid present.
There are three ways to approach this vast park by car—this journey was via the Gulf Coast entrance in Everglades City. Explore Royal Palm and Flamingo areas via the main entrance in Homestead, and find the Shark Valley entrance in Miami; nps.gov/ever.
With Old Florida charm and an in-house adventure out-fitter, Ivey House is the perfect base camp for exploration. Choose rooms in the modern inn or the historic lodge, or book the private cottage or three-bedroom house. Rates start at $89; 877-567-0679 or iveyhouse.com.
Grab a slice of history (along with fried catch and cold beer) at the Everglades Rod & Gun Club. Its broad porch and paneled rooms have hosted presidents, Ernest Hemingway, and countless sportsmen; 239-695-2101 or everglades-rodandgunclub.com.
Everglades Adventures at the Ivey House offers guided kayak and airboat excursions; 877-567-0679 or everglades adventures.com. Get a Gladesmen-style pole-boat tour with Everglades Adventure Tours; 800-504-6554 or evergladesadventuretours.net.