Checking the tide tables, we knew we had until mid-day for high tide to paddle the nearby Nine Mile Pond canoe trail through the mangroves. So to make the most of our time in the morning, we drove to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to watch the park film and learn more about this section of the Everglades. We learned that Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Water is what defines the landscape, and only a few inches’ elevation difference can make one place a marsh and another place a tree island (called a “hammock”). I had always thought of the Everglades as a big swamp, but in fact it is a slow-moving “river of grass.”
After seeing the film and checking out the exhibits, we became enthused about sighting manatees, alligators and even crocodiles and set off to put in our kayaks at Nine Mile Pond. Once across the main pond, we looked for the markers that indicate the route and found them leading us through narrow, shallow mangrove channels. We got stuck a few times because the openings weren’t wide enough for us to wield our paddles to move forward. I also became worried about sharp edges of sawgrass cutting our inflatable craft. If it were this tricky at high tide, I didn’t think we could make it the whole nine miles with the tide going out.
We turned around and hoped we could find our way back. We spotted an alligator nearby and paddled a bit faster to get back to the main pond. There we saw another gator, and another. Despite the alligators I wasn’t ready to leave the water just yet, given the effort it takes to inflate the kayaks, assemble the paddles, and get ourselves ready to put in. I spied an opening in the mangrove and sawgrass leading to another pond and paddled in. Hector followed, and I saw an opening into another pond. Why not? Once inside, I moved along the north side and glanced over at the east bank.
That’s when I noticed, sitting on the bank near the shade of a tree, a huge beast of a reptile with a row of exposed teeth. My blood ran cold and I gasped, thinking, “This is no alligator — this is a crocodile!” I quickly paddled back to Hector, and he could tell by my frightened expression that something was afoot. When I told him I’d seen a big crocodile he thought I was exaggerating. We slowly paddled back so he could see it for himself, keeping our distance and looking at it through our binoculars. He gasped, too, and said, “Maybe we should call it a day.”
We were having such a good time on the water and hated to get back on land. But as we rowed out to the main pond and saw another alligator, we knew it was probably time to go. In the parking lot were a handful of devious crows watching us and poking around in the grass nearby while we waited for the kayaks to dry. One was devilishly fast, and the second I turned my back to put the paddles in the car, the bird had taken the kayak repair kit and extra valve out of its plastic bag and was hopping away with it. The thief! I yelled and got him to drop it, but we remained vigilant until we had everything packed up.
Thankfully, we didn’t have any damage to the car from black vultures. Signs in the park warn visitors about vulture damage on the rise, with the birds ripping into vinyl and rubber components of cars. We did see a few hanging about the marina and another pair picking apart a bag of clothes left outside the tent by fellow campers. I guess they’re more of a menace than the alligators and crocodiles.
Returning to the Flamingo Visitor Center, I asked the ranger whether there were crocodiles in Nine Mile Pond, and she replied, “Oh, yes, there’s a big one in there. You can tell by his teeth. You can also find them here in the marina, along with manatees.”
Manatees? Yippee! Of course we had to go looking for them. Sure enough, as a worker was hosing down one of the jetties where tour boats launch, a manatee appeared and began to lap up the water infused with gull poo from the jetty. A second manatee swam over and they both rolled around like fat sausages, their bulbous snouts and stubbly lips bobbing above the water’s surface. They were perfectly quiet and moved so slowly that we were captivated. These aquatic elephant cousins — nicknamed “sea cows” — are such gentle, pacific creatures. It’s a shame that so many are scarred and sometimes killed by boat propellers as they graze on seagrass and algae. We felt that being eaten alive by mosquitoes was a small price to pay for seeing manatees.
That is, until we got back to camp and were attacked anew. Hector looked like he had a bad case of chicken pox and felt facially disfigured. At one point he went out of the tent to get something from the car and came back with more than 20 new mosquito bites on his back. Eventually the welts subsided, but he was back to saying, “Everglades, Schmeverglades” and I was back to my mosquito-hunting mantra of “Did you get him? Did you get him?”
The following day we decided we simply could not face one more night of camping here, poisoning ourselves with DEET to no avail and living as prisoners in our tent from dusk to dawn. So we packed up a day early and stopped off one last time at the marina on our way out. We bid a fond farewell to the manatees and to this fascinating but torturous place.
But even though we were giving up on Flamingo, we weren’t giving up on the Everglades just yet. Up next in segment three: touring the Royal Palm area and Gulf Coast section.