Padding the Everglades-Catch the flip of a gator’s tail

The sight of an alligator several feet off the bow of your canoe is enough to get anyone’s blood racing. Whether you find it exhilarating or frightening will likely be determined by the size of the gator and what it does next. If it’s sunning itself on a bank, alarm will quickly turn to wonder, as your eyes meet and you hold the gaze of a creature that few million years. Catching the lightning-fast flip of a gator’s tail and a splash of water as it dives out of view can be a little more unsettling, however. Still, you’re in the Everglades after all, and it’s moments like this that drew you here.

The Everglades, on the southern tip of Florida, is an expanse of saw grass prairies, mangrove swamps, pinelands, coastal islands, and marine environments. It’s both temperate and tropical, with a complex mix of fragile ecosystems found in a labyrinth of freshwater lakes and rivers, saltwater coastline, and brackish swamps. It’s not a region bursting with breathtaking grandeur, majestic landforms and photogenic panoramas, but rather one with an understated and enduring beauty. In part, it’s the lack of obvious individual scenic wonders that makes a trip here so rewarding. To really appreciate just how unique the Everglades is, you need to think in terms of days rather than hours, to arrive knowing that there will be no instant gratification. And if you really want to know this languid land, you’ll need a canoe and arms ready to row.

The reserve is the flattest area in the United States, over a million acres where the landscape never exceeds 8ft above sea level, with a gradient of just an inch or two per mile and water that may only travel 100ft in a day – a paddler’s paradise, to be sure. On multi-day loop trips you can explore mangrove swamps, grassy inlets and coastal islands and glimpse wildlife found nowhere else in North America. Some of the large wading birds at home in the Everglades include the roseate spoonbill, great blue heron, wood stork, and egrets. West Indian manatees, bottle-nosed dolphins, and even bull sharks can be seen in the deeper coastal waters. American crocodiles live here too, but are found only in the southern Flamingo area of the park; you can expect to see alligators throughout the Everglades, however. One Everglades species you’re not like likely to see is the Florida panther, one of the rarest mammals on the planet, with less than fifty currently living in the wild.

The ultimate Everglades adventure can be had along the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile route that connects Everglades City on the Gulf side with Flamingo on the south. Departing from the park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you’ll follow a chain of bays, rivers, channels, and open water that lead past white-sand fantasy islands, saw grass  prairies, mangrove forests, and even conifer woodlands. Numbered markers guide you through narrow channels made into tunnels with overhanging vegetation. Through quiet inland stretches the water is normally shallow enough for you to touch the bottom with your paddle, and even in the open water you can see the sandy bottom. Allow at least eight days for the trip in either direction, and remember that you’ll need to carry all of your water with you, at least a gallon per person per day. Don’t plan too many miles per day, know your limits, and remember that even in winter the sun can take its toll on you. Expect to be hot, tired, and sweaty at the end of the day.

If the prevailing wind, tides, and weather has worked in your favour, you’ll arrive at the park’s Flamingo Visitor Center eight or nine days after your put-in. Your skin will be encrusted with salt, pricked with mosquitoes, and roughed and reddened by hours in the sun and wind. You will have witnessed the delicate balance of life unfolding daily, but like everything in the Everglades, changes are subtle and often imperceptible. What will be noticeable, however, is that a shower is long overdue- hopefully you’ve rationed your water so you can wash up a bit before catching a shuttle back.