I landed in Ft. Lauderdale on a Saturday evening, and I spent Sunday cruising the coast as the clouds gathered. Late that afternoon my daughter Sheba joined me for her "mental health break." The next day was warm and sunny as we headed down
to the original Tamiami Trail for an airboat ride in the Everglades.
I had spent a few hours online trying to find an airboat experience that would be the memory of a lifetime. Most of the businesses offering rides would put two or three dozen riders on a huge flat-bottom boat and spend thirty minutes out on the grass. Then they would bring us back to their reptile petting zoo and a show with a man wrestling an alligator. It sounded awful.
But I found a site for a business that apparently was staffed by a local airboat owners' club, each owner a licensed captain. They matched us with a man who owned a small boat that zipped through the grass and would fit into tight spots. This two-hour tour (¯ two-hour tour ¯) wasn't cheap by any means, but it was worth every penny.
Our captain Robert took us out on a ramp in Coopertown (population: 0008, according to the sign) and zipped through a lane in tall sawgrass. He stopped for a moment later in the ride to show us the grass. About four feet high, if you pinch and zip up the blade it's slippery; if you pinch and zip down, however, it has thousands of little teeth and you'll get a paper cut the likes of which would be memorable. Keep this in mind for a story you'll hear later.
The water had been siphoned off recently for some unnamed need in a nearby municipality, so it was only six inches deep. That was deep enough to glide through, although water level was usually twelve to twenty-four inches. The muck beneath the water was anywhere from six to twelve inches deeper, as Robert demonstrated with his long boat hook.
This is the "river of grass," as the word Everglades means. As you look out over the sawgrass, anything that emerges above the horizon is an island. They form wherever debris stops and collects. Seeds from birds and wind take root, and eventually an island forms. On one of these tiny islands is a cabin built in 1920; it's still in use today, but you can reach it only on an airboat.
The animals knew for the most part to stay off the lanes that the boats followed. Some alligators still chose to sun on the edges.
We're still trying to undo the damage created by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the early 20th century, when they wanted to use the water for human consumption. So little of the Everglades is left. But canals created by the Corps still crisscross the 'glades.
It's common to find alligators sunning on the warm side of the canals. Apparently they need the heat to digest their food.
Robert has been on the Everglades all his life. He knew the places to find the wildlife, and some of them came to know him. He stopped at a place on a canal and rattled the wrapper of some peanut butter crackers. Out stepped three Purple Gallinules, who jumped up on his cooler for a treat. One of them was trusting enough to step on his hand.
My pictures don't do justice to this bird that looks like a technicolor coot. I nabbed this image from Wikipedia.
Further down the canal, Robert knew where to find a mother alligator (ten years old, eight feet long, he says) that also likes peanut butter crackers. He rattled that plastic wrapper again and she came out from the sawgrass for her treat. You can't see them here, but her two broods were wandering and beeping in the short grass near her. Apparently baby gators stay with mom for two years, and she had two broods six months and eighteen months old with her.
This gallinule was a pretty cool customer trotting amongst the baby gators.
On the way out and back we saw egrets, herons and other birds roosting and taking flight. This is a white egret.
The next time you watch "CSI: Miami," take note of the scene in the opening credits where the egrets fly up from the sawgrass into the sunrise. The camera that took that shot was on Robert's boat.
And if you watch that idiot show "Jackass," Robert and his airboat club were involved in one of the stunts. They dressed a couple of guys in leopard speedos and—well, let me tell it like Robert did: "We drug 'em on skis threw th' sawgrass, poured rubbin' alcohol on 'em, and watched 'em dance like fahr ants!"
I told that story to Ben and a friend, and his friend said, "I'd do it."