Friday, December 19, 2014

Full throttle in the Glades

Airboats have their adversaries, but they're a thrilling way to see the wild beauty of Florida's "River of Grass."

EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. - We are careening over tea-colored waters in a turbocharged airboat, whizzing past gnarled mangrove trees at speeds reaching 50 m.p.h., when suddenly, an alligator pops up in front of us.

Our guide, Aaron, whoops and cuts the engine, as the gator swims frantically to get out of our path. I remove my sound-muffling headgear and snap my photos with the other tourists, but my sympathies lie with the reptile. We came to the Everglades to see gators, sure - but should we really be chasing them down?

The line between loving and hurting nature seems to be a fine one on the southwestern edge of the vast swamp and grasslands known as the Everglades.

My fiance, Don, and I have come here specifically to ride an airboat - a flat-bottomed vessel able to cut through shallow waters and fly over marsh grasses at high speeds and decibel levels. It's the aquatic version of an off-road vehicle, with similar testosterone appeal: Imagine a couple of floating benches attached to a 400-horsepower propeller (jammed into a cage on the back), and you'll understand why swamp dwellers love their airboats.

Airboat operators are still easy to find in this part of the Sunshine State. As we head south on U.S. 41, through the upscale zip codes of Naples and Marco Island, the strip-mall-lined highway narrows to a two-lane road dotted with billboards advertising speedboat captains and gator farms.

This is the start of the Tamiami Trail, which bisects southern Florida. It's a peaceful drive, with sawgrass vistas and hawks spiraling lazily in the air. Nothing between here and Miami except the "River of Grass."

That's the name given to the Everglades, a freshwater marshland that extends from Lake Okeechobee to the state's southern tip. About 1.5 million acres are protected as Everglades National Park (an additonal 720,000 acres make up the Big Cypress National Preserve), and are teeming with wildlife.

A flock of turkey vultures, scouting for roadkill, greets us as we pull into Everglades City. The town is one of four gateways to the national park; the other three are accessible from the eastern side of the state.

We ignore the carrion-loving creatures and head for the Visitor Center, only to find out that airboats are barred from the park.

OK, then. We still have several boating options, because a 99-mile Wilderness Waterway through the park connects Everglades City in the north with the town of Flamingo in the south. If we had nine days, we could rent canoes and paddle our way through the swamp, camping on remote beaches. A motorized boat could make a one-way trip in seven hours.

Since our time is limited, we sign up for a more mellow, ecologically based 90-minute boat trip into the park's mangrove swamp. We climb into a six-person, shallow-draft boat; because the Everglades are essentially marshland, craft with bigger motors and deeper drafts are impracticable.

Our guide, Capt. Dave, is a former airboat driver - we can tell that he misses his old rig. While he dutifully points out brown pelicans and herons, he has obvious disdain for his boat's limitations (as we almost get stuck in a particularly shallow area).

He perks up when we float by Plantation Island, an edge-of-the-swamp outpost where southwest Florida real-estate prices are quickly changing the community.

There's no question about Dave's stance on gentrification. Disgust dripping from his voice, he rails against the "new folk" who spend $1.5 million for dilapidated fishing camps, only to tear them down and replace them with sprawling "Florida-style" homes.

These same people, he sneers, are trying to put limitations on airboats, reducing the hours that the noisy boats can be used. Wealthy snowbirds are a powerful lobby in this state; last year, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring all airboats to have mufflers (and where's the fun in that?)

As our boat meanders farther into the murky swamp, we appreciate the quiet. Back here, the mangroves have grown together to form a low-hanging canopy, muffling most of the noise from the outside world.

Dave tells us that the American Indians who settled in the Everglades (mostly Seminoles) called mangroves "walking trees," for their tendency to expand through their massive, twisty roots.

A fellow passenger gives a shout. He has spotted a small black crab scuttling up a mangrove branch. As we pull over to examine the little guy, Dave tells us that mangroves are a crucial protective environment for numerous species of fish, crustaceans and birds.

And so the trip goes. We disembark 90 minutes later, better informed, yet unsatisfied. Earlier that morning, we watched dolphins cavorting off Sanibel Island; tree crabs are slightly anticlimatic.

Over an excellent fried-seafood lunch at the Everglades City Seafood Depot, we decided to do the ecologically incorrect thing and patronize one of the airboat establishments that make trips into the marsh surrounding the national park.

At Speedy Johnson's Airboats, a baby alligator kept in a cage announces that this place is built for tourists, not naturalists. We climb into an airboat with another couple who, we discover, hail from Deptford.

Our guide is Aaron, a self-described fourth-generation Floridian wearing a Jesus T-shirt. As we pull out - the boat sounding like an amplified chorus of 100 lawn mowers - he points out a pretty white ibis.

"Very tasty, too," he continues. "But it will cost you."

Aaron explains that he and his friends wait until the day before a hurricane, when law-enforcement officers are engaged elsewhere, before bagging the protected bird.

Hmmm. Don and I exchange glances. But there's no time to engage in a philosophical discussion on poaching, because Aaron has cranked the airboat into top gear, and we start flying.

Riding in an airboat as it knifes through the marsh at top speed is an exhilarating experience; in the hands of an expert operator, it's essentially a motorcycle on the water, capable of clever tricks and quick turns. Aaron pulls the boat into a skid, and the wake spills over us with a splash, causing us to shout excitedly.

The boat's ability to fly through marshland means you can get closer to the wildlife. We come within a stone's throw of a six-foot alligator sunning itself on a grassy area, seemingly oblivious to the boat's noise.

Aaron eyes the gator's tail and announces that he could get $200 from selling just that part of the animal. By now, we've deduced that Aaron isn't always using his airboat to lead tours.

He redeems himself slightly, however, when he points the airboat up a tiny mangrove channel that seems untouched by other water vehicles. We emerge onto a glistening lake, where mullet leap from the sparkling waters.

"I'm not supposed to take y'all here," Aaron confides. "But it's my favorite fishing hole."

Aaron can't be older than 25, but he tells stories like a swamp pro, spinning tales of swimming with manatees and gigging frogs with his grandfather. We listen to his tales as we watch pelicans dive for fish, enjoying an up-close-and-personal view of nature that we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

I leave here conflicted. As a frequent visitor to southwest Florida (and the daughter of snowbirds who have adopted the area's islands as home), I support and appreciate the steps that the state has taken to protect the Everglades.

Yet I learned more about how this part of Florida lives in my hour with Aaron than I did on the official tour. Here, airboats serve a clear purpose for recreation and livelihood. For that reason, I would hate to see them disappear.

But maybe they could ease up on the gator chasing.


Exploring the Everglades

United and US Airways fly nonstop from Philadelphia International Airport to Fort Myers. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $183. Those airlines and American also fly nonstop to Miami; the lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $186.

Places to stay

Ivey House Bed & Breakfast

107 Camellia St.,

Everglades City

239-695-3299

www.iveyhouse.com

Open Oct. 1 through May, with several types of accommodations. Regular rates from $50 to $140.

Everglades Spa-fari & Lodge

201 W. Broadway, Everglades City

239-695-3151

www.spa-fari.com

Housed in a 1923 bank building. Winter rates from $110.

Place to eat

Everglades City Seafood Depot

102 Collier Ave.,

Everglades City

239-695-0075

Serves all kinds of seafood any way you'd like it.

Things to do

Boat tours of the mangrove swamp (105 minutes, $35) and the Ten Thousand Islands ($26.50) are available at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in winter, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in summer. 815 Oyster Bar Lane. 239-695-3311.

Speedy Johnson's Airboat Rides. Tours cost $37.50 for adults, $22.50 for children ages 3 to 10 (younger children are free). Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Discount coupons available at www.speedyjohnsons.com

or by calling 239-695-4448.

The Museum of the Everglades. This small museum, at 105 W. Broadway, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A $2 donation is suggested. For more information, call 239-695-0008 or go to www.colliermuseum.com.

Everglades City holds a Seafood Festival Weekend every year. This year's festivities are scheduled for Feb. 2 and 3.

More information

National Park Service

www.nps.gov/ever

- Chris Gray


Contact staff writer Chris Gray at 215-854-2437 or cgray@phillynews.com.
Chris Gray Inquirer Staff Writer
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