EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. - Rolling along the sun-blazed strip of road, it's all glorious. The 81-degree breeze strokes the saw grass prairie for miles. A great blue heron stretches Jurassic wings before lurching into an infinite South Florida sky. In the bordering canal and hammocks, birds hunt, fish gather, and turtles watch their backs.
Then, a behemoth appears on the horizon - a big bull alligator easily 10 feet long and 3 feet across its lolling belly. Quite a sight when you're on a raised boardwalk, or on the tram that winds through this 15-mile loop at the park's Shark Valley area.
But I'm riding a sissy bike with a granny basket - that's the only kind they rent here - and I am afraid. The rangers told me to stay at least 10 feet from gators, but this beast is two feet into the 10-foot-wide road. The only way I can see escaping his jaws is to start pedaling as fast as I can.
I whiz by the gator. He doesn't care, not in the least, but my pounding heart still does. I stop in wonder, circle back, and stare.
Is this for real? Can I really get this close to a monster and live to tell about it?
I'd been anticipating this moment for seven years. I was last here in the dead of winter, when the Everglades dry out. Technically, the Everglades is not a swamp, but a river flowing southwest from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee, and humans have choked off that flow. During the dry season, December through March, you can practically walk across the wildlife in the lagoon on the Shark Valley Trail.
You can see three kinds of turtles (longnecks, red bellies, and Peninsula cooters) mingling with native gar, largemouth bass, and mosquito fish, plus invading oscars and tilapia. There are ibis, egrets, gallinules, anhinga, herons, and snakes.
They're all bait for the gators that laze and glide, laze and glide, occasionally shattering the peace with a ferocious lunge and a snap of the jaws.
Since my previous visit, when I took the tram, I've been attracted by the audacity of bike-riding the gator gauntlet. If teenagers and senior citizens could pay $7.25 an hour to cruise past capable man-eaters, so could I.
And now that I've shoved aside my fear, I find that these ominous, prehistoric-looking beasts couldn't care less.
"They're just sunning themselves, and if you don't do anything, they won't react," says Maria Thomson, a 10-year veteran park ranger at Shark Valley. "Actually, we are more worried about people harassing the wildlife than about wildlife attacking the people."
At the observation tower, whose wide spiral ramps conjure 1950s space-age design, I run into Kathleen Smith of Naples, who is leading a dozen or so friends on a bike ride.
They point out my rookie mistake: leaving a Snickers bar in a plastic bag tied to my bicycle basket. The crows made quick work of it - they are known to break into much sturdier containers for a meal. Not that I wasn't warned; park signs make it clear that you shouldn't leave food behind.
I also meet Pat Preu, a retiree from Sag Harbor, N.Y., now living on Marco Island, 66 miles to the west. She visits Shark Valley several times a year, never tiring of the drive across Route 41 (also known as the Tamiami Trail), the wildlife, and the gators.
"You just look out forever and see nothing but birds and grass and hammocks - it's just quite an amazing place," says Preu, 60. "The gators, they never cease to fascinate me, because they're just so primitive, and scary. . . . They spook me a little bit. It's like: 'Why am I doing this?' "
Only once since Shark Valley opened to tourists in 1966 has a gator attacked a human, but the story is enough to give an edge to every bike ride.
In July 1996, 7-year-old Alexandre Teixeira was on a family bike ride when he lost control of his bike. He fell into the canal and into the jaws of a 5- to 6-foot alligator, which clamped down on his chest. The boy's parents jumped into the water and pried him away from the gator. He escaped with a punctured lung and the horror story of a lifetime.
Because young children offer a more tempting meal for gators, I won't be bringing my kids here until they're at least 12. They'll have to be happy with the tram ride.
As for adults, alligators want no part of us.
Looming 5 or more feet above them, humans "are humongous to an alligator," says Valerie Velella, a naturalist who leads Shark Valley tram tours for the private company that also runs the bike rental. "You look like T. rex to an alligator."
But gators will lose their fear, and possibly attack, when people feed them. That's often the reason behind gator attacks in populated areas, park ranger Thomson says. That doesn't generally happen in Shark Valley, though ambitious tourists who hike off the Gator Hole trail near the observation tower often find gators blocking their return, prompting cell-phone calls to the ranger station.
Then there are visitors who lack commmon sense.
"People are crazy," says Velella, who tells tales of tourists kicking gators to get them to move or putting their kids next to the beasts for a photo op.
Stay away from a mother gator with babies. I came within 10 feet of one family - an amazing experience, but probably too close. And know that an open-mouthed hiss means Mommy is going to get you if you come any closer. Velella says she's seen a mother alligator jump out of the water, trying to grab a great blue heron, which prey on the babies.
Gators aren't the only intimidating reptiles to keep an eye out for. Burmese pythons are new to the Everglades, brought here by pet owners once they figure out that owning a snake that grows to 20 feet and 250 pounds is a bad idea.
As of mid-December, 349 pythons had been removed from the park last year, a fraction of the estimated tens of thousands, the National Park Service reported. Yet I never saw a python, and sightings are rare.
Pythons are considered enough of a threat to wildlife that the Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last year began issuing permits to hunt pythons in and outside of the park.
You may have seen the 2005 photo of a 13-foot python that exploded trying to digest a 6-foot gator; it was taken within two miles of the Shark Valley observation tower.
The park's wildlife seems to be thinning, Thomson says, but it's difficult to know whether the pythons are responsible.
For a visitor like me, however, there's no shortage of wildlife and wonder.
"The Everglades has magic that touches different people at different times," Thomson said. "That's one of the beauties of the Everglades - you can come as many times as you want, and every time it's going to be different."
Beauty might be enough. But a dash of fear makes it unforgettable.
Exploring the Everglades
The Everglades is the country's third largest national park, at 2,500 square miles, and has four visitor stations that offer distinctive experiences. November through May are the best months to see wildlife, when the park is dry and animals congregate in wet areas. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/ever or call 305-242-7700.
Shark Valley is about midway between the two coasts. From the east coast, it's 41 miles from Miami and 64 miles from Fort Lauderdale. From the west coast, it's 43 miles to Everglades City and 71 miles from Naples.
Shark Valley offers a tour by tram ($17.25 for adults; $16.25 seniors 62 and over; $10.75 children 3-12) or bicycle ($7.25/hour), with great access to wildlife. First tram tour is 9 a.m. (reservations recommended). Bicycle rental starts at 8:30 a.m., last one is 3 p.m., first come, first served. Get there early for the best experience. Admission to the park is $10 per car. For more information, go to www.sharkvalleytramtours.com or call 305-221-8455.
Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead, south of Miami, offers extensive walkways over the wetlands. Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City gets you into old Florida and is a great entry point for canoeing. Flamingo Visitor Center is for those who want to get deep into the outdoors. It's 38 miles from the park entrance, with a public boat ramp and a campground.
American, United, and US Airways fly nonstop to Miami from Philadelphia; the lowest recent round-trip fares were about $178. Southwest, United, and US Airways fly nonstop to Fort Myers; the lowest recent fare was about $184.
Places to Eat
Nearby, the fare is humble, with Coopertown Airboat Rides (305-226-6048) featuring a restaurant with down-home Everglades food. One guide likes the Miccosukee Resort, where the buffet at Cafe Hammock offers lots of good food for little money, 25 minutes east of the visitor center along Route 41. If you want to embrace the variety of South Florida culture, keep driving east on Route 41 (Tamiami Trail), which will take you into the heart of Cuban Miami. Stop at Versailles, at 3555 S.W. 8th St., where Cuban refugees go for great Cuban food at reasonable prices. Try the boliche, or Cuban pot roast.
On the west coast, dive right into Old Florida in Everglades City. Stop at the famous Rod and Gun Club or the Everglades Seafood Depot for fried gator and frog legs. Locals like City Seafood's outdoor picnic table and laid-back atmosphere.
Places to Stay
East coast: There are plenty of hotels from Miami-Dade (www.miamiandbeaches.com) to the Fort Lauderdale area (www.sunny.org), all within 75 minutes of the Everglades. Homestead and Florida City are closer to the park but are dominated by through roads. We ended up at the W Hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach, but if you don't want to spend $389 a night, try Comfort Suites at 3901 S.W. 117th Ave., Miami, (305-220-3901, www.comfortsuitesmiami.com). This will provide easy access, but not much in the way of immediate surroundings.
West coast: If you want luxury, Naples and Marco Islands are your best bets (www.paradisecoast.com). Everglades City will be closer to an Everglades experience, though the lodging reviews are mixed. More good reviews than bad for the affordable Everglades City Motel, 310 Collier Ave. (239-695-4224, www.evergladescitymotel.com).
- Jeff Shields
Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or email@example.com.