By Vickie Kelber
A few months ago I wrote about some of the treasures right in our own backyard and mentioned Shark Valley, the northern part of the Everglades National Park, located on Route 41 east. I’ve visited it at different times of the year; in the fall, after rainy season, you can see and truly appreciate what is meant by “river of grass”. I’ve walked the road at Shark Valley for a mile or so and also taken the tram tour.
Recently, a friend and I packed our bikes and plenty of water to embark on the 15 mile bike trip in the park. We left at 8:30AM in order to arrive by 10:00; during season the parking lot often fills to capacity. I’m not sure what I was thinking when we planned the trip; until last December, when I received a bike for Christmas, I hadn’t been on one in about 30 years. Since December, my longest trip had been to return books at the Marco library.
It is 7 miles out to the observation tower in Shark Valley and 8 miles back on the circular road. My friend assured me that the second half of the trip was all downhill. HA! Florida hills!
We had progressed only a short way on our journey when a volunteer stopped us to remind us that there was no drinking water source beyond that point but restrooms were available at the tower. He also suggested that if we had any food, even if it was concealed in a pack, to take it with us at the tower rather than leaving it with our bikes as the crows love to steal food and have even been seen opening zippers on insulated bags.
The first few miles of the trip follows along water and this is where the most wildlife is seen. There were turtles, anhingas with wings spread to dry, ibis, herons, red billed morehens, and purple gallinules. An opportunity to see these beautiful birds with their iridescent purple and blue feathers and clownishly large yellow feet was worth the trip. Who needs to travel to the jungles of Central America when you have these in your backyard?
A long section of the water was covered in lily pads just about ready to burst into full bloom. We wondered aloud whether the presence of these plants was a good or bad sign for the health of the water. We know that they help filter water and provide oxygen, but weren’t sure of the significance of so many. One thing for sure, though, is that they provide food for the gallinules. We watched one struggle with a large bud, balancing and throwing it in the air before gobbling it down.
We passed numerous large alligators, none of them, fortunately, trying to cross the road as I’ve witnessed before. There were a few babies here and there and then we came upon what looked to be a recently hatched nest with dozens of hatchlings. I’d never seen so many, all of them entwined with one another. They sport yellow bands which they will keep for 3 to 4 years; it helps them blend into the grasses. Their mother was off to the side, probably trying to get some rest! Alligators and crocodiles are the only reptiles that tend their young. Others such as turtles and lizards lay their eggs and when the young hatch, they must fend for themselves.
Alligator mothers are very protective and stay near for up to two years. Beyond the nest, we encountered some other babies and wondered where their Mom was. A loud bellow announced that she was rapidly making her way through the water to them; we hopped on our bikes and were out of there.
Finally, we arrived at the tower. The sidewalk to it was clear; when I’ve been there before, there have been alligators sprawled across and alongside it. There is a ramp to the top of the tower from which there is a long view over the sawgrass marsh. Alligators, turtles, and birds occupy the water below. There is no place to picnic at the tower and the only seating is strategically located by the restrooms; certainly open food is not encouraged here among all the wildlife.
OK, we thought, 7 miles down and 8 to go. Miles 8 and 9 weren’t bad, but by 10 the heat was building and the sun was strong so we stopped at every mile marker to rest and hydrate. There is not as much to see on the second part of this journey. There is a section called “the beach” with water located behind some tall grasses. Although we could see many birds sunning themselves beachside, the tram had made a stop there and the area was full of tourists, not to mention possible lurking alligators, so we biked on.
In the years that I have been going to Shark Valley, this is the dryest I have seen it. We passed only two alligators, hunkered down in drainage ditches that now were only puddles. The landscape was beautiful. No river of grass, but reds and yellows of the dry grass shimmering under the azure sky.
Near the end of our journey, some people were stopped on the side of the road and alerted us to more gator hatchlings. But, the end of the road was in sight and, by that time, we were feeling blasé.
There is a small store adjacent to the parking lot that sells snacks and there is also a soda machine. We searched high and low for frozen margaritas as a reward for surviving the trip, but, alas, there were none. One disappointment in an otherwise spectacular day enjoying our own backyard.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.