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In Search of the Manatee: Florida Without Disney

Even skipping Disney World, there's plenty to see and do in Florida.

I've never harbored a burning desire to visit Florida. But given the opportunity, yeah, sure, I'd go there!

So I did a little reading in preparation and came to some conclusions. Number One, keep me away from Orlando and Miami! Other than that, I wanted to see manatees in the wild, and I wanted to see the Everglades. I had a plane ticket to Tallahassee and seven full days to see the sights.

Wish #1 was granted within hours of my stepping off the red-eye from California. My husband, who had been working all over the state of Florida for the past 30 days, greeted me. I was a little worse for the wear with only two or three hours of sleep under my belt--yet game enough to hop in the passenger side of the rental car and begin our trek down the Gulf side of this incredibly flat state.

I've spent all of my life in the west, and most of it in the mountains to boot. So the remarkable flatness of Florida made an overwhelming impression. The highest point in the state is only 345 feet! And later on in the Everglades we drove over Rock Ridge Pass, Elevation 3 Feet. I took a picture of the sign for future laughs.

But that first day, it was flat, and the Spanish moss hung appealingly from the large oak trees around Tallahassee. I'd never before been to the South or the Southeast. We pulled into a roadside stand for some boiled peanuts, warm and filling. (Sad to say, it was late February and we were on the tail end of a cold snap, so the warm goobers were appreciated.) We were "sired" and "ma'amed" everywhere we went. How different from California!

As we are wont to do, we ventured off the main highway here and there. We saw a thin gray squiggle on the map leading to a place called Keaton Beach, and took it. Here, I got my first inkling that this is a very water-oriented state. The homes in the quiet town are built on pilings along canals, and everyone owns a boat. There is a small sandy beach--not all that common on the Gulf of Mexico side, it seems--a rock breakwater, and a hot dog stand. But this was definitely not "the season" in Keaton Beach. We sat in the late winter sun and saw only a couple pulled up in an RV and a family out from the city for the day.

I'm not a super adventurous traveler, but I like to see a few places and do a few things. It makes me more aware of my own place on the globe. I've been on the western edge of the Gulf in Tampico and Veracruz, Mexico, and on the southern edge on the top of the Yucatan Peninsula. Now this view from the eastern edge of the Gulf on the west coast of Florida seemed to complete the circle begun 25 years ago.

Huge Shapeless Blobs

On to the manatees. Though the human population of Florida is encroaching, Florida is full of state parks. Manatee Springs State Park is one of the places where the large endangered mammals congregate in the warmer spring waters in the winter months. The rest of the year, they are dispersed in the ocean and not so easy to see.

This park is centered around one of the fresh water springs that dot the northern state. (Check out the March 1999 issue of National Geographic.) The clear water makes for good swimming when the weather is warm, but swimmers must evacuate if manatees show up. No humans or any other mammals were to be seen in the water this cool late afternoon, however.

But it was a pretty place, good for a picnic or to rent a canoe and tool around the swampy waters, if we'd had more time. We cruised the elevated boardwalk that led out to the Suwannee River, enjoying the bird and plant life. On the river overlook we watched the day come to a close.

And then, what should appear just below the surface but some large shapeless moving forms. Soon the big nostrils poked up above the surface of the murky river water, and we had an official sighting!

The group of manatees slowly made their way up toward the spring. We followed them along the boardwalk as the sun dipped to the horizon. The clearing water revealed these mellow social creatures in all their glory.

Along the Gulf Coast

We spent two nights unwinding in quiet Cedar Key, another Gulf side town. This once was a major fishing town but now seems to cater to tourists. Not the bawdy type, though--this is a place for fishing and boating and relaxing. The Gulf Side Motel was the bargain of the trip at $48 a night (higher "in season".) What is a "kitchenette" in the west is an "efficiency" in Florida, and we had one of those. Also a little patch of sandy beach and a fishing dock right outside our door.

It was just too nice to leave, so we stayed the next day and rented a boat ($10/hr) to explore the other nearby keys. One had been the site of an Army supply depot during the Seminole Indian Wars and has a turn-of-the-century cemetery. Another was a former quarantine station for a cholera epidemic following the Civil War.

The food was good at Annie's Cafe. I had a scrumptious grilled grouper sandwich. My husband had the full meal including pork chop and steamed cabbage. When the pork chop arrived deep fried and coated with an inch thick batter, I knew we weren't in California anymore!

More Manatees

Hommosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is crowded in contrast to the serenity of Manatee Springs but still worth the visit. Admission is $7.95, with AAA and AARP discounts available. Visitors are loaded onto boats and shuttled through the swamp to this zoo-like refuge. Here is where injured animals, manatees in particular, are rehabilitated before returning them to the wild if possible. Friendly manatees, it turns out, are frequently injured by boats.

There is a good selection of native birds and reptiles, also a few zoo expatriates such as a hippo--and a variety of shows throughout the day that highlight the assorted animals. But the big draw is the glass-fronted underwater manatee viewing area. Here, you can get up close and personal with these thousand pound creatures. They seem to delight in flaunting themselves so close that you can see the individual hairs on their slick backs.

This particular day it seems one manatee was due a doctor's visit. As we approached the manatee area along the mile long loop trail, we thought that some construction must be in progress. But no, the huge crane was for manatee lifting purposes only!

We peered through the crowd to see a manatee calmly resting on the ground on a thick foam pad. A crowd of vets and scientists poked and prodded while a National Geographic crew filmed the action. When it was all over, the creature was wrapped up in a tarp and hoisted by crane back into the water.

This park has another viewing platform on the edge of the nearby river. Here, outside the confines of the enclosures, we were pleased to see another large group of cavorting manatees. On the other hand, it was distressing. I guess we're a bit naive. A number of fishing boats lingered within a few yards of the animals, and a group of wet-suited snorkelers were on a "swim with the manatees" tour.

Spongearama

Tarpon Springs, on the Gulf a few miles off of Highway 19, has a claim to fame: "The Sponge Capital of the World". And they're not kidding. The main street is lined with little shops selling natural sponges of infinite shape and size that are harvested out in the Gulf waters. The Spongearama houses a museum that is delightful in its funkiness, if you like that sort of thing (I do). It was in its prime about 20 years ago I'd guess.

The real thrill with this town is its authentic ethnicity; many of this town's residents are Greek. The Greek items for sale in the shops, the shop owners speaking Greek among themselves, the abundance of Greek food in the restaurants clearly are not attempts to create an exotic aura for visitors. The tasty Greek salads and stuffed grape leaves we ate for dinner proved it.

The River of Grass

The 1.5 million acres of Everglades National Park covers a goodly portion of the southern tip of Florida. It was not made a national park until 1947, pretty late in the game. (Yosemite was set aside in 1890.) It must be because no one wanted it. It is a beautiful and fascinating place, yet inhospitable, at least for year 'round living.

The vast acreage has only limited access by car or foot, due to generally soggy conditions, although winter is the dry season. The National Park encompasses only one fifth of what historically was "the Everglades." Which is--what? Actually, it's a 50 mile wide shallow grassy river that drains the entire southern third of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. The problem is that non-Native American human activity has focused on draining this land and redirecting the water into canals, all for drier living and for farming. The irony is that the flow of this life-giving water--which, in essence, is the Everglades--is now controlled by the opening and closing of large flood gates.

You can see them along Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail. This was a difficult stretch of road to build due to the swamps, of course. Over a period of 13 years, the roadbed was built up with material scooped out of the canal paralleling the highway. The east-west road runs roughly along the boundary of Everglades National Park (to the south) and Big Cypress National Preserve.

It also passes through the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. 150 members of this tribe found refuge from US troops deep within the swamps in the mid 1800s, while the rest of their people were shunted off to Oklahoma. You will notice the open-sided palm-roofed buildings called chickees (same thing as a palapa in Mexico) in the villages you pass through. But the major Miccosukee enterprise seems to be the air boat rides through the swamps at about $7 a pop. We envisioned a sunset ride and timed it that way, but they close up at 4:30 or 5:00 so we missed that cultural experience! I would recommend bringing ear plugs, however.

Everglades National Park is big. There are basically three ways to access the park by car, none of them connected. We spent just enough time here and there to confirm that I'd like to come back some day. I will sum it up with several points that will help you decide if it's for you.

1. This is definitely a bird watchers' paradise. The alligators aren't bad either.

2. If you're interested in tropical and subtropical vegetation such as saw grass, cypress, epiphytes, mangroves, and royal palms, you will like this place. If you are looking for more sensational sights such as tall waterfalls, red rock formations, deep canyons, or mountain peaks, don't come.

3. Boats and canoes seem to be the key to exploring the Everglades. Rental boats, canoes, and guided boat trips out into the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay are available at Everglades City and Flamingo. Backcountry chickees for overnight accommodations are spread along the canoe trails.

4. The hiking trails are easy; being so flat, you can really cover some ground. But the foot trails are not very extensive (too much water.)

5. The only lodging within the park is at tip of the state in Flamingo. Here there is one expensive ($95) and not-too-impressive motel. The nearest town is an hour away. But if this is where you want to be, it might be worth it. On the Gulf side of the National Park, Everglades City (outside of the park but where one of the visitor centers is located) is a clean nice looking town. There are also three campgrounds, all on the Flamingo side.

6. The seven-mile-long road at Shark Valley off of 41 on the north side of the park gets you right out into the heart of the sawgrass prairie by foot, rental bike, or bus tour (no other vehicles allowed.) I suspect that many travelers stop here for a bit and then think that they've "done the Everglades." (Not true, of course.) Nevertheless, it's worth it to ignore the crowds and make your way out to the observation tower at the end of the road.

7. The mosquitos are hard to ignore.

In our Florida travels, it seems we barely touched the tip of the iceberg (not a good analogy for Florida, is it?) Next time I would like to a) spend more time in Everglades National Park, b) do some canoeing somewhere in this watery land, c) see the Kennedy Space Center. I hope I have the opportunity soon.

Jill Livingston is a freelance writer, publisher, and forestry technician living in rural far Northern California. She and her sister Kathryn publish regional titles at Living Gold Press.

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