National parks traveler Mikah Meyer says visiting Everglades National Park in southern Florida was like stepping back in time.
Time standing still
“It’s this huge section of [protected] land … it takes up the entire southwestern corner of Florida and essentially before human interaction, everything south of Orlando looked like the Everglades.”
Join Mikah in the Everglades
That huge expanse of land includes more than half a million hectares of wetland, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. It’s known throughout the world for its unparalleled land and waterscapes, which support a wide variety of plant and animal life.
Mikah immersed himself in the wetlands adventure with treks through mud-filled swamps and close encounters with some of the parks’ avian and reptilian residents.
Teeming with wildlife
On the raised boardwalk of the Anhinga Trail on the east side of the park, Mikah had unparalleled views of some of the area’s lush landscape and unique wildlife.
“It’s a marshland with a bunch of trees, and so there's all these birds everywhere that make it their home. We saw Terrapin turtles; there’s gators sunning themselves on the banks ... we saw one alligator here, and one alligator there, and at one point we walked up and there were like 25 alligators all lying together, on top of each other, next to each other sunning, and it was just like more gators than I'd ever seen in my life,” he said.
In fact, in that one area of the park alone, he said he easily saw “the most amount of wildlife I've seen in one place at one time.”
Another highlight for Mikah and his travel companion Andy Waldron was wading through knee-deep water and mud, on a hike called a slough slog.
“So you start out and you slog through the mud and then eventually you get to the water and in that water there're a bunch of fish, alligators, snakes, all sorts of things that you would not want to come at you,” he recounted.
“Fortunately the park service gives you a giant stick … whose primary function is to step it in front of you to see how deep the water is,” the idea being not to fall into the “fish, possibly gator, possibly snake-infested water.”
“It sounds gross, it sounds horrible but it was one of the most fun things I've done at a national park yet,” Mikah admitted. Being in the muddy waters surrounded by exotic trees and plant life “feels like you're on another planet, like you're in an episode of Star Trek," he said.
He credits much of that surreal but awesome experience to their National Park ranger guide, Lori Mobbs.
“Lori was probably one of the most fun people I've met this entire trip,” Mikah said. He says she told him how she was from “the hillbilly mountains of Alabama,” and after finishing her service with the U.S. Army, decided to join the National Park Service.
“I spent time protecting America, wearing a green uniform, and now I'm going to get another green uniform and go protect America's wildlife,” he quoted her saying.
Everglades on steroids
In another part of the park, near the Shark Valley Visitor Center, Mikah and his travel companion were fortunate to find another wonderful guide … Ozzie Gonzalez, from Everglades Nature Tours.
He took the young men on an exclusive and exhilarating ride through the famous southern Florida wetlands on an airboat.
“I think what made this so special is that our guide has grown up in this area and he knew it like the back of his hands,” Mikah said. “So he took us out on this airboat into the middle of the River of Grass and right away he takes us to the spot where there's always a mama gator.”
Close encounters of the reptilian kind
The female alligator made puffy, hissing noises as the boat drew near.
“She was warning us that my babies are here,” Mikah said, interpreting her warnings as, “'Don't mess with me or I'm going to be really angry!' And then sure enough, we look around and we saw like eight different baby alligators."
Ozzie also took the time to show off some of the area’s plant life. Parking the airboat near some tall, reed-like plants, he took one in his hands to give them a closer look.
“They call it sawgrass because if you pull your arm against it one way it won't hurt you at all, but if you go the other way it'll cut your skin because it's got these saw ridges on it,” Mikah explained.
Ozzie went on to describe how the plant has all the nutrients one would need to survive for a while out in the wild, and how Native American tribes in the area used to use sawgrass to cut the umbilical cords from babies.
Mikah, who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 sites within the National Park Service, says his final adventure, on a sunset boat tour at the western edge of the Everglades, captured the wonder of his wetlands experience.
“We had heard that oftentimes you can see dolphins on this tour and it delivered! It was so cool. … It’s such a rare treat to see something in the wild and not in a zoo or not on TV or not in a National Geographic magazine. This was real. It was real life.”