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Everglades adventure (with photo gallery)

A gentle breeze sweeps along the shoreline of a mangrove-covered islet and the only sound that can be heard is the kayak paddle slicing the water as we manoeuvre our vessel closer to the shore.

Sitting near the water’s edge is a small reddish-brown raccoon rummaging through a pile of oyster shells. He barely seems to notice our presence as he feasts at the oyster bar. Moments later, he takes to the water and swims to another tiny islet to search for more oysters.

When you think of the Florida Everglades, you might envision a smelly alligator-infested swampy wilderness. And compared to the glitzy theme parks and climate-controlled shopping malls of nearby Orlando, you would be right.

But Everglades National Park is much more than just a swampy wasteland. Within its more than 1.5 million acres of protected parkland are nine distinct, interdependent ecosystems that support a vast array of wildlife.

One of the most unique areas in the park is a chain of islands and mangrove islets known as the Ten Thousand Islands. Although the name would lead you to believe otherwise, there are only a few hundred islands and islets in this chain — most of which are uninhabited by humans.

The mangrove system in Everglades National Park is the largest continuous system of mangroves in the world and provides a home for 220 species of fish, a wide variety of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

Mangroves are adapted to withstand harsh conditions and provide protection from coastal erosion, which can be caused by high tides and hurricanes that are common in this part of the world.

As we paddle between the islands, our guide “Captain Jason” points out different species of plants, animals and birds and teaches us more about the nature of this particular ecosystem.

I lag behind the rest of the group watching a raccoon and completely miss seeing a nurse shark swim in front of the lead kayaks. A few moments later, we pull over to a larger island and step out to get a closer look at shells along the shoreline.

Captain Jason explains that since the water near the mangroves is a mixture of salt water and fresh water, we don’t have to worry about encountering an alligator in this particular area. This information is comforting as I step into the water to pull my kayak onto the shore.

On the island is a small campsite complete with an outdoor bathroom that is used for overnight camping trips. Captain Jason explains that campers have to be particularly vigilant about locking up their supplies because of the large numbers of raccoons on these islands. The wind, weather and lack of fresh water make this an overnight destination for only the most experienced kayakers.

I wander around the island picking up seashells and looking for wildlife. After a few minutes, I hop back into my kayak and paddle around the islands some more. Our kayak tour of the Florida Everglades is definitely not what I had imagined — it’s even better.

Where to see an alligator

The creature that most visitors want to see when they come to the Everglades is the American alligator. Although you won’t find alligators near the mangroves due to the high salt concentrations in the water, you can see wild gators basking in the sun near freshwater rivers, canals and sloughs, either in the water or near the water’s edge.

There are several tour operators that provide visitors with the opportunity to experience an authentic airboat tour of the Everglades and see the Everglades marsh ecosystem and its inhabitants up close. We experienced an airboat tour with Wooten’s Air Boat Rides, located about six km outside of Everglades City.

Wooten’s is one of the oldest airboat operators in the area and has been providing airboat tours since 1953 in Big Cypress Reserve. They are the only airboat operator that is allowed to operate inside the park.

There is also an onsite animal sanctuary, where you can see some of the largest alligators in captivity and even hold a baby alligator. There are also crocodiles, snakes, panthers and deer at the sanctuary. Wooten’s puts on a daily alligator show where you can watch an enthusiastic trainer with all the flair of the original Crocodile Hunter hand feed the alligators.

If you go:

• A 30-minute airboat ride through Big Cypress Reserve will cost $25 per adult. Visiting the animal sanctuary or enjoying a swamp buggy tour through the marshland will be an additional cost. For reservations or information, visit http://wootensevergladesairboatrides.com/.

• Our motorboat-assisted kayak tour of 10,000 Islands was arranged with Everglades Area Tours (http://evergladesareatours.com) in Chokoloskee, Fla. A motorboat took us out to the 10,000 Islands area of Everglades National Park, where we enjoyed a guided tour. The tour takes about three and a half hours and costs $149.95 per person.

• For more information on Everglades National Park, visit the official website at http://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm.

• For information on accommodations, restaurants and tours, visit the official tourism website for Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades at www.paradisecoast.com.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

 
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