It was my last day in Florida, and I couldn’t be this close to the Everglades without at least having a look.
My brother was kind enough to loan me his professional camera kit, a bag filled with bodies and lenses for any opportunity I might find. And a warning, there will be clouds of mosquitos, other bugs and of course, alligators, be careful.
Since this was a day trip, I drove South, following my GPS and heading along the 45 through Naples and east across the lower portion of the state. Looking over the map, it looked like I would take a turn at a place called “Monroe Junction” to tak the best route to take in skirting the Everglades along its northern edge.
My first stop was a little roadside stand that looked like a park along the highway. Native clothing and accessories were on display in the shop, and there was a parking area, all closed. I explored around, finding my brother was right about the mosquitoes. Fortunately, I had repellent from my retirement trip in the Caribbean, which did the trick to reduce the attacks. There was a map, which showed a path leading to a boardwalk into the swamp, along with a warning: “keep at least 6 feet away from any alligators”. I didn’t plan on getting anywhere near that close, but appreciated the warning.
As I walked along the sandy path, I met another gentleman coming out and asked how it was, did he see any alligators? “Nah, saw one, but not much to see here”. I hoped that my luck would help me in this, so I kept on down the path.
A few yards farther down, I noticed that the swamp came right up to the path, water on either side. I remembered the pictures I’d seen of alligators in magazines so looked for apparent rocks in the middle of the water and found success. There in the water a few feet away were the eyes of an Alligator.
Eventually I could see the rest, 5-6 feet in length, submerged in water under the hot sweltering Florida sun. Now I knew what to look for.
What I didn’t anticipate was what I found next. As I looked to the other side of the path, there was another pond, and a prize beyond my expectations. Resting in the water was a baby alligator, barely a foot long, clearly visible resting among the sticks and debris of the pond. Not much to see? Just have to look a little bit closer.
Of course, I realized that the bigger alligator may be mama, so kept my head on a swivel in case she decided to be protective. I grabbed some shots, marveling at my good luck on my first walk, and continued on the boardwalk. The jungle was thick with interesting foliage, and the air was thick as well, hot, humid, sweltering. The boardwalk took me to the viewpoint of a pond and a beautiful forest scene. There was a large cobalt blue dragonfly resting on a large blade of grass, almost posing for the photo I took.
I took more pictures along the way and back through the dense vegetation, grateful for the boardwalk path through the swamp. I stopped back by the pond where I saw the baby alligator and was rewarded once again. Now there were a couple of the babies, and they were resting at the edge of the pond, almost at my feet.
But first, where’s mama? I checked the other side of the path and there she was, almost in the same location, still largely submerged below the surface, but now the top of her head from nose to eyes was visible. I noted that I still had a clear running path available so returned to the babies. I had the medium telephoto lens and was able to take a number of photo’s in the shallow clear water with rays of sunlight peeking through the forest canopy on them as they rested.
And this was only the beginning! I continued along the highway till I passed a small parking area and for some reason decided I needed to turn around and check it out. Again, I was rewarded. It was a visitor overlook of a large pond. I didn’t see much at first, then began to see the ‘gators. They were submerged on the opposite shore, and then I saw more just below me, along with fish and large turtles. I looked over at the opposite shore and saw a large alligator and turtle resting next to each other.
The turtle was so large around its legs were hanging in the air. I imagined that it must be able to stretch its legs far enough to reach the ground when it wanted to, but maybe not when there was a large toothy predator nearby. Time for the big lens.
My brother had a large zoom lens that went out to 300mm and had a tripod mount for it to keep it steady. But the midday light was so bright and the shutter speeds so fast it was easy to hold the lens steady by hand. Then I get this giant orange grasshopper landing on the railing in front of me, couple shots of that, and back to the pond. I shoot my fill and continue on until I find another roadside stop, another pond, and a ranger station.
This pond was surrounded by a chest high chain link fence. There were a number of very large alligators, and the area looked more like a drainage pond with large culverts at one end. There was a father and son with some fishing poles and I asked what they were fishing for in an alligator pond. The father mentioned they were fishing for some small fish for the kid’s aquarium and the pond was close by the house. I asked about the alligators and he mentioned that the locals saw them more as pests than anything. He then went to the highway side of the pond and held onto his son who stood on the guardrail and fished the pond.
There were several large alligators in the pond where the line dropped and something happened, causing several to tussle in the pond for a second or two then settle back down floating in the water. I walked along the fence, snapping pictures of alligators, fish and turtles in the pond. I stopped near the shore to watch one of the large alligators’ swim over to where there was a slightly smaller one resting among some rocks. I expected something to happen but the smaller alligator moved aside and allowed the bigger one to take its spot among the rocks in the shallow water at the shoreline. I stopped by the ranger station and found I had overshot my turn by several miles, getting some good tips on driving through the junction and the options for a return route back on the highway.
I manage to find the turnoff for Monroe Junction and head down the road, which turned into what seemed to be a crushed coral road. And on a hot, sunny day, the road became a cloud of dust as I drive along, with forest and swamp on either side. I see something on the side of the road and slow down to take a look. It’s a Florida softshell turtle, just sitting there on the side of the road. I think about just driving on, but again there’s that feeling, so I get out and walk up to the turtle. Much to my pleasant surprise, she’s laying eggs, right there on the side of the road. Out comes the camera, and I spend a few minutes snapping away as she deposits her clutch of eggs into the roadside hole she’s dug. And off I go again.
It’s a beautiful scenic drive, a mix of forest, swamp and tropics, the brilliant blue sky, various greens of the landscape and the dusty white road would be blinding if not for my retirement gift of polarized sunglasses with their Hawaiian flag logo on the frames, very handy. I see an occasional large bird flying by, possibly a vulture, then another, then another.
Finally, I see a couple resting in a tree, definitely vultures. And more flying about, so possibly a dead animal off the side of the road. I stop, get out and can smell the carcass as soon as I get out. I can also hear animal sounds off the side of the road, the vultures, and possibly a bear? I mull over going to look, but it would involve getting off the road and down into the forest, encountering goodness knows what. I opt for caution and staying close to the car. I’ve had great luck so far, no sense pushing it too far. I take a couple of shots of the vultures in the tree and drive a little farther on when a very large bird flies in front of the car into the forest so I stop to look. There is a small bridge and as I approach, I see it’s a waterhole with several vultures gathered in and around it, fairly close to the road. I get some nice closeup shots of the vultures at the water hole, hop back in the car and continue on.
The rest of the drive was a scenic tour through the Everglades, occasional stops to enjoy views of ponds, a few more alligators resting in and out of the water, one parked under a tree that had that lazy afternoon feel about it. Eventually I begin to get back into civilization, swamp boats, huge trucks, homes across from the swamp surrounded by chain link fences. Then some homes and “Swamp Tour” signs with boats and trucks designed for off roading into the swamp with seating for a number of passengers. I come to one last bridge with a large pond and one more alligator, then I’m at the junction and have a decision to make. Do I go left back towards Naples on 45 or take the right and maybe reach the Atlantic? I figure, what the hey, and take the right, ignoring the fact I would have to get through Miami at rush hour to get to the east side of Florida, oops.
It wasn’t too crowded until I pass the casino at the cloverleaf, right to the Keys, left to the highway and back to Naples, and I go straight, smack into rush hour. I spend an hour trying to extricate myself from the tangled mess of Miami at rush hour and find myself in an area that had a very familiar, latin feel about it, maybe the Cuban quarter? Finally, I get back to the cloverleaf, and still determined to explore I take the Northern route to 75, Fort Lauderdale with a possible turn to Naples, then back to Bonita Springs, I hope.
Ah, another adventure, signage for the old highway and a new highway under construction, lovely. I move in and out of traffic, keeping north and hoping to find the turnoff before I’m a couple of hundred miles of lost in Florida, in the dark. There’s a turn to an overpass, marked “Alligator alley” and Naples, could this be it? Yes! Now I’m heading west, on a clear highway with the highest speed limits I’ve seen in years, 65 just gets you passed on the fly. There are storm warnings on the radio, and my car gets much of the coral dust washed off passing through torrential downpours at high speed. I had spent most of the day in a forest and swamp, now I’m in wide open spaces racing into the sunset. I see there is a Florida Panther sanctuary, too late this trip, keep on driving.
I get to Naples, manage to navigate the traffic and find the highway into Fort Myers and areas I recognize from the past few days of driving. I make it back to my brothers’ house for leftovers from the previous night’s celebration, then back to my humble abode at the Holiday Inn and download the day’s events in pictures to my laptop. An eventful trip with family, new friends, and adventures in southern Florida.
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