As we set out for our last stop before heading home the next day, there was only one thing left on our list to see, and we were really looking forward to it—Lake Okeechobee.
On our way to Okeechobee, however, we saw a sign for "Everglades Holiday Park" and made an unplanned stop that turned out to be one of this trip's greatest highlights for Rick.
From 2012 to 2015 there was a show on the Animal Planet network called "Gator Boys." It was about a group of people led by Paul Bedard who rescued nuisance alligators—by the way, people are the "nuisance," alligators are just animals who are living their lives as nature intended. Unfortunately, they sometimes cross paths with humans who have encroached on what historically has been their natural habitat. When authorities receive a call about an alligator that has become a threat to humans or pets, they usually contact a licensed trapper who catches the gator, kills it, and sells the meat and skin as payment for services rendered. Paul and the Gator Boys were "no kill" trappers. Gators they caught were, depending upon their size, either released in another (remote) area or taken to a gator sanctuary to live out their lives in peace. The "Gator Boys" TV series featured Paul Bedard and his crew capturing gators by hand. Paul was crazy smart—what he was doing seemed crazy, as he would likely admit, but he was so knowledgeable about gators and their behavior that he truly knew what he was doing, as dangerous as it was. Much of the show was just scripted fun, but the Gator Boys did rescue and save countless gators.
Much of the TV filming was done at Everglades Holiday Park, so when we saw the sign we had to stop and check it out. Rick just wanted to walk around a bit and then hit the road again, but when Linda went to get info she purchased Rick a ticket for an airboat ride followed by a gator show.
Rick's first airboat ride (March 12 entry) was on a small airboat that held six passengers. This time it was a huge airboat with perhaps thirty or more passengers. The tour wasn't through tight mangroves this time, it was mostly wide open spaces. And unlike the first tour with no gators, we saw gators that swam right up to the airboat. Captain Rob gave us a great tour!
A complimentary gator show was included with the price of the airboat ride. As vegans, we can't patronize circuses or shows where animals are exploited, so Rick was reluctant to go to the gator show. He did go, though, just to see what it was about. He wasn't expecting to see any of the Gator Boys as the show ended a few years ago and the cast likely went on with their lives. Well, not only did Rick get to see a Gator Boy, the show was presented by Paul Bedard himself! On the show, Paul was reserved and serious, leaving the comic relief to others. During this show he showed his humorous side, and he was hysterically funny in a subtle, sarcastic way—which is Rick's favorite brand of humor! He didn't "wrestle" the gators or do anything to harm them. Instead, it was an educational demonstration and throughout you could clearly see his respect, and even love, for the gators that he was saved from a cruel death. Although the Gator Boys show is in the past, Paul is still in the area and continues to capture and rescue nuisance gators. Rick has a few heroes in the world, and Paul Bedard is one of them. He even got the chance to talk with Paul for a few minutes afterwards (a conversation that Rick recounted for Linda over and over all the way home!).
On to Lake Okeechobee.
Per Wikipedia, "Lake Okeechobee, also known as Florida's Inland Sea, is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida. It is the eighth largest natural freshwater lake in the United States and the second largest natural freshwater lake (the largest being Lake Michigan) contained entirely within the contiguous United States. Okeechobee covers 730 square miles, approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island, and is exceptionally shallow for a lake of its size, with an average depth of only 9 feet. The Kissimmee River, located directly north of Lake Okeechobee, is the lake's primary source. The lake is divided between Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry counties. All five counties meet at one point near the center of the lake."
With the buildup above, and because we are "water people," you can see why we were excited to see Lake Okeechobee. Our route would take us up the right (east) side of the lake, and the road was often as close as a couple hundred yards from the shore. We were anticipating a long, scenic drive with breathtaking views of the water.
What we didn't know was that due to historical flooding, a large rim was constructed around the lake to prevent future overflow. Thus, for mile after mile after boring mile, all we saw to our left was a tall, grassy mound that blocked any view of the lake. There was one spot where there was a small opening and we caught a glimpse of water, and that was it. So disappointing!
We were tired and ready to relax when we reached the Okeechobee KOA. The sites were rather tight, but nice and level. It was a large campground with its own golf course and many amenities, a great place to stay.
We have now seen the Everglades!
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We drove through Big Cypress National Preserve (a vast area!) on our way to take tram rides into the Everglades. Because Zoe wasn’t allowed on the tram and we never leave her alone, Rick went first on the two hour tour while Linda stayed behind in the Viva with Zoe. Just beyond the tram station Rick's tour saw a mama gator guarding seven baby gators. Along the fifteen mile route there were numerous large gators, several only a few feet away, and a wide variety of birds. A Park Naturalist Ranger narrated our tours (Rick’s tour had the better narration) and talked about the history of the Park, the ecology, the wildlife, the trees, bushes, and grasses, etc. Near the end of both tours, the Rangers talked about the invasion of the Everglades by a deadly predator, the Burmese Python. They can grow over eighteen feet long and they prey on nearly every kind of animal found in the Everglades. 95% of the mammals have disappeared from the Everglades in the last few years because of the pythons.
Rick didn’t see a python (darn), but he did see an Everglades Racer slithering along the side of the road. He also had a rare treat…his tour saw the only American Crocodile in that particular area (Rick, of course, was thrilled). The Ranger on Rick’s tour has been giving tours for three years and has seen the female crocodile only a handful of times. Interesting fact: The Everglades is the only location in the world that is home to both alligators and crocodiles. The Ranger said that the gators harass the croc at times, but she holds her own with them.
After our tram tours we headed to our campground for two days, Miami Everglades RV Resort—more about the resort coming later.
On the second day we set out early to see as much as possible. We drove past Homestead-Miami Speedway (no time to take a few laps in the Viva) on our way to Biscayne National Park (our 34th National Park so far). This National Park is not a typical "drive through and see" National Park—per their website, Biscayne National Park was formed to protect coral reefs, mangrove forests, Biscayne Bay, Florida Keys and 10,000 years of human history, and the majority of the park is water, not land. We didn't have time for a boat tour, so the best we could do was stop at the Visitor Center and walk a path along Biscayne Bay. We were disappointed to see a number of people fishing in the National Park. We asked about the fishing—National Parks generally preserve wildlife, not allow it to be taken—and were told that fishing for the locals had to be allowed in order for the National Park to be formed. Okay…
After Biscayne National Park we headed down to Flamingo Campgrounds & Visitor Center where we saw a couple of crocodiles (perhaps a distant cousin to the one Rick saw on his tour?) and several manatees. We had a great view of Florida Bay, the large body of water that separates mainland Florida from the Keys. Then it was time to head back to the campground.
And speaking of Miami Everglades RV resort…loved it! There was nothing special about our space—just a small rectangle of grass and an old picnic table—but the resort otherwise had everything: a great pool and hot tub, basketball and pickleball courts, volleyball, shuffleboard courts, ping pong and pool tables, a tidy dog park, a softball field, an unbelievable 18 hole miniature golf course, great gathering spots for evening refreshments, etc. It also had the best walking/running/biking trail of any campground we have ever visited, a ribbon of smooth blacktop that encircled the entire campground. We highly recommend this resort!
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We took Route 29 off the Tamiami Trail and drove through Picayune Strand State Forest and Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, then on down to the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City. We have now been to 33 different National Parks, with number 34 coming up soon. After taking a couple of photos at the entrance sign, we then made a short jaunt north again to Jungle Erv's Airboat Tours. Whenever we do something for the first time (neither of us had been on an airboat), Rick is almost always goes first, as he did this time. That turned out for the best. Jungle Erv's airboats are small and fast…very, very fast! Rick was a plus-one with a group of five young women (the airboat seats six), and we raced through the mangroves on channels not much wider than the airboat. When we came into a more open space, the airboat captain would send us careening sideways through an arcing spray of Everglades water—fun! Unfortunately, there were no gator or snake sightings—the only wildlife we saw was a family of raccoons, which came right up to the airboat when our captain stopped next to the mangroves where they hang out.
Linda's experience was much different. She was a plus-one with a family of five…a young couple, their two small children, and a grandmother. One child was about three, the other under a year-old. I was talking to the airboat captain when the five-some approached, and he was visibly upset when he saw the kids, saying they were way too young to go on an airboat ride. But they had tickets, so he loaded them on his airboat and Linda therefore didn't race down narrow canals at breakneck speed only to do tight 180s in open water. It all worked out the way it should have, because although Linda is certainly adventurous, she is not a speed freak and she doesn't like to spin around…things Rick often seeks out! Still, her ride would have been more enjoyable without the kids who were far too young for that experience.
Any minor disappointment Linda might have felt about her airboat ride vanished when we pulled into our spot at the Outdoor Resorts of Chokoloskee Island. Our site was directly on the water—Chokoloskee Bay. We sat mesmerized, watching boats and birds, especially pelicans who preferred to perch on a "Manatee Speed Zone" sign mounted on a post a few yards offshore. We were treated to a colorful sunset before calling it a night, and then we awoke to an equally colorful sunrise.
Although we love camping on Flagler Beach at Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, it was nice to camp on the water and not have to deal with tracking sand in the Viva!
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We were not in a hurry, so we avoided I-75 and took U.S Route 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail. Not many highlights…we went through Arcadia and stopped at Lake Katherine City Park so Zoe could stretch her legs a bit and Rick could take several photos of an old USAF airplane that was on display there. The park is in a state of renovation, and will be quite nice when completed.
The Tamiami Trail took us through Fort Myers (where we went past the Edison House, which we toured years ago with our daughters), Estero Island, Bonita Springs and Bonita Beach. Before the last leg to the campground we drove around Marco Island—beautiful homes! Way too much traffic on this trip for our liking, even taking the scenic route.
The highlight by far (especially for Rick!) of Collier-Seminole State Park was the Bay City Walking Dredge, which is on permanent display in the park (permanent, because you wouldn't want to try to move it even if it used to "walk!"). Rick loves to come across unusual attractions during our travels—and this was among the most unusual—so he just had to include the following, about the Bay City Walking Dredge, that is from the website of the American Society Of Mechanical Engineers:
"Last remaining dredge in the United States with unique propulsion system, designed for a wetlands environment
Built by the Bay City Dredge Works of Bay City, Michigan, this dredge was used to construct a portion of US 41 called the Tamiami Trail, which connected Tampa with Miami through the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp. The last remaining display of walking dredges (of some 145 walking machines), it has a unique propulsion design enabling the dredge to cope with drainage problems in a wetlands environment.
It was a piece of specialized equipment that dug a canal which provided rock fill for roadbed drainage of the completed road. Running on a 50 hp Charter internal combustion engine, the dredge moved over rough, swampy and slippery ground and through close-cut stumps, where other earth excavators had difficulty. The walking mechanism was patented by Vincent G. Anderson, Thief River Falls, Minn., on July 2, 1918 (#1,270,763).
The first walker, according to John Thompson, Michigan Historical Review, Fall 1986, is attributed to Albert N. Cross of Grand Rapids, Wis., in 1902. This was modified by Carl F. Wilson at Bay City in 1916 in a form similar to Anderson's patent. The 1916 walker consisted of identical pairs of 30-foot bridge frames and weight-supporting runners along each side of the dredge. The bridge frame was eased forward along the ground with the weight of the frames moving from the corner runners to intermediary runners, using hoists and the motion of the bucket, until the corner pads could be repositioned. Once relieved of its load, the intermediary runners would be drawn forward and repositioned for another step. Each step could cover 5 to 8 feet, in 30 seconds. The machine could be turned and backed. It required one operator and helper, which was one less than dredges on portable tracks.
The dredges would follow the drilling rig, which bored holes into the limestone. The holes were filled with Cypress posts and dynamite, which were then detonated electrically. One construction worker recalled huge boulders being thrown 50 feet in air.
Dredge No. 489 was shipped May 8, 1924, to W.R. Wallace & Co., road subcontractors, Fort Meyers, Fla. In 1927 to 1928, it dug a 10-mile section of the Trail between Black Water River to Belle Meade Crossing (where US 41 and 951 intersect). The Tamiami Trail was the first established route opening southwest Florida to travel."
Okay, if you're still with us, back to our regular programming!
The campground was nice, but our campsite neighbors told us the no-see-ums were very active here—the woman’s legs were covered in angry red bites. If you’ve followed our blog, you know that Rick is also very allergic to no-see-um bites (some ugly photos of his legs have been posted!), so we took a long walk well before dusk and then settled in for the night. Fortunately, the bugs stayed outside this time. We're heading deeper into the Everglades tomorrow and hope to take airboat rides…and also hoping the no-see-ums don’t follow us!
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Finally! After living in Florida for over eleven years and having the Viva for nearly five years, we set out to see Everglades National Park for the first time! It won’t be a long trip—just six nights—but it’s good to be on the road again.
Florida is a mostly flat state, so we were surprised when we saw large hills in the distance in the area of the small town of Mulberry. As we got closer, we realized the numerous hills were landfills—so unsightly! We were glad to see them slowly fade away in our rear-view mirror.
Our first destination was Little Manatee River State Park, which we chose because it’s in Wimauma. You may not have heard of this little town on the edge of Tampa, but the population is exploding with the addition of several new large developments. In fact, four couples—and long-time friends from Mount Dora—have relocated to Wimauma in the last 18 months, and we even briefly considered a move here. One couple, our dear friends Ken and Mary, came out to the campground for several hours and we had a great time with them, as we always do.
The campground has a natural setting, nestled in the woods similar to Anastasia State Park. Although all thirty sites were occupied, it was quiet and peaceful our entire time here. We hope to return for a longer stay in the not so distant future, to see all of our nearby friends who used to live in Mount Dora.
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