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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades

By Rick Ferren

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Florida Keys & Everglades > Florida Everglades: Everglades National Park to Shark Valley > Florida Bay

Florida Bay

[Fig. 13] The features of Florida Bay epitomize much of the special nature and beauty of South Florida—clear blue waters, dark green mangrove islands, and miles of shallow grass flats alive with a richly diverse marine ecosystem. The bay is famous for both its sport fishing and its rich diversity of wildlife.

Anglers from around the world come for the bay's legendary shallow water flats fishing, which has been made famous on TV fishing shows and in outdoor publications. If fishing isn't your preference even a brief tour of the bay will bring you face to face with many of the park's more interesting wildlife species.

Loggerhead sea turtles, bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and West Indian manatees thrive within a few miles of alligatorladen swamps separated by narrow strips of land where saltwater crocodiles still lay their eggs.

Florida's unique mix of bird life is represented by wood storks, blue herons, brown and white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, and numerous others that feed in the bay's waters and nest on its islands. Even the occasional flamingo and scarlet ibis (Guara rubra) visit the bay.

The triangularshaped bay is bordered by the Everglades to the north and the Keys to the east and south. It covers an area of 400,000 to 550,000 acres, depending on where the western boundary with the Gulf of Mexico is measured. Its waters are dotted with 237 mangrove islands.

When healthy, Florida Bay is one of the most productive estuaries in the United States: 140 species of mollusks, 32 species of crustaceans, and 24 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit its waters, along with tarpon, redfish (Sciaenops ocellata), snook, bonefish, and gray snapper that draw so many anglers to its famous backcountry fishing.

All of these species depend in part upon the bay's bountiful growth of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum). The most common seagrass in the bay, turtle grass continues to survive despite problems with the bay's salinity. Other, less-tolerant types of seagrass have died back due to changes in the natural plumbing system of the Everglades.

Pink shrimp (Penaeus duorarum) also depend on the bay's seagrasses. Larval shrimp drift into the bay from the Dry Tortugas spawning grounds. Here they settle on seagrass habitat and bare sand bottom. When mature they ride the currents back out to the Dry Tortugas to start the cycle over again.

Florida Bay's current ills are rooted in the same problems affecting Everglades National Park. Without its normal freshwater input, the bay underwent a gradual transition from pristine estuary to hypersaline saltwater lagoon. By 1992 severe algal blooms and hypersaline waters were flowing out of Florida Bay and through the Keys, damaging the coral reefs. The decline in water quality was halted, at least temporarily, by an increase in freshwater flow resulting from a succession of rainy years in South Florida during the mid- to late-1990s. The long-term results will depend on a successful restoration of the entire Everglades ecosystem.

For more information: Florida Bay Research Program at Everglades National Park, South Florida Research Center, Everglades National Park, 40001 State Road 9336, Homestead, Florida 330346733. Web site www.nps.gov/ever/eco/fbrp.htm For boat tours and fishing guide information contact Flamingo Marina, #1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Flamingo, FL 33034. Web site www.flamingolodge.com Phone (941) 6953101. Fax (941) 6953921.

Flamingo Visitor Center

[Fig. 11(1), Fig. 13(1)] Wildlife viewing in Flamingo should start at the information booth in the park's visitor center. Talk with the rangers about wildlife known to be in the area. Also ask to see the wildlife observation log (often kept behind the counter) for recent unusual wildlife sightings reported by other visitors. Depending upon the time of year, the second floor breezeway between the information booth and the restaurant provides a terrific view of shorebirds on a mud flat just offshore in Florida Bay. A spotting scope or strong pair of binoculars will be useful in sighting white pelicans, brown pelicans, laughing gulls, royal terns (Sterna dougallii), sanderlings, herring gulls, great white herons, and an occasional bald eagle.

Flamingo Marina

[Fig. 13(2)] Another important stop for both tidal information and wildlife viewing is the Flamingo Marina. Flamingo's tides occur twice a day, with highs and lows about six hours apart. Low tide, when the mud flats are exposed, is preferable for most birding or exploring along Florida Bay on foot.

The tides are posted daily above the check-out counter in the marina store. Tide charts are also available in many of the local fishing publications on sale here.

Despite the boat traffic and general hubbub in the marina, a number of wildlife species can be viewed here. For instance, a number of large alligators along with a trio of saltwater crocodiles are known to regularly hang around in the Buttonwood Canal and near the boat ramps. Ask the marina personnel where the crocodiles were last seen.

Brown pelicans can usually be seen begging for a handout from returning anglers. Black skimmers like to take up positions around the freshwater boat ramp. In winter West Indian manatees can often be seen in the freshwater side of the marina.

Natural history boat tours of Florida Bay and the backcountry leave from the marina. You can also hire backcountry and Florida Bay fishing guides or arrange for a custom tour. Bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and small motorized skiffs are also available for rent. Houseboats may be rented through the lodge by calling (941) 695-3101, and reservations are suggested.

The marina store has light groceries year-round. It stocks a wider variety of foods during the summer when other food service is limited.

Florida Bay Shoreline

The shoreline of Florida Bay is another good place to look for wildlife. Although partially covered with mangroves, there are long open areas behind the Flamingo Lodge and along the walk-in campgrounds. A paved trail runs between the lodge and the campgrounds and offers additional views of the bay. At the water's edge, you can also see the exposed, muddy marl that overlays the oolite limestone in this part of the park.

Sunrise visitors will be rewarded not only with beautiful scenes of orange and red pastels painted upon the sky and on the bay's calm water, but also with a chance to see and hear the wildlife waking up for the day.

From behind the lodge you can often see osprey circling over the bay looking for an unwary fish to dive upon. Shorebirds, such as sanderlings and semipalmated plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), often search out food tidbits in the washed-up debris. Little blue herons and black-crowned night herons will often take up a convenient perch along the shore.

In the water, southern stingrays scurry off at your approach while small bands of roving mullet jump and skitter at imaginary predators. A dolphin might breach for air only a few yards offshore, and that bright reflection of sunlight you see could come from the silver scales of a rolling tarpon.

Overhead, flocks of wading birds can be seen making their way from nighttime rookeries on mangrove islands to inland feeding grounds. A reverse of the process takes place in the evening.

You also might see the brown, armored, tank-like shell of a horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). Ancient relatives of this species were present on our continent some 520 million years ago, although the current genus dates back only about 20 million years. Although called a crab, and once considered a true crustacean, these dark brown arthropods are only distantly related to such crustaceans as true crabs, shrimps, and lobsters. As members of the Merotomata class, they also have many similarities with members of the Arachnida class, which includes spiders, scorpions, and ticks. In the summer they mate and spawn along the shoreline and the beaches of Cape Sable.

Those styrofoam balls that are almost always scattered along the shoreline once served as marker buoys for commercial crab traps. They frequently break free in storms and float up onto the shore.

Eco Pond

[Fig. 13] Between the visitor center and the campgrounds is Eco Pond, which is actually the final stage of the park's wastewater treatment system. The cleaned water re-enters the ecosystem through evaporation and by seeping into the ground.

Various parts of the pond can be viewed from a tower, a short dock, and an unpaved 0.5-mile trail that surrounds the pond. Alligators, birds, bobcats, and marsh rabbits can all be seen from the trail. In spring, roseate spoonbills bring their young to the pond for the feeding opportunities and join with great blue herons, great white herons, white ibis, pied-billed grebes, and American bitterns.

The rushes surrounding the lake often hold kestrels, smooth-billed ani, and tricolored herons. In the coastal prairie behind the pond look for marsh hawks (northern harrier) (Circus cyaneus) and red-shouldered hawks. Note the white, twisted buttonwood trees, left over from Hurricane Donna in 1960, that various resident and migrating hawks often use for perches.

The open prairie has been formed and is maintained by passing hurricanes and tropical storms that carry salt water and marl (limey mud) miles inland from Florida Bay. Only low-growing desertlike succulents and cactus are capable of survival in these dry, salty conditions. Look for the multichambered glasswort (Salicornia birginica), the sea oxeye daisy, saltwort, also known as pickle weed (Batis maritima), and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia stricta).

Calendar Of Wildlife And Plant Viewing In Flamingo

Every month provides a different opportunity for wildlife and plant viewing in the Flamingo area. Following is a quick guide to some of the highlights that take place each month.

January: Osprey can be seen carrying nesting material along the shores of Florida Bay. Look for manatees in the boat basin in the marina. Also check for black skimmers standing on the Whitewater Bay boat ramp. Mrazek Pond may hold large groups of wading birds. West Lake may hold an assortment of waterfowl, including pintails, blue-winged and green-winged teals, and northern shovelers. Watch for short-tailed hawks circling over the trees.

February: Reddish egrets and red-shouldered hawks begin nesting in the treetops. Smooth-billed ani can be seen at Eco Pond. Manatees might be found at the marina on cold mornings. By the end of winter, laughing gulls will be molting into their summer plumage. Cypress trees will begin to sprout new, pastel green needles.

March: Look for swallow-tailed kites arriving after their winter vacation in South America, circling over West Lake and above the trees along the main road. Red-winged blackbirds begin departing for their northern nesting grounds. With their nesting season over, large numbers of roseate spoonbills and their young often appear at Eco Pond. Watch along the Snake Bight Trail for bromeliades beginning to bloom.

April: Alligator mating season is marked by deep bellowing from the big territorial males. North American wintering birds such as ducks and shorebirds begin to leave for their northern nesting areas. Summer residents such as white-crowned pigeons and gray kingbirds (Tyrannus dominicensis) arrive from the tropics along with waves of other migrants, many of which are just passing through. Mosquito populations begin to increase.

May: Summer wet season rains begin refilling the sawgrass prairies and ponds. Swamp lilies bloom. Brown pelican and white ibis chicks hatch in Florida Bay rookeries. Loggerhead sea turtles begin egg-laying on isolated beaches. Alligators can sometimes be seen building nests at Eco Pond. White-tailed deer fawns are often seen moving with their mothers. As their nesting season begins, the mangrove cuckoo can be spotted in places like the Snake Bight Trail.

June: Butterfly orchids bloom from their aerial perches in the area's buttonwood and mahogany trees. Green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) hatch this month. Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) nesting is at its peak in the freshwater marshes. Common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) can be seen at dusk swooping down on large insects along the roads. In the daytime, barn swallows swarm in large flocks while feeding on dragonflies.

July: Young alligators and crocodiles begin to hatch this month. Look closely in area ponds for 6-inch baby alligators. Soft-shelled turtles begin to nest along the road edge. Snook and tarpon move out from the inland mangrove waterways and into the flats of Florida Bay.

August: Loggerhead turtles begin hatching and making their way to sea. Red mangrove seeds have already begun germinating in preparation for being dropped in the water.

September: White-crowned pigeons, gray kingbirds, and swallow-tailed kites begin to depart for their wintering areas in the tropics. Huge follow-the-leader flocks of white pelicans arrive from northern prairies.

October: Numbers of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, peregrine falcons, and turkey vultures continue to increase. Blue-winged teal and American coots usually show up early in the month in Mrazek Pond.

November: Bald eagles begin courtship activities and nest building in the park. Watch from the visitor breezeway for activity on Eagle Key just offshore. On cool mornings look for manatees in the freshwater side of the marina.

December: The first bald eagle chicks hatch. Numbers of ducks increase on Florida Bay and area ponds. Scissor-tailed flycatchers arrive in small numbers to spend the remainder of the winter. Great southern white butterflies (Ascia monuste) hatch in large numbers. Salt marsh mosquito numbers begin to decline.

Flamingo Area Hiking Trails

The coastal area of the park has numerous and varied hiking trails. Two of the trails, Snake Bight and Rowdy Bend, are open to bicycling and have a good riding surface. It should also be noted that trail conditions can change very quickly in the low-lying lands. Check at the information counter for current conditions of any trail you plan to hike or bicycle.

Off-trail hiking, called slogging in wet areas, is permitted park-wide, but caution is advised. Mucky soil, sharp rocks, sink holes, and impenetrable walls of vegetation can make walking tricky. Although alligators and snakes tend to avoid humans, care is still important. In the Flamingo area, the coastal prairies can be inviting to the off-trail explorer when the mosquito levels are low.

Snake Bight

[Fig. 13(3)] This is the most popular trail in the Flamingo area. It passes through a mature tropical hardwood hammock on its way to the bight. "Bight" is a local name for a small cove along the shoreline between two points of land. A boardwalk at the end of the trail extends beyond the mangroves and offers an unobstructed view of the mud flats. This is one of the few areas of the park where flamingos are occasionally spotted. Planning your trip to arrive around low tide will enhance birding opportunities. Also watch for the mangrove cuckoo on the way out and back. The wide, smooth trail is popular with bicyclists. Mosquitos can be plentiful any time of the year.

Rowdy Bend

[Fig. 13(4)] The Rowdy Bend Trail explores an old overgrown roadbed shaded by buttonwoods and enters open coastal salt prairie. The trail begins at the main park road and joins with the Snake Bight Trail near its end. Bicyclists are permitted on the trail. Mosquitos can be plentiful any time of the years.

Christian Point

[Fig. 13(5)] Wander a rustic path that begins among dense buttonwoods full of airplants and ends in open coastal prairie along the shores of Snake Bight. The prairie is good habitat for raptors. Warning: The trail is not well marked where it crosses the prairie and appears to run in many directions at once. It also does not end with a boardwalk, as does the Snake Bight Trail. A thick fringe of mangroves separates the coastal prairie from the bay.

Bear Lake

[Fig. 13(6)] This trail journeys through a dense hammock of hardwoods mixed with mangroves to the edge of Bear Lake. It's an excellent trail for viewing woodland birds, and many different tree types. However, the 2-mile Bear Lake Road that parallels the Buttonwood Canal and connects the main road to the trailhead may be closed due to erosion or muddy conditions.

Eco Pond

[Fig. 13(7)] The Eco Pond Trail circles a freshwater pond and provides visitors an excellent opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of wildlife. It includes a view of a coastal prairie habitat. A viewing platform affords some good bird-watching opportunities, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Guy Bradley

[Fig. 13(1)] A paved path, the Guy Bradley Trail is named for the game warden killed in 1905 while protecting wading birds from plume hunters. The scenic trail connects the walk-in campground and amphitheater with the Flamingo Visitor Center. Following the shoreline of Florida Bay, it provides visitors an opportunity to see a variety of birds and butterflies. This trail can have a lot of mosquitos on it. Be sure to have protection any time of the year.

Bayshore Loop

[Fig. 13(1)] The beginning of this trail tunnels through a thick hammock, then opens into the coastal plain. From here it meanders along the shore of Florida Bay. Watch for remnants of a former outpost fishing village. The coastal prairie is where the first residents to this inhospitable land chose to settle.

The trail begins at the Coastal Prairie trailhead at the back of Loop C in the Flamingo campground. Veer left toward the bay at the trail junction. Mosquitos can be very heavy on this trail any time of the year.

Coastal Prairie

[Fig. 13(1)] Following an old roadbed, this trail lets you step back a little in time. The road was once used by wild cotton pickers and fishermen. It is shaded by buttonwoods and there are open expanses dotted by succulent coastal plants like saltwort, glasswort, and prickly pear cactus. The trail begins at the rear of Loop C in the Flamingo campground. A backcountry permit is required for overnight camping at the Clubhouse Beach Campsite at the end of the trail.

Flamingo Area Canoe Trails

Canoeing opportunities are widespread and varied in the Flamingo area. They can include twisting mangrove creeks, freshwater lakes, broad inland bays, or scenic coastal tours. Many of the inland trails have changed character over the years and some information sources are outdated. Sections of some trails have silted in, and others have been at least partially blocked by fallen trees.

In addition, winds and tides on Florida Bay and Whitewater Bay can significantly affect your trip. Check at the information booth for current conditions, recommended options, and relevant maps.

Noble Hammock

[Fig. 11] This trail winds through a maze of shady mangrovelined creeks and small ponds. Sharp corners and narrow passageways require both patience and good maneuvering skills. During the dry season (usually in the winter), the trail can be impassable due to low water. To the canoeist's advantage, the waters of this trail can be calm on a windy day. Motors are prohibited.

Nine Mile Pond

[Fig. 11] This scenic trail passes through a shallow sawgrass marsh with scattered mangrove islands and small ponds. Watch for alligators, wading birds, osprey, and an occasional bald eagle. The route is marked with numbered white poles. Motorized craft are prohibited.

It's a little known secret, but Nine Mile Pond holds some pretty good largemouth bass fishing. Take a lightweight fishing rod and a couple of plastic worms and have some fun. However, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a warning against eating any freshwater fish out of Everglades National Park because of high levels of mercury contamination. Scientists are still exploring the source of this contamination.

Hell's Bay

[Fig. 11] As the story goes, old timers called it a place that is "Hell to get into and hell to get out of," thus the name Hell's Bay. This sheltered, canopied canoe trail follows a tortuous, twisting route through the mangroves. You can expect many turns so tight it takes two strokes forward and one stroke back to get around.

The 5.5-mile trail passes a series of three backcountry campsites. Lard Can is at 3 miles, Pearl Bay Chickee is at 3.5 miles, and Hell's Bay Chickee is at the end of the route. Hell's Bay is a picturesque, inland, brackish water bay.

The trail is well marked with more than 160 numbered poles. Motors are prohibited from the trailhead on the main road to the Lard Can campsite. A backcountry permit is required for overnight camping.

Bear Lake Canal

[Fig. 11] This backcountry trail travels part of the way down along the old Homestead Canal that was dug to carry produce and other staples to and from the Cape Sable region and to help drain the area. If the Bear Lake Road next to the Buttonwood Canal is closed, canoeists will have to travel down the Buttonwood Canal, then handle a 200-yard portage to the Homestead Canal.

The route goes to Bear Lake, and then beyond to Lake Ingraham. A plug in the canal near Lake Ingraham also has to be portaged.

Although it's an attractive canoe route that includes paddling along a tree-covered historic canal, the trail is difficult any time of the year and impassable during the dry season. Trees may block the route, and many sections of the old canal have silted in, leaving little water for paddling. Tides and wind can also be a problem in Lake Ingraham and the East Cape Canal leading out of the lake. You cannot paddle against the tide in the canal.

For obvious reasons, it's very important to plan your trip carefully and to check with the rangers at the visitor center in Flamingo before starting out. Canoeists planning a trip to Cape Sable will probably be better served by taking the outside route along the coast of Florida Bay (see Flamingo to Cape Sable page 203.)

Mud Lake Loop

[Fig. 11] This trail passes through a variety of habitats and connects the Buttonwood Canal, Coot Bay, Mud Lake, and the Bear Lake Canoe Trail. Birding is often good in Mud Lake. If you see coots in Coot Bay Pond, you're witnessing a recovery of the ecosystem that's been under way since the Buttonwood Canal was plugging in 1982. Coots are returning to the lake named for their previous numbers after a 30-year absence—clear evidence that inland bay salinities have been returning to normal.

Launch at Coot Bay Pond on the main road. The trail includes a 200-yard portage from the Bear Lake trailhead to the Buttonwood Canal. Motors are prohibited on Mud Lake, Bear Lake, and the Bear Lake Canal.

West Lake

[Fig. 11] There is a lot of open water on this canoe trail that leads through a series of large lakes connected by narrow mangrove-lined natural channels. The route passes though excellent alligator and crocodile habitat. In the winter, West Lake often contains large numbers of migrating waterfowl along with large rafts of American coots.

West Lake is closed to vessels with motors greater than 5.5 horsepower. Motors are prohibited from the east end of West Lake to Garfield Bight on the coast. This trail is not recommended on windy days due to the dangerous chop that can build up on exposed waters.

The West Lake Trail ends at the Alligator Creek backcountry campsite. The campsite can also be reached out of Flamingo by following the coast then turning into Garfield Bight. A backcountry permit is required for camping.

Backcountry Boating And Camping

One of the best ways to connect with the true wilderness of Everglades National Park is to take an overnight or longer boat, kayak, or canoe trip to one of the backcountry campsites. Camping trips to some of the more interesting and unique areas in the park can be staged out of Flamingo.

The Everglades backcountry includes the great mangrove forest along the southwestern tip of Florida, the wide inland bays and waterways extending to the edges of the sawgrass, the beaches of Cape Sable, and the various small islands dotting the coast near the northwestern part of the park.

Forty-six designated campsites are located on beaches, ancient Indian mounds, and chickees, which are open, elevated, 10-by-12-foot wooden platforms constructed for camping in the mangrove estuary. Each chickee has a chemical toilet and a shelter with a roof. The number of persons on each platform is limited, so reservations are needed. Beach sites don't have toilets or shelters; however, some ground sites have toilets.

Flamingo is also the southern terminus of the 99-mile-long Wilderness Waterway, a marked powerboat and paddle trail that traverses the backcountry of Everglades National Park beginning at the Gulf Coast Ranger Station and Visitor Center in Everglades City on the southwestern Florida coast.

The Wilderness Waterway trip, which takes at least one day by powerboat and eight days by canoe, should not be attempted without careful planning, and a full understanding of how to use navigation charts and conditions expected in the Everglades backcountry.

Regardless of the length of trip you plan, ask for a backcountry trip planner and purchase navigation charts from the Flamingo Marina. You can also order charts from the Florida National Parks and Monuments Association, 10 Parachute Key #51, Homestead, FL 33034-6735, (305) 247-1216, www.nps.gov/ever/fnpma.htm The planner contains safety information such as how to file a float plan, recommended navigation charts, and descriptions of the various sites.

A backcountry permit is required to use any of the backcountry campsites. A fee is charged and permits are available only 24 hours in advance from the ranger station in Flamingo.

Flamingo To Cape Sable

Cape Sable is the name given to the southwestern tip of the Florida peninsula. For the purposes of campers, boaters, and anglers, the name refers to the three sandy capes along the coast and the 15 miles of deserted white beach that connects them. The cape is separated from the rest of the park by Whitewater Bay, Lake Ingraham, and the East Cape Canal.

Each of the three capes is a designated backcountry campsite. East Cape is 10 miles southwest of Flamingo and is the southernmost point in the continental United States. Five miles beyond, around the tip of Florida to the northwest, is Middle Cape, arguably one of the finest campsites in the park. And 5 miles beyond that is Northwest Cape, a less popular but no less attractive campsite.

The 5-mile stretch of beach between East Cape and Middle Cape is one of the most scenic spots in all of Florida. Pure white beaches separate the dark green vegetation from the deep blue water. Yucca plants (Yucca aloifolia), coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), and gumbo-limbo trees give the thick tangle of vegetation above the beach a true tropical flavor. More lightly colored sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) and sea oats (Uniola paniculata) anchor the soft ground at the top of the beach.

The Cape Sable beaches are bright white because they're composed more from seashells than sand. A handful of the beach sand reveals tiny shells of all sizes and colors mixed in with the powdery residue of millions and millions of crushed seashells.

Exploring inland past the fringe of thick vegetation above the beach reveals a wide overwashed coastal prairie similar to the prairies found west of Flamingo. Thick patches of Spanish bayonets (Yucca aloifolia) and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia vulgaris) can make walking difficult in some places. Red mangroves surround a couple small inland lakes.

Since the 1600s, Middle Cape has been the site of a small Spanish fort, a cattle ranch, and a coconut plantation. Because of its isolation, it's also been used over the years as an exit point for fleeing Confederate dignitaries after the Civil War, and an entrance point for illegal aliens.

Today, the only signs of man's intrusion are a few coconut palms growing in a row, a couple of nearly overgrown building foundations, and the remains of a cattle dock. Since Cape Sable became a part of Everglades National Park in 1947, the occasional hurricane has swept away most of the other traces of man's earlier presence and helped return the land to its natural state.

Only empty shells are allowed to be collected along the cape's beaches. Live mollusks you're likely to see such as waved whelks (Buccinum undatum) and sand dollars (Mellita quinquiesperforata) cannot be removed from park waters. Common marine animals often seen at the water's edge are horseshoe crabs, common sea star (Asterias forbesi), roughback batfish (Ogcocephalus parrus), and stingrays.

Bird-watchers will enjoy close encounters with great blue herons, willets, double-crested cormorants, royal terns, laughing gulls, semipalmated plovers, and ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres). During the daytime, brown pelicans dive into schools of baitfish just off the beach, while bottle-nosed dolphin attack from below. Flocks of sanderlings can often be seen flitting back and forth just above the beach, changing color with every turn, first showing their dark backs then their light bellies.

At sunset, black skimmers fly low and fast just inches off the beach, trailing their extended lower mandibles in the water ready to snap their beaks closed on any small fish that fails to see them coming. The cape is also a regular stopping place for migrating peregrine falcons, and there's a rare chance you might spot a Cape Sable seaside sparrow. Magnificent frigatebirds can often be spotted riding the rising thermals high overhead.

The best fishing from the beach takes place at Middle Cape because of deeper water near shore and the currents set up by the changing tide. As the tide rises each day, currents begin flowing around the point and over a sandbar that extends into the gulf with ever increasing force. A broad assortment of predators, including seatrout, snook, redfish, and tarpon, are drawn to the fastmoving water to feed.

Nighttime activities can include shark fishing for hard-fighting blacktip (Carcharhinus llimbatus) and spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna), or crabbing for tasty blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) destined for a pot of boiling water.

Camping is allowed at all three of the capes. Boaters will prefer Middle Cape, which has the deepest water nearshore. Canoe and kayakers may find the 10 miles to East Cape far enough. The shape of Middle Cape usually provides a calm harbor on one side or the other during windy conditions.

A backcountry permit must be obtained at the Flamingo Visitor Center no more than 24 hours in advance. All supplies must be carried in and out, including water.

Although the weather is generally mild in the winter, cold fronts can occasionally move through South Florida, quickly dropping the temperature and creating long periods of rainy and windy weather. A second anchor, extra rope, long tent stakes for holding in the soft sand, and plenty of warm clothing are important to pack for a winter camping trip, even if it's 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the day you start out.

In summer, towering thunderstorms can sweep inland from Florida Bay, dropping 1 or 2 inches of rain in less than an hour. Also during warm months saltwater mosquitos and aptly named no-see-ums, which are small biting flies almost impossible to see, can be tortuous. A large supply of insect repellant, and a tent with no-see-um-proof screening is a must almost any time of the year.

The cape can be reached by boat or canoe out of Flamingo. Coast Guard Nautical Chart 11433 will be useful. Boaters should follow the marked channel out of Flamingo and travel west to East Cape. Paddlers can follow the coastline but should be aware of expected tides and wind direction before starting out. As a general rule, don't attempt to paddle against winds over 10 mph, or against the tide for any length of time. In addition, low water between Bradley Key—just west of Flamingo—and the mainland can force you to paddle well offshore to get around the large island.

While in Florida Bay watch for osprey, bottle-nosed dolphin and four species of sea turtles—loggerhead, green, Kemp's ridley, and hawksbill.

An inside canoe route that follows the Bear Lake Canoe Trail and the old Homestead Canal is shown on park maps and described in some park literature, but it is very difficult to traverse and impossible in some seasons. If you're determined to try the inside route, check with the rangers at the information booth in Flamingo for current conditions and allow for additional travel time.

Flamingo To Lake Ingraham

Lake Ingraham is located just inside the extreme southwestern tip of Florida. Named for a turn-of-the-century vice president of the Florida East Coast Railway, it's a shallow, inland, saltwater lake connected by short canals to the Gulf of Mexico at the north end and Florida Bay at the south end. It can be reached only by boat or canoe out of Flamingo.

The East Cape Canal entrance to the lake is located about 9 miles east of Flamingo. A second entrance, the Middle Cape Canal, connects the lake to the sea just above Middle Cape.

Surrounded by a marshy shoreline that's covered with a mixture of red and black mangroves, the lake itself is 4.5 miles long and varies in width from about 800 to 1,500 yards. A shallow channel is marked down the middle of the lake.

It's the incredible bird life that makes a trip to Lake Ingraham worth the effort. Thousands of wading and diving birds feed and rest on the miles and miles of mud flats in the lake. At low tide the birds spread out over the exposed mud flats. As the tide rises, the brown and white pelicans, sea gulls, black skimmers, willets, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and many others gather tightly on the exposed bars to wait for the next tidal change. The lake is an excellent place to see a rare great white heron.

The canals connecting Lake Ingraham to the sea were dug as part of a failed plan to drain Cape Sable and the lands to the north for development purposes. Exposure to the tides immediately began to change the salinity of the lake. The tides also brought erosion and deposits in the form of mud banks, gravel bars, and channels. The East Cape and Middle Cape canals themselves are about three times their original width due to erosion.

Before the canals were opened, the water was fresh enough for turnofthe century steam schooners to use in their boilers. The only way into the lake at that time was through the narrow and twisting Little Sable Creek, which runs from the north end of the lake behind Northwest Cape to the Gulf of Mexico.

An early pioneer and author named Lawrence Will wrote about his experiences in the 1920s while working on the floating dredge that dug the canals to the lake. In a book about his experiences, A Dredgeman of Cape Sable, he refers to Lake Ingraham as the "Lake of Grief" because of the trying times the dredge crew had while attempting to cut a channel through the lake's soft mud.

Attempts at development failed long before the area became a part of the national park, but the canals changed the lake forever. That same organic ooze, however, that caused so many difficulties for the dredge crew, also provides a home to many organisms that in turn have an important role in the food web that draws fish and birds to the lake.

Anglers will find the lake very fishing friendly. Redfish, drum, seatrout, tarpon, and sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) swim in these waters year-round. Both Middle Cape Canal and East Cape Canal are good fishing spots because they have the deepest water around.

If you watch the tides and use a little common sense, there's no reason not to discover Lake Ingraham and all it has to offer. Most small motorized boats can get around in the lake at high tide. Low tide is reserved for canoes or boats with very shallow draft.

Canoeists will not be able to paddle against the tidal current in either of the canals. Also, the slurry of mud and water is deep in places on the lake's bottom, so never assume you can step out into shallow water and actually find the bottom. Probe around a little with a paddle first.

Canoeists wishing to explore the lake should plan to stay at least one night at Cape Sable. Most motorized craft can reach the lake in 30 minutes to an hour.

Flamingo To Canepatch

An excellent choice for an extended adventure into the backcountry is a trip to Canepatch. This remote campsite deep in the Everglades backcountry is touched by many of the habitats that make the park special. It's a 30-mile trip from Flamingo through an unmarked mangrove forest. For canoeists there are a number of other campsites along the way for stopping over.

The Canepatch site is located on one of the many Calusa Indian shell mounds that have dotted the Everglades backcountry for thousands of years. The site was later inhabited by Seminole Indians, until as late as 1928. The campsite was named for the remnant growths of sugar cane left over from a Seminole farming operation. Banana and lime trees still growing on the mound date to that same operation.

The route begins on the freshwater side of the Buttonwood Canal plug and follows the marked channel of the Wilderness Waterway to the Little Shark River, and on to the Shark River. From there the route leaves the Wilderness Waterway behind and turns to the northeast through Tarpon Bay and towards the heart of the Everglades. Finally, it travels a trip down the narrow, winding Avocado Creek to the Canepatch site. Use Coast Guard Nautical Chart 11433 to navigate through the backcountry.

The mangrove forest along the Shark River is one of the largest and most developed mangrove forests in the world. Yet if you look back into the trees you can sometimes pick out the large stumps of long-dead mangroves more than 2 feet in diameter that once reached heights of 100 feet. These giants were destroyed by Hurricane Donna in 1960, but destruction and recovery are part of the natural process of the Everglades, and the younger trees are well on their way to reaching the magnificence of their predecessors.

The area east of Canepatch is characterized by a number of narrow, mangrove-lined freshwater branches (wide creeks) carrying water from the Shark Valley to the Shark River and on to the gulf. This marks the end of the journey for much of the water flowing through the Everglades ecosystem.

If you journey up the largest of these, Rookery Branch, you'll begin to see a change in the vegetation. Red mangrove remains the predominant species for awhile, but there are also a few small willows, some patches of grass and bulrush, and even an occasional stunted cypress. If you keep going for about 4 miles, the mangroves abruptly stop and you soon find yourself looking out over the western edge of the great river of grass.

Although named for a large rookery that no longer exists, Rookery Branch still draws a lot of birds. Wood storks, whitecrowned pigeons, osprey, kingfishers, great blue herons, white ibis and swallow-tailed kites can regularly be seen there.

Fishing is terrific in the waters around Canepatch, in part because of the large number of both freshwater and saltwater species that can be caught nearby. Largemouth bass are plentiful in Rookery Branch and are joined in the winter by snook, redfish, tarpon, gray snapper, and sharks. The saltwater species will make better fare if your interest lies in fried fish for dinner. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has issued a consumption advisory against eating freshwater fish caught in Everglades National Park because of mercury contamination.

Just for fun one night you may want to try shining a light across the water from the dock at Canepatch to see how many sets of glowing alligator eyes you can count. Their eyes looked like eerie little flames and the farther apart the flames, the bigger the gator.

Buttonwood Canal To Coot Bay And Mud Lake

Although you may be passed on occasion by private boats and large tour boats, a trip down the Buttonwood Canal into Coot Bay presents plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities and a chance to witness a situation where man has learned to correct his mistakes.

From the freshwater ramp in Flamingo, boaters and canoeists travel north along the Buttonwood Canal. Watch along the banks for large alligators and one of the few saltwater crocodiles that have taken up residence in the canal. Except for a section of the east bank, both sides of the canal are covered with an intertwining mass of red and black mangrove trees.

Red mangroves are the ones with prop roots like so many legs hanging down into the water. The Seminoles called them the trees that walk. Black mangroves are easy to tell by the pneumatophores (breathing roots) that stick up from the mud all around the tree. Buttonwoods, another type of mangrove, usually are found on the higher ground behind the other two.

Look carefully among the prop roots of the red mangroves for little blue herons, tricolored herons, and yellowcrowned night herons. Watch for osprey perched on top of the highest trees.

Three miles from Flamingo the canal enters Coot Bay. In winter look for migrating waterfowl here.

Following the shoreline of Coot Bay around to the left you'll come to Mud Creek, a narrow, canopied stream connecting to Mud Lake. These waters are also worth fishing. Live shrimp or artificial lures will attract seatrout, redfish, snook, and mangrove snapper. Local anglers concentrate their efforts near either end of Mud Creek where it opens up into the lakes. Another good fishing spot is Tarpon Creek, which connects Coot Bay to Whitewater Bay.

West Indian manatees are often sighted in the Buttonwood Canal and in Tarpon Creek. Their presence is often revealed by concentric upwellings on the surface caused by the swimming motion of the manatees' broad tail. Sometimes you can hear them breach the surface for an occasional breath of air.

Part of the Buttonwood Canal connecting Coot Bay and the inland waters with Florida Bay was dug in 1922, as a spur of the Homestead Canal. In the 1950s, the National Park Service widened the canal from 35 to 50 feet, and extended it north another 0.8 mile into Coot Bay in order to "provide a safe and convenient boating route from Florida Bay to the backwaters of Everglades National Park."

What may have seemed like a good idea for the convenience of boat traffic turned out to be a terrible blow to the natural system. For thousands of years fresh water had flowed from the river of grass into the eastern side of Whitewater Bay and on into Coot Bay. The fresh water played an important role as a nursery grounds for many species of saltwater game fish, crustaceans, and waterfowl. In fact, Coot Bay was named for the thousands of coots that once fed upon the freshwater grasses that grew there.

Although spawned in the Gulf of Mexico, the eggs or larvae of various saltwater species, including pink shrimp, would float by way of the Shark River into the inland bays, where they could grow up safe from attack by large predatory fish less able to tolerate the brackish water. As the fish and shrimp grew larger they moved toward the higher salinities, eventually reaching the same gulf waters they were spawned in.

All that ended, however, when the inland bays were exposed to the tidal forces of Florida Bay. The natural water flow patterns and salinity rates were drastically altered. Fresh water still poured in from the Everglades, but it was immediately swept through the Buttonwood Canal on the first outgoing tide and replaced with saltier water from Florida Bay on the next incoming tide.

Within a few years all signs of freshwater vegetation were gone. Even the sawgrass at the northeastern edge of Whitewater Bay began to retreat. Game fish populations of snook, seatrout, redfish, and tarpon dropped throughout the inland waters. For decades not a single coot was ever seen on Coot Bay.

In 1968, the Buttonwood Canal Restoration Project was initiated and a decision was made to correct the damage by installing a concrete dam next to the marina. On August 2, 1982, 24 years after it was opened, the Buttonwood Canal was closed and the tidal flow of saltwater was finally stopped.

Within a couple years fishing had improved throughout the inland bays. Snook, seatrout, and redfish were again being caught in Coot Bay in numbers not previously recorded. More recently, coots have returned to Coot Bay after a long absence.

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