“I think he had been lying there, sunning himself,” says Clay, 12.“When he saw us pull in, he got this look on his face like, ‘What are you doing here? This is MY campsite.’ ” Clay wasn’t scared, just shocked. “I’d never seen an alligator up close like that in the wild,” he says. Eventually, the half-grown reptile went on his way, preferring not to spend his weekend with a bunch of noisy campers. In December, nearly 100 Scouts from eight South Florida troops gathered at Camp Everglades, nestled in Florida’s Everglades National Park, for their annual district camporee.
While the Scouts participated in the usual activities — starting a fire without matches, building a cooking tripod, tying different kinds of knots, creating a stretcher and transporting a “victim” to help — they did it in uncommon terrain. And that meant challenges they hadn’t encountered elsewhere.
More Than Bugs
The Everglades, which spans the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, is the largest subtropical wilderness left in the United States. Home to a 1.5 million-acre shallow river with slow-moving water, the Everglades is often called “the river of grass” because the tall, sharp blades of sawgrass are so thick that the water is barely visible in many places. While some people think the Everglades is just a bug-infested swamp — and during much of the summer, it is — it’s still a great place to pitch a tent when the weather cools off.
The best time to camp in the Everglades is late November through early March, when temperatures during the day average in the mid-70’s and nighttime temperatures are in the mid-50’s. “It’s my favorite place to camp,” said 18-year-old Eagle Scout Jeff Happell, a veteran of camps all over South Florida. “It’s so open and peaceful there. “It’s just you and nature.” Crocodiles, red-shouldered hawks, water moccasins, peregrine falcons and even manatees inhabit the Everglades. Signs throughout the park warn visitors about the endangered panthers that live there, though the cats are rarely seen. The Everglades is also a refuge for large, beautiful birds including the wood stork, great blue heron, anhinga, roseate spoonbill and many species of egrets.
But the Everglades is famous for its No. 1 predator: alligators. It’s not unusual to hike through the park and encounter one — or several. Unless provoked, alligators generally won’t harm humans.
A Unique Experience
The beauty of Camp Everglades isn’t just the unique wildlife. It’s the whole experience. For example, the Everglades is flat and mostly swampland. Finding dry wood for a fire can be difficult. “You find all the dry stuff you can, and as your fire gets hotter and hotter, you put the wet stuff on and hope it dries out,” Clay says. And then there are the snakes. While snake encounters aren’t common, they do happen.
A few years ago, Eagle Scout J.P. Grillo, then 18, wandered into a latrine area of the camp. Suddenly, he heard a rattle. His heart pounding, J.P. looked down and realized he was urinating on a sixfoot-long diamondback rattlesnake that was coiled and ready to strike. When he jumped back, the snake struck at the Scout, barely missing him. Scouts are warned to make a lot of noise if they walk around in the woods. That should scare off the rattlesnakes. And, hopefully, the Burmese pythons. Unwelcome Visitors Pythons are not native to the Everglades, but for years, pet owners have been illegally releasing them when they get too large for their homes. The pythons are now breeding, and park environmentalists have found eggs and babies. No human has been attacked by a python, but a few weeks before the December camping trip, park rangers discovered the mutilated body of a 13-foot python that exploded after eating a six-foot alligator. Scientists aren’t sure what happened — only that it didn’t end well for either predator.
Just as the Everglades brings challenges to campers, it also brings great enjoyment. One of the Scouts’ favorite activities is hiking the trails through the park, especially the Anhinga Trail. On the Anhinga, visitors follow a winding boardwalk that crosses over a sawgrass marsh for a clear view of alligators, turtles, herons, egrets and other large wading birds and the diving bird for which the trail is named. Some troops have hiked through the marsh — which at times can be nearly waist-high — to get to hardwood hammocks, which are islands of trees where birds nest and animals such as bobcats and raccoons forage for food. “Last year, we were hiking through the marsh and saw white-tailed deer that were walking in it, too,” Clay said. You see? There’s plenty of room in the Everglades for Scouts to share with the animals. Just watch where you pee.
What Is the Everglades?
Florida’s Everglades often is pictured as just a sawgrass marsh, but it also contains thick forests, open prairies, offshore coral reefs, rivers, lakes and ponds. Many species of plants and animals live there, including dozens that are threatened or endangered.
In the early 1900’s, as Florida’s population was expanding, legislators considered the Everglades a useless swamp and authorized digging canals that drained water from Lake Okeechobee — a major source of fresh water — to use in farming and development. The effects were devastating. Nearly half of the animals’ habitat disappeared, as did many of the plants and animals themselves. Panthers and black bears today are all but gone. The number of wading birds has declined more than 90 percent, and in recent years, alligators have experienced reduced reproduction; some years the endangered wood stork hasn’t reproduced at all. Fish in some parts of Everglades National Park are unsafe to eat because of mercury contamination.
In 2000, the government began one of the largest restoration projects in the world when it launched a 36-year, $8 billion project to reverse the damage done to the Everglades and to bolster wildlife populations. To learn more about the Everglades, go to www.nps.gov/ever.