Photo by Robert L. Drake
Outposts and islands have a unique appeal — remoteness, self-sufficient residents and usually an enveloping natural world where you can escape the rat race. Flamingo gives skinny-water boaters all this and more, as the southern outpost of Everglades National Park. The habitats — tropical and temperate, salt- and freshwater, sloughs and shallows, wetlands and uplands — make wildlife viewing in this international bioreserve unsurpassed. Among the native species, including 1,000 plants, 300 fish, 90 mammals and reptiles, 99 butterflies and more than 350 birds, you’ll surely see alligators and white pelicans, maybe even an endangered Florida panther, a toothy American crocodile or a brilliant pink flamingo. Birders, bring your life lists — fishermen, your fresh- and saltwater licenses.
The 33-mile cruise north from Marathon (in the Keys) crosses Florida Bay past dozens of mangrove islands. All but four are protected bird rookeries. From Florida’s west coast, channels lead east around Cape Sable and through the park’s Ten Thousand Islands section. In most conditions boats drawing 4 feet or less should have no trouble making either passage.
However, north winds may reduce channel depths below 3-1/2 feet, so watch your depth sounder, chart and the water color — “brown, brown, run aground.” Rangers recommend a weatherproof copy of NOAA chart 11451. Take heart — a buoyed 4- to 6-foot-deep entrance channel leads to Flamingo Marina, where a 60-footer tied up last winter.
Ashore stretches 1.4 million-acre Everglades National Park, protecting a fifth of the slow-moving freshwater “River of Grass” that originally crept across much of South Florida, nourishing wildlife in cypress forests, sawgrass prairies, hardwood hammocks, and eventually marine estuaries and Florida Bay.
Whether you’re cruising across crystal-clear flats, paddling through mangrove tunnels or following a labyrinthine waterway, you’ll feel you’ve gone back 100 years or more. You’ll see the same views as Spanish explorers, Seminoles and Flamingo’s frontiersmen. Those “Gladesmen” distilled tonsil-clearing moonshine and decimated the flocks of wading birds to sell their feathers — at $50 a pound — for ladies’ hat decorations. The murder of a well-liked deputy sheriff by a plume hunter sparked efforts by the Audubon Societies and conservationists to create Everglades National Park in 1947.
The wilderness reclaimed lawless early 20th-century Flamingo, and in 2005 Hurricane Wilma claimed the park’s lodgings, museum, boat lift and other amenities. Flamingo Marina is open year-round, with 50 slips, water, fuel, ice, pumpout, restaurant, bay and backcountry cruises, and small rental boats. Reservations are recommended — (239) 695-3101. Boat ramps access Buttonwood Canal above and below the dam.
Most boaters visit in the winter, when it’s cooler, drier and there’s less risk of being sucked bloodless by the voracious mosquitoes. Park services are limited in the summer. Especially on weekends, trailer boaters from Florida City come to cruise Florida Bay’s island-dotted shallows or inland along the canals and creeks meandering through the mangroves. The 99-mile Wilderness Waterway to Everglades City draws hardy paddler/campers.
If you walk the short trail to Eco Pond, the only fresh water near the marina, you’ll likely spot wildlife, perhaps eagles. Other trails fan out from the marina. You can hike anywhere in the park, but most visitors prefer their off-trail explorations to be on a ranger-led “slough slog.”
Sunset over Florida Bay with flocks of ibis and egrets flying overhead to their offshore island roosts can be spectacular. The night sky, its stars undimmed by city lights, is another bonus on a Flamingo cruise. www.nps.gov/ever, www.us-national-parks.net
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This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.