25 March 2015

Wee Beasties & Other Random Nonsense {Flamingo, Everglades National Park}

This sign would be more accurate if they replaced the picture of the bird with a picture of a giant mosquito.
After five days camping at Flamingo in the Everglades National Park, we look like we have a case of the measles. We're both covered head to toe with bites and dripping with blood from scratching too much. You know you shouldn't scratch, but you just can't help yourself. 

People had warned us about Flamingo. They told us it would be a once in a lifetime experience. You do it once and you never want to go back because of the wee beasties. And there are lots of wee beasties to contend with - flies, fire ants, mosquitoes and noseeums. The flies are just annoying and you can usually avoid the fire ants, but when it comes to mosquitoes and noseeums, you're out of luck unless you wear netting from head to toe and stay inside your camper with all of the windows and door shut. Even then, they'll manage to find you and leave their mark.

Scamper parked at "A Loop" at the Flamingo campground in the Everglades.
But if you can see past the wee beasties, the Everglades is an incredible place to visit with tons to see and do. And Flamingo is pretty cool to camp at too. We had reserved three nights on Loop A in advance, but it turns out it wasn't necessary. There were plenty of walk-up sites available. Loop A doesn't have any hook-ups and many of the paved drives are pretty short, so it probably won't work for larger RVs who need more space and electric. But because our Scamp travel trailer is only 13', we were able to easily tuck into one of the sites with a few inches to spare. 

After three nights in Loop A, we moved over to the T Loop for a night to plug in, recharge our battery and enjoy some air conditioning. Strangely, T Loop only has electric hook-ups, no water. And it will cost you - $30 a night vs. $16 a night in the non-electric loops. We didn't think T Loop was as nice as A Loop and paying an extra $14 for air conditioning for a night seemed a bit excessive, so we headed back to A Loop for our final night. It's a bit more social in A Loop as most people are tent camping and sitting outside trying to cool off in the breeze. In T Loop, it's all RVs and everyone is inside their air conditioned rigs avoiding the blistering heat. 

Regardless of what loop you stay at, don't count on any warm showers. The toilet blocks are a bit outdated and we never could figure out how to get any warm water to come out of the shower head. But when you're sweating like a pig and covered in bites, an icy cold shower can be refreshing. 
We loved the retro look of the Flamingo Visitor Center and although pink isn't my favorite color, it works.
Flamingo used to be an old fishing village until they kicked everyone out years ago. They rangers probably don't describe it as "kicking" people out, but the end result was that the people's land was bought out and the village was no more. Nowadays, the new Flamingo is home to one of the Everglades Visitor Centers (painted this cool retro pink color). Did you know that it is extremely rare to actually see a flamingo at Flamingo? If you see a pink bird, it's more likely to be a roseate spoonbill. Scott says there is also a pink stork with black wingtips flying around Flamingo. I obviously wasn't paying attention when the ranger mentioned this. For some reason, flamingos used to be my favorite bird when I was little, so I was a teensy bit disappointed not to see one while we were at Flamingo.

Dolphins are so cute, even when they're on a feeding frenzy.
The Flamingo Visitor Center sits on the Florida Bay and is a pleasant place to hang about and look for wildlife. We saw a dolphin on a feeding frenzy when we were there. So hard to capture a good picture of dolphins jumping out of the water, but Scott managed to do it. That's why he's in charge of the camera.

Can you see the tiny sailboat at the far end of the marina? Wouldn't it be cool to sail right up to Flamingo?
Right next to the visitor center is a marina, shop and concession with boat rides and canoe/kayak/bike rentals. It's also a great place to look for crocodiles and manatees. Did you know that the Everglades is the only place where crocodiles and alligators co-exist? As if it wasn't scary enough to worry about running into alligators, you also have to worry about crocodiles.

When the heat gets to be too much hanging about the marina, pop into the visitor center and enjoy their air conditioning, check out the museum and sign up for the free guided canoe trip through the mangroves at Nine Mile Pond. Yes, you read that right - free canoe trip. And they even provide the canoes. If you know anything about us, you'll know that we're cheap and cheerful travelers so we signed up right away. And it was awesome, despite all of the scary looking alligators swimming near us.

They have lots of great ranger programs in the Everglades including a car caravan where you follow a ranger along in your air conditioned car and stop at points of interest in the park. If you like biking, then sign up for the free bike hike at the Long Pine Key picnic area. They provide the bikes - it doesn't get any better than this! We were the only people who showed up for the bike hike so we got a personal tour from one of the wonderful park volunteers.

The boardwalk at West Lake.
If you're into walking, there are a number of nice trails, including some with boardwalks. I love boardwalks. I just thought you should know that. It was hot and muggy while we were at the Everglades, so to be honest, we didn't push ourselves hiking (four miles is probably the longest we did), but there are a lot of shorter walks that we enjoyed including the boardwalks at West Lake and Mahogany Hammock, strolling from our campground to Eco Pond and to the Flamingo Visitor Center on the Guy Bradley trail and trying to find the rest of the trail on the Bayshore Loop (we never did manage to complete the loop).

This evil plant is strangling another tree. It grows over it and takes over until the unwilling host tree dies.
While we were walking, we saw some strange plants as well as some downright dangerous ones. They really should warn you about poison wood in flashing lights when you enter the park. We didn't find out about it until our second day in the Everglades. Apparently, it grows throughout the park and if you touch any part of it, you can develop a rash worse than poison oak or ivy. For some people, the reaction is so bad that they have to go on steroids. After someone told us about poison wood, I started being paranoid of all plants. It isn't just alligators you have to worry about in the Everglades, the plants will get you too.

Pretty bird and its reflection on Eco Pond.
We really need to learn more about birds. It seemed like every other person visiting the Everglades was an avid birder. I can recognize an anhinga now, so I'm making some progress, but other than that, I'm still pretty clueless when it comes to birds.

An example of the diversity of wildlife in the Everglades. We saw this tree snail on our bike hike.
The Everglades are the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the States stretching 1.5 million acres across southern Florida. What makes the Everglades special is that it was established as a National Park in 1974 to preserve its unique ecosystems and diversity of life Unlike some of the other National Parks, such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the Everglades doesn't awe you with its stunning scenery and grand vistas. Instead, you find yourself taken with the subtle nuances of the environment as you explore the different ecosystems contained within the park including dry hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps, prairies and estuaries, to name a few. Attending the ranger-led programs really helps you appreciate and make sense of all the diversity and they open your eyes to the hidden beauty of the park.

But it isn't all nature and wildlife at the Everglades. One of the things that surprised me about the Everglades is that there is a former military base where the soldiers sat ready to launch missiles in the event of an attack from Cuba during the Cold War. We went on a fascinating ranger-led tour of the site, but more on that on Friday :-)

The wee beasties feasted on us at Flamingo from 15-19 March 2015.

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