Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Survivalman 2: Return to the Fakahatchee

Sequels never live up to the original but when it comes to my adventures with Mike in the Fakahatchee Strand of the Everglades, how can things not improve over the tale of survival from August of 2007?

Mike emailed me a few weeks ago and said he was heading down from Vermont and wanted to face his fears in the Fakahatchee. We had planned on meeting last year to search for 2 rare ferns in the 80,000 acre wilderness and instead he spent a rain-soaked night in the Everglades, listening to bellowing alligators and fearing the consequences of drinking water filtered through his own shirt. It was a life or death experience and now he was hoping to put that nightmare in the past and finally get to searching for the rare ferns we had hoped to find a year ago.

South Florida Jane's Scenic Drive in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park Our 3/10 miles bushwhack GPS track to "the pond" Jane's Scenic Drive
For most people - an invitation to walk knee deep in tannin-stained waters in a remote Everglades swamp with mosquitoes, high heat and humidity and a clausterphobically dense forest would be met with a resounding "no", but with a name like JunglePete, I have to say yes. Our plan was to bushwhack 3/10 of a mile to a pond where 2 rare ferns have been reported. This is no easy task. MaLe and I attempted a similar hike last year during the drought and the tangles of vines, briers, poison ivy and all around thick vegetation make any forward movement a momentous struggle. It took us 2 hours to go 1/2 miles.
Mike was waiting for me when I arrived at teh Ranger station and we drove out the 9 miles to the "trailhead". With cameras, gps, water and Mike's compass we set off for the pond. When Mike asked if I was ready I hesitantly agreed and stepped into 2 feet of surprisingly cool water. It was 9 am. Our judgement will no doubt be called into question when I point out the Water Moccasin pictured below. The snake held its ground before retreating a slow slither back into a rotted out cypress stump. We were well aware of all the dangers and were vigilant in watching every step. This place is truly the land of the lost. Pop Ash, Maples and Pond Apples are well adorned with bromiliads, orchids and vines. Every root, branch and tree trunk is a place for a fern, mushroom or flower to grow. There is little open space as everything competes to survive.

After an hour of slogging through ankle deep water, I paused to look around, giving our second Water Moccasin a chance to slither between the two of us. I shouted an expletive, jumped backwards and watched it swim into a small cypress hammock. My heart racing, I quickly and carefully waded up to Mike. After 90 minutes we began to hear the bellowing of alligators coming from the pond - loud territorial growls intended to keep us at bay. Had any of these alligators ever seen a human before? It's possible they hadn't but like any well behaved alligator, they took to the water and ceased their grumbling. The age old question is answered below. Bears do poop in the woods. That was one big turd. After 4 hours of listening to buzzing, swatting at bugs and sweating through my long-sleeved shirt, I was exhausted. The search for our ferns had been unsuccessful and torn and tattered we began to head back through the tangle of trees. My safari tour hat has suffered greatly - here appearing bent, soaked and dirty. As we dragged ourselves back through the swamp, Mike shouted out. This was something I had gotten used to, but was never sure if it was for a wild animal, a poisonous plant or an exclamation of joy. It turns out that after giving up, we had accidentally stumbled on the rare "Bird's Nest Fern". It looks similar to the common Strap Fern with a few subtle differences. To the common person it no doubt looks like any other green leaf and I wouldn't expect the image of it to change readers world. But after 4+ hours of searching it was truly exciting for us. Thoroughly pleased, we continued on and had just gotten under way when Mike said "Wait - here it is". And there it was - our 2nd rare fern species. An unassuming little thing that even I thought looked like every other green leafy thing. There is a great wilderness here and there can be little doubt that there are other rare species if not completely new species of ferns, flowers, insects and other living things. I wondered how such things could be found. We might have passed over something unknown. Mike said to me later - "You see what you know". Everything else is a mystery to be solved and something new to learn.
Mike suggested he couldn't have gotten anyone else willing to share that experience. You have to be a little nuts. But I couldn't be happier to have had the 2nd chance to get back out there. I'd say the sequel was much better.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gator Hurdling - Let Sleeping Gators Lie

In grade school many of us had to do the standing/running long jump for P.E. (Physical Education) but we were never offered a practical application for it. I assumed it would help if I ever need to jump from rooftop to rooftop like on the A-team. But a young boy had to put that skill to the test on tour yesterday when he had to leap over a sleeping alligator.

He didn't have to so much as he needed to.

My tour brings people to the Fakahatchee Strand State Park where we walk a gravel path to reach an elevated boardwalk. As I walked my group towards the boardwalk we noticed a good sized 8 foot alligator stretched across the path, sunbathing.
As we inched closer you could see her breathing in and out and she had her legs and feet positioned to catch the most rays. This is known in yoga as the "leisurly lizard". With my nervous band of travelers behind me, I took the lead, inviting them to come closer - but not too close. If the alligator was healthy and needed to escape I wanted to make sure she had a clear path. Regardless I always make sure I am the fastest in the group. The gator rotated herself and aimed her body towards the swamp - plopping back down and resting once again.
While we watched and my group bravely shuffled ever closer - a young boy stepped off the boardwalk in front of us. He was around 10 years of age and had gone well ahead of his parents. A teenager in my group yelled for him to stop, but the boy obliviously whistled and kicked rocks, looking at the ground. "Alligator" the boy in my group shouted. The younger boy looked up, shot us a startled....hrrrm...freaked out look, and JUMPED over the tail of the alligator! He cleared a 5-foot swath while the alligator napped on.
The alligator looked a little skinny. This was not normal behavior. Maybe she was sick. Most alligators would have bolted for the water but this one had little intention of moving. It could have easily bitten anyone had it wished to or chomped those that had ignored their long jump lessons in school.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sweet Mother Gator

So startled was I when the mother gator hissed and lunged that I tripped over my own feet and nearly plunged into the water with the mother gator while - yes - trying to run away.

I knew mama gator was around. She's in the same spot nearly everyday, protecting the nest of eggs under the dock. But alligators can make some incredibly loud noises and this 9 foot mama is no exception. Nesting started at the end of June and it takes 63 days or so to incubate so mama will stay put, driving away raccoons, possum, snakes and birds that will try to eat the eggs. She has to be wary of any males that may wander through and eat the babies after they hatch.
The dock that she nests under is taped off to keep tourists out. I was on the dock taking a picture of a grasshopper near the nest when mama let me know I was too close.
For the best results - turn the volume up before playing the video. This was her second attempt to drive me away after my heart rate had settled.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Ben Franklin Commemorative Hot Dog Eating Contest

You might think it patriotic to scarf down hot dogs on Independence Day - it would seem Founding Father Ben Franklin partook of several hot dog eating competitions in his day but that is not a fair assumption. For many years of his life he avoided eating meat and is credited in introducing Tofu to the New World. He was quoted as saying "simply mix it with cranberries and cabbage and it takes the taste of it - delightful!" I made the quote up, but presumably William Whipple and Nathan Gorham, both fellow founding fathers rebuked many an invitation to dine with Treehugger Ben.

This all comes up because of the "Latest Headlines" I read in today which are apparently listed in order from highest to lowest priority. #3 and #4 are listed below.

American keeps hot dog eating crown
Founders wouldn't be impressed, poll shows

It would seem that one headline has little to do with the other but their juxtaposition had me thinking that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would be peeved that Hot Dog eating competitions rank as news.

The poll regarding the founding fathers gives no insight as to why contemporary Americans feel the founding fathers would have been disappointed. But the sentiment is there.

232 years and look how far we have come....

Thomas Jefferson - "I hope we shall crush ... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Sorry Tom - We have become the United Corporations of America.

Benjamin Franklin - "Any people that would give up liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety."

Sorry Ben - But at least they call it the Patriot Act.

Benjamin Franklin - "We must all hang together, or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

I don't get this one - I think he was referring to chilling with some homies and kicking back some Ale?

James Madison - "Americans [have] the right and advantage of being armed, unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust their people with arms."

Um...could you have been a little more specific? Are we talking assault rifles, tank busters and armor piercing bullets?

Thomas Paine - "A generous parent would have said, 'if there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

1775-1783 American Revolutionary War
1812-1815 War of 1812
1816-1818 First Seminole War
1835-1842 Second Seminole War
1846-1848 Mexican American War
1855-1858 Third Seminole War
1857-1858 Utah War
1861-1865 American Civil War
1898 Spanish American War
1899-1913 Philippine American War
1917-1918 World War I
1941-1945 World War II
1950-1953 Korean Conflict
1959-1975 Vietnam War
1991 Persian Gulf War
2001-Present War in Afghanistan
2003-Present War in Iraq

I could go on but I dare not invoke charges that I am not a Patriot. I love this country. I have a great deal more freedoms than found in just about any other country in the world.

I just think we should always strive to be better.

Happy Birthday U.S.A. Time to go eat my tofu hot dog.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Turtle Speed Bumps

When given the opportunity, most of us would avoid running over an animal with our vehicle but this is not a universal sentiment.

A few days ago I stopped to rescue a Softshell Turtle that had been hit. I could see it in the road from about 1/2 a mile away and yet car after car passed it by without care. It was clearly struggling and when I stopped, to the annoyance of a vehicle that was forced to change lanes and go around me (SORRY - grrr), I could see that the turtle's back half was crushed. It could not survive but I could see the flies, ants and mosquitoes already starting to congregate and still the turtle desperately attempted to drag itself across the road.

I gently placed the turtle in a reusable shopping bag and tucked it into the back of my new car (and selfishly hoped it would not move around and make a mess). I was on my way to Sanibel Island and knowing there is an animal rehab center out there, I called them and let them know I was coming in.

I was pessimistic when I handed the poor turtle over to them. They gave me a phone number and told me I could call and check back but I didn't. There's no way it could have survived. But they said if they could not help her they would put her down to prevent further suffering.

In the clinic I noticed an Endangered Gopher Tortoise shuffling around, its carapace (upper shell) caved in from a serious accident.

The turtle had been brought in and miraculously rehabed to the point where it will be able to be returned to the wild soon. So it was heartening to see a success story in person.

Humans can be compassionate for each other and for the natural world but there are so many that are cruel and ambivalent towards nature. I can't imagine how anyone can hit a turtle and leave it (or any wildlife for that matter).

I'm grateful for the volunteers and staff members of C.R.O.W (Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife) for all of their efforts and have become a member to help them continue to do great work.

Whether a snake, turtle, raccoon, opossum, deer or any other creature - they aren't speed bumps and we all need to slow down a little and give them a chance.