EVERGLADES CITY -- Everglades National Park rangers Joe Sterchele and Shannon Woolfolk decided to spend a recent day off from work paddling across Chokoloskee Bay, followed by riding bikes at Shark Valley.
It was a fun time that set Sterchele to thinking, “So why not do a triathlon?”
With the addition of a hike in the Big Cypress National Preserve, the first National Park Service Tamiami Trail Triathlon was launched last weekend, with at least five participants completing all three legs in a single day.
I was one of them.
The event, which will continue year-round, consists of a 2- to 3½-mile paddle from Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City to Sandfly Island; a 3-mile loop hike beginning at Big Cypress’ Oasis Visitor Center; and a 15-mile loop bike ride on the tram way at Everglades’ Shark Valley Visitor Center. The three venues, all located on or near Tamiami Trail, are about 20 miles apart.
For Saturday’s kickoff, park rangers were stationed at each leg, guiding visitors who didn’t want to go alone, as well as handing out maps and dispensing advice to those who wanted to do it on their own.
I completed all three legs in about seven hours, and had an absolute blast, but I wouldn’t do it again. Why? Because I got so caught up in striving to get the event done in one day that, afterward, I felt like I missed the point, which as defined by Sterchele is “to see all the diversity along U.S. 41 and give people a reason to enjoy Everglades and Big Cypress at the same time.”
If you are rushing around at top speed, you miss the butterfly lighting on the wildflower beside the Florida Trail; you forego your walking tour of the old settlement at Sandfly Island; and you blast past the scores of big alligators sunning themselves on the canal bank next to the bike path at Shark Valley.
“That’s why we encourage people to take their time,” Shark Valley ranger Maria Thomson said.
In other words, you will still receive your event bumper sticker whether you set a single-day speed record or complete one leg of the triathlon every three months.
I began my triathlon quest at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at about 8:30 a.m., renting a kayak from the concessionaire. I could have waited until later to join Sterchele on his guided canoe tour of the 3½-mile loop trail around Sandfly Island, but I worried it would take too much time away from completing the other events.
I jumped in my kayak and paddled with the outgoing tide across Chokoloskee Bay toward the island — a distance of about 1½ miles. Along the way, I noticed a cheeping osprey in its large, brushy nest atop a navigational sign. I thought I saw the tiny head of a chick pop up in the nest, but because I was so intent on reaching the island, I didn’t stop to watch.
It took maybe a half-hour to get to Sandfly. I beached my kayak and walked up on shore, scaring a flock of squawking ibis from their perch in a gumbo limbo. I snapped a photo of the early 20th century cistern built by settler Charlie Boggess and his family and peered at the trickling remains of their freshwater well. There’s a boardwalk and trail through the island, but I skipped it and paddled back to the visitor center as quickly as possible, passing Sterchele’s group which was just setting out.