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.
After quickly changing into jeans and hiking shoes and grabbing a walking stick, I drove to the Oasis Visitor Center, filled out a back-country permit, and conferred with rangers about the loop trail through the Big Cypress. They directed me to head north along the Florida Trail marked with orange blazes, then cut east at a pine forest to follow a series of yellow ribbons leading to the Oasis ORV trail.
I followed their directions to the ORV trail, but wasn’t sure if I was supposed to head north or south. I decided to walk north for a while along the wide, rocky path where I spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers, got yelled at by hawks, and heard the distant call of a barred owl.
After about a mile, I encountered a swamp buggy that was traveling north and decided to turn around. Pausing behind some bushes, I am pretty sure I saw a panther track in the mud. It had imprints of paw pads, but no claw marks.
I got back to the visitor center around 2 p.m., having hiked probably a mile further than the prescribed 3-mile loop. Now it was time to embark on the final leg — the 15-mile bike ride at Shark Valley.
The parking lot was full, so I joined the long line of cars parked along Tamiami Trail. Good thing I had brought my own bike from home because there wasn’t a chance of a rental being available in the park that late in the day. I pumped up the tires and set off.
I hadn’t even made it to the entrance gate to pay my $5 before spotting three gators lounging beside the park road. Water levels are so low in the ‘Glades right now that gators and birds congregate in what has to be the wettest place for miles around.
Pedaling south on the tram way, I probably passed a gator every 100 yards or so. To the ones facing the road, I bid a quick hello as I sped by. I also got quick glances of great blue heron, egret and cormorant on the far side of the canal. A little boy riding a bike just ahead of me reported excitedly to his parents that he had seen a bird with a lizard in its beak. Alas, I missed it.
I think it only took me about an hour to reach the observation tower which marks the halfway point on the loop. I got off my bike, snapped a couple photos of some particularly appealing gators, then rode south.
The wind was in my face, making the going just a bit slower. I arrived back at the visitor center about 4 p.m. and greeted ranger Lydia Smith who asked me three questions about the ecosystems I had, um, explored that day. I won’t give away the questions and answers — that’s for you to do yourself — but I got all three of them right and received my trophies: a bumper sticker, a bottle of water and a granola bar.
As I was standing there beaming with triathlon glory, two more couples showed up — both in their 60s. Robert and Candace Bachorik, visitors from Ellsworth, Maine, and Shirley Kaufman and Dennis Daley, recently relocated to Orlando from Michigan, all had completed the triathlon that same day.
“Our first weekend in Florida, and our first time in the Everglades,” Kaufman said. “Outstanding. Everybody was so nice.”
For the Bachoriks, frequent visitors to the Everglades, the triathlon was a late add-on to the real reason for their trip: Robert, 68, was registered to compete in the Naples Daily News Half-Marathon — his fifth — the following day.
“A lot of fun,” he said of the couple’s day traversing the ‘Glades.
Inwardly, I bet Robert would be in no shape to run 13.1 miles less than 24 hours later.
He did it in just under two hours.