E This wasn’t supposed to be a race across Chokoloskee Bay, but it surely felt like a struggle — plunging my canoe paddle into the wind-whipped, frothy estuary and digging down as hard as I could. My paddling partner Jack, a stranger from Colorado who had never paddled before, seemed blithely unconcerned about the 20-knot gusts that threatened to push us way off course to the north. And he wasn’t paddling very hard, either.
“Whatever you do, do not lean and tip us over,” I growled between gritted teeth.
Water temperatures were running around 60 degrees, and I was not ready to take an extemporaneous swim and risk hypothermia. Fortunately, Jack stayed upright and balanced despite whitecaps battering our canoe amidships, and we made it safely back to Everglades National Park’s Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
A couple who had accompanied Jack, paddling in a separate canoe, was not so lucky. They got blown so far off course that a ranger in a motorboat had to rescue them.
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“This has turned into an Iron Man,” park ranger Margaret Barse declared in massive understatement.
Barse was in charge of last month’s first-ever, ranger-led Tamiami Trail “Try-athlon,” and our group of 18 had just completed the first leg — a 3 1/2-mile, round-trip paddle to and from Sandfly Island. The event was launched two years ago by park rangers as a way of encouraging South Florida residents and visitors to “experience the diverse habitats and recreational opportunities offered along the Tamiami Trail/U.S. 41,” according to a news release. Besides the paddle, the group would hike a 3 1/2-mile loop through the Big Cypress National Preserve starting at the Oasis Visitor Center then conclude with a 15-mile-loop bike hike on Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley tram route. Participants may do each leg at their leisure at any time of year, but this was the first sanctioned single-day event.
“This is not a race,” Barse told prospective try-athletes just before we set out in canoes and kayaks. “This is a group activity. We are going to start together and finish together.”
Which almost happened, except for the gale-force winds. Jack and his two friends opted out of the remainder of the activities. Now the field was down to 15.
Conditions were much more favorable for Leg 2 at the Big Cypress. Clouds shielded us from the midday sun and the breeze kept insects at bay. The knee-deep water that often covers the Florida Trail had evaporated, leaving it mostly dry and only a little muddy.
Ranger Wesley Millar conducted the group north past the park airstrip through a grassy prairie to a forest of slash pine and into a hardwood hammock of palm and oak. He spoke almost proudly of the diverse habitats to be encountered in a short walk through the preserve. In the distance, we could see majestic cypress domes where the water is actually deeper than the surrounding forest. But as it was around noon, we didn’t see a lot of birds. Heading south back to the Oasis Visitor Center on a rocky off-road vehicle trail, we passed several beautiful cardinal air plants decorating the trees.
It was amusing and ironic watching scores of tourists — including some of my fellow try-athletes — gazing and pointing at a handful of alligators lounging in the watery ditch in front of the visitors center.
Little did they know that they were about to visit Gator Central on the final leg of our non-competition.
Shark Valley, as usual, did not disappoint the gator gazers. I passed the first one on my bicycle before I even reached the parking lot. Two more big reptiles lounged beside the canal that runs along the tramway. The park was packed with eager visitors and ranger Shaun Miller had to scold a tourist who squatted down too close beside a gator to snap a selfie.
We set out on our bikes, led by an enthusiastic Miller who told us we might encounter a female American crocodile — a rare sight — near the tall observation tower that marks the halfway point on the path.
“We don’t know how she got here,” Miller said.
En route, we passed scores of gators half-in, half-out of the water as well as great blue heron, anhinga and ibis. But when we parked our bikes at the tower, the croc was nowhere to be seen.
By now it was late afternoon and I think our party really wanted to conclude Leg 3 before dark. The group picked up the pace quite a bit pedaling along the “back” side of the loop. But we stopped long enough to admire several wood storks and beautiful roseate spoonbills feeding in the puddles of the mostly dry River of Grass.
We try-athletes looked pretty ragged by the time we arrived back at the parking lot. But we posed, smiling, for group pictures astride our bikes and happily received our “trophies” of a bumper sticker, bottled water, granola bars and park brochures.
“You have seen the Everglades,” Barse intoned.
And should you decide to take in this rich, fascinating ecosystem in the company of rangers, you’ll have your chance on April 4. Make reservations by calling 239-695-3311.