Sunday, December 12, 2010

Big Cypress

 I grew up knowing the Everglades was nearby and I think all elementary students go on a fieldtrip with the requisite airboat ride through sawgrass, but about 5 years ago I went to one of the Water Conservation Areas as part of my internship with NRCS.

We went on an airboat with an FWC employee and a professor from UF. The FWC employee was going to different tree islands to check the tapes on motion sensor cameras that track large animals, like panthers, as they migrate from island to island. My supervisor and I were there to assist the professor in collecting a certain species of water lily that grows near the islands for her research on phosphorous uptake.

That trip was one of the coolest things I had experienced at that point in my life. The airboat ride (not a touristy "lets scare the gators thing"), wading in the water, and exploring the tree islands were so unlike anything I had done before and had never imagined I could.

After that day, I decided I had to get a job in the Everglades. That's something I'm still working on, since I don't have a masters degree yet and am not willing to compromise my health insurance for a seasonal field work job. However now that the park ranger programs have opened up for the winter season, I am trying to go to the parks every time I visit that area.
So this past Thanksgiving weekend, I made sure to reserve spots for my dad and I on a ranger led swamp walk in Big Cypress National Preserve. The trail we took started out right across Tamiami Trail from the Oasis Visitor's Center.

Here are my dad's shoes as he's trying to avoid the mud. The park ranger explained that we had to walk in the muddy trail or else we would all trample the surrounding plants.
Another picture of my dad in front of me. You can see the trampled, muddy trail. 
As we got closer to the cypress strand, the water got deeper and cooler as it washed out the mud in our shoes and slowly soaked our pants.
This is what the cypress looked like when we entered the trail, small and thin. You can see the strand of cypress in the background. Those trees are taller and thicker, not because they're older but because the elevation is lower there and there is water for longer periods of time. The stunted cypress in the foreground are (probably) the same age as the larger ones but their ground dries out faster in periods of no rain, so they don't grow as quickly.

 This is a picture of a bromeliad on a cypress trunk. These airplants, also called epiphytes, attach themselves to the trunks of trees. They get all of their nutrients from the air and the rain.
Look at all those hairy bromeliads!
Partially submerged in the water is lemon bacopa. There is a purple flower, but I don't remember if that belongs to the bacopa or another plant. Lemon bacopa smells like eucalyptus or menthol when you crush it up. 
It was really peaceful in the cypress stand. Most of the leaves have already fallen off for winter, but the light came down through the clouds and branches. 
 The water became deeper as we slowly felt our way further into the swamp.
The water is a dark tea color from the tannins in the cypress leaves, so it was hard to see what you were going to walk into next. Here is my dad stepping up out of the water and over a log.
 We eventually ended up a gator hole. This is a large pond that is deeper than the surrounding areas. There was a juvenile gator basking on a log and some egrets in the background. Sadly I am too short and didn't get a good picture of it. Also, we were all standing on the edge of the pond, being quiet so that we didn't scare away any animals. You can see alligator flag in the foreground of this picture. The park ranger explained that this aquatic plant lives in deeper water than the rest of the prairie, and the hunters used it to know when they would come across a gator hole, hence the name "alligator flag".
After the gator hole, we looped around and came out to the drier prairie. We took the same trail back to the road and rinsed off at the visitor's center. This was a great experience, but not for those squeamish about getting muddy or wet or close to gators/spiders/etc. 
The change of clothes recommended when you reserve your spot was definitely needed!

No comments: