I'm hoping to see an otter," said the English tourist standing next to me on the Anhinga Trail boardwalk in Everglades National Park. We were watching the wildlife in Taylor Slough. Actually she was watching, I was busy taking notes and pictures to help with the writing of this book.
Around us the slough teemed with wildlifeAnhingas, cormorants, alligators, kingfishers, great blue herons, and snapping turtles were either searching for one last unsuspecting meal or settling in somewhere to await the night. But her trip would only be complete she said, if she got to see an otter.
Many visitors come to the Everglades on a sort of quest, a determined desire to see a certain animalmaybe a crocodile, a panther, or a manatee. I've been on those quests, and the only problem with being on one is that you risk overlooking some of the other incredible sights and sounds.
After her party moved on, I put down my pen, stored my camera, and just watched the slough as the light slowly dimmed. As often happens in those moments, old memories had a chance to resurface.
I was 12 years old the first time I stood at this very spot on this trail. My family had moved from Iowa to South Florida that year, 1964, and our initial trip into the Everglades might as well have been a trip to another planet.
To a young man accustomed to corn fields and farm ponds, here was a vast wilderness of sawgrass and tree islands. A place with unimaginably strange wildlifea bird, with a neck like a snake, swimming beneath the surface and spearing fish with its sharp beak; an alligator lying next to the trail oblivious to the people passing by only a few feet away; a water moccasin coiled on a mat of reeds totally uninterested in a purple gallinule walking daintily by on its big yellow feet.
A couple months later we loaded up the old '59 Ford and took the long drive over the bridges to Key West. Again, here was another worlda chain of emerald green islands connected by a series of narrow, and somewhat scary bridges. The Keys are neighbors to the Everglades, yet completely different in every way.
We stopped at an attraction where dolphins leaped out of the water on command, and where boats with glass bottoms revealed an incredible undersea world that before I had only known in black-and-white television shows like Sea Hunt. In Key West we visited the "southernmost" point in the United States and ate lobster fresh off the docks.
I was hooked, and for the next 35 years, from the time I was old enough to drive, explored every part of both of these strange new worlds, sometimes with friends, sometimes with my wife, and sometimes alone. There were diving trips to the coral reefs, wild weekends in Key West, and week-long wilderness adventures into the Everglades backcountry.
Throughout this book I've tried to call upon those experiences, to provide not only an accurate guide to the various destinations in the Keys and the Everglades but also to provide a personally detailed guide that should help you look behind the scenes a little, where only longtime residents and repeat visitors know to look.
I've also tried to recommend the best restaurants and lodging facilities, but that's difficult in places like Key West or Naples that have so many from which to choose. And I've included dive shops and marinas and guide services that I have personal knowledge of, or have interviewed specifically for this book.
The best advice I could give for enjoying your visit, however, might be to recognize that the Florida Keys and the Everglades are two vastly different landscapes that should be approached with somewhat different attitudes.
Visit the Keys with an open, bright spirit, looking for fun in the sun. Snorkeling, swimming, diving, fishing, dining, and shopping are all part of the Keys experienceso are crowds in the winter, some traffic problems and sometimes endless commercial strips of development. But the islands, and the blue pastel seas that surround them, have a way of grabbing hold and taking over.
A trip into the vast Everglades should be approached with a little more composure, with an expectation of coming closer to nature if only to observe, to learn, or to understand a little more about life itself. It's a land where wildlife is a constant part of the landscape, where binoculars and a good pair of hiking boots are more important than a restaurant guide, and where a little planning can make a big difference in the experience you come away with.
You'll also discover a great deal of history on these pages. How else would it be possible to know the whole story of South Florida? In the Keys and Everglades it's a history that lies very close to the surface where evidence of the area's earliest inhabitants is still obvious in huge shell mounds that they left behind. The Everglades are so young that man had been living in Florida more than 5,000 years before they even formed.
The Keys and Everglades have changed during all the years I've been coming here. Bulging population centers on the southeast and southwest coasts continue to push against these lands. The Keys have grown ever more commercial, both thriving and suffering from a still-growing tourist trade. The Everglades have been dealt one severe blow after another from political battles over land use and water supply; either there's too much or too little.
Nevertheless, despite these pressures and problems the Keys and Everglades still hold the same fascination and opportunities for recreation and adventure they always have. And as Floridians we are far more proud of the arching Florida Keys and magnificent coral reefs than we are of the condominiums or the Interstates, and we are far more proud of the Everglades and its still bountiful wildlife than we are of the politicians and developers that place profit ahead of protection.
It is the Everglades and the Keys that make this special state even more special. For the people of South Florida and the world, they represent nature that is not yet lost, not yet paved over. So when you visit, step lightly, but enjoy thoroughly these unique destinations. Every decision not to pluck a flower blossom from the sawgrass prairie, or not to touch a piece of fragile coral will ensure it's there for the next person to enjoy.
One thing is certain, you won't go away unaffected by the stunning beauty of the Keys or the deep emotional context of the Everglades. My career as an outdoor writer and conservationist all started with my first trip in 1964. What the Keys or the Everglades mean to everybody who visits, however, is up to them. It can be a life-changing experience, or just a chance to see an otter; both are important.