Exploring the Mangroves

Paddling with Shurr Adventures

The mangroves that we saw at power-boat speed in the Ten Thousand Islands looked like identical, homogeneous, round, dark green clumps – not very interesting to look at and not much to explore.  Paddling among the mangroves yielded a different picture!  It turns out that the mangroves themselves are fascinating plants, and our time on the water certainly felt like an adventure into the wilderness – glad we had guides to help us along!

The first morning of our trip, we got up early and met our Shurr Adventures guide in a crossroads parking lot.  The East River was just a few miles down the road, and the kayaks were soon unloaded!  Our guide was a bit apprehensive to find out he’d be leading a couple of naturalist-types, but he seemed pleasantly surprised to learn that we already felt comfortable in the boats.  He got us out on the slow-moving river (in the dry season, the current wasn’t very apparent) and immediately set out to find us some alligators!  It was definitely a new experience to be that close, nearly at water level, with those powerful creatures, and we got some tips on how to avoid irritating them, along with a few facts about their biology.  On our half-day trip we were able to see a few different ecosystems in that general area, from the shallow mangroves to a marl flat, to the pine savannas in the distance.  This was a great introduction to the systems that we would be exploring for the next week!

National Park Service guided trip on the Nine Mile Pond Canoe Trail



We got out in boats again towards the end of our trip, joining a seasonal ranger from Everglades National Park in a group paddle at Nine Mile Pond.  If you are able to, I strongly recommend getting in on one of these trips, as they provide all of the necessary gear and it is entirely free of charge (advance sign-up is required).  By this point in our trip, we did not learn much that was new to us, nor did we see anything we hadn’t seen before, but it was certainly a pleasant way to spend the morning.  Nine Mile Pond is also a different ecosystem from the East River – it is not an estuary but entirely fresh water, and mangroves don’t naturally occur there; instead they were blown inland in a strong hurricane a couple of decades ago and have thrived since then.  The trail therefore also passes through sawgrass prairies, one of the main freshwater ecosystems of the park.  The five-mile Canoe Trail (we did half of it) is well-marked with PVC posts, and is therefore definitely very do-able on your own, even if you are not an experienced paddler (but again, the free Park Service program is a great deal if you don’t already have a boat!).




Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

Sunset boat trip (7)

These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

Sunset boat trip (12)

Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.


A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

Sunset boat trip (39)

Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately our guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all


All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it.



Everglades vista – the “River of Grass” dotted with Dwarf Cypress trees

I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process!  It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on!  Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles.  The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth!  Enjoy!

Loess Hills

One of the purposes for my Midwestern road trip was a stop in the Loess Hills of western Iowa.  They are a geological feature, an eco-region, and a socio-cultural distinction, none of which are well known beyond its boundaries!





I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  


In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.


This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.


Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.


Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.


It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…


Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.


In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in


Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

The Best-Laid Plans

“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill.  The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition.  It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”

—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West


The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do notDCP_2966 involve dozens of men for several years.  Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown.  Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself.  I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.



I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts.  Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities.  Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.

However, it is true that I usually pack too much.  Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.”  Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!



The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure.  Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience.  I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way.  Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me.  In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress.  It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.

What about you?  Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating?  Do you have tips to make the process go more smoothly?  What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?


The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago.  We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction.  These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination.  That was, indeed, a frustrating project!  And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without!  Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.


Why Earth Day Doesn’t Matter

A friend sent me a text message this morning, wishing me a “Happy Earth Day!”  Hunh, I commented, I hadn’t realized that was today.  For some reason I thought it was the 24th of April, not the 22nd.

When I got to work, I wished my colleagues the same… and got the same response. “Hunh,” said one, “I thought it was on the 25th for some reason.”

Another wryly commented, “Didn’t you know?  Every day is Earth Day… to a Forester!”

That’s right, folks, our office is full of people whose jobs are to think about the Earth, or at least the environment. We work for an agency whose leader sent out an Earth Day message, thanking us for what we do.  We live in Wisconsin, the state where Earth Day was created, the state whose Wild Rivers legislation formed the basis for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the state where Aldo Leopold lived out his years with his family, the state where our soils, our minerals, our timber, and our waters form the basis for the economy as they always have.  And we didn’t even notice it was Earth Day.

A "sun dog" or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a  hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

A “sun dog” or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

I’m not criticizing us, not myself nor my colleagues.  We might not have made any special effort to conserve water or turn off lights today.  We might have wasted some paper and we surely drove some gas-guzzling trucks around.  But we did our darndest to make the Earth a better place for all of its living things to thrive.  As we do every day.

For me, I can honestly say that no day goes by when I do not think of our natural world in some way.  Sometimes it is indeed taking the extra step to recycle my grocery bags, or composting kitchen waste, or buying local produce.  Sometimes, though, it is just sitting outside on a sunny spring afternoon and breathing deeply.  And being thankful that I live in a place where that is possible.  And hoping that we can maintain the best parts of our Earth, and repair those places where clean air and water aren’t the reality.

The theme of this blog is discovery on our rare planet – discovery of the first blossoms of spring, of waterfalls and oceans, of our diverse human cultures.  This year, I haven’t been doing much exploring, because I slipped on ice and broke my leg, the day after the bulk of our snow melted.  When I have paused from my reading and internet-browsing and other indoor diversions, I’ve felt sorry for myself, because I can’t get out and enjoy the spring of the year.  I have watched as friends posted on Facebook the first wildflowers of the year, the Pasque Flowers and Hepatica.  I am facing the reality that I won’t be walking by the time my Wild Turkey hunting season rolls around next week.  I have been following the progression of spring bird migrations, but haven’t gotten out to see and hear the flocks. I join in the speculation about whether or not this will be a good year for morel mushrooms (I’m voting on the yes side, if the weather pattern holds), but I won’t be stumbling around in the woods looking for them myself.

Yet… I live in a world, on an Earth, where all of this is possible.  I am lucky enough to be able to get out and do all of those things, most of the time.  I have been so fortunate as to see so many of the truly amazing places on our continent and our planet!  And if there is one thing that I know more surely than anything, it is that I want to keep living in this amazing world, and I want future generations to have the same opportunities.

So yes, I forgot that it was Earth Day.  In fact, I don’t really care that it is Earth Day, because, even if it makes me sound like a corny tree-hugger to say it… Every day is Earth Day.  Or it should be.