on March 18, 2007
At Pa-hay-okee, the road turns south and parallels the general movement of water through the Shark Valley Slough. The landscape is open on both sides, although you can see isolated hammocks of trees on either side of the road. On the map, these look like sharp-edged teardrops in the midst of this not-quite-stream. It’s then that I realized why these stands earned the designation of ‘key’. Of course, when the water levels were higher, their island nature may well have been more obvious.A turnoff to the west leads to Mahogany Hammock, where a boardwalk takes you to another such hardwood stand containing the world’s largest mahogany tree. As opposed to the cypresses, the hardwoods thrive on slight elevations above the water level. These bumps of hard rock have been fertilized by the previous trees that lived and died there. As you continue south, the land becomes wetter, and you reach first of many canoeing opportunities. Right about now, I was beginning to realize what I was missing. Paurotis Pond comes first, followed quickly by Canoe Trails at Nine Mile Pond, Noble Hammock, and West Lake. I hadn’t planned to come this far initially, but having missed my last chance for gas outside the park, it was Flamingo or bust. The Snake Bight Trail heads from the road straight south for two miles to the edge of Florida Bay. A ranger recommended this hike to me when I finally reached Flamingo, but having invested an extra hour of driving I was getting worried about making my flight.I reached Flamingo about 2:30pm, just as clouds took away the bright sunshine. This area was slammed hard by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, and is still recovering. The motel lodging units are still closed, and will apparently remain so. The Park Service is gathering input on several more lower impact options, and won’t begin replacing the units for another year or so. The visitor complex here was aging even before the storm, and the remainder of the 1950s era building is still mostly closed. The museum and visitor center here are minimal, although fully staffed by rangers. I saw no birds during the half-mile trip around Eco Pond, formerly touted as a mecca for birdwatchers. Several trails, including the Coastal Prairie Trail, remain closed. A two-hour excursion into the waters northwest of Flamingo is available, as is a three-hour morning canoe tour (fee $28) with a ranger at Nine Mile Pond, for which I’d love to come back.The store and gas station remain open, and canoe and boat rentals are available from the concessionaire. The campground is also functioning, a terrific spot just off the bay with great views out over the water. It’s pretty wide open, with no trees to separate sites, so not much separates you from your neighbors.
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