Boynton Beach, Florida is on our itinerary for two reasons: one, it is where Jim’s mom and stepdad live for the winter and two, Jim’s sister has a condo here that she graciously said we could stay in. After a few days of visiting with Jim’s family, Megan went up to Boone, NC for a long weekend to visit her friend Karen. They had a wonderful time hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, eating delicious food, and looking for the first of the blooming rhododendrons that blanket the hills. It was the first time since we left that Megan needed to wear long pants, socks, and a sweater—a delightful change for this girl who has gotten used to the heat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Jim was joined by his sister Candy, her husband Bill, and his brother-in-law Dana. They all pitched in to close up his mom’s house and get the snowbirds and their dog packed up and on the way to Maine, where they will spend the summer.
Like everywhere else we have been, Florida is interesting! Being back in the US, we have had less to get used to, but many things here are very different than Oregon. Before we get into our life and adventures here, a little background and history. Florida is flat—really, really flat. In the weeks we have been here with all our exploring, we have ranged from sea level to about 15 feet above sea level. Also Southern Florida is a vast wetland. Given the lack of grand topography, elevation changes can be measured in inches. The ecosystem is different on the “high ground” which is only a few inches above the mean elevation of a given area. The lowest areas have standing water year round. Lake Okeechobee (in the middle of the peninsula) is slowly draining downhill, to the south. Water in the lake starts at 15 feet above sea level and will take about a year to travel a little over 100 miles from Okeechobee, through the Everglades, and out to Florida Bay (which is the body of water between the mainland and the Florida Keys). The Everglades is essentially a 50-mile wide river that is just a few inches deep! Given all this wet flatness, almost all the land that people live on has been man made. By digging a ditch, piling up the dirt, and diverting the water flow humans have been creating drier land to live, travel, and play on. Florida’s flora and fauna are unique because this is one of the few places in the world that tropical species and temperate species live side by side. The warm wet environment means life is abundant. Ponds teem with fish, reptiles, insects, birds, and plants. Tree trunks and branches are home to hundreds of air plants. Thousands of migratory birds spend part of the year in Florida.
We have settled into a nice rhythm. Each morning, we begin the day by swimming in the condo association’s pool. We’ve found a fruit and vegetable stand that keeps us stocked for breakfast smoothies, green salads, and watermelon feeds. We’re about a mile from the beach and regularly enjoying walking on the endless soft white sand, swimming in the warm breaking waves, ogling the mansions and gardens built right off the beaches, and sharing it all with the families in the area. Several times we have tried to snorkel but it is always disappointing and difficult in the waves. We learned how quickly and heavily the rain can come here; one walk turned into a wet squish as our clothes became entirely soaked in the first 3 minutes of the downpour. The clouds are constantly amazing and beautiful: small cumulous form off the coast and seem to come scooting over the land just above our heads. This is a car culture with very limited public transport so we have rented a car in order to take advantage of all there is to see around: nature preserves, parks, a Japanese garden, beaches, lakes, museums, etc.
We took a road trip through southern Florida, beginning by crossing what is called Alligator Alley to the west coast and dropping south to Everglades City. Our host recommended a hike in a local swamp: Fakahatchee Strand Nature Preserve. We drove on a dirt road seven miles to get to the trail head and didn’t see any other people out hiking. The Fakahatchee is known for being full of epiphytes, bromeliads, orchids, and royal palms. We hiked along an old raised path built for when they logged the old growth cypress out of the swamp. It was pretty fantastic to be in the swamps like this but the mosquitos were so plentiful we didn’t stop to take any pictures of the amazing plants and trees all around. We saw one water snake (not poisonous) and an alligator; actually, we smelled the alligator before we saw him on the side of the trail and nicknamed him “Ole Stinker.” A couple miles in we came to an old cabin by a sinkhole. Sinkholes occur in the limestone and can be almost 100 feet deep, even though this one was probably more like 10 feet deep. Right now the dry season is coming to an end, which means the swamp is drier than usual (I can’t imagine it with more mosquitos though!) which means that animals congregate to known water sources, like sinkholes. As we stepped out onto this little dock, it quickly became clear that the sinkhole was filled with alligators. Fortunately our dock was up off the water, so we felt safe, and in the hot afternoon sun, so the mosquitos left us alone. We stayed for close to an hour watching about 50 alligators swim around the pond. They were very active, swimming, splashing, feeding, posturing to each other. You can see a short video we took here and many photos under the “Pictures” tab at the top of the page.
The next day we went into Everglades National Park. In a shorter hike there, we were overwhelmed with the quantity of life. The place was teeming with fish, alligators, turtles, birds, algae, plants, and tourists. The animals there are used to people so we were able to get quite close, not by trying, but because these critters live right on the side of the path.
After that, we headed south into the Florida Keys. The Keys are a chain of islands stretching over 120 miles south and west from Miami. In many places, the islands are about a block wide and in other places bridges span up to seven miles between islands. We did our duty by sampling multiple version of key lime pie. We spent a night in Key Largo and another in Key West. We went snorkeling at the fantastic John Pennekamp State Park, where we got close to many large barracuda, a stingray, and an endangered green turtle, large parrotfish, coral heads and many more colorful fish. To get there we took a boat five miles off shore yet our snorkel site was between two and eight feet deep and pretty well beaten by waves breaking on the reef.
In Key West, we enjoyed the people watching, the art galleries, the old architecture, the infamous daily sunset celebration in Mallory Square, and the good food. It was a riot to watch the crowd gathering for the sunset; many buskers performed for tips while boats sailed back and forth in the channel behind them. Our host let us borrow beach cruisers and we joined the throngs of slow cyclists criss-crossing town. We toured the Audubon House and southernmost point of the contiguous US, where we were closer to Havana than Miami!
The Audubon House is a museum that once was the home of a wealthy Key West family who earned their fortune salvaging wrecked boats off the keys. Mr. Audubon himself once used part of a limb from a tree on the yard as a model for a drawing.The house contained a superb collection of first edition Audubons, artist proofs, and period furniture. Panels explained the history of Key West told through the story of one family; they lived in the house for four generations. The grounds were compact, peaceful, shady and had a nice garden of tropical plants.