Much as we hated to leave Key West, the road was calling. We had plans to see alligators in the Everglades, friends in Tampa, and manatees in Crystal River so we loaded up and headed toward the mainland. The mangrove forests, the skittering iguanas, the crystal clear waters, and the distant boats all seemed more familiar on the way north – like old friends, warm and comfortable and known, far removed from the frantic hustle of life away from the sea.
Our first stop was Fort Myers, not a destination in itself but a good jumping off point for a day exploring Everglades National Park, a unique combination of ecosystems that covers nearly 1.5 million acres of southern Florida. We parked the bus at a great little RV park and headed out early the next morning for a guided tour. Our guide Linda, a native Floridian and incredibly knowledgeable naturalist, gave us a great overview of the park on the drive down to Monument Lake. Although we had seen quite a few gators in the water along the road, it was nothing like seeing them up close and personal from a flat bottomed air boat! Before we even got on the boat, though, we got to hold a baby alligator and a baby crocodile while our guide explained the difference between the two. Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live in the same ecosystem. The air boat, which is essentially a wide boat with a giant fan on the back for propulsion, took off slowly from the dock before gunning it out across the lake to skirt the grassy shoreline. The variety of wildlife was amazing! Tons of birds, from nesting bald eagles to long legged herons and diving cormorants, plus of course the stars of the show – gators! We saw alligators hunting, sunning themselves, swimming, and even one pretty small gator dragging a big fish out of the water.
After a drive through the Big Cypress Swamp (with more gators, of course), we stopped for lunch with gator tail appetizers. Yum! (I wouldn’t really say yum. -Ayrril) Then we hit the water again on a much bigger boat, a National Park Service sponsored ferry tour of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. We saw lots of birds, of course, and the islands themselves are beautiful, but the most remarkable part of the trip was watching the dolphins play around the boat. A very playful pair rode the bow wave for a long time, essentially surfing along in front of the boat, leaping and diving right beneath our noses. At other times, dolphins would head to the back of the boat to cavort in the wake, bursting out of the white trail to crash back down with an enormous splash. It looked like fun!
The next stop was Tampa, where we met up with some more old friends for dinner. Mary and Madison and Tyler were very good friends from our North Carolina days. Carson and Madison were playmates as babies and now they’re 15! We made plans to meet at Busch Gardens the next day for roller coasters and, well, roller coasters! Unfortunately, the excitement started before we even got into the park. As we were waiting at the light to turn into Busch Gardens, we got rear ended by a big van. Luckily he swerved at the last minute so he didn’t hit us dead-on. He did crush the back right corner of the Jeep and sent us smashing into the car in front of us, which bent our tow bar. Luckily no injuries, his insurance is covering all of the repairs, and the Jeep was still drivable, so we headed in to Busch Gardens just a little later than expected. Carson rode his first looping roller coaster, Bridger rode his first real roller coaster ever, and we all left happy.