July is National Parks and Recreation Month and we’re kicking-off a series of blog posts featuring the people that protect and preserve our parklands— the park rangers.
The first feature in our series paints a picture of the only subtropical preserve on the North American continent. Perhaps one of America’s most exotic national parks, the Everglades is the largest designated wilderness in the southeast. Home to 14 endangered and 19 threatened species, it is the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere. We spoke about the park recently with Everglades Forestry Technician, Wildland Firefighter and Fire Public Information Officer, Katie Budzinski.
Katie says that, given her job, every day is a new adventure – whether it’s engine checks, tweeting for the park or suppressing a wildfire, her responsibilities range far and wide. That said, she’s much more than a fire expert. In her line of work, she’s seen the ins and outs of what makes a trip to the Everglades extra special.
Katie has a few tips for anyone planning a visit to the park:
1. Plan on trying to spend at least one full day seeing the park. For a more in-depth discovery, plan on several days.
2. Go on ranger-guided programs, like a canoe tour of the Ten Thousand Islands or Nine Mile Pond in Flamingo, bike the Pine Rocklands in the Royal Palm area of the park or take a stroll on the Anhinga Trail. These programs are free, educational and an exciting way to see the park. Ranger-led tours are offered from January to April each year during the peak visitor season.
3. A good time of year to visit is November-December, prior to the busy season, when migrating birds are moving through the park and mosquitoes are starting to decline. It’s a perfect time for family excursions. The dry season, November-April, is a more favorable time of year to visit the Everglades based on good weather, lack of mosquitoes and abundance of wildlife. During the wet season, animals disperse due to rising water levels throughout the park and mosquitoes become more prevalent.
4. At dawn and dusk during the breeding season, Mzarek Pond near Flamingo draws crowds of birders and photographers. The variety of birds includes the flashy pink roseate spoonbills. It’s like watching a National Geographic’s adventure in person.
5. On the north end of this vast wilderness is a special treat off of Highway 41-Tamiami Trail: Loop Road. It’s a serene and beautiful road that passes through a cypress strand, rich with bromeliads and orchids hanging with Spanish moss in the ethereal cypress trees. Alligators and birds are plentiful during the dry season, and a few visitors have seen Florida panthers around dawn and dusk.
6. Monthly ranger-led birding excursions, such as “Big Day Birding Adventures,” take visitors on birding day trips to find and identify native and migrating species.
7. A moonlight bike ride to the Shark Valley Observation Tower, whether ranger guided or on your own, is an excellent way to visit the park at night, or join in on a New Moon Star Party to gaze at the wonders of the night sky without the lights of the local community. Take along a flashlight or glow stick to help you find your way back to your car safely.
8. A special open house event will take place Veterans Day, November 11, 2012 at the Nike Hercules Missile Base in the center of the Everglades National Park.
9. Head into the backcountry for an adventure along the Wilderness Waterway. Visitors can paddle 12 miles across Florida Bay to camp on Cape Sable, a remote sandy key, or for the ultimate backcountry paddle, travel all 100 miles, camping on chickees (raised platforms) or sandy keys between Flamingo and Everglades City. As you paddle through mangrove tree tunnels and coastal estuaries along the Gulf Coast, you’ll be treated to the beauty of some of the less-traveled areas of the Park.
10. Volunteering in Everglades National Park is a great way to get an insider’s perspective to park operations, research projects, ranger programs and activities within the park.
The Everglades may be beautiful, but can be dangerous too.
Here are Katie’s tips for staying safe while exploring:
1. Call ahead or check the Web site pertaining to the season you are visiting the Everglades.
2. Take a map and GPS.
3. Know your physical limitations. South Florida is a hot and humid climate. Drink plenty of water and bring snacks to eat.
4. Wear sunscreen, comfortable clothes and appropriate shoes. Take sunglasses, rain gear and insect repellent.
5. Supervise children closely.
6. Enjoy observing the animals, but remember they are wild animals and deserve our respect by giving them space.
And the most impressive things Katie has seen at the Everglades?
“Kayaking in the Everglades past crocodiles, otters and flocks of hundreds of birds through mangrove tree tunnels…and in Florida Bay, taking a hip-deep wet hike through the ethereal cypress stands, wading past birds, fish and alligators in the distance…seeing the aqua blue-colored ring around the eye of the male anhinga in breeding plumage…the view of the Everglades from a helicopter while flying to monitor fire effects or while dropping flaming spheres from the helicopter to ignite the landscape during a prescribed fire…using a drip torch to ignite the Everglades during prescribed fires to keep the Everglades ecosystem healthy… using a fire engine and tools to teach school children about fire in Everglades National Park and helping them become junior firefighters…seeing a Florida panther scamper across a trail…seeing the response of visitors as they discover the wonders of the Everglades…helping the media take part in a Prescribed Fire Media Training course…escorting the media during the Vice Presidential visit.”
Wow. Have we inspired you to get out and explore the Everglades? If you or someone you know is planning a trip to Florida, be sure to forward them Katie’s list of tips. Do you have a story about the Everglades? Tell us in the comments below, and we’ll donate $1 to our Million Moment Mission to preserve the national parks.