Text and photos by Emily Benson
(Note: None of these photos are photoshopped or instagrammed)
When my husband and I were deliberating how we would spend just one day in the Everglades, the inevitable question arose, to airboat or not to airboat. An airboat promised speed and thrill and strange feats of aerodynamics. It was tempting, but expensive and only lasted an hour. Besides, anything that was deafening enough to require ear protection seemed antithetical to our goal of immersing in nature. We wanted to linger, stop and stare at the beautiful herons inked a shade of slate blue, partake in their silence as they masterfully stalked insects with immaculate stillness.
Since this was unlikely to happen on an airboat ride, we opted for the slightly more meditative and much less expensive option, heading to Shark Valley to bike the fifteen-mile scenic loop.
It is possible to rent bikes at Shark Valley, but since we endured a four-day road trip to Florida from upstate New York, we at least had the luxury of arriving with our own bikes. Before the ride, we stopped in the Miccosukee restaurant to fuel up with Indian pumpkin bread and coffee. We parked outside, on Highway 41 and rode our bikes in for a mere $10.
Before we could advance much past the visitor center, we were already stumbling upon alligators in our path, like the one below, which we had to dodge like landmines.
Other than kittens, puppies, ducklings, and Pygmy goats, there are few things more adorable than baby alligators, a common sighting along the trail in winter months:
Photo by Emily Benson
There is nothing more striking than an Anhinga drying its wings in the trees, like a kite gracefully entangled in branches:
Once we stopped oohing and ahhing over every baby alligator, we got serious about biking. There is probably no easier trail to be found than this one, perfectly flat, smoothly paved, with 350 species of birds to distract you from the stress of physical exertion. But fifteen miles is fifteen miles.
And due to the large population of alligators lurking in the wetlands, and occasionally crossing the path in front of us, we decided it was best to finish before dark.
As we rode, we became increasingly glad we’d chosen to experience the Everglades by bike. There were almost no other bikers, and other than the occasional tram, we had the path to ourselves.
The temperature was perfect and because it was January and dry season, there were very few mosquitoes. We let ourselves be engulfed in the beauty and the silence, interrupted only by birdcalls slicing through the dense luscious quietude. For the first time since we’d been in Florida, there were no signs of civilization, none of the ubiquitous shopping malls, highways or pastel colored motels. There was only the vastness of sawgrass marshes stretching out for miles around us.
After a while, even the gators, whose eyes at first seemed nothing more than hard slits, inscrutable with primordial evil, now seemed part of the overall peacefulness:
As we finished the 15-mile loop, the sun was setting and we saw even more wildlife at this magic hour than we had during the day. Savage hues of hot pink streaked the sky as flocks of herons alighted over the wetlands, and I felt so thankful to have gone back in time, to a pre-civilized paradise, so grateful to all the people who’ve fought hard to save the Everglades from would-be developers.
I was especially glad we hadn’t taken the airboats, which would have kept us apart, even slightly above the natural surroundings, rather than immersed and at one with this mortal heaven.