The crocodile lay in the mud, flat-bellied and splay-legged, its black unblinking eyes taking me in. It was at least 10 feet long and had a pale-green crenellated hide, with bumps and ridges. I knelt down on the bank of the canal for a better look. Crocodiles are opportunists, lying still most of the day until something worth snapping at comes close enough. I wondered: How fast could this reptile clamber up the 30 feet of bank separating us? For just a moment, I wanted to see the world from the perspective of the prey. I was in the right spot; in few other places are the carnivores as big and plentiful as in Everglades National Park.
My friend Steve and I were at the southern end of the park. Our plan was to launch kayaks into Florida Bay, then paddle west along the coastal Everglades, camping on beaches accessible only by water. Our trek was a leg of the relatively new 1,500-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, the state’s effort to establish an aquatic Appalachian Trail, mapping the waterways so that kayakers can always be within a day’s paddle of a campsite. Before we began raising families, Steve and I had often teamed up on adventures like this, most marked by our shared unwillingness to be the one to call off a trip in the face of dire weather or equipment malfunctions. So when thunderstorms hit the night before, and I called Steve to see if he was still up for it, he replied, “Let’s drive down and you can make the call.”
Now here we were: the ranger station at the Flamingo campground, where a small-craft advisory warned of 18- to 24-mile-an-hour winds the next day. Our craft couldn’t get any smaller unless we downgraded to inner tubes. “It’s up to you,” I told Steve. We launched from the ranger station that afternoon.
I grew up in the North, where you could plant your boots firmly on the ground and take a hike under the shade of oak and maple trees. Maybe you’d see a deer, or a bear. It took me a while to adjust to the Everglades, a swamplike 1.5 million acres of mostly impenetrable saw grass, dotted with tropical hardwood hammocks, grilled by the Florida sun, and lorded over by mosquitoes.
What ultimately brought me around was the doomed poetry of the Everglades. I learned to see it not as a swamp, but as the wide, slow-moving, life-sustaining river it is, one that has become a refuge for the larger predators—the Florida panther, the saltwater American crocodile—as developers pave over the rest of Florida. Now one of the last redoubts of the threatened was itself endangered.
I wasn’t alone in my initial aversion to this jungle. The Everglades has historically been viewed as a messy inconvenience, to be drained and dried. But by stanching the southward flow of fresh water, we allowed salt water to creep in from all sides, leaching into the aquifers that provide much of South Florida’s tap water. Now the government has a plan to restore a modicum of water flow over the next three decades by dismantling some of what we’ve done.