With a spare day in Miami before our trip to Peru, we decided to go on an Everglades airboat ride. So of course, we found the kitschiest place we possibly could, Everglades Holiday Park. They offer hour-long airboat rides, a gator show, and you can even snack on “gator bites” while you wait. Peacocks and all sorts of other “wildlife” are running around, so in a way it felt like a big petting zoo where all the goats come up and nibble on your shirt. Except these goats have big teeth and a bad reputation.
Anyway, we bought our tickets for the airboat ride and took a few pictures while we waited to board. There wasn’t a whole lot to see around the dock, which must be great for selling airboat tours.
We were called to board, and ushered over to a large airboat named Taz. The passengers sat in the covered area in front, and the captain sat in back, looking over the roof of the boat.
Our airboat captain – Rick – made a big deal about the engines… two big V8s out of a Cadillac. Of course his were the biggest in the fleet; this claim was backed up by a whole slew of numbers in cubic inches and liters and horsepowers and all that. Of course, the gas tank was 10 gallons larger as well.
Rick started up the engines (they DID sound really good) and we roared away from the dock. While he gave his intro spiel about the Everglades, he did a few S-turns with Taz. I’m unaccustomed to flat-bottom boats, so it felt really weird to be going mostly sideways through a bunch of low weeds. The weeds slapped against the side of the boat as we hit them broadside, and the passengers on the ends scooted in towards the center to avoid the lashing. I could feel the grasses and lilypads tickling my feet through the hull as we passed over them. Rick was saying something over the loudspeaker that I could barely make out over the roar of the engines and the constant rattle of the boat.
We came to a stop next to some grasses, and Rick turned off the engines. It was eerily quiet. He climbed down to the passenger area and sat on the sill, while the boat ever-so-slowly drifted closer to the weeds. Then he explained why that boat’s gas tank holds an extra ten gallons:
“When I was a young boy, I went out in the ‘glades with my grandfather all the time. One day, we were at this very spot, when our engine quit all of a sudden. We couldn’t get ‘er going again, because we were out of gas. We were stranded, in the ‘glades. Now since I was a boy, I didn’t know to be afraid, but I didn’t know what my grandfather knew. We were stuck there overnight. After that night, I swore that I would NEVER get stranded in the ‘glades again.”
Wait, what, that’s it? What happened? Not yet.
He started up the engines again, and he came on over the loudspeaker to tell us all not to worry, because we had PLENTY of gas. As we continued on, Rick taught us about how to tell how deep the channels are by looking at the reeds. The roots will only grow from a depth of six feet, so anywhere there were reeds was shallower than six feet.
The clearings were wide in spots and narrow in others. Rick passed up no opportunity to do more S-turns in the wide spots, but it was easy to tell how someone could get lost here. The deeper channels criss-crossed each other frequently and at odd angles. It was a maze to the unfamiliar.
We blew through the maze for a while, until we came to a small tree-dotted island, shrouded in weeds and grasses. Rick shut off the engines again and came down from his perch atop the boat.
“I’ve lived in the ‘glades my whole life, and my father before me and his father before him. My ancestors were Native Americans who lived in the ‘glades. Over my life I’ve built many friendships with the wildlife that lives here. These friendships are built on respect, and more importantly trust.”
“I’d like to introduce you to somebody.”
He turned to the island and called “CYNTHIA!!! CYNTHIA!!! Come here girl! CYNTHIA!”.
I thought, oh great, he’s going to try to kiss an alligator, and then I’m going to have to learn how to drive an airboat. Instead, after a few more calls, two small black birds swooped in.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Cynthia. Now, I know what you’re thinking, that’s not his daughter, that’s a bird. Well, you’d be right. But this bird, I found as an abandoned chick and nursed back to health, before I released her back into the wild.”
He talked a little more about Cynthia, and her mate-for-life, the other bird that appeared. Then he did something I’ll never forget: out of his pocket, he pulled some popcorn, and popped it in his mouth. Cynthia hopped up onto his arm, he opened his mouth, and Cynthia pecked out the chewed bits.
After lunchtime, we headed back into the weeds. Cynthia and her mate sat on the roof of the boat for a while. I was watching a dragonfly dance alongside the boat, when it got too close to the roof and an orange beak shot out and snatched it. Apparently Mr. Cynthia was hungry, as he didn’t get any popcorn.
On the way we made another short stop, where Rick told us more about his overnight in the Everglades.
“The Everglades are a beautiful place during the day, and you may think that sunsets are also beautiful, with all the colors in the sky reflected off the water. Truth is, few have seen a sunset on the Everglades and wanted to talk about it after. When that sun starts getting low, everybody, and I mean EV-RY-BO-DEEE heads back to the dock.”
“I have seen a sunset here, and it is very beautiful. But when the top of that sun disappears over the horizon, hundreds of thousands – no, millions – of bugs start coming out from everywhere. Because at dusk, they feed. My grandfather and I were stuck on that boat, out of gas, when the bugs came out. We looked at that water and thought, ‘No way’. But after a minute or two, we couldn’t take it anymore, and we jumped into the water to escape the bugs.”
“But because of all the dead reeds on the bottom, there’s a lot of rotting plants, which means there’s a lot of nasty bacteria. Even though we got away from the bugs, our bodies started to itch all over from the reaction to the bacteria.” He washed some of the water on his face. “Now, over the years I have conditioned myself to be able to touch the water and it won’t bother me, but for a young boy like I was then, or for someone like yourselves who isn’t used to it, touching or getting in this water is something you’d regret very much.”
Don’t touch the water, check.
Rick fired up the engines and we took off again. Our last stop was at the edge of a large clearing. He knew a few spots where the alligators like to hang out, and wanted to check this spot before we started to head back. He shut off the engines at exactly the right moment and we drifted to a stop alongside an alligator.
I thought uh huh, okay, nice rubber alligator. Then it swished its tail. Uh huh, nice waterproof animatronic rubber alligator. Then it moved a couple feet, turned around, lifted its head, and blinked. Oh! Real alligator.
Rick climbed down to the passenger area and started telling us all about alligators as we slowly drifted ever closer to said real alligator. He reached out and grabbed some reeds and gently pulled the boat closer still.
Our guide stuck his hand in the water. “You can tell where the alligators will be just by sticking your hand in the water. They’re cold blooded, so if the water is too cold, they will be on the ground sunning themselves. If it’s a very hot day, they want to get out of the sun so they go into the water and sink down to the very bottom, where it’s cooler. Today, it’s about the temperature of bath water, so this girl is out of the water, sunning herself to keep warm.”
After a while, Rick turned the boat around so the other side could get a nice, close look. Then we made our way back to the dock.
Back on land, we decided to skip the gator show, and instead grabbed some lunch. We were intrigued by the gator bites, so we ordered some. They were cooked like buffalo chicken strips, and consistency-wise, were somewhere between chicken and calamari. A solid skip, if you ask me.
Overall, the Everglades Holiday Park was pretty cool. Definitely something to do at least once.