Saturday, November 3, 2012

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

If you have spent more than a week anywhere in Florida, then you understand the perfect word to describe the weather here: hot.  Even when raining, breaking a sweat is standard order.  When the humidity dips below a balmy 90%+, I dive into the hidden regions of the closet to pull out long sleeve tees and light jackets.
Two days after Hurricane Sandy whisked by Florida's east coast, the weather became stunningly un-Floridian. To my family's delight, the humidity dropped below 80% and the temperature below 75°F. Having already been to the local pumpkin patch (and I use that endearing term very loosely; for those of you from where winter is an actual season, do NOT confuse where we went with what you have enjoyed as child), we were ready for a family hike.  The child's hiking backpack was retrieved from the garage the previous night and ready for adventure!

Contemplating the Map
I want to take a moment to give credit to the wonderful invention pictured here in use.  My son was in a stroller twice from birth to 4 months in age, and was never keen on the limited view available from a stroller or a rear-facing car seat.  The American-made Kelty used here has served us well across the country to areas including Las Vegas and Monterey Bay.  I'm not sure if it is the close proximity to his favorite person, or just the chance to see everything from a grownup's point of view that keeps our little adventurer happy out on the trail.

Close to home is a rare treasure - the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Run by the FWS, but also supported by non-profits and FWC, the first thing I suggest you do prior to visiting is to take the time to check out the website:  The second thing I recommend is to have $5 cash in hand. The front gate is not always manned, and payment into the park is still on the honor system.  It is only $5 per car, so don't be chincy and just fork it over.  Your family will definitely get your money's worth!
We started our rediscovery of the LOX Refuge at the beautiful Visitor Center, then headed out to the boardwalk - ready to enjoy every moment of the wonderful weather.  The staff on site were extremely friendly and seemed genuinely happy to see us there, very cool first impression!  The boardwalk is well shaded and in excellent condition.  Out little guy was able to run around, but also peek between the rails, see cool things, and point them out all by himself.  The flora and fauna are true to the Seminole word Loxahatchee (technically "low chow") and its meaning "river of turtles". We also heard a symphony of insects and birds on this particular day. There are guided walks along this boardwalk for those in search of the details on species above and below the water line. This day the water was higher than normal due to recent rains, which made for an excellent and comfortable nature walk.
The Everglades also bears the unofficial title "River of Grass", a term coined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her 1947 book by that same name.  The book is, well, a bit dry for my taste.  Still, it captures in epic description the senses and sites experience throughout the Everglades as a large, fluid ecosystem.  For those of you unfamiliar with wetlands ecology, I shall save the "101" for another post, but essentially the Everglades is comprised of both swamps and marshes.  Swamps are wetlands with trees, and as you can see are plentiful in the boardwalk portion of the ARM Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The cypress trees towering overhead with dangling old man's beard and air plants is still one of my favorite non-ocean related views.
This freshwater ecosystem is not stagnant; the water is constantly, albeit slowly, moving throughout the state of Florida.  The Loxahatchee watershed alone is well over 200 square miles and just as important to the humans living in this area as it is to migrating wildlife.  The Refuge is also iconic when it comes to nature hikes and bird watching.  Personally, I am not a "bird-er", but if you want to get in that mood before coming and exploring one of many vibrate nature hikes, watch the movie The Big Year (2011; starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson).  This feature was unfortunately billed as a comedy instead of a heartfelt movie that addresses serious issues including family dynamics, prioritizing career decisions, and personal discovery.  While I do not know how the hard core bird community felt about the movie peeking into their favorite obsession, I enjoyed it immensely (and watched it several times) and scenes from the film kept swooping into my mind while walking through the Refuge - this place must be slammin' during migration season!
Making his own discovery
There were some bird houses nestled off the boardwalk, but still in good view for those walking and searching for wildlife.  Jace found his own friend and was enamored for over 30 seconds! In toddler time this is quite a feat.  He visibly jumped when the moth flew off, and would not leave the area until we found it again and he knew it was safe.  Only then, after saying goodbye, we were allowed to move on.

A closer look at Jace's new friend
Be sure to bring your camera on this trip, and your best shots can be submitted in the annual photography contest too.  Teachers can enjoy the park with a group of kids, or as students themselves, as part of Project WILD.  Miles of levees can also be enjoyed on a bicycle, just be sure to bring water - after all, it is still Florida weather!  This is not serious trail riding, though, so hard core bikers should stem their expectations.
After completing the boardwalk, we headed out on the Marsh Trail, and immediately found a family struggling on the gravel/dirt/grass trail with a standard stroller.  Nobody appeared happy except the 5 year old running ahead of everyone gleefully.  Poor mom was grunting and fighting with the stroller, and the toddler that was probably supposed to be inside it was sitting on dad's shoulders.  Moral of the story?  If you are bringing a stroller, it had better be off-road ready or maybe your family should stay off the trails this time.  See the above photo of our hiking backpack as another option!
We spotted the wildlife watching post pictured here, and made that our target.  In less than 30 minutes, with Jace running around most of that time, we were atop the tower and ready to enjoy the great breeze and the welcome cool breeze.  This perfect spot to take a break branches off into 3 different trails, and includes a large set of binoculars that does not cost a quarter for 30 seconds of viewing!  It is FREE!

My guys taking a break and discussing where to go next

Some of the birds found along the trail included the great blue heron, great egrets, gallinoles, ibis, cattle egrets, and a few more I am certain on the species.  As mentioned before, I am not a true birder.  We heard, and saw baby gators too.  Sorry, none of those photos turned out well so they are not included here.
One of many scenic shots, this one features a great egret
Not sure when to visit?  The annual free event, Everglades Day is not a bad place to start.  The place will be overflowing with visitors and exhibitors, guest lectures and animal interactions.  This day is the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge at its biggest and brightest, so take advantage of it!  The 14th year of the event is February 9th, 2013, and the theme is "Healthy Everglades, Healthy People".  Details about the event is also on the Refuge website.
All photos were taken by me, on the day described in this post.  Feel free to use them, but please provide photo credit, and if you are really feeling generous - a link or post to this blog.

When the weather gives you a pleasant surprise, do not waste it by spending the entire time indoors! Have some fun with your family bright and early... then enjoy football later (like we did) and still have a wonderful, high quality day! 
-Callie Sharkey


Charles Ryan said...

Thank you for your beautiful writeup about Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. 2 small points -- the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is the manager of Loxahatchee. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is one of our partners. And we have over 143,000 acres of wilderness area comprising a significant part of the northern Everglades. And again, thank you for a wonderful description. And the staff thanks you for your comments about treating you well.

Callie Sharkey said...

Thank you for the feedback! I admit I mixed up the FWC and FWS roles and apologize for the confusion. I try to get my details straight and appreciate the correction. Also, there was another typo - I meant to include over 200 "square miles" of Everglades, not "acres". I pulled that figure off the front page of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife site. Both corrections were made to the original post in case readers do not see the comments.
We cannot wait to visit again!