Everglades Airboat Adventures

Take some time to soak up the atmosphere and you’ll be rewarded with a unique look into an environment that you won’t find anywhere else.

It's the stuff of nightmares: a giant, gaping mouth; snaggly teeth; a reptile so large it could have consumed me in one chomp. I'm talking about an alligator almost as long as the airboat I was on; a beast floating in the water so close to me, I could have hit it with a fly swatter. Its alien eyes focused my way, and I instinctively huddled on the far side of my seat to gain a few more inches from him.

The 'gator showed no sign of fear of us, but also no malice; its jaws evidently open in the hope of receiving a handout. We didn't oblige him, of course (it's illegal to feed alligators, as it is with most wild animals). Despite incidences of humans feeding them anyway, very few alligator attacks occur in Florida each year. For the most part, if unprovoked, these animals almost always prefer to flee than fight.

Everglades National Park is the third largest national park in the lower 48 states (after Yellowstone and Death Valley). Plus, it's adjacent to state-owned parks that open up visitors to even more exploration of this pristine area. If you jump in your car and drive from one end of the park to the other, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Everglades are nothing but a flat swamp. But take some time to soak up the atmosphere and you'll be rewarded with a unique look into an environment that you won't find anywhere else.

There's no better way to reap this reward than hopping on an airboat. The vessels can venture into approximately 90,000 acres of the Everglades 1 million-plus acres of land. This is true wilderness: shooting between walls of tall grass, whisking across the surface of the water at speeds up to 45 mph with nary a bump. The expanse of what looks like grassland is in fact a huge, slow-moving river, albeit a very shallow one, and it's a fantastically rich ecology - made of water, sawgrass, pockets of tropical jungle and clumps of trees called hammocks.

Even on a day trip, there's so much life here that you're guaranteed to see some of the more prolific inhabitants - American alligators, herons, turtles, raccoons, ospreys, exotic palm trees and hidden Native American chickee retreats.

The very first airboaters, the Miccosukee and Seminole Indians, lived off the land in these wilds. Airboats revolutionized the basics of hunting, fishing and travel for these tribes some 70 years ago, providing the answer to traversing the water, sawgrass and marl of the Everglades.

At Lake Trafford, we learned of such histories and also of area wildlife. Our guide rattled off the names of birds - roseate spoonbills, ibises - and indigenous plants. We slowed to a cruising speed, exposing the true beauty of the Everglades. Marshes with lily pads created a green wonderland. I snapped a photo of a rare purple gallinule, and gazed at an osprey's nest, hoping for a glimpse of the resident.

The children on our boat, dedicated to 'gator patrol, were content to watch the reptiles bask in the sun. But the last spotting was just as thrilling as the first. An hour later, at the end of our ride, there were still enthusiastic shouts of: "There's one - there's one - did you see that big one? Look, look!"

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