The next part of our South Florida journey took us from Miami to the Everglades. The family wanted to experience riding an air boat in the Everglades, so we headed west to Coopertown; it was a surprisingly short drive from Miami. We spotted several alligators in the canals along the highway which added to the excitement about our impending airboat trip.
Coopertown is not much more than a wide spot in the road on Highway 41 that consists of a restaurant (where you can order gator as well as frog legs), a general store, and the air boat operation. The staff was wonderful and even arranged a cooler full of very inexpensive beer for us.
We were surprised to learn that the current weather patterns would pose a significant challenge to our Everglades experience. The area was experiencing the worst drought in nearly 60 years, severely limiting where we could go in the airboat. The wide-open wetlands were mostly dry with shallow, muddy canals the only navigable places. According to the air boat staff, if the area did not get significant rains in the next week, they would have to shut down.
We had to wait a while for our turn on the boat as only small boats could operate in the muddy channels. We spent the time wandering around the facility checking out some of the “pet” alligators, including the massive “Big Ben,” and assorted wildlife that hang around the area.
When our turn came up, we walked across a canal bridge to where the boats were docked in a muddy soup. Previous riders were returning to the base covered in mud from head to toe. Because of the low water levels, the boats were plowing through stretches of the Everglades that were more mud than water. We were offered some thin plastic covers to wear if we didn’t want to get our clothes muddy from the ride. Our driver assured us that he could keep the mud splatter to a minimum by keeping most of the weight (i.e. the passengers) as far to the back of the boat as possible and by moving slowly through the muckiest spots.
We creeped slowly away from the air boat dock as this was where the mud was the thickest. As we got further into the Everglades, the water began to clear up slightly and got a bit deeper so our driver opened up the motor and we were able to speed along at a nice 40 mph clip. One advantage of the low water was that it limited the areas where wildlife could survive, most of which had now relocated mainly to the canals that we were exploring. The result was numerous sightings of alligators. On a normal trip with water everywhere, you might be lucky to encounter one or two gators; we saw dozens on our short, 45 minute ride. We also spotted soft-shelled turtles and wetland birds, including a large Great White Heron.
We returned to base with barely a speck of mud on our bodies, thanks to our boat operator. After some obligatory photos with us holding baby alligators, we headed down the road to our next destination: The Florida Keys.
It’s very sad what the climate has done to the Everglades and we hope that they get a lot of moisture soon. We were glad we visited and considered the trip a success because of the numerous alligators that we saw!