Thursday, June 27, 2019

Intermission, with Mangroves

Dragonfly will be cruising the Erie Canal in summer 2019. Check back for regular posts about our adventures starting July 4, 2019. New to the blog? To read about SlowBoat's Great Loop Adventure (a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of eastern North America), start here.

Where Do SolarBoaters Go in the Winter?

If you’re wondering where we went after completing our 2018 “Little Loop” cruise through the historic canals of Canada last summer, the answer is, “Intermission, with Mangroves.”

Can you spot our shiny tiny home, rear right?
We spent November 2018 through April 2019 working as volunteer ranger-naturalists for the U.S. National Park Service in Everglades National Park

Our home base for six months was the smallest of the park’s four ranger stations: Gulf Coast Station, in Everglades City

We lived on site—though not on our boat. For this expedition we acquired  another small, metal-clad residence: an Airstream trailer.

Paddling’s Part of the Job Description!

Gulf Coast station is a portal to the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile trackless “trail” for canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen.

Just another day at the office, right?
The Waterway winds among the convoluted coastal mangrove islands stacked up along Florida’s southwest coast. It ends in Flamingo, another remote Park Service outpost at the very tip of the Florida peninsula.

Some friends and family members were bewildered by our decision to spend six months in an area best known for heat, biting insects, alligators, and gigantic snakes--working 32 hours a week for no pay.

But hey! As science nerds who love to paddle, and as newly retired digital nomads who want to do something useful with our free time, we were ecstatic to get picked to be what USPS calls “VIPS” (volunteers in the parks).

This is my other office. Yes, those are
white pelicans in the background.
The job description includes helping rangers lead half-day paddle trips for visitors. (YES! It was our job to paddle. How cool is that?) 

Also part of the job: 1) Serving as naturalist on tour boats looking for dolphins, 2) giving nature talks a couple times a day (Cap’s interactive talk on stone crabs was quite a hit!), and 3) issuing Wilderness Waterway back-country camping permits (this item mostly translates to “Making sure people without much paddling experience don’t get in literally over their heads.”)

We also staffed the visitor center desk, answering everyone's favorite questions ("Where's the bathroom?" and "I'm only here for a day/hour, what should I see?")

Still Recovering from Irma

Gulf Coast Station was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in fall 2017. The visitor center was flooded and ruined. For months, the rangers (and last year’s hardy volunteers) worked out of an open-sided picnic pavilion—no air conditioning, no screens, no running water, no educational displays, none of the usual visitor center resources. 

The temporary Visitor Center. It's December 2018 and the damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017 is still visible.
The only amenities were a couple of port-a-potties in the majorly potholed parking lot. 

Conditions were a bit less merciless when we arrived. The facilities had been upgraded . . . to a small trailer. (See photo above. The fire department sign said "max occupancy 5 people," which we exceeded just by showing up to work).

Conditions slowly improved. The potholes got fixed, and we moved to a bigger trailer, where we could set up a few nature displays and make coffee.

We Interrupt This Interlude with a Government Shutdown

We learned to hang soffits!
But when the government shut down for six weeks in winter 2019, we were also temporarily out of work. 

(You might think that, as volunteers, we could still hang out and answer visitor questions, clean the bathrooms, pick up litter? You would think wrong).

We’d come down to volunteer. So we picked up some shifts with Habitat for Humanity, an hour north in Immokalee. 

The High Points

People always ask, "What was the high point of the Great Loop Cruise?" The answer is always, “The people we met.” It was the same for our Everglades experience. 

Our colleagues were awesome! The park rangers here hold on to their sense of humor and sense of purpose despite working for an underfunded, understaffed, and sometimes overwhelmed agency where Catch-22 is alive and well.
Gulf Coast Rangers. When life gets tough, the tough go mini-golfing.
It was deeply gratifying when park visitors circled back to let us know that our suggestions for places to visit and things to do resulted in a memorable day. Swearing in little kids as "Junior Rangers" never got old.

And we were humbled by how many visitors thanked us gravely for our service, as if we were military veterans posted to a danger zone rather than polo-shirt-wearing science nerds having the time of our lives. 

We used our days off for day- and overnight paddle trips, for hiking and biking and bird-watching, and (literal high point) for a sightseeing trip in a small plane where we reveled in the vast views of the convoluted coastline we’d been exploring.

As for wildlife: turns out my careful research on "how to survive an alligator attack/ python attack" was unnecessary. 

The gators we encountered were timid slugs. And the region’s estimated 100,000 pythons are very good at hiding. 
Flying high above the coast, it's easy to see why they call this the 10,000 Islands region.

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