A river of grass

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- President Harry Truman helped protect the Florida Everglades in 1947 by signing legislation creating the Everglades National Park.
"Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land, tranquil in its quiet beauty," he said. "To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country."
With this mix of praise and explanation, Truman summed up the experience of a visit to the Everglades for a modern-day traveler: It is not the same thing as visiting the Grand Canyon, but with the right understanding, it can be a similarly moving experience.
In early April, my family and I took an airboat ride at Sawgrass Recreation Park, about 30 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale.
Though the 175,000-acre park is not in the national park, it is part of the Everglades. The park protects just a small part of the area of South Florida historically known as the Everglades.
The national park lies about 50 miles to the south, where airboat rides are not allowed by park rules.
As our boat captain left shore, we started to see why earplugs were given to the riders. Two early 1970-era Cadillac motors powered the airboat fan blades, which produced a deafening noise.
The fun part
The fun began when we were far enough out to give some gas to those engines, and our captain began to give the boat a rocking motion left and right as the tops of the sea grass snapped off and hit us. We were traveling at about 35-40 mph.
A few minutes out into the "river of grass," he stopped the boat to allow us time to see down into the 3-foot-deep waters to inspect the fish and plant life.
It was then that I had the chance to look out across the vast, uncomplicated area and begin to appreciate the solitude of a place unobstructed by anything more complex than swamp grass and water.
To those who study aquatic life and biology, it is a place teeming with things to study. To the average tourist, it is a place to get a glimpse of an alligator.
"I have a to tell you I cannot promise you that you will get to see an alligator today," said Brian Duncan, our boat captain, explaining that the areas where he normally finds his toothy friends seem to be lacking in appearances today.
Sure enough, as he navigates the airboat slowly through one particular area, he tells us that the alligators are probably not going to make an appearance, partly because other boat captains have been driving too fast through the area and have scared them off.
Playing the role of humorist and naturalist, he ridicules the officials responsible for what he considers the over-flooding of the area we are now in. He says the depth of the water now is a couple of feet deeper than it should be and indicates that his boat could float over as little as a half-inch of water.
Making use of what other props are at hand, our captain pulled out some grass, also known as sawgrass, and showed us its sharp, cutting properties and feeds us some of the stalk.
"Now you all know that you should never eat anything before you see your guide try it first," he jokes.
With the 30-minute ride complete, you have the opportunity to tour a Seminole Indian village on the grounds, see a Florida panther and other animals, and look at a large alligator in captivity. For a donation, you can even hold a small alligator (its jaws are taped shut) and have your picture taken with it.

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