I set out to explore Everglades National Park on April 22. At that time, the entire park was closed to the public and most staff due to COVID-19, but I received permission to go and report on what I saw.
At the Anhinga Trail, I found that although COVID-19 had put much of the world on pause, the Everglades was very much alive.
I arrived at 7:30 during a morning that was notably cooler than those of the previous weeks. Many different shades of green and some tints of brown filled the landscape. A thick mist hung above the water.
It for sure wasn’t quiet. I could hear insects everywhere despite not being able to see them. Birds were making high-pitched calls to one another, perhaps warning each other that someone new had arrived. Water plopped and splashed, both nearby and in the distance.
And for the first time in a while, I stopped thinking about the pandemic.
My thoughts instead shifted to that alligator I saw swimming towards cattails. My eyes quickly focused on a group of alligators hanging out in the water in the distance.
Alligators, like many other animals at the park, begin to crowd here in the dry season between December and April. Water evaporates in many parts of the park, but the deep water at the Anhinga trail remains and acts as a refuge for the wildlife who depend on it.
As I wonder how many more alligators are here, I become keenly aware that I am the only person on this trail. I feel less calm.
Up until two and a half years ago, I had only ever lived in the urban jungle of New York City. There, we don’t walk around in the middle of nowhere surrounded by animals that bite.
But I press on and keep exploring.
Bright orange and yellow lubber grasshoppers dot the pavement, forcing me to dodge them as I make my way down the path. They mostly leave me alone.
These grasshoppers are same ones I saw in early March, when I last visited before the park closed. They were small and black with orange stripes back then, and these are the survivors who escaped being eaten by animals like spiders and birds.
Over in the distance, I see a large gray and white wading bird standing on a rock in the water and unphased by the alligator swimming close by. Maybe he or she is hoping to catch a fish for breakfast.
The way the bird wraps its wings around its body reminds me of how vampires wrap themselves tightly in their capes. As it opens its large wings, I’m reminded that the long-ago ancestor of this bird was a dinosaur as it flies away.
Near the end of the trail, I hear a lot of buzzing and look up to find at least six dragonflies flying in zigzags back and forth in a circle.
A small bird flies by and lets out an alarmingly loud call. I feel like an intruder on the scene, as if the bird was telling me it was time to go home.
I then hear more buzzing, and I think perhaps those are bees I am hearing and not dragonflies. I feel ready to go home.
On my way back to the entrance, I hear loud rustling in the bushes. Probably yet another alligator, I think, as I pick up my pace.
I stop to take one last photo of a bird in the distance, and I look down to find a large alligator looking at me from the water. I keep walking.
Steps away from my car, yet another alligator walks by, not too far from where I am standing, into the bushes.
But now I am safe, and I laugh to myself. The animals of the Everglades just effectively threw me out of their home.
I sure saw a lot of life while I was there, and naturally I wondered if that could be linked to the park closure.
But was there really more wildlife than usual? It’s hard to say.
It’s the time of the year we expect to see a lot of wildlife at Anhinga Trail.
Were the animals more active because there hadn’t been visitors for a month? Maybe, but it was also the first cool morning in a while.
Either way, my visit left me humbled, but also in awe. Sure, I was terrified at times. As hard as I try, alligators will never make me feel safe and calm.
But how lucky was I to experience all of this? Every visit to the park makes me appreciate it more.
We can only love what we know. That’s the delicate balance a national park must play in letting animals and plants be free, but also giving people space to understand and love these special places.
As the park does a phased reopening, we are excited that everyone can once again visit and deepen their understanding of the Everglades.
Perhaps the wildlife will be more welcoming to you than they were to me.
Everglades National Park has begun a multi-phased approach to reopening.
Homestead entrance: The Main Park Road, side roads and trails, and Flamingo are all open. East Everglades, accessible by SW 168th St., has resumed daily hours of 9-5. Marine waters have remained open despite other closures.
Shark Valley and Gulf Coast, campgrounds, and visitor centers as well as some other specific locations remain closed at this time due to public health concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the most up-to-date information on park openings and closures, check the alerts on the park website (https://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm) and watch for updates on social media. (Facebook: Everglades National Park; Instagram and twitter: EvergladesNPS).
All visitors are reminded to follow state, local and CDC guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases while recreating in parks and open spaces. Please also practice Leave No Trace principles and avoid high-risk activities.