The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

A Day at Shark Valley; A Reflection on The Year

Jonathan Cameron
IDH 4007
Spring Semester 2007

   A day of cycling in Shark Valley was the last full class for The Everglades: From Beginning to End? It was a very appropriate way to close an adventure-filled year. Each class took me out of my natural element. Every other Friday, my classmates and I were transported to another world that was just under our noses. Before my senior year, I rarely took the time to notice this place. Not only was the class format a break in convention from the typical classroom setting, it was also instrumental in transforming my mindset regarding the Everglades and greatly expanding my horizon for environmental conservation. Now, in this last full day of class, it seemed like the semester was ending before it even had a chance to begin. In Shark Valley, we traveled by bicycle on a 15-mile loop that eventually brought us back to where we parked. Similarly, the Everglades experience this past academic year brought us full circle. However, I am not the same person at the end of the trip as when I started. The Shark Valley trip was a great experience and here I would like to reflect on it in its relation to a year of Everglades excursions.

   Since it was the dry season, animal life appeared much more abundant and all kinds of creatures were creeping on either side of the road. Barely having begun the bicycle trip I saw my first alligator of the day, hugging the edge of the road as it sunbathed. It certainly was not the last gator I saw. These guardians of the glades were present in great numbers at Shark Valley, and a few had no qualms about crossing the road when my bicycle was near. The many close encounters with alligators on the trail constantly reminded me that I had signed a waiver relieving FIU and my professors of culpability if an accident were to happen.

   Thankfully, I can report that no alligators attacked me over the past year. Most of the living organisms of the Everglades were rather accommodating, except for a bit of Muhly Grass that became well acquainted with my cornea earlier this semester. But that is better forgotten.

   To be fair, the Shark Valley bicycle trip was technically not our last class meeting this semester. We would meet again to showcase our various poster projects, but Shark Valley was our last official class engaging with the River of Grass for a full day. Instead of slough slogging through wetlands, canoeing through mangroves, or hiking through rocky pinelands, we took a paved bicycle trail. The smooth trail allowed us to enjoy the scenery and take a step back to appreciate what we had accomplished over the past year. The reading also reflected a more relaxed class in that we were assigned Skinny Dip, by comic novelist Carl Hiaasen, instead of a more dense reading involving extensive historical facts to remember. Learning history was important and necessary, but this day there was some more time to reflect.

   Ending the year by cycling through Shark Valley was a journey that prompted me to recount our first excursion to the Everglades as a class. Last semester, our first trip was an airboat ride with "Scooter". Most of us on that boat intently listened to Scooter as he told us about the River of Grass, but at that point we could not tell if he was telling us facts, or if he was mixing in legend, or simply false information. It took a briefing by the professors at the Miccosukee Resort afterwards to separate truth from lore. I remember writing my first reaction paper on The Mystery of the Everglades. While that paper made the point that this mystery was part of the attraction, it was also, of course, my initial reaction. That is, while I had good intentions about learning more about the Everglades for years previous to this, I never actively pursued this until my senior year. At that point in September 2006, my knowledge was limited.

   Much has taken place since that airboat ride. The exploration of the history and politics surrounding the Everglades, and first-hand experiences with the various aspects of the River of Grass, have enriched my understanding compared to a year ago. The mystery is still present, but in a different way. Rather than primarily wondering about what is beneath the murky water, the question for me has moved in another direction: What will be the fate of the Everglades? There is still much that needs to be accomplished, yet the end-result is still unclear. Uncertainty is still a big factor.

   The last end-of-class quiz in the parking lot in Shark Valley also reminded me of something else. While my classmates and I know much more about the Everglades now than the majority of South Floridians, the Boat-Tailed Grackle reminded me that there is still more to learn. The Boat-tailed Grackle was the answer to a bird identification question on the quiz that I did not answer correctly. There were other quiz questions in the past year that I could not answer, but the Boat-tailed Grackle was an important reminder to me that there was much more that I needed to find out. In particular, there were other pieces to the puzzle that were still missing from the big picture of Everglades restoration.

   One thing that is certain is that I am not the same person at the end of this Everglades trip as when it started. The bicycle ride brought us through the wilderness and back out. However, on a certain level, I will not necessarily be out of the wilderness once this class is over. Delving into the heart of the Everglades this past year expanded my horizon for environmental conservation, which means my responsibility towards the River of Grass is that much greater. The last full day of class at Shark Valley enabled me to reflect on a year of mysteries being revealed, and of the seed planted in me to solve other unknowns regarding this unique environment. When it comes to Everglades conservation, I now consider myself in part responsible for making sure that my generation does not fail the quiz. While generations past failed miserably, it is not likely that nature will allow humans to retake the test indefinitely.

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