Everglades headwaters Shingle Creek Cathy Salustri

Road Trip: White squirrels, dinner and show and the Everglades headwaters

The northern reaches of the ‘Glades in an unexpected place.

When the National Park Service went rogue last month, one of the national parks behind the effort included our own Everglades National Park. As a Floridian — as a liberal Floridian — I was delighted but not shocked. See, the Everglades have had it up to here with the bullshit, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to let the government tell them what to do anymore.

Do you know where the Everglades start? Lake Okeechobee? Alligator Alley? Naples? Nope, nope and nope. Try SeaWorld. If you follow the water north, you’ll find the headwaters of the Everglades — at least, what remains of them — at Shingle Creek.

I’ve paddled two parts of Shingle Creek: The northernmost parts, accessed off an airboat ramp amidst Kissimmee’s “dinner and show” culture that quickly gives way to a dark, primeval world of giant cypress and blackwater, and the portion of the creek that leads to the northwest edge of Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho to its friends). The portion near Lake Toho is definitely friendlier to paddlers, but the portion nearer Kissimmee reminds you why the park rangers felt compelled to join the resistance.

The Everglades used to cover the majority of peninsular Florida. Farmers, developers and ranchers chipped away at them over time, and through a series of incredibly bad decisions, the Everglades — a collection of exotic subtropical ecosystems — found itself relegated to the lower part of the peninsula. This massive natural miracle that once covered the state as far north as SeaWorld now exists entirely south of Lake Okeechobee; even the main feeder, the Kissimmee River, suffered so at the hands of government workers trying to fix what wasn’t really broken that it’s a shadow of its former self.

I’m not here to rant. OK, well, a little bit — but you need to know everything above this paragraph to know why Shingle Creek is the best way to see the remnants of the northern ‘Glades.

Most people won’t want to paddle the northern reaches of Shingle Creek, the part by the airboat rides and traffic. Those who do brave the shallowest end of the creek and push past the spiders and dead trees get rewarded with scraped knuckles, muck in their kayak and immersing themselves in the headwaters of a network of ecosystems perpetually in danger from humans and unparalleled by anything else in nature. It’s a hard paddle for an intangible reward. But over by the Docks at Shingle Creek — near Lake Toho — it’s easy to find peace and solitude. I don’t go expecting anything as tiny and majestic as that narrow creek, but I find I can still see echoes of the Everglades along the banks — a wet prairie on one side; an assortment of shorebirds grazing on the other.

A white squirrel? You betcha. #EvergladesSplendor. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
A white squirrel? You betcha. #EvergladesSplendor. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

And white squirrels, which I didn’t even realize were a thing until I see one in a tree on the creek bank. I’m paddling with the Sierra Club, and when I stop, the other paddlers stop, too. I expect to hear “yeah, we see them all the time” but instead I hear “what the hell is that?” 

It’s no big deal — not like I’ve happened upon the Skunk Ape or anything — but thrilling nonetheless, and a reminder that this creek, even with its riverfront houses and occasional road passing overhead, remains part of the vast and wild Everglades. 

The top of the ‘Glades, no doubt, but all the same, the ‘Glades. Relative to the state’s population, only a few humans work to protect these waters: The Sierra Club, various people working for Osceola County and some of the scientists at the South Florida Water Management District. At every turn, they’re thwarted by bureaucrats, politicians and business interests. What value remains in saving this final creek, almost wholly disconnected from the Everglades? Wouldn’t the land be best used for ranching or farming or development?

“The Everglades,” writer and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas once wrote, “is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.” Near the headwaters, the black water swirls and bends around itself as it glides around the curves, looking for passage south. Civilization never encroaches, but it intrudes: A house here; a boat lift there; the sounds of cars and sirens and the built environment at every overpass.

This portion of the creek is a short paddle to the lake, with bare-branched cypress trees and the river mirroring the deadfall on and beneath its surface. The water I drag my paddle through will ultimately find its way from the tourist-swollen mecca to the unforgiving swamp on the edge of North America, where those rogue rangers wait, watching over their park, protecting it.

The white squirrel, watching us paddle away with a wary eye, jumps from tree to tree, keeping vigil over the water.

This piece originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa.