Category Archives: parks

Park It, The End

“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention” – Frank Sinata singing “My Way”

I did it my way for eight years, and I still reign supreme as the world’s greatest park critic. (I’ve never met another). Here’s my final column: “And the Winner Is …“.

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Where’s Robin Hood? You’ll never find him or this park, but I did.

Patrol Patrol was my creation, although the idea started with Biscayne Times editor Jim Mullin, who simply presented the idea and said, “You’ll figure it out.” I guess we did.

My craziest park experience was in downtown Miami’s Bicentennial Park (now transformed into Museum Park) where a homeless man gave me the “insider’s tour” of the best spots for pooping and pimping.

Check out my penultimate column in the Biscayne Times, where I review Miami’s worst parks in “Good Park / Bad Park.”

The most serene moments happened in almost every park, because they were rarely crowded, and I made a habit of walking the full perimeter to appreciate the park’s scope. Every park has a tree or a corner or a bench that you can claim. Better yet, keep walking and absorb the sensations flowing over you.

Every park has wildlife, and Miami is especially blessed with spiders and amazing aquatic creatures. One time while kayaking back from an island in Biscayne Bay, a man-sized wild dolphin repeatedly performed 10-foot leaps into the air and landed on its back. Probably no more than five people witnessed that feat, even though many thousands live and work in the nearby skyrises. As busy urbanites, we miss almost every moment of wonder.

What nuggets of wisdom did I learn by visiting and analyzing a new park every month for eight years? I guess I could sum it up by saying:

  • Nature creates masterpieces, and humans can only build frames. Light frames around large spaces work the best.
  • The Everglades is not a park, because an ecosystem has no gate. But it needs a park to save what little remains.
  • All children deserve a safe playground in a walkable community. We are not civilized because we’re far, far away from that dream—although a true leader could make it possible (go for it, Donald Trump).

Goodbye my devoted fans (all three of you). Step away from your computer and go take a walk in the park. Now!

How can swimming in the ocean help a park?

It can’t, but swimmers can.

And swimmers know non-swimmers, who can do even more.

This week I’ve been blogging about Biscayne National Park in preparation for a fundraising and awareness-raising effort that centers around a marathon swim as the hook. Hooked yet? It worked last June when I swam the 12.5 miles around Key West solo: I dedicated it to the climate change activism of 350 South Florida, which I serve as president, and people pulled out their wallets. I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was (the fundraising, not the swim!).

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Blog posts review some of the reasons why Biscayne National Park needs help:
Jan Brady syndrome
Big and shallow
Nuclear expansion
Disappearing ecosystems

Another reason is to celebrate what the park has and has accomplished. Next year, 2016, is the centennial of the national park system, and Biscayne National Park turns 50 in a couple years. So creating a swim event now and repeating it annually would hit several landmarks and help make “sea”-marks.

Swimmers Too Dry

As a lifelong swimmer and more recent environmentalist, I have been disappointed with the lack of engagement by competitive swimmers with conservation. Can you name one swimmer, or one swimming event, that champions the environment?

Attempts have been feeble. The Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol, a spokesperson for Oceana, tried to use the open water Race for the Oceans as a platform, but it fizzled.

When I competed in 2013 in the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim, which claims to support reef conservation, I saw no efforts to educate swimmers about the highly degraded reef system we swam over.

Water rules.

Water rules.

In the 2014 Swim Around Key West, I scored a small victory by getting samples of reef-safe sunscreen included in the goodie bags. But I couldn’t convince the island’s Reef Relief organization to get invovled.

The connection of swimmers to water is so obvious that it makes me wonder: are we afraid to know what we’re swimming in? Or does swimming in chlorinated pools make us numb to natural aquatic ecosystems?

I think the problem with swimmers is that nobody has asked them to get more involved. So I’m asking. I want to try, where I live, to defend an amazing national treasure. Swim it to save it.

Who’s ready to join me?

More problems, less money in Biscayne

With all the world’s problems, who cares about a safe and secure national park?

Plenty of people do, and in this age of political divisiveness, we could all use something that everyone agrees on. National parks, like Everglades and Biscayne, make Floridians and Americans proud, and the possibility of losing them would certainly rally people around a worthy cause.

To do something now, contribute to my campaign to Swim for Biscayne National Park, at http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne.

In fact, we are losing these two parks. Almost all of the land in both parks will be underwater within a few decades, due to rising seas, and strong hurricanes could be devastating in the shorter term. Then there’s ocean acidification.

Reef Rot

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don't, because they arrive by boat.

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don’t, because they arrive by boat.

The coral reefs within Biscayne National Park, part of the extensive Florida Reef system, face 15 rounds of punches from all angles. The changing chemistry of the sea, cause by the absorption of too much carbon dioxide from pollution, puts a slow chokehold on animals such as corals. It will take decades to determine, but acidification could prove to be the strongest force of extinction ever seen by humans.

This year, if predictions about El Nino come true, all coral reefs could be dealing with a devastating warming event. These events only need a few abnormally warm weeks to turn living corals into skeletons. The last major bleaching event in Florida was nearly a decade ago, and the likelihood of the next one keeps rising. If not this year, definitely plan on next year for more coral bleaching and disease. And it will keep getting worse, with no relief from climate change in sight.

Boating in Mud

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, from boats hitting the shallows.

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, caused by boats hitting the shallows.

Clueless boaters are a daily threat to Biscayne National Park. Propellers rip through the shallow seagrass and leave scars that are common sights throughout the park.

Fishers leave behind plenty of hooks and line, the most common type of marine debris in the park. When I was snorkeling there in 2013, I came across a large net lodged in a reef. It was too difficult to dislodge, but the authorities were notified.

Just this month, an enormous 6,000 pound plastic pipe washed up on Elliott Key. What a nightmare.

Just as litter accumulates, natural things decrease. Intensive fishing creates ecosystem imbalances by removing large numbers of creatures. For years, Biscayne National Park has been fighting to create zones closed to fishing, but local politicians and their fishing buddies won’t have it.

Money is Tight

You would be wrong to assume that a national park prevents hunting (such as fishing) and that is has plenty of money to operate. The budget for Biscayne National Park is around $4 million annually to fund all its programs and upkeep, about 40 employees, and more than 500,000 visitors. Although it has no entrance fee, Biscayne National Park would only need to charge $8 per visitor to cover its entire budget. Without such fees, it relies on taxes and other sources of income that may prove unreliable.

The park isn’t going anywhere today, but at the same time, its future and its prosperity are not guaranteed. Little Orphan Biscayne needs people to care for it as much as they care about the Everglades. Where are the billions of dollars for restoration of the Florida Reef? Where are the laws to prevent boaters and fishers from hacking the ecosystem to pieces?

Swimmers, stand up and take stock of Biscayne National Park. Maybe our strokes could bring new life and needed attention to this underwater treasure.

Big bay, small swimmers, tough decisions

Where should we go?

Even if you don’t swim, you can help me figure out the best place to hold an official marathon swim in Biscayne National Park, the underwater jewel just south of Miami. For a couple of years I’ve been ruminating about The Swim for Biscayne National Park, and now it’s morphed into a crowdfunding idea (http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne). The swim’s main intention is to enlighten locals about the park’s existence, because no one will care if they don’t know it’s there.

I would love a large grant from one of the donors to the South Florida National Parks Trust, but I haven’t approached most of them, because I haven’t succeeded in drumming up much enthusiasm within my circle of influence. I’m even reluctant to talk about it, because I can’t afford to do much on my own, and I don’t have a boat to explore the park. Obviously, I could use a little boost, whether in word in in dollar.

Biscayne National Park is the large blue outline, just east of Miami (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

Biscayne National Park is outlined as a large block attached to Miami-Dade County. (Map from Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

 

 

Swimming in Circles

As for the swim’s course, considering that you can fish nearly anywhere, and take your boat nearly anywhere, it’s safe to assume that you can swim nearly anywhere in Biscayne National Park.

Almost. A triangle in the Atlantic, directly east of Elliott Key, is off-limits to everything expect drift fishing and trolling. The Legare Anchorage holds an ancient British shipwreck, the HMS Foley, that sank in 1748.

Never mind, as there are plenty of other wrecks in the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, and plenty of space to float around.

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The border of Biscayne National Park is less than a mile from Miami. (credit: “BISCmap1” by Mgreason, Public Domain, Wikipedia)

From the island of Key Biscayne near Miami, the park border lies less than half a mile from Bill Baggs State Park. Less than two miles away is historic Stiltsville, one of the most arresting sights in Florida. A group of wrecks surround the houses on stilts, and that loop would makes for a very cool, four-mile round trip swim. It is unknown if anyone has attempted this swim, and logistically it’s the easiest one to attempt. We could pull that crew together (kayaks and swimmers) in no time and at minimal cost.

Despite its huge size, most of Biscayne National Park is less than 12 feet deep, especially within Biscayne Bay. A deeper strip runs on the Atlantic side, further out to sea, but it becomes shallow again within sight of Elliot Key. Here are dozens of beautiful, shallow coral reefs.

That’s where I would love to stage a swim, and it’s where I went snorkeling in 2013 with classmates from Florida International University studying marine protected areas. Read more about that experience in an article I wrote for National Parks Traveler. We saw endangered elkhorn corals thriving here, which essentially represents their northernmost limit. That sight alone is worth the trip.

For a self-propelled visit from an island, the closest reef to Elliott Key requires more than one mile of swimming. Most reefs are more than three miles offshore, so swimming to them and back would require quite an effort. Not impossible, but challenging, and the exact course would require some consultations with experts.

Getting to the reefs by boat is not difficult, so another option involves hopping off a boat, like the snorkelers do, and finding a pathway between the patch reefs. With the right launching point, you could hit several reefs within a one-mile trek.

On the Other Paddle

Perhaps the most media-friendly challenge would be the “escape to Miami” swim from Boca Chita Key, a popular haunt for boaters with a scenic lighthouse. Either west to the mainland or north to Key Biscayne would involve about nine miles through shallow water. Definitely do-able, and it’s unlikely that anyone has tried it.

Depending on the currents, we may want to go one direction or another. Help! The Gulf Stream is nearby and pushes north, but there must be many other currents driven by the tides, especially around the sandy, grassy area known as the Safety Valve. Viewed rom above, the tidal stripes clearly run east to west.

Well, I guess I’ll keep studying the options. It would be fun to organize an inaugural, communal swim around Stiltsville by the end of May (the 31st?) as a way to kickstart this campaign.

Visit the Park, Any Way

Even if you don’t want to get wet, definitely plan to visit Biscayne National Park soon. When arriving by boat, consider using the existing mooring buoys instead of an anchor. Most buoys are in water of about 20 feet deep.

Arriving by car involves driving through Homestead to reach the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point, open until 5:00 p.m. You can’t easily swim in the shallows around here, although kayaking is encouraged. There’s a boardwalk and areas for a picnic near the bay.

Not far from shore, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles are living the dream in Biscayne National Park. Join them.

Rally posters ready to rock the pine rocklands

Love the creativity! Thanks to Georgina and all the volunteers working on Rally for the Rocklands. See you tomorrow, 2 pm at Zoo Miami parking lot.

Did you know that 25% of all native plants in South Florida, more than 350 native species, live in the pine rocklands around the zoo? Amazing.

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El Portal Gone to Birds, Indians

A visit to the hamlet of El Portal, just north of the City of Miami, is usually short and sweet, but for a recent Park Patrol column I spent a couple of afternoons there to soak in this village-wide bird sanctuary. After viewing the photos below, view the park review here.

These are the glasses mentioned in the article's opening.

These are the glasses mentioned in the article’s opening.

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Why did the peacock cross the road?

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The neighbors erected this Christmas tree on top of the ancient Indian mound.

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Peacock in a private front yard.

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The new mini park of Sherwood Forest.

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Even the village’s newsletter, the Peacock Express, is for the birds.

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The fountain in Sherwood Forest Park.

Review of dirty book, Digging Miami

Digging Miami by Robert S. Carr, 2012, University Press of Florida4206

The first archaeologist of Miami-Dade County has penned his account of discovering the Miami Circle and other impressive pre-historic artifacts in the most urbanized part of Florida. It also turns out to be one of the state’s most ancient areas, as it has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years.

The book’s title, Digging Miami, and its cover photo of the Miami Circle caught my eye. The Circle became a park in 2011, and the site was unknown until 1998. While not fully understood, the Miami Circle sits at the mouth of the Miami River where it feeds into Biscayne Bay, and this strategic site is also where modern-day Miami began. The Circle is attributed to the Tequesta Indians who lived in South Florida until they went extinct after colonization (learn more here).

While full of interesting facts, the book suffers somewhat from the lack of a continuous narrative and diversions into archaeologist talk. For people unfamiliar with pre-historical Florida, it may be hard to follow the jumps between periods and locations, and for non- archaeologists, it gets difficult to remember which site is meant by “8DA11.” Named sites are much easier to envision.

What was enjoyable was the sense of discovery that accompanied many digs and especially those of gravesites. So many bones are buried beneath the skyscrapers of downtown that you start to worry about ancient curses arising to engulf the buildings or the sidewalk where you are strolling.

The book makes me excited to visit the Deering Estate again because of major finds on that property that may still be inaccessible to the public (I’ll have to work my contacts for an insider’s tour).

Everglades Hunt - Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Everglades Hunt – Tequesta, by artist Theodore Morris

Although a strong and ancient connection to the sea should not be surprising, given Miami’s location, it’s quite dramatic to read that South Florida was one of only two places in North America where Native Americans “developed complex chiefdoms based on marine resources rather than agriculture” (p. 245). The other location is the Pacific Northwest. On the East Coast, this is it.

This book is recommended for people who want to discover a history of Miami that is completely opposite of its current tourism and television-based image. It is hard to imagine how people lived here when the Everglades licked at Miami’s doorstep and Miami Beach was an impenetrable mangrove swamp. But they certainly did, and the best evidence we have is in the dirt.

Tomorrow: Nuggets of Intrigue from Digging Miami