Living Sanibel: Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge
While Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 35,000 acres, most of that acreage is either saltwater, or uninhabitable and un-traversable mangrove forest. This immense refuge is part of the largest unbroken mangrove forest in North America, bordered to the west by the 110,000-acre Rookery Bay and to the east by the 1.5-million-acre Everglades National Park. This forest is comprised of predominantly red mangroves, or “the walking trees” as they are sometimes called, but also has black, white, and buttonwood mangroves. All of these trees have the capacity to flourish in brackish, or saltwater environments.
The best way to see this watery expanse of mangrove forest is by canoe, or kayak. Primitive camping is allowed on Panther Key and Round Key, but not on any of the other beaches and keys found along the southern fringe of the refuge. There are multiple accesses to this maze of tidal creeks, mangrove islands, and islets: via the boat launch at Goodland, the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park, the Port of the Islands Marina located at the top end of the long, straight manmade Faka Union Canal, Everglades City, and several stops along U.S. 41.
The only way to see any of the refuge on foot is via the Marsh Trail, which lies approximately 2 miles east of where County Road 92 (aka San Marco Road) enters U.S. 41 from the south. A round-trip hike on this trail is 2.2 miles. Roughly three-tenths of a mile from the spacious parking lot is an observation tower that overlooks this grand expanse of tiny mangrove islets and brackish waters. Look for schools of finger mullet dancing across the surface, wading birds, such as little green herons, tri-colored herons, and great egrets. Alligators can also be spotted along the way, as can raptors, such as osprey, bald eagles, and red-shouldered hawks. The trail itself is an abandoned oil-well road and is high and dry even during the summer rainy season. It is also an excellent biking trail. There are four marked canoe trails in the immediate region. A small canoe/kayak launch is located just off the parking area.
For avid birders it is best to visit this site at dawn or dusk. If you continue past the observation tower down the trail approximately six tenths of a mile you will come to one of the largest roosting sites in Florida. Over 5,000 herons, egrets, spoonbills and limpkins gather along the west edge of the trail every evening. The noise they make is nothing short of astonishing and the roosting area continues along the trail for several blocks.
Hiking the short Marsh Trail, then continuing east roughly five-miles and hiking the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk into the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve provides an interesting study in contrasting ecosystems. The mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands rarely reach 35 feet in height, while the ancient bald cypress in the Fakahatchee top 100 feet and tower over the boardwalk. The Marsh Trail is open and the views endless, while the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk cuts through a dense swamp of pond apple, strangler fig, and bald cypress trees. Seeing the difference back to back is a great way to spend a sunlit morning.
If you plan to head into some of the tidal rivers in this area, it’s a good idea to carry a reliable hand-held GPS for navigation, as well as plenty of fresh water, insect spray, and rain gear. After a while every mangrove island and mangrove-covered point looks exactly the same as the last one, and finding your way out might turn out to be a lot harder than finding your way in, even for experienced paddlers.
If you come prepared, however, you will find a treasure of wildlife in the mangrove forests of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. More than 200 species of fish and 189 species of birds live here. During the summer, as many as 10,000 wading birds roost on a small island in Pumpkin Bay. The only hunting allowed is for duck and coot at designated sites and times, so conflict with nature lovers is kept at a minimum. Other sightings might include alligators, American crocodiles, manatee, and bottle-nosed dolphin. So grab your binoculars and your camera and start paddling: there are 10,000 islands left to explore.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.