Ranger Allyson Gantt
Many people — even from right here in South Florida — are afraid to come out to Everglades National Park. They find the prospect of encountering snakes, mosquitos, and alligators intimidating. I love to hold someone’s hand through their first visit to the park and get them excited about this amazing place.
I take visitors on wet hikes — what we call a slough slog — off the trail and into the sawgrass prairie. I lead visitors through the open marsh into a forest of cypress trees with soft green needles. On late winter afternoons, the angle of the sun makes the light particularly beautiful. With the dark water below and the cypress branches swaying ever so slightly overhead in the breeze, it feels like a magical place.
When Hurricane Irma was bearing down on us last fall, it was pretty intimidating. But although our human-built facilities did take a hit from the storm, the natural environment is incredibly resilient. Our mangroves took a real beating, but that’s what they’re there for — to catch the wind, slow the storm surge, and protect the inland areas. Our plants and animals are adapted for this and began to recover right away.
The best part is, we really didn’t have to cancel any of our educational programs. Each school year, we welcome about 14,000 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.
For nearly 80% of them, it’s their very first visit to a national park. They get to explore different habitats, canoe, camp, go on a slough slog, or even take a night hike. The kids love walking with their flashlights on the boardwalk at night and seeing the light reflecting from the alligators’ eyes!
I hope the kids remember the cool facts they learned about the ecosystem. But mostly I want them to go home with a positive memory of the Everglades. When they grow up, they’ll be the ones making decisions about how to protect this place.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked kids, “Do you realize who owns this park?” And then they are shocked and delighted when I tell them that they do! They think that’s so cool. I love that I get to introduce them to their park.