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Everglades trip makes new friends for parks, Expedition Denali

Ranger Ryan leads our tour on Anhinga Trail

Ranger Ryan leads our tour on Anhinga Trail

Everglades trip makes new friends for parks, Expedition Denali

Ranger Ryan leads our tour on the Anhinga Trail.

By Audrey Peterman

Welcome to Day #128 of our “365 Parks in 365 Days” adventure! This weekend I flew so high, I almost touched the sky. A big part of my happiness is Expedition Denali, whose dispatch on Facebook Saturday said:

After some adventurous late night travels, the team landed in the bright near-midnight sun in Anchorage and headed to NOLS Alaska this morning in the iconic green bus. Gear has been exploded and checked, leaving us with the more challenging task of imploding the gear- which means packing it back into backpacks along with the group gear and rations.

    On the first day team members will carry 60 to 70 pounds on their backs and drag the same weight on sleds-literally pulling their own weight. NBC Nightly News is here to cover the story-look for our story on your local NBC station post-expedition!

Simultaneously, Frank and I were in Everglades National Park conducting the “Everglades to Denali Tour” to support the expedition and to draw attention to the connection that African Americans have with the national parks; when we got to the park a few minutes after 9 a.m. as I was in the middle of a radio on our partner Nadine Patrice’s blog talk radio show Just as I was wrapping up, I spotted a Swallow-tailed Kite flying over the Visitor Center. I screamed with pleasure. I took it as an omen for a perfect day and a perfect climb.

It was a love fest from the moment we got into the Ernest Coe Visitor Center where, behind the desk we met Darius and Angela, two interns from the Student Conservation Association working in the park. The rapturous look on their faces and the obvious pride and joy they take in their position was very gratifying. Our group included about 20 South Floridians were meeting their national park for the first time, among them a group of middle school students from the City of Miami Gardens, a newspaper publisher from Broward County, friends that work for the county library system and for the office of County Commissioners.

It was wonderful to see the interest on the faces of the students many of whom had never seen a park ranger in uniform before, and here they were seeing people who looked like them in uniform. We toured the exhibits in the Visitor Center then went to the amphitheater where our friend Ranger Ryan welcomed the group to the park, and showed us a 20-minute orientation film. The young people watched in rapt attention, and I could tell they were learning things about their environment that they hadn’t known before.

I introduced the video of Expedition Denali and told the group about what the team was seeking to do. Talk about being entranced. Other visitors who were not connected to our group stayed rooted in their chair, and then asked if they could follow us as we headed out on the trail. Of course! That’s what a national park is for – it’s the public square, where lots of different people meet and exchange ideas in a peaceful setting.

I could hardly wait to get to the Anhinga Trail, bristling with excitement about all the wildlife that these newcomers would see. And would you believe? For only the second time in recorded history (or at least of the thousand and one times I’ve been to the park) there was no visible wildlife along the trail, other than a few alligators trying to keep cool among the banyan roots under the trail. The only other time this happened was when I took my visiting friend from Alaska on the trail, assuring her that we were bound to see plentiful wildlife.

Heavy rainfall had raised the water level in the area too high for the wading birds to lay in wait for their food, and they’d all evidently gone deeper into the saw grass.

I saw the children’s amazement as they walked over from the parking lot, came through an opening in the building, and suddenly were in the presence of something they’d never seen before – acres and acres of saw grass marsh extending to infinity, and before them a sweetly running river, clear as day, bordered by graceful trees – more nature than they’d ever seen at one time.

At the trail head I reiterated the mission of Expedition Denali, and pointed out that the inhospitable terrain they were viewing was typical of what our enslaved ancestors braved and lived in as they followed their determination to secure their freedom.

The National Park Service lists the Everglades National Park as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom leading to the Bahamas and Cuba. I highlighted the fact that we were celebrating the accomplishments of African Americans in the park system, from the lowest point of the continent at Everglades’s sea level, to the highest point of the continent on top of Mount Denali. We agreed to take “10,000” Steps in support of the hardest part of Expedition Denali’s climb.

One of the best things about the day was the alacrity with which everyone pitched in and made something wonderful happen. Just like Team Denali emphasizes team work, so our tour required team work from a lot of people. And I cannot overstate my appreciation for representatives of the park system such as Deputy Superintendent Alan Scott who has been our liaison to the South Florida Community Partners since the 1990s, and District Interpreter Sabrina Diaz, whose daughter enjoyed the trail in her stroller, decked out in Junior Ranger gear.

Our friend Rodney Baltimore made certain he got my interview on the air, and we met a family on the trail that said they heard me on Hot 105. They said they visit that park regularly as well as parks across the country.

We stopped at the iconic “Robert is Here” fruit stand that’s been on the corner en route to the park for close to 40 years, and Robert donated watermelons for our picnic.

Our longtime friend and Team Denali partner Julia Yarbough arranged for Miami Gardens to send young people from several different schools to the event, and she got Peter Glenn, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Blue Belle Ice-cream to donate gear and lunch for them.

Our friend Bobby Henry, whose family has published the Westside Gazette newspaper since the mid-70s drove down from Fort Lauderdale with his two pre-teen grandsons. An avid fisherman and hunter, Bobby has been the wind beneath our wings since we first came back from “discovering America” with stars in our eyes, 1995. His newspaper published every story we wrote about the environment verbatim, and he rallied members of the black business, civic and cultural sectors to support the restoration of the Everglades.

Our friend Al Calloway, Everglades advocate and South Florida Community Partner, was a steady presence and took these photos for us.

So all in all, a wonderful day was had by all, and together we’ve made more fans for Everglades National Park and for Expedition Denali. Many of the youngsters said they plan to come back, and I embedded in their minds the glorious legacy they have to care for the parks. Their chaperone said she could hardly wait for winter, the dry season, when all the wildlife would be out. And Bobby told us thanks for giving him and his grandsons a memorable day – they went fishing just outside the park afterward.

The single most poignant memory of the day for me was when I invited Bobby and the boys to sit on the bronze statue of the Florida Panther so I could take a picture and he said, “I saw one of them in the wild you know.”


“I was a boy scout…I was out in the woods and I saw him lying under a tree. . . and then he took off.”

Wow!!  It is highly unlikely that his sons or grandsons will ever be able to say those words to their children.  Puts me in mind of the lorax looking for trees – they used to be so plentiful, once.

Visit the Park Service Website to find a park near you, and get started enjoying Great Outdoors Month!

Get Our True Nature and I will send an autographed copy with a personal message to you!

Publication of “Our True Nature: Finding A Zest for Life in the National Park System” is supported by Delaware North Companies, Inc., Forever Resorts and Guest Services.



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