WHERE TO BE WILD IN PALM BEACH COUNTY

From Grandmother’s House We Go: Adventure in a Suburban Jungle …

By Karen Rubin

Our guide on The Jungle Queen Riverboat in Fort Lauderdale joked that Florida’s state bird is the crane-not the flying kind, but the construction kind. Well, there is no shortage of the state bird in Palm Beach County, where vast housing developments and ribbons of asphalt have replaced groves and farms and consumed open space and habitat for flora and fauna alike.

Yet, there are some preserves-literally refuges-that have become as rare as precious jewels, and seem to be all but hidden even to the residents who live nearby. It comes as a stunning surprise to most people living amid the sprawl of development that you can have the adventure of exploring the Everglades in your backyard in Boynton Beach.

So, on this trip to Grandmother’s house, we took forays to explore Palm Beach County’s wild side.

Loxahatchee Wildlife Nature Refuge

The Arthur G. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the northernmost portion of the Everglades, is my refuge. Each year, I make at least one visit to this vast expanse of Everglades habitat, consisting of sloughs, wet prairies, sawgrass, cypress swamp, and tree islands-remarkably, just about 15 minutes drive from my mother’s house in Boynton Beach.

Hurricane Wilma made for particularly challenging canoeing on the nationally designated "scenic and wild" Loxahatchee River (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

There are some 30-40 species here, as well, great blue heron (two are easily spotted nesting in tall cypress trees), egrets, white ibis, American coots, purple gallinules, red-shouldered hawks There also are otter (though I’ve never seen one); alligators (you are almost assured of seeing a few).

Loxahatchee provides a critical habitat for the endangered snail (Everglades) kite, a dark-colored raptor which feeds almost exclusively on one species of snail (the apple snail) that is found here.

It is also habitat for other endangered species, such as the wood stork (which we do see), and Florida panther (which we don’t see). It provides a wintering habitat for migrating waterfowl, anhinga, limpkins, smooth-billed anis, northern harriers.

There are 10 diked compounds spanning 232 acres, so you walk on a dirt path higher than the water (making it unlikely for alligators to be where you are walking but it has been known to happen), and in most places, you have two sides to look at. There is also a raised viewing platform.

This is a controlled “natural” habitat–water levels are raised to discourage growth of noxious plants in order to optimize wildlife food sources.

There is also a nature center with a boardwalk (though this was damaged during Hurricane Wilma and was closed on a recent visit), and a bike trail.

Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach offers incredible opportunities to see birds and alligators, but also to revel in stunning landscape(© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Also, there is an area where you can rent a canoe or kayak and take a 5.5-mile canoe trail through the Everglades. There are interpretive signs along the self-guided trail, but guided tour are available, as well that take you from sawgrass to wet prairie, to sloughs, to tree islands ($65/private; $25/public tour). (Open daily; $32/canoe; $21/kayak; 561-733-0192,www.canoetheeverglades.com )

There is a $5 fee per car to enter the reserve, which is good for the entire day–so you can come at day break and return in the late afternoon, if you choose, catching the changes in sweeping landscape and the interplay of the birds. No two visits are ever the same. It is perfect serendipity.

Arthur G. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is on Rte 441, just south of Boynton Beach Boulevard (561-732-3684, 561734-8303, http://loxahatchee.fws.gov ).

‘Wild & Scenic’ Loxahatchee River

For the most exquisite canoeing adventure, though, we take a 45 minute car ride up to Jupiter, to Palm Beach County’s Riverbend Park, rent canoes from Canoe Outfitters and set out on one of the most beautiful rivers in the country, the Loxahatchee, Florida’s first to be designated a nationally “wild and scenic river.”

It added a special something that when we put in, a Seminole woman, with a beautifully decorated kayak, was just pulling out, herself. “I Like to keep the tradition,” she said.

This place is timeless. Majestic cypress trees, some 400 years old, provide habitat to many endangered species, including osprey, alligator, bald eagle, barred owl, bobcat, otter, manatee, limpkin, pileated woodpecker, and turtles. Loxahatchee is the Indian name for “river of turtles.”

Almost immediately, you find yourself enveloped in a canopy of cypress trees that seems enchanted.

We have been canoeing in several different parts of Florida, and each affords a different experience, but the Loxahatchee River, as immortalized by nature photographer Clyde Butcher, is absolutely extraordinary.

The water does not rush particularly fast (though you might get a bit of current on the way back). The challenge comes from paddling through a literal serpentine of fast twists and obstacles-downed trees and rocks and roots that make for narrow openings. It is glorious.

Canoeing was even more challenging and thrilling this time because of the obstacles presented by roots and fallen logs from Hurricane Wilma.

You may well see an alligator (there were reports of an eight footer but we didn’t see it) and a river otter. You may well spot a great blue heron or an egret… but the real attraction here are the ancient cypress trees, hundreds of years old, large leather ferns and pond apple trees that seem to enfold you.

This is the most beautiful section of the river. We paddled downstream about an hour, to the Masten Dam (chickening out of floating down some rapids at the first ramp; we carried the canoe over the ramp). For every hour it takes to go downstream, you have to allocate 1 hour 15 minutes for the return back to Riverbend Park. Even the return upriver was not very strenuous, but you felt like you were really canoeing.

Ours was a mild trip, certainly within the possibility of young children and grandparents (children six and under must wear a life vest, which is provided; if the child weighs less than 30 lbs., you need to bring your own). This trip is available daily, but you have to begin before 3 p.m., and costs $20/boat for the first two hours, $4 for each additional hour up to $30).

A more ambitious trip, which takes about five or six hours of strenuous paddling (not to mention you may have to pull a canoe over a fallen tree), continues on, beyond the Masten Dam (where there is a restroom), crossing under the Turnpike and I-95 into Jonathan Dickinson State Park, a distance of about eight miles. Along the way, you can see Trapper Nelson’s (a historic cabin; interpretive tours are offered by a Park Ranger). Return transportation is provided ($40 for two people in a canoe; $30 for a solo canoe).

There is also a C-18 Canal route that takes 1 1/2 hours to complete; a river loop that takes 45 minutes to complete.

Eric Bailey and his wife, Sandy have operated Canoe Outfitters since 1980. They offer drinks, snacks, one-shot cameras, sandal shoes, shorts, windbreakers, from his shack in Riverbend County Park, all at moderate prices. You don’t have to worry about insect spray, though: Mr. Bailey notes that the river tends not to get bugs, possibly because of bay leaf and the cypress trees.

Canoe Outfitters of Florida, 8900 West Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33478, 561-746-7053, 888-272-1257,www.canoes-kayaks-florida.com (Located within the Palm Beach County’s Riverbend Park, SR 706, 1 1/2 miles west of Turnpike and I-95.). (Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays, call ahead, 561-746-7053, www.canoes-kayaks-florida.com ).

Wakodahatchee Preserve

In an effort to mitigate the destruction of habitat, Palm Beach County has created two wetlands areas which have become leading destinations for migratory birds and snowbirds, alike.

Wakodahatchee is an Indian name that means “Created Waters,” and that is exactly what this preserve is: a project of the Palm Beach County Water Authority, every day, over one million gallons is purified through the preserve, either by percolation or evaporation. The idea is to use this water to irrigate golf courses, and take pressure off fresh water supplies needed for a rapidly expanding population.

The restored wetlands have become a haven for an extraordinary variety of birds-and for more and more Palm Beach residents craving the peace and natural beauty.

Wakodahatchee has a half-mile boardwalk that loops through about 50 acres, which you can easily walk in under an hour and which you brings you incredibly close to an amazing array of birds. You literally stand over them, and some fly right to the wooden railing. From this perch, you can see nesting blue heron.

Bird-watchers and photographers flock to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands for some of the best viewing of an amazing array of birds such as this heron (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Photographers flock to Wakodahatchee because the viewing is absolutely spectacular. On any given day, you can see some 30 or 40 species, but 150 species have been sighted in the preserve during the course of the year: cormarant, black anhinga, giant blue heron, brown heron, rails, least bittern (photographers come from all over to get a shot of this bird), common moorhen (orange nose), coots (white bill), snowy egret (black nose, white body), tricolor heron, wood stork (grey heads and white bodies, they are known as “preacher birds”), ducks (blue wing teal and model duck), occasionally pintails and green wings.

There are always serious birdwatchers and photographers around who are wonderful about sharing their knowledge.

There is no fee, and Wadokahatchee is such a pleasant place, even for an hour, that I wander in there about three times during the course of the week. It is especially interesting to see at different times of the day, in different light, and to see the different activities of the birds. At dusk, they flock from all over, and tend to roost in particular trees.

On the second Tuesday of the month, there are tours with local volunteers (sign up by calling 561-641-3429). Wadokahatchee is located on Jog Road, just north of Lake Ida Road.

Green Cay Wetlands

The newest nature preserve that has opened is Green Cay Wetlands-created out of what used to be a vegetable farm owned by Ted and Trudy Winsberg (it is located almost directly across the street from Wadokahatche but the entrance is on Hagen Ranch Road) and quite literally saved from becoming another housing development. Before becoming farmland, the land was an open prairie with wetland areas; essentially, the preserve restores the land to its original state and created an oasis of green space within suburbia.

At the newly opened Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center, a Palm Beach County refuge, you can walk on 1 1/2-miles of boardwalk and have a close-up view of birds, such as this Black Ibis, and see exhibits which help you appreciate the importance of conserving water and wetlands (12800 Hagen Ranch Rd., 561-966-7000) (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

Here you walk an elevated boardwalk over the wetlands-one loop is one mile long; another is half-mile long.

The nature center is excellent, with exhibits that feature an indoor turtle pond, a frog habitat, an alligator hole (explaining why alligators are called a “keystone species”) and a wetland diorama. One exhibit lets you travel back through 150,000 years of time to see how the geology and culture of South Florida has changed. A variety of educational programs are offered as well. Green Cay Wetlands and Nature Center, 12800 Hagen Ranch Rd., 561-966-7000.

Lion Country Safari

Lion Country Safari, in Loxahatchee, a favorite attraction for 38 years, has completed a $5 million expansion to Safari World Amusement Park. The walk-through park is being expanded from 38 acres to 55 acres and now offers a giraffe feeding exhibit where you can be “neck and neck” with one of many giraffes. You can also ride a giant ferris wheel and look out over the drive-through preserve of over 1,000 animals on more than 200 acres. There is also a KOA full-service campground with 233 sites; campers get discounted admissions or can take advantage of special packages that include admission (561-793-9797 for campground reservations).

Lion Country Safari, consisted named one of the top attractions in Palm Beach County, is a member of American Zoo and Aquarium Association. ($20.95/adult, $18.95/seniors, $16.95/children 3-9. Open 365 days of the year, www.lioncountrysafari.com 561/793-1084.

Palm Beach Zoo

The Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park has become a major attraction with exciting new exhibits including the Tropics of the Americas, a spectacular new exhibit that incorporates Mayan culture.

Tropics of the Americas is the largest project in the zoo’s redevelopment plan. Spanning over three acres-Tropics of the Americas immerses zoo guests into the animals, plants, and culture of a New World Rainforest. Visitors encounter rare animals such as jaguars, monkeys, giant anteaters, tapirs, bats, colorful birds, and snakes. The exhibit showcases Mayan culture and includes 45-foot pyramids, an Amazon Market Place.

Another new exhibit at the Zoo is the Siamang Habitat, home to a pair of primates known to be the largest species of lesser apes in the world.

You can be "neck and neck" with one of many giraffes at Lion Country Safari's new giraffe feeding exhibit (© 2005 Karen Rubin).

In all, the Zoo offers 23 acres of lush, tropical landscaped habitats of more than 900 animals from Florida, South and Central America, Asia and Australia; other activities include a interactive fountain and a children’s carousel.

The Zoo is located at 1301 Summit Blvd. West Palm Beach on the east side of I-95 between Forest Hill Blvd. and Southern Blvd. The days’ event is included with the price of admission: Adults $12.95, Seniors (60+) $9.95, Children (3-12) $8.95, 561-547-WILD, www.palmbeachzoo.org.

Florida Birding Trail

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has just published the Great Florida Birding Trail, that now includes the final Trial section, South Florida.

South Florida offers some of the best birdwatching in the Western Hemisphere. The South Florida birding Trial guide is now available. The coastlines act as migration superhighways for many birds, and the expansive Eveerglades shelter an abundance of varieties.

The South Florida Birding Trail, the fourth and final section of the Great Florida Birding Trail, features 116 sites spread across 12 counties. Two new gateway sites: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples (which we visited last year), and the Arthur r. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge near Boynton Beach, are hubs for Birding Trail information for the trail.

In all, the Florida Birding Trail spans 2,000 miles and includes 446 premier sites.

“Completion of this final section is a conservation coup, harnessing the might of Florida tourism to benefit our delicate wild lands,” said Mark Kiser, birding trail coordinator.

For more information, visit www.floridabirdingtrail.com .

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© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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