Picture a 230,100-acre jigsaw puzzle with 14,022 pieces, some as small as a manhole cover, others as big as Central Park. Each is a mangrove island, a tangle of green floating above stiltlike roots. Winding among the islands are tea-colored bays, rivers, and creeks. At the end of one of those creeks there's a clover-shaped inlet. In a crook of that inlet, a houseboat is anchored. Inside that houseboat, my 12-year-old daughter sketches an anhinga drying its wings while her seven-year-old brother draws clouds. On the deck my wife and I bask in a stillness so rich that we hear the subtlest of sounds—the plash of water against the mangroves, the sssssh of the breeze in the leaves, the rustle of an ibis settling on a branch.
Fifteen years ago, when Anne and I were a new couple, we canoed 78 miles on a six-day camping trip through this very place. Like most Americans, we had been accustomed to taking our natural wonders in vertical form: the spine-chilling depths of the Grand Canyon, the neck-craning heights of the Grand Tetons. By contrast, Everglades National Park, a Delaware-sized hunk of wilderness at the bottom of Florida, is brazenly horizontal—at eight feet above sea level, its highest point barely tops Shaquille O'Neal's bald pate—and decidedly un-grand. Indeed, it is often described, accurately, as "primeval swampland."
Anne and I soon discovered, however, that in the Everglades things are seldom what they seem: a floating log could be an alligator; a gnarled branch may be the S-shaped neck of a tricolored heron. We learned that a pancake-flat landscape leaves room for a sky so vast it induces a sweetly pleasurable form of vertigo; that a swamp can encompass nine habitats, from mangrove forest to saw-grass prairie, each with its simple glories. If the other national parks are epics, the Everglades are an endless series of haiku.
We had vowed to return, but two children and one ailing back had intervened. And though we nibbled at the fringes of the park several times, we'd begun to despair of ever seeing the Everglades backcountry again. Then a friend told us that the park marina rents not only canoes but fully equipped houseboats. A mode of travel that we once would have scoffed at as cumbersome and bourgeois now sounded like a godsend.
Henry was gung ho over the prospect. He was thrilled to hear that the Everglades are home to alligators, crocodiles, and 26 species of snakes—four of them poisonous—and his disappointment at learning he wouldn't be allowed to swim in the swamp was more than compensated for by his delight at the reason why: all those hungry animals. For Susannah, who loves ice and snow and donates a dollar a week to a save-the-polar-bear foundation, the steamy Everglades was a harder sell. Our daughter is fond of luxury (she spent her ninth birthday at the Plaza Hotel in New York); the Everglades don't have any. Anne and I only hoped that her nature-loving side would prevail.