National GeographicNat Geo Wild


 “Are you sure you want to come in August?” we were asked at least a dozen times, in a tone that implied we were just plain crazy. Apparently, mid summer in the Everglades would be an unbearable mess of heat, mosquitoes and torrential rain….even the wildlife makes itself scarce, we were told. But I was fairly certain it was nothing a cold drink, an umb­­­rella and a bit of DEET wouldn’t solve. I was wrong.

We had driven from Miami, across the famous Tamiami Trail that borders Everglades National Park, to Everglades City. We were there to meet archeologist, Margo Schwadron, who studies shell sites along the western border of the park.  Shells sites are islands in the Everglades marsh made entirely out of the discarded shells and bones of prehistoric gladesmen. Essentially, they are very old trash heaps that formed land early settlers could build their houses on. In fact, Margo believes that most, if not all, tree islands in the Everglades may have been formed this way.

Our first stop was a site called, Sandfly Key. In hindsight, perhaps we should have been aware. Our team of camera crew, archeologists and park rangers hopped in boats and sped across Chokoloskee Bay through the tapestry of mangroves in the Ten Thousand Island region of the park. When we neared the site a giant wall came into view. Reaching about 10 feet in height it was made up of layer upon layer of oyster shells. The site is unique because it’s unusual to see such a clear cross-section of the island, with evidence of posts where houses would once have stood.   As we got closer to the wall the assault began, swarms of sandflies descended on us and it felt like being repeatedly stabbed with needles by an invisible army. No amount of insect repellent would keep them away, they seemed immune! Having spent months excavating out here Margo seemed used to them and could just about continue with her interview, while I hopped around, wincing with pain off camera and our cameraman did everything he could to keep the camera steady.

The only reprieve came later in the day when, with little warning and much to the dismay of the camera guys, the heavens opened and it poured. But when we weren’t being battered by the elements we were able to appreciate this rare glimpse into the history of the Everglades. While excavating Margo came across a shell with a small hole bored into the middle of it. She explained it was likely part of a tool used by prehistoric gladesmen to extract oysters.  Finds like this may become a thing of the past - rising sea levels caused by climate change could soon drown these shell islands. While I go through the footage and scratch my still-itchy sandfly bites I feel privileged to have witnessed a unique and important part of the history of the Everglades….even if it is rife with tiny, sneaky assassins.