Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

“Mornin’. Y’all Ready to see some gators?” Our driver delivers this greeting in a curiously flat tone, as if it were a completely natural thing to say — which it is, considering that he’s about to take us into the wilds of Florida’s Everglades National Park for a guided boat-and-kayak tour of the Ten Thousand Islands, in the park’s northwestern corner. Heads nod dutifully. Yes, we’re ready to see some gators. Big, heavy-lidded, jaw-snapping ones, please, and the more leeringly vicious they look, the better. Well, I am, anyway; the others in the group don’t seem quite as keen. Perhaps that’s because it’s only 7:45 a.m. and we’re standing in a sweet warm breeze outside our waterfront hotel, the Naples Bay Resort, where for the last two days we’ve been sampling the more, well, tame delights of Florida’s southwest coast.

It’s easy to succumb to Naples’ pleasures. After all, this small city seems purpose-built to lull visitors — many of whom are retired, fabulously wealthy or both — into a pleasant winter-getaway stupor. It’s clean, neat and quiet; you won’t find the clangor and crowds of Florida’s east coast here. But after a few days of wandering along streets shaded by fragrant poinciana trees, dining on blackened grouper and stone crab, poking my nose into art galleries, boutiques and cafés, and lazing on the gorgeous beach, I was ready for a bit of adventure. I was ready for the Everglades. Or what I thought the Everglades was.

Because I’d never experienced it before, my Everglades was a litany of popular imagination clichés: it would be a seemingly endless swampy muck with an expanse of sawgrass here, a patch of mangrove there and bugs, snakes, gators and airboats everywhere in between. And that’s about it. The reality is much different. At 1.5 million acres, Everglades National Park is a UNE SCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and the third-largest park in the lower 48 states. It is unimaginably rich in plant and animal life, and nearly as flush with superlatives. It contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western hemisphere, holds the largest continuous stand of prairie sawgrass in North America and is the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds on the continent. More than 360 species of birds have been spotted here, and they share space with everything from West Indian manatees, bottlenose dolphins and loggerhead turtles to black bears, nine-banded armadillos and the long-tailed weasel.

Despite this wealth of flora and fauna, the Everglades ecosystem faces serious challenges. From about the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, politicians, industrialists and developers saw it as a useless quagmire that wouldn’t be serving its true purpose until it was drained and its rich soils tilled over to provide America with an agricultural bonanza. And so dredges were fired up, canals were dug, water was diverted and the Everglades began to undergo a nearirrevocable change.

You don’t notice any of this while tooling around on the water for a few hours, however, which makes it hard to believe that so much damage has occurred in a place that still appears so wildly alive. Take the squawking osprey fledglings, for instance, which our guide, Jason Sine of Everglades Area Tours — a former U.S. Marine Corps instructor with a deep red tan, shoulder length hair and a mangrove tree tattooed on his calf — spots shortly after our skiff loaded with sit-on-top kayaks buzzes away from Chokoloskee Island. These birds mate for life and return to the same spot every year to make repairs to their nests, which can weigh more than 135 kilograms. Looking at the giant tangle of sticks perched in the treetops, that’s not hard to believe. Just a few minutes later the boat slows to a putter and Sine points out some Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, their glistening backs slipping effortlessly above then below the water, which is stained greygreen by mangrove tannins. The dolphins here employ a feeding method that hasn’t been seen anywhere else. One dolphin swims in a circle around a school of fish and uses its tail to stir up a ring of mud and silt, corralling the fish. The fish eventually panic and jump out of the water — and into the mouths of the other dolphins.

An hour after leaving Chokoloskee Island, we anchor off Pavilion Key, a chili pepper-shaped patch of bush and fine white sand, and slide our kayaks into the water. We’re at the outer edge of the park’s boundaries, with nothing but the Gulf of Mexico before us. Still, signs of life are as abundant here as they were farther inshore. Three white pelicans, which have the second- largest wingspan of any bird in North America, sit at the water’s edge and eyeball us. A magnificent frigate bird coast by, wings outstretched. Mullet, pompano and Spanish mackerel take turns arcing out of the water — sometimes right over my kayak’s bow, showering me with salty droplets. We don’t see any gators on this trip — they’re more prevalent in the mangrove tunnels deeper inland — but this is still a spectacular scene, the antithesis of Miami’s chic glamour, Orlando’s orderly theme parks and Key West’s bohemian vibe. And sure, Florida has other stunning natural attractions, but nothing can match this.

“The fact that we have such a unique habitat in Florida, let alone North America, is incredible,” says Sine, adding that he doesn’t understand why more people don’t bother to explore beyond the clichés. “People drive through, they ride an airboat, then they go back and that’s it, that’s their Everglades experience. But there’s so much more than the stereotypes.”

But can it all survive and recover from the damage already done? More than ever, the answer seems to be yes, thanks to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the largest — and most expensive, at US $7.8 billion — environmental restoration effort in history, which former President Bill Clinton signed into action in 2000. Sine certainly has faith. “This harm is something we’ve done over a period of 100 years, so to expect reversal in just a few decades is pushing the envelope, but I think we can do it,” he says. “It’s all based on restoring the natural hydrology, and if we can do that we can bring it back to life. Mother Nature is extremely resilient — once you take the pressure off her, she’ll bounce back so fast it will blow your mind.”