A love of nature paves the path for a beloved career

By Maria Gabriela Gonzalez Starchek

Travieso uses power tools to repair a structure in the Everglades.
Travieso uses power tools to repair a structure in the Everglades.

Embarking on backpacking expeditions through rivers, mountains and caves in his native Cuba taught Rafael Travieso how to enjoy, respect and get along with nature.

After moving to the U.S., Travieso sought a career where he could apply what he learned studying biology at the University of Havana and enjoy the outdoors.

As if fate intervened in 2002, FIU Institute of Environment professor Evelyn Gaiser posted a field manager position in the FIU-run Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research program. This initial job opportunity would lead to a long career in the best office Travieso could ask for — the Everglades.

“There are more things to enjoy than there are to complain about when working in the Everglades,” Travieso said.

For 19 years and counting, Travieso and his team have been building and repairing piers, platforms, boardwalks and research stations in remote parts of the Everglades. While they often go unnoticed, Travieso and his team are a key reason why scientists and researchers are able to work in such an isolated and unique environment.

It’s work that’s done every four to five years so researchers would have safe places to hunker down to conduct their critical studies. Often, it’s work that starts before the sun rises each morning. Arrival at the Everglades is usually 5:30 am following an hours-long drive. The team then takes a long boat trip to remote sites and gets to work.

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma walloped the Everglades. Its powerful winds not only toppled towers and trees in Shark River Slough, but caused pieces of destroyed solar panels to crash into and severely damage a flux tower that collects data on carbon dioxide exchange rates between the earth and atmosphere.

While many people fear the alligators, crocodiles, juvenile sharks and Florida panthers that live in the Everglades, Travieso respects them. He fears something more powerful.

“Planning a trip in Florida? That’s what I call a challenge,” he said. “We don’t have to fear animals, but rather Mother Nature herself.”

Perfect weather is essential for Travieso since there’s no protection from thunderstorms or lightning if the weather turns.

As field manager, Travieso is responsible for coordinating activities on-site and for keeping an eye on those who are working with him. But he says this is not a hard challenge for him. Making repairs in wetland ecosystems is a very tedious job. Travieso must wade through swamp water and make his way to the perfect spot where he will begin the process of building pier foundations from scratch. In contrast to the wide expanse of the iconic Everglades sawgrass ecosystem, Travieso must stick to a contained space where the site structures will exist. He needs to carry all his power tools with him, and with nowhere to put them safely down, must be very careful to keep them dry.

“Limited space makes you work carefully in one section at a time. You have to keep power tools dry and be careful with your belongings,” said Travieso. “It would not be the first time I drop something in the water and never see it again.”

After years of working in the Everglades, Travieso has learned to respect the environment and the animals that call it home — just as he did exploring the natural wonders of Cuba as a young man. He doesn’t just appreciate nature and remote areas isolated from the city, but also recognizes how lucky he is to work around a calm, quiet and beautiful wetland ecosystem.