Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Opera Singer


In the early 1990’s, a large live oak fell into Santa Fe River about a mile below the Rise. Its massive trunk and tangle of branches spanned the channel. The only way past was through a ten-foot gap along the south bank. It was just wide enough to make the tree more of a “feature” than an obstacle.

Years passed and the tree decayed. Small branches broke away and the sharp edges were worn smooth by decay and flowing water. Eventually, all that remained were the trunk and a couple of dozen thick, curving limbs. What had begun as a chaotic tangle of twigs and branches had been crafted by the flow of time and water into a beautiful natural sculpture.

Viewed from downstream, the snag was unremarkable—attractive in the way of driftwood, but not unlike the dozens of other snags on the river. As you got closer, however, the angles shifted and all those random features—the twisted limbs, the knots, the cracks and highlighted grains and stains—fell into perfect alignment to create the image of a singing lady; not a prim choir-girl with good posture, but an impassioned singer with a towering beehive hairdo that would have made the Bride of Frankenstein envious. Her head, tipped back dramatically and facing the sky and her long, slender arms, held high in front of her as though reaching for heaven, gave the singer the appearance of rapture incarnate.

We called her the Opera Singer; a name made more fitting by the fact that she made music. As the river water swirled around her thigh (or waist, when water was higher), it gurgled and bubbled in a way that created a lively percussion melody. With time, I came to appreciate her music as much as the singer.  I often caught myself listening for it long before I could reasonably expect to hear it. 

The Opera Singer became well-known to the local paddling community. Nobody made a big deal about her. She was a just beloved landmark that added color to paddler’s conversations. What could make an otter sighting more interesting than to say it was “a hundred yards upstream from the Opera Singer?”

Features like the Opera Singer remind me to listen to water. Snags, sweeps, boulders, shoals and the countless other objects that adorn all streams are often more than just visual features, they are musical interludes. Sometimes I schedule paddle trips on the middle Suwannee when I know the river will be singing.

Unlike most Florida rivers, the middle Suwannee is lined by massive limestone walls that extend below the water line. Over millennia, the flowing water eroded the rock at the water line. The resulting cavities range from small pockets to cave openings. Some are grottos lined with their own collections of smaller pockets at the waterline within their dark recesses, which adds a beautiful echoic quality. These features pop and sing and play delicate percussion when the wavelets generated by passing boats, splashing animals or even a stiff breeze enter and plop against their inner walls. Each pocket has a different note and volume, depending on its size and depth. The size and force of the wave also makes a difference.   


Floods filled the Santa Fe Valley in 2001. When the water receded the Opera Singer was gone—mostly. Her arms and her dramatic hair had been swept away, leaving only her torso and a disfigured head. The snag was, once again, just a snag. 

Word spread through the paddling community. People shook their heads and shrugged but before long she was all but forgotten. River people understand that the river is eternal, a liquid thread that binds everyone--past, present and future--who has ever known it, but that individual plants and people (and the occasional Opera Singer) come and go like the seasons.

A few weeks after the flood, I paddled up to the Rise. I had heard the Singer was gone, so I wasn’t surprised when I rounded the bend and saw her broken, twisted form in the distance. What did surprise me, however, was to hear her “voice.” She was still singing. While little remained of her graceful form--gone were the bouffant hairdo and the graceful arms that once reached for the heavens--her waist was still intact at the water line and the water passing around it was still gurgling, still singing her song. The singer had changed, but not the song.
*
I’ve never been to an opera, but I'm familiar with the basic format; large-lunged people sing songs in a language nobody understands about gooshy things like love and windmills. 

Rivers are like operas. The heart of both things is a story—actually, a collection of  stories that are woven together to make one big story. If I've learned anything in my years of studying and watching nature, it’s that every river is an anthology of stories. Every feature—every boulder, shoal, tree, shrub, meadow and every single thing along its banks—has its own story that is also an integral part of the bigger, overarching story of the river. 

Ask an entomologist, and he’ll point to a rotting log or a tussock of floating vegetation and he’ll tell you dramatic tales of courtship, mating, defending territories, finding food and the countless life-and-death struggles that are constantly at play. Ask a geologist and he’ll point to that bolder in mid-channel and recount rising and falling seas and will describe amazing creatures, marine and terrestrial, that have occupied this spot over the past millions of years. The cave diver will tell you about the aquifer and cave systems surging through the earth beneath you. She will show you that the land has a pulse.

Now step back from these features and listen to the music accompanying them. Just listen. Allow yourself to enjoy the percussion of wind and water. You don’t have to know the language. Just listen and the music will tell you things no word can touch. Every feature plays the water like a percussion instrument and each is different. Fast flowing rivers sing dramatic and frenzied songs of steep slopes and jagged drops. Slower rivers whisper about easy terrain.  Large boulders grumble ancient tales that have echoed down the gorge since the water began while the willow strainers sizzle and pop with a restlessness that reflects the sandy, unstable ground these trees prefer.

These days, I notice the musical notes of water playing against stones and obstructions in ways I never did before. When a river song grabs my attention, I listen more closely and with more appreciation than I used to. I still know only a fraction of the language, but I enjoy the song just the same.




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Snail’s Pace



 Ichetucknee -  Wednesday - 1/17/18

Today, like many days, I left the river wishing I had more; more battery life in my camera; more layers of clothes between me and the numbing cold; more aspirin for creaky knees that protest long periods of kneeling on rocks. More than anything, I wished I had more daylight. For the past four hours, I had been staring at a square yard of Ichetucknee river bottom and the crowd of pea-sized Elimia snails that occupied it. As often happens, I spent most of that time transfixed in a state of fascination familiar to all naturalists and cause for concern to all others.

By most people’s standards, it had been an unremarkable wildlife encounter. In the time I watched, the most ambitious snail of the group (what’s the collective of snails—a herd? An ooze? A snooze?) was a rambunctious fellow who covered a good half a foot.

Looking back, I see now it was the relative inactivity that made the scene remarkable. It forced me to shrink my perception and see the world from the snail's eye-view. The irregular rocky bottom that I had so often waded across and scanned with the nonchalance of a lumbering giant was now a dramatic landscape. I gazed with a snail’s awe at towering vertical cliffs and deep ravines. Fuzzy chara plants and the clump of red Ludwigia I once kicked from my shoe were now monstrous outgrowths that any adventurous snail with time to spare could make a career of exploring.

As I scanned this world I had so often Gullivered over, I was consumed by the notion that this will be the only world those hundreds of snails will ever know. Judging from the layers of crushed white shells over which they crawled, it was clear they had inherited this realm from countless generations of fore-snails.

Standing to take in the broader view of the snail’s beautifully contoured homeland I was humbled. How could I ever want more from my own vast world? I turned my gaze to the  riverbed upstream and downstream of this little community that now felt so familiar. The clear water allowed me to see other submerged realms, other plateaus far removed from those at my feet, other cliffs and other ravines; other glistening white valleys bedded with the shells of that valley’s ancestors. I realized I was looking at worlds the snails in “my” little community would never see.

As I turned and headed up the hill, up from the river and into the dry upland, I was acutely aware that I was entering a world my little snails could never even conceive. Nothing about it would fit into their known reality. How do I rate? How could I wish for anything more, when every one of the snails I just left will be dead by the next spring of my life. A hundred generations of these snail’s descendants will live and die—many of them in this same rocky plateau—by the time my own days end. How do I rate?

A sliver of shade fell across my eyes. I looked up to see it was cast by an old friend, a towering bald cypress whose branches I’ve scanned many times, watching the comings and goings of birds and other wildlife. This tree’s “knees” and my own have met many times—causing at least one of us considerable pain.

I looked up into the expansive canopy and thought about its ancient age. I wondered how many of my descendants will pass through this shade. How many will knock their knees on its? I wondered what worlds this mother of the forest will gaze upon that I can never conceive.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Florida’s Story as told by River Names



The names of rivers are like time capsules that preserve some pieces of their history. If we dig deeper into those stories and expand on them, we often find they add welcome color and context to stories we might know only superficially from dry history texts. The five rivers on which I guided tours last week offer a good case study

First up was “Waccasassa,” a river that’s name was given by the Seminoles and means, “Place with Cow Pens.” Dig deeper and you’ll learn about the remote, cow-tending operations that were generally called, “cow pens” among early settlers. William Bartram encountered several of these on his 1774 explorations of Florida and Georgia. In Travels, he says cow pens usually included “two or three acreas of ground, more or less, according to the stock, adjoining a rivulete or run of water….” He doesn’t elaborate on the housing situation other than to simply state there was a “habitation.” The residents, despite what one “might reasonably expect, from their occupation and remote situation (were) civil and courteous, and though educated as it were in the woods, no strangers to sensibility and those moral virtues which grace and ornament the most approved and admirable characters in civil society.” (Bonus trivia—“Waccahoota,” the similar sounding name of a relct community off Williston Road, means “Cow Pens,” and refers to a similar cow-tending operation that once stood there. That cow pen later became the home village of Bowlegs, brother of Paynes Prairie’s namesake Chief, King Payne. Those familiar with the Hawthorn area might now have a better sense of the name origin of Cowpen Lake)

Ichetucknee is another interesting Seminole name. I think it says good things about today’s Floridians that many people know this name means “Place where there are Beavers.” What is less known is that the Seminole name of manatees translates as “big beaver.” While I have no proof that the name alludes to a time when manatees were more common in this river, I can’t help but wonder.

Of all the names in last week’s name-rich line-up, “Withlacoochee” might be the least intriguing. Perhaps the most interesting (and telling) thing about this name is that there are two of them. Like Wekiva, it appears “Withlacoochee” was not a proper name for the river, but more of a descriptive that was elevated to proper name status by white settlers.

Ironically, the more modern sounding and clearly non-native name, “Santa Fe,” is actually the oldest name in the lineup. Like so many Florida place names that include “Santa” or “Saint,” this one refers to a Spanish Mission that stood alongside the upper river in the 1600’s; long before the Creeks (later called Seminoles) arrived. I sometimes wonder if any of the resident Timucuas ever asked the missionary about the real Santa Fe, for whom the mission was named. I like to picture the monk shifting nervously, with a deer-in-headlights expression on his face as he tried to explain that Fe was a fourteen year old girl who was brutally tortured and killed for holding fast to her beliefs and refusing to convert to the religion of her oppressors.

Silver River has is the newest name of all these five rivers. When the Seminole Agency was established at Ft. King (later Ocala) the new agent changed the river’s name from the Seminole, “Suailleaha,” which is said to have meant, “sun glistening water,” to Silver River. While there is no record of the circumstances, I wonder if he was attempting to give deference to the Seminoles by giving their name his best English translation. Though, as even the driest, most superficial historical texts make clear, giving the Indians deference was not high on the Indian Agencies “to do” list.



Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Otters on the Ichetucknee


River otters love nothing so much as a mouthful of crayfish

It was as quiet as one would expect of a thirty five degree morning as we carried boats and gear down to the Ichetucknee launch deck. Aside from my friend John Drum, who was also gearing up for a paddle, the only other sign of life on Ichetucknee this morning was a johnboat that came puttering up to the dock just as our group was launching. The johnboat was loaded to the gunnels with cameras, gear and thickly-bundled people, including scientist and cave-diver extraordinaire, Tom Morris. I knew from previous correspondence with their producer that this was a film crew from the U.K.. They had come to film river otters for a BBC documentary. 

River otters are common on the Ichetucknee. Some mornings, as I am staging my boats for a tour, a group of otters will swim past the launch deck. They begin near the head spring and slowly make their way down the run, diving and poking into every submerged crevice and clump of Sagittaria in their energetic search for breakfast. Aided by sensitive whiskers, excellent underwater vision and a prowess common to many mustelids (the weasel family), they usually surface with a mouthful of food. In other parts of the country, they main prey are fish. But, in the spring-fed rivers of North Florida, they seem to relish nothing so much as a crunchy crayfish. In fact, I often hear the crunching of approaching otters before I see them.


Otter fur is so efficient its skin rarely gets wet
Another telltale sound of river otters is their huffing. When they dive, otters close their nostrils (and ear openings). When they resurface, they blow the water from their nostrils like little construction workers. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the enthusiastic crunching and bubbly snorts of approaching otters as surely as my dog Murphy recognizes the jingling of my truck keys. And both sounds are a call to action. In Murphy’s case, it means lunge for the door. For me, it’s a signal to freeze.

The best thing about hearing crunchy snorts (I will call them that until corrected by an accredited snortologist) is that it means the otter hasn’t seen me. If I freeze or, even better, crouch behind some cover, I will likely have a grandstand seat for one of my favorite wildlife encounters. Nature rarely gives advance notice—and never so pleasantly as the soft, wet snorts of a river otter.

Such are the moments that have steered many bright-eyed youngsters into  careers with nature. Ask any nature photographer, nature writer, or park ranger and you’ll probably hear a story of an encounter like this. If I asked the half dozen Brits huddled on that boat, I’m sure I would have heard a half dozen tales involving wonderful animals I have only heard about.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Winds of Change


Tree stands atop tip-up mound
As we enter the new year, with Hurricane Irma slowly fading into memory, our local river levels are returning to normal. At this point, the last places where we're seeing remnant effects on water levels are the springs. All the water that was absorbed into the ground in recharge areas is now pressing down on the water table and causing increased pressure on the aquifer. As a result, the springs are flowing a bit stronger than they were before the storm. It’s a nice bonus of the storm, but it will be temporary. In the coming weeks, the pulse of additional water delivered by Irma will level out and the springs will return to their pre-storm levels.

The most enduring effects of the storm will be in the forests. Unlike areas that felt the full hurricane, the strongest winds in North-central Florida were sporadic and only caused pockets of damage. Some of these pockets were large. Much of Gainesville, for instance, had significant wind damage, while other parts of Alachua County felt breezes no stronger than a summer storm.

Damage along our local rivers is spotty as well. Large stretches of Suwannee, Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha appear untouched, while other stretches are littered with isolated fallen trees. Parts of the Ocklawaha and St. Johns river forests had entire stands of mature trees pushed over.
Together they stood, together they fell

To those of our fellow humans who like their nature controlled and their forests tidy, these storm-ravaged forests seem like nature’s train wrecks; tragic scenes of destruction. But here again, we are viewing nature with civilization-tinted glasses (I hear they sit heavy on the nose).
Walk through a storm-ravaged forest with a naturalist and you’ll learn that extensive areas of damage are not considered “destruction.” Ecologists call them “natural disturbances.” Where one kind of habitat (mature, closed canopy forest, for instance) is eliminated, another (sunny glade) is created. In newly opened forest clearings, seedlings can thrive that had little chance of surviving in the shade of a standing forest.

Clearing opened by Irma allows sun-loving plants to thrive

On a smaller scale, each individual fallen tree creates new habitats, new opportunities for certain species to thrive. The pit created by an uprooted tree—called “tree throw”—creates a divot in the ground that will become a small, ephemeral pool after rains. These isolated pools are ideal for certain animals to breed and feed. Another new feature created by the fallen tree is the “tip-up mound” of roots and soil that are hoisted above the ground. Tip-up mounds (which can stand over 10 feet high if it was a big tree) create another habitat altogether. In large, flat swamps that have few bits of exposed ground, tip-up mounds become valuable islands where small plants can thrive. These, in turn, will offer food, shelter and breeding sites for to birds and other creatures. In short, the fallen tree will enhance the biodiversity of the area.

These descriptions are superficial and hardly do justice to the complex (and fascinating) ecology of disturbances and succession in natural systems. But hopeful it’s enough to give you a sense of appreciation for the “disturbances” we will be seeing in North Florida’s forests and along our rivers for years to come. With time, you’ll realize these disturbances and new, sunny glades are ideal places to aim your binoculars as you paddle past.
Fallen trees pave the way to the forest's future



Monday, July 31, 2017

Return to the Primordial Beach



It’s been a fine wet summer and many of North Florida’s lowland rivers have spilled their banks. Sections of certain swamp-lined rivers—Prairie Creek, Withlacoochee and parts of Ocklawaha to name a few—are no longer defined by their banks, but broad sheets of water that simply disappear into the forests on either side.

For many paddlers, high water events stir something inside us that tells us to load our boat and get out there. When the paddling gets gnarly, the gnarly get paddling *.

Topping the list of opportunities brought by a flood is the chance to paddle through low river forests. In normal conditions, we descend the river like spectators who can only watch the forest scroll past. But when a river swells and jumps its bank, it allows us to paddle out into that forest wonderland where we are presented with yet another fine opportunity--seeing our fellow paddlers in a state of utter enchantment.

Next time you’re in a swamp, look around at your companions. There won’t be a day-dreamer in the bunch. Even the most seasoned outdoors-persons are on high alert in a swamp. They—we—move slowly and deliberately, scanning our surroundings with the excited curiosity of children. We are aware of every sound, every scent.

Even the youngest swamps feel timeless and primordial. But older swamps—those whose mature trees create a world of deep shade and warm, sultry air—are primordial to the point they evoke a sense of spirituality in us that often borders on mystical. We are awed by their grandeur. We gaze at the massive trunks of cypress, ash and tupelo rising from the water like the columns of a grand cathedral and our eyes are automatically drawn upward to vaulted ceilings of shimmering green foliage flecked with brilliant shards of light. Elsewhere in the spacious hall, the shrill calls of warblers, flycatchers and woodpeckers take on a penetrating, almost haunting quality as they echo from the high rafters and dark recesses. But, damp, earthy scents and an unbroken floor of tannin-stained water are ever-present reminders that this sanctuary is far older and far grander than anything man has ever erected.

It is this wonderful play of water and wildlife that brings me to the best of all the opportunities offered by a flood; the chance to glimpse the primordial origins of life out of the sea.

Once upon a time, the only living things on the planet lived in the sea. All the land above the sea was barren rock and sand—and void of life. Sometime around 400 – 450 million years ago, primitive marine plants like mosses and liverworts began colonizing that barren shore. With time—lots and lots of time—natural selection allowed some to evolve characteristics that allowed them to remain out of water and reproduce. With the groundwork laid, animals began sending their own pioneering species into the world of air and light. It was the animal kingdom’s first out-of-(water)body-experience.

Those first arrivals were small, segmented creatures that closely-resembled their present day descendants, millipedes and centipedes. For those pioneering species, survival hinged on one important thing—staying hydrated. It was a monumental challenge and one they never quite overcame. To this day, every critter on the planet—including the one that wears hydration packs and buys water for a dollar per pint—works hard to keep from drying out.

From a distance, that first primordial beach would have appeared barren. Only on close observation would you have found a thin, spongy carpet of simple plants, mosses and liverworts rimming the high tide zone. Poking into these mases with a stick (I’m not sure what kind of stick we’d find since there was no wood yet. Hmm!), you might have revealed some of those first air-breathing animals nosing about in its damp, shaded recesses.

Today, compliments of recent flooding, the primordial beach has been resurrected in some of the swamps of North Florida—sort of. Paddle slowly among the cypress, tupelo ash and other floodplain species, and look closely at the trunks, just above the water line. There, you'll find small patches of mosses and liverworts, wicking up moisture from the water below. Crowded onto these welcome sanctuaries of dampness you'll often see gatherings (quite dense in ideal locations) of small animals—mostly arthropods—that look strikingly similar to those that colonized the beach primeval.

With their regular home on the forest floor now under water, dense communities of millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs and rolly-pollies huddle near the water line on the exposed tree trunks and floating vegetation. But, these communities are not functioning in the usual manner. Centipedes and millipedes, creatures usually locked into a deadly predator-prey relationship, are now spooning. Rolly-pollies stand brazenly exposed to predators. And all are lethargic, having lapsed into an energy-conserving stupor as they wait out the flood. They are the displaced refugees waiting to return to their homeland.

Of course, not all of the forest creatures are as nostalgic as human paddlers. Pileated woodpeckers descend on these refugee camps like pirates, gorging on the assorted crawlies they find under dislodged chunks of bark. Other birds--chickadees, titmice, vireos, wrens and other gleaning birds—are joining the feast, wreaking their own brand of havoc. on the vulnerable refugees.

It’s an interesting time, but if you plan on coming out for a frolic on North Florida’s’s forest/beach primeval, I suggest you hurry. Water levels are dropping fast and the snack bar is running out of grub(s).





* As a sometimes-responsible river guide, I should clarify that the flood waters I'm talking about in this article are those found in quiet, flooded swamps, where the water moves slowly, if at all, in a sheet flow through the forests. Flooding in the main channel of a waterway is a different animal altogether. Those are very hazardous conditions, suitable only for expert paddlers. Most significantly, paddling on raging flood waters will not get you into any of the interesting things I’m describing here. You're warned. Now get out there!!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Spiderwort: Blue Tears



At days end, spiderwort bloom dissolves into a liquid blue pearl


When serious-minded naturalists hear comments like, “Hey look, those spiderworts are crying blue tears!” their Terramar® underpants (“for the discerning outdoorsman, with soft spun polyester that stretches with every move and wicks moisture like there’s no tomorrow”) immediately bunch. So, on a recent paddle trip on Steinhatchee River, when our dozen-boat fleet of kayaks drifted past a cluster of deep purple blooms, I considered my words carefully before responding to the young girl's comment.  

Anthropomorphizing—attributing human characteristics and emotions to plants, animals and other non-human things—is usually reserved for poets and the writers of children’s books. But, for nature guides whose job is to facilitate healthy relationships between people and nature, sprinkling a little anthropomorphism into discussions about wildlife can be useful. People like detecting a hint of humanity in the other species in their midst. It’s comforting, but more importantly, it makes those species more familiar and strengthens the sense of connectedness.

I was reminded of this on a recent hike at Cape Canaveral. Our group had just emerged from behind the dunes when we saw a leatherback sea turtle laying eggs in a sand pit. As we stood back watching this miracle, we talked about the challenges this species faces. A turtle expert in our group explained that this species is teetering on extinction, and that the current number of nesting females—estimated to be between 26,000 and 46,000—is about a third of the number in 1980.  But it wasn’t until we noticed a single tear, glistening in the moonlight as it rolled down the mother turtle’s cheek, that the group was visibly moved. In that instant they developed a heart-felt empathy for the mother turtle that dwarfed any emotions stirred by our talk of extinction. Even after the herpetologist explained that the tears were a natural bodily function, designed to wash sand from the turtles eyes in the same way our own eyes gush when sand gets in them, some of our crew couldn’t shake by the notion that the turtle mother was crying.

Another way to help people identify with plants and animals is to show how other cultures and even our own predecessors used them. Pause alongside a sand myrtle bush and start droning about the plant’s anatomy and you’ll soon be talking to yourself. But mention that early oil men believed groves of these bushes indicated large deposits of oil underground, and you’ll find your audience more receptive. Even though the oil "dowsers" have abandoned the use of sand myrtle in favor of more reliable sensing technologies of the nuclear age, for the purposes of nature interpretation, knowing this plant was once the famous “oil bush,” makes it still relevant.

Over the years of studying wild lore, I’ve come to realize that Florida’s wild places are pulsing with such stories. The river banks are lined with species that are currently being used in products with such varied uses as detecting lead and arsenic in the air, removing pollutants and metals from water, detecting landmines (in other countries) and improving windshields. Some are used for everyday products like clothing, shelters and hundreds of medicinal compounds, while others are used for more nefarious purposes like explosives and rifle sights. My challenge these days is resisting the temptation to rattle off the lore of every plant we pass. Instead, I try to direct my "interpreting"  towards only those people who look like they want to hear it. Of course, there are some stories everyone seems to appreciate.

 Back on the Steinhatchee River, I realize my crew is starting to drift away; better talk quickly.

“The “tears” we’re seeing are the remains of the spiderwort’s flower. When the bloom reaches the end of its half-day life span, enzymes begin dissolving it. By dusk, nothing remains but a gob of purple liquid. This was the inspiration for the plant’s nick-name, “widows tears.”

Stamen hairs of a spiderwort bloom tell a story
The group is continues to drift away. But, there’s one more thing I think they’d be interested in hearing.

“These days, spiderworts are sometimes planted near nuclear reactors because they can detect radiation.”

Heads turn and paddles stop moving. A few people start to lightly back-paddle toward the plant.

“In the 1970’s, Professor Sadeo Ichikawa at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered that the blue stamen hairs in spiderwort flowers turned pink in the presence of radiation. Through his research, he refined his technique to the point that he can now detect the amount of radiation exposure like a biological Geiger counter.  By taking daily counts of the number of cells that have changed from blue to pink along the single-cell strands of the stamen hairs, researchers can monitor the levels and changes in radiation.”

A young girl pulls her kayak toward the plant and squints for a better view, “I wonder if it’s crying pink tears?”