Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Deep Creek: An Explorer's Realm

Remote is good. But sometimes, "semi" remote, with a historic town, beautiful beaches and lots of restaurants and pubs relatively close-by (for some after-paddling fun) is even better. Deep Creek, twenty minutes from St Augustine in one direction and Crescent Beach/Matanzas in another, fits that bill perfectly. Best of all, it's wild. Aside from a relict railroad trestle that abuts the river on both sides at the half mile mark, there are no house, roads or signs of civilization anywhere along Deep Creek's entire five mile run to the St. Johns. In fact, if you were to land your boat and set off hiking in any direction, you'd find nothing but unbroken swamp forest for hours. This stream threads through the heart of the  5500 acre Deep Creek Conservation Area. 

A pair of yellow-crowned night herons
Most of this stream carries us through a densely shaded mixed-hardwood swamp forest, dominated by bald cypress, ash, tupelo red maple and several other wetland tree species. In certain seasons, the understory and shrub layers add color to the semi-tropical scene with blooms of wild roses, elderberries, leather flowers, climbing asters, climbing hemp and several species of morning glories. A beautiful stand of scarlet hibiscus crowds the bank close to the launch area. 

One lucky Double-crested cormorant, one not so much
Woodpeckers, kingfishers, wood ducks, anhingas, cormorants, barred owls and songbirds are our most frequent companions. Parula, black-and-white, yellow-rumped and several other warblers love this forest. In the summer, prothonotary warblers--a species that loves this kind of swamp hardwoods--are stars of the river-show. As we approach the St. Johns, we see more wading birds, including great blue and little blue herons, snowy and great egrets and, less frequently, night herons. 

River otters are especially fond of this quiet stream. We spot occasional turtles, but nowhere near the numbers we see on Santa Fe, Ichetucknee and other North Florida spring runs, where clear, calcium rich artesian water is nothing short of elixir. As on all Florida rivers, be prepared to spot an occasional gator or two (or three).

The struggle to bring civilization to the Deep Creek area and the nearby community of Hastings has been going on for as long as at nearby St. Augustine. But it proved far more challenging to mold a solid, lasting community from the fertile muck of the Lower St. Johns River basin than from the coquina rock of the coast.

For the Spanish outpost of Picolata, it was all about location, location, location. Situated alongside the relatively calm St. Johns River, only eighteen miles west of St. Augustine, Picolata was an excellent alternative landing for vessels carrying goods and passengers for St. Augustine that wanted to avoid St. Augustine’s treacherous sand bars. But, with the arrival of rail lines, shipping became less important for St. Augustine and Picolata was largely abandoned.
One of the largest early settlements in the Florida interior was Rollestown. The brainchild of an eccentric Englishman named Denys Rolles,the plan for  Rollestown was to use indentured English laborers to work a huge indigo plantation. By all accounts, Rolle was cruel and indecisive. From the outset, the venture was plagued with desertions. Those who stayed were not “colonists” in the traditional sense. An account written by a Dr. Stork called Rollestown, “a valuable colony of sixty people consisting of shoe blacks, chimney sweepers, sink boys, tinkers and tailors, bunters, cinder winches, whores and pickpockets.” (Is it just me, or does this sound like a great place tospend a few days?)

William Bartram in later years
At its peak, Rollestown had a population of 200 people and produced a variety of products including rice, naval stores, citrus and citrus products (including orange juice and orange wine) and indigo. When England lost Florida in 1784, Rolles was forced to abandon the settlement. He relocated to the Bahamas, where a couple of communities retain his name.
In 1765, a “battou” arrived at Rollestown carrying the famous explorer/botanist John Bartram and his son William. Months later, when John decided to wrap up the expedition and head back to Pennsylvania, William decided to stay and seek his fortunes in Florida. On a plantation near the mouth of Six-mile Creek, just north of Hastings, twenty seven year old William (and a handful of slaves provided by his father) tried his hand at raising indigo. As later revealed, the young naturalist’s heart lay with other pursuits and he abandoned the enterprise later that year.
A decade later, William Bartram returned to Florida on a venture more suited to his passions. With funding from a patron and friend of his father, William came to document the nature and people of Florida, with special emphasis on plants. Unlike his earlier ventures, this was a monumental success and resulted in the famous book Travels. Early on this second Florida expedition, William secured the help of one of Denys Rolle’s agents, a seasoned woodsman named Job Wiggins. Referred to in Travels as the “old trader,” Wiggins played a vital role in Bartram’s famous expedition, not only for his role as his guide and mentor, but also for loaning William the boat he used for much of the trip. Wiggins later established his own plantation near Hastings after Rollestown failed.

Water passage (w. Pam Daniels and Joanne Bolemon)
A half century later, John James Audubon spent a few days in this

 area. One notably miserable night aboard his boat, he was simultaneously assaulted by clouds of “blind musquitoes” and the stench of “jerkers” (an operation for jerking beef), “from which the breeze came laden with no sweet odors.”
With the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835, plantations throughout Florida were converted to forts to protect local citizenry. Closest to Hastings was Ft. Hanson on the banks of Deep Creek. Several miles east and northeast of here were Forts Weedman and Harney. Settlers living south of Hastings could seek sanctuary at Fort Buena Vista on land now within the bounds of East Palatka, and Fort Hunter at the old site of Rollestown.
It wasn't until after the next war—the War of Union Aggression (as the settlers in this region liked to call the Civil War)—that today’s town of Hastings got its start. In 1890, Thomas Hastings established Prairie Garden, a large commercial vegetable farm, to feed the growing number of tourists now coming to St. Augustine and North Florida as part of a booming health spa industry. When Henry Flagler routed the Florida East Coast Railroad through the area, he called the train station “Hasting’s,” thereby solidifying both the town’s name and its importance as a source of vegetables and potatoes.
Judging from photo archives, one of the biggest celebrations ever held in the town of Hastings came in 1915. Grainy black-and-white photos show townsfolk and early model cars lining the roads of the small downtown business district. Banners and flags hang from every pole, telephone line and balcony in sight. Thumbing through the photos, we find a series taken of the parade. One shows a pair of sweet Southern belles in their finest “Sunday meetin’” dresses, holding parasols and riding horse-drawn buggies. Another shows pedestrians, horses and a variety of early model automobiles. The caption below one picture identifies the winner of “best decorated vehicle” of the parade. It’s a huge, open-topped vehicle similar to those used by European royals and dictators of that time, except for one distinctly Florida flourish—it’s covered in Spanish moss.
The cause for this celebration was news that the highly-sought Dixie Highway was going to be routed through Hastings with a connection to Orlando. The Dixie Highway was the latest incarnation of a series of Highway Associations that had their origins in the League of American Wheelmen, formed in 1880, whose motto was, “Lifting our People Out of the Mud.”

Skill Level

There is little current on this stream, which makes it suitable for all skill levels. With only one access point, it must be done as an out-and-back paddle (unless you want to do some of the St. Johns), which means you can tailor your trip length to suit your preference or ability. Being 


small(ish) stream, there's always the possibility of new downfall, so be prepared for the possibility of having to get out for an occasional pull-over.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Dead Spring Running

Hornsby Spring Run

Hornsby Spring is dying. Once a deep blue gusher that added over 60 million gallons of cool artesian spring water to the Santa Fe River basin every day--the only first magnitude spring in Alachua County--its cobalt blue water has turned tannic brown.

The tipping point came in the early 2000’s, when a one-two punch of extreme drought followed closely by high flooding, caused the spring to reverse flow. Geologists call this kind of reversed spring an estevelle. When conditions returned to normal, Hornsby and a few other springs in the upper Santa Fe River basin were brown.

Wood stork plodding through Hornsby Swamp
People who love these springs visit them like concerned family members. We arrive with guarded optimism, pay quiet respects, conjure a few happy memories and then walk away saddened by the mounting acceptance that these springs are dying. 
Yes, the pool is still full and yes, the water that gushes from the vent still flows in an elegant stream through a spectacular swamp hardwood forest. But much of the water is brown river water that fell into the plumbing system and regurgitated by the same forces that have always powered the spring. It contains less artesian water than it once did; less of the water that had filtered slowly through the limestone and re-merged only after a relatively-long residence time underground. This spring is as dying as surely as a lightning struck pine.

In my early years as an arborist, it took many hope-filled disappointments before I learned to confidently tell my customers that their beautiful, lightning-struck pine tree was dead as a rock, even though it was still vibrant green. I would point to the narrow streak running down the trunk and into the ground and explain that the trees roots were fried. But because the vascular system of xylem and phloem was still intact and it was still full of life-giving nutrients and water, it would continue going through the motions for weeks or even months to come. Like the death row prisoner who they call a “dead man walking,” these vibrant-looking pines were actually dead trees standing. Sometimes it would take as long as a year. But, in the end, the tree would die and I’d get the “you were right” call and we’d schedule a removal.

 Like the pine, the vascular system under Hornsby is still intact and still full of fluid. But it’s not the purely artesian spring water that once flowed from the vent, not the water to which every habitat, every species and every individual creature that lives along the spring run and Santa Fe River, from here to the Gulf of Mexico, is adapted. The chemistry of tannic brown river water is different from artesian water. The temperature, too, is different. It’s also less clear, which means less light penetrates to the bottom and fewer plant species can thrive. Fewer plants means fewer animals. Many species have survived the transition. Some have not.

Just as I learned that green pines with lightning streaks running  into the ground are actually dead, I'm learning from watching Hornsby, Graham, Columbia and several other once-blue springs of the upper Santa Fe that, even though the plumbing is still working, browning springs are in their death-throes. But, there are a couple of big differences between dying pines and dying springs. 

For one thing, humans are not responsible for lightning struck trees. Insurance companies label them, “acts of God.” The death of our springs, on the other hand, is being caused by humans. It’s a reversible tragedy. But saving the springs would take special kind of miracle—a committed effort by Florida voters (that's us) and decision-makers we elect.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ichetucknee: All-star of the Springs Heartland

Ichetucknee River is spectacular in all seasons, but autumn is one of the best. This Sunday and again next weekend, we'll be doing an easy paddle down the upper 4 miles of the "Ich" (the entire portion within the bounds of Ichetucknee State Park). 
When you see it you'll understand why Ichetucknee is considered an all-star of Florida's "Springs Heartland.". While its crystal clarity and lush growth of submerged vegetation is typical of Florida's 900+ artesian springs, the fact that it maintains this clarity for its entire six-mile run to the Santa Fe (compliments of nine named springs and a number of unnamed ones), is exceptional. But there's more to this river's celebrity than just clear water.

Ask a hydrologist and he'll tell you Ichetucknee's story begins long before its emergence from its namesake spring in a namesake park. He'll tell you about its spring-shed--the underground equivalent of those above-ground watersheds so nicely diagrammed in our grade-school texts that show rain water running down hills and valleys into rivers. If he's feeling brave, he might begin at the beginning, describing a time when Florida was under a shallow sea and animal remains settled on the bottom. This accumulated and compacted for millions of years to form a layer of limestone 1,000 - 2,000 feet thick in places. He'll tell you about the vast network of hollow channels that formed in this rock and now carry underground streams and reservoirs of water called the Floridan Aquifer. It is water from this aquifer that makes up the bulk of water gushing from the springs of Ichetucknee. 
By this point, our impassioned hydrologist will likely be alone--maybe with one or two sympathetic companions. If you happen to be one of them and foolishly feign a remnant of interest, he's likely to continue with a description of some creeks in Lake City that disappear into sink holes and join the underground channels of the aquifer as they course towards their eventual reemergence at the Ichetucknee springs. He'll watch your eyes as he makes this last statement to make sure you understand the implications. "Everything that washes into those creeks goes into the aquifer--our drinking water!" he'll say. "And some of it will emerge at these springs, where it will pass through the gills, wash the leaves and quench the thirst of every living thing it passes between here and the Gulf of Mexico." These springs aren't the beginning or the end of Ichetucknee's story, they are the middle--a brief interlude while the Big Girl does a set change.
As it gushes from the head springs to begin its six mile journey toward Santa Fe river, Ichetucknee begins as a narrow stream threading between 15 foot high walls of limestone. Sculpted by quick flowing water for thousands of years, the rock formations along this stretch are a wonderful contrast to the scenery we typically see on other Florida rivers. Soon, the high banks move further apart and become obscured by a fantastic variety of aquatic plant life and trees. Another mile and several springs bring us into a nice cypress forest which lines the river for the rest of the way.
By the end of the six mile run (a couple of miles beyond where we'll end this trip), the Ichetucknee's springs have combined to form a substantial river which adds nearly 233 million gallons of water to the Santa Fe river every day.

Great egret
Ask a Naturalist (ideally a Florida Master Naturalist--shameless plug) and she'll explain that, on its relatively short run of six miles, Ichetucknee passes through a surprising diversity of habitats. In the first quarter mile, it wends narrowly under a high canopy of bald cypress, ash, red maples, hickory and basswood. The lower shroud of redbud, Virginia willow, swamp dogwood and salt bush is crowded, in many places by a tangle of climbing hemp, ground nut and dodder vines. Phoebes, vireos and prothonotary warblers love this area, when they are here. 
Fifteen minutes into the trip, we enter a broad wild rice marsh, where a nice mix of submerged and emergent vegetation supports a birders dreamscape of ibis, cormorants, anhingas, wood ducks, wood storks, great egrets and limpkins. Some summers we spot an occasional roseate spoonbill. When the river is running at above average levels, manatees ascend the river and are usually spotted in this marsh section.
An hour into the trip, you'll enter a more mature, high-canopied river forest of bald cypress, ash, red maples, tupelo, water oaks and hickory. Pileated woodpeckers, as well as a few smaller members of the woodpecker clan, like this area. Watch for barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, prothonotary and parula warblers and listen for yellow-billed cuckoos, tanagers, and red-eyed vireos.

Shhh! don't tell this beaver we can see him behind that blade of grass.
River otters are commonly seen in all sections of the river. Equally common, though less commonly seen, are beavers. After being trapped out of Florida in the 19th and early 20th centuries, beavers have re-expanded their range. The southern extent of their range is now the Suwannee and Santa Fe River basins (of which Ichetucknee is a part). The fact that they were here before the trappers arrived is confirmed in the river's name. "Ichetucknee" is a Seminole name meaning, "place of the beavers."
For many paddlers, the highlight of paddling Ichetucknee are its turtles. Suwannee cooters, yellow bellied turtles and others crowd nearly every large log along the river. Watch the river bottom for dark, fist-sized loggerhead musk turtles. Conversely, alligators are scarce. We haven't seen a gator on one of our Ichetucknee tours in over two years.
But your understanding of Ichetucknee's importance will be incomplete until you hear from a historian. Over the past 14,000 years, these waters have quenched the thirst of an amazing cast of characters beginning with the Paleo-Indians who left traces of their passing in the river bed and surrounding countryside. For several hundred years, right up to the arrival of Europeans, Timucua Indians lived near the head sporing in a village called Aquacaleyquen. They enjoyed the convenience of having a ready source clean, clear water to quench their thirst after a hard days work. So, too, did Hernando De Soto and his army, after storming the village and kidnapping the chief and his daughter in 1539.
In the 1600's, Franciscan priests from the mission San Martin, which sat alongside the river a short distance below the head spring, baptized Timucuan converts in these waters. In 1704, this same water was used by Georgian soldiers to wash the blood from their hands after raiding and burning San Martin. Seventy years later, we can safely assume that Daniel Boone filled his canteen with Ichetucknee spring water as he traveled the ancient trail that passed near the headspring on his search for a Florida homestead.
But, that was the past. All we know of the future is that a small band of nature lovers is going to paddle down these same clear waters this weekend. Wanna be one of them? Call us for a reservation - (386) 454-0611. Otherwise, watch out website calendar for future dates - www.adventureoutpost.net

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Wisdom of the Ancients: Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe crabs breeding
As an educator of sorts, I've learned to treasure the wisdom of my elders--the older they are, the closer I listen. So, when I happen upon a horseshoe crab, an animal whose ancestors have survived with few alterations to their anatomy or behavior for over 400 million years, I have to wonder what lessons it has to share. With my own species being a mere 4 million years out of the oven and already spiraling toward an uncertain future, I find myself gazing at the brown, birthday cake-sized shell like an oracle into a crystal ball; hoping to glimpse some of the answers I know it must hold in its ancient form. But where?

Maybe the key to its success is in its telson, the long, dagger-like spike protruding from the animals rear. What an amazing weapon! But when I pick a horseshoe crab up, I find that rather than trying to slash or jab me with its telson, it waves the appendage around with all the animosity of a dog wagging its tail. When I try to press my finger against the sharply pointed end, it simply wags it away. This animal’s first instinct is not aggression (sounds like ancient wisdom to me!). But that’s not to say they are defenseless.

When the time comes that it does need to defend itself, the horseshoe crab is ready with a row of inch long barbs. But, unlike most animals that put their most effective weapons up front (ex. teeth and claws) the horseshoe crabs barbs protrude from the rear plate that extends out on either side of the telson. Maybe the horseshoe crabs lesson here is, “cover your ass!” But we already know that, and look where it’s gotten us.

So I turn my attention to the eyes—maybe “the eyes have it!” While human researchers, in their anthropomorphic wisdom, consider horseshoe crabs to have “poor eyesight,” it seems significant that they have nine eyes and photoreceptors on their body. Five are located on the top of their shell, two are on their tail (remember the telson?) and there are even a couple on their underside near the mouth. Each of these light sensing organs is unique in appearance and function.

Eating while walking is another horseshoe crab talent. In fact, it’s a necessity. Being relatives of spiders (they're not crabs at all) they have long spider-like legs—ten of them altogether—which are covered with stiff bristles in their upper parts. These bristles grind (chew?) their food while the animal walks. It then it slurps the meal up with its "mouth" opening located at the axis of their ten legs. My son Niklaus is sure that the ability to eat and walk at the same time is key to the horseshoe crabs success. I have my doubts.

My money is on a small sensory organ on their back legs called the flabellum. Here, I must confess, my theory is based on nothing more than my love of a good metaphor. The flabellum, I’m told, is used to detect the quality of water before it enters the animal’s body through its respiratory organs, called the “book gills.” These are located just in front of the telson. What could better illustrate the folly of our current water policies than noting that horseshoe crabs have more wisdom under their tail than Florida politicians have under their hats.

As we go down the long list of the horseshoe crabs unusual attributes—their strange blue blood, their adaptation to bury their eggs above the high tide line, and others—it’s clear there is no one thing about horseshoe crabs that have allowed them to survive the ravages of time and the pressures of natural selection. Every time I pick up one of these living fossils, it seems I learn something new, about them and us.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ocklawaha: A Reversible Tragedy

In 1860, 32-year-old mail carrier Hubbard Hart proposed a steamboat service on the Ocklawaha River. People thought he was crazy. Common wisdom had it that this tributary to the St. Johns was too narrow and twisting for paddle wheelers. But, several months and a lot of channel clearing later, Hart piloted a small steamer, James Burt, on its maiden voyage to Silver Spring.

By the end of the decade, steamboats of Harts new Hart Line company were making regular trips up the Ocklawaha to the river’s head at Lake Griffin and up Silver River to Silver Spring. It seemed Hart was all out of surprises when, in 1869, he introduced his newest boat—the Panasofkee. But, it wasn’t the boat that set the rumor-mill spinning, it was the name. Panasofkee is the name of a lake that lies a dozen miles west of Lake Griffin and flows into the Withlacoochee river—a tributary of the Gulf of Mexico. Hart’s intentions were clear. He was planning to dig a canal to connect the Ocklawaha to the Withlacoochee. It wasn’t a new idea.

Beginning with Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Spanish explorer/commander who founded St. Augustine in 1565, a parade of schemers and visionaries dreamed of finding a way to cross Florida by water. At first they hoped to find a natural connection. When it was eventually proven that a natural crossing didn’t exist, they contemplated digging one. No river felt the brunt of this enterprise more than the Ocklawaha. It seemed like the perfect choice.

In its natural state, the Ocklawaha flowed northward from its source at Lake Griffin as a slow, tannin-stained blackwater stream. After passing through several miles of open marsh, the river entered one of the most beautiful, species-rich, floodplain forests in the state. Twenty-five miles below the marshes, the river took on new life as the crystal clear water of Silver River joined from the west. This added an incredible 650 million gallons per day of artesian spring water to its flow.

From here, the clearer, swifter river continued north though a mile-wide swamp forest of

cypress, red maple, ash, tupelo, hickory, water elm, swamp dogwoods and other water-tolerant trees. With no real “banks” to direct its course, the river carved a twisted path northward. After another thirty miles, having received the flow from Orange Creek, the river curved eastward toward the St. Johns River. As it approached the St. Johns, the channel widened, as did the adjacent swamplands, where a maze of braided creeks could confound even seasoned woodsman.

The importance of this abundant river and forest was made apparent by the presence of many archaeological sites. The scant remains of ancient villages gave quiet testament to countless generations that occupied these sites. Discarded pieces of broken pottery and mollusk shells could be seen in the hard, compacted matrix of large refuse middens. Less common were sand burial mounds. Many middens and mounds can still be seen along the river’s banks.

By the time European explorers arrived, Ocklawaha was home to a tribe of Timucua speaking Indians called the Acuera. Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto was the first white man to encounter these fierce warriors and, after watching them riddle his dog Bruto with nearly fifty arrows, was the first to realize they were best left alone.

After the demise of the Acuera and all of north Florida’s Timucua tribes in the 1700’s, Creek migrants moved into the Ocklawaha region. Soon they were being called by a new name—Seminoles. It was they who gave the name Ocklawaha, the “crooked river.” Several generations of Seminoles called this area home, living in relative isolation while other, more ‘hospitable’ parts of the region were over-run with settlers. But with the cession of Florida to the United States 1821, a new wave of white pioneers poured in from the north and tensions escalated. Within two years, the situation forced the creation of a large reservation in central Florida. The Indian Agency, headquartered at Ft. King near Silver Spring, would be the seed from which the later town of Ocala would grow. Predictably, the reservation boundary proved untenable.

In 1835, war broke out. For nearly seven years, the Second Seminole War kept Florida in constant turmoil. In the early years of the campaign, the Indians found safe refuge in the dense forests of the Ocklawaha river basin. But, eventually, like the Acuera before them, the Seminoles were forced out.

With the Seminoles reduced to a manageably small population in the Everglades, white settlers moved in. North and west of the Ocklawaha, plantations and orange groves were established, while to the east, only the most determined pioneers were willing to eke a living in the high, sandy ‘scrub.’ Along the river, the ancient forest echoed with the sound of loggers axes and the thunder of virgin cypress trees crashing to the forest floor. Bucked and dragged to the river, the giant logs were lashed together and rafted to one of several river-side sawmills. It was hard work maneuvering log rafts down the twisted channel of the Ocklawaha. So too was ‘poling’ a barge loaded with cut lumber down to the St. Johns. But, it was the only way. Everybody knew you couldn’t get a steamboat up the Ocklawaha. Everybody, except for Hubbard Hart.

In Hart, Menendez’ 300 year old dream had found a new champion. But it had changed a bit. Where the early Spaniards had believed there was a natural passage, later visionaries, now aware that no such waterway existed, considered digging a canal. In 1826 and again in 1832, Congress authorized surveys to determine the feasibility of such a project. Both concluded that the idea was impractical. But, they left the slight germ of hope for future schemers by concluding that “if” such a canal were to be dug, the best route would be up the Ocklawaha and across to the Withlacoochee.

In the end, Hart failed to get government approval and abandoned his plan. But, the steamboat route he created had opened the area for commerce and, more importantly, tourists. By the late 1800’s, there were few “wild frontiers” left in the country. But, compliments of the Hart’s steamers, tourists could embark on an adventure into the Florida wilderness. Writers, artists, politicians and well-heeled Northern socialites, stood alongside backwoodsmen and naturalists at the railings of Harts small steamers as they turned off of the broad St. Johns and headed up the dark, mysterious Ocklawaha.

In his 1875 travel guide, writer Sidney Lanier suggested that travelers on Ocklawaha steamers hike their feet up onto the railing, lean back in their chair and, looking up into the tree canopy overhead, “ sail, sail, sail through the cypresses, through the vines, through the May day, through the floating suggestions of the unutterable that come up, that sink down …and so shall your heart forever afterwards interpret the Ocklawaha to mean repose.”

By the end of the 1800’s, railroads had all but eliminated the need for steamboats on the Ocklawaha. Gone were the writers and artists. Gone were the days of romance. And into the void returned the canal developers.

As the 20th century dawned, industrial age technologies and Victorian ideals of conquering nature had joined forces and were wreaking environmental havoc throughout the world. In Florida, a statewide campaign, of ditching and damming wetlands, both for land reclamation and water transportation, built to a crescendo which, predictably, led once more to the banks of the Ocklawaha. In the 1930’s, construction began on a cross-state canal. After only six months, public support and funding dried up and the project was terminated with relatively little to show for the effort. But the idea still smoldered.

The project resurfaced during World War II and gained legislative approval. But, again, it laid mired in a funding and logistical quagmire. Finally, in 1964, construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal began. But at the same time the long dreamed-of canal was finally becoming a reality, so too was a growing understanding of the complexities of natural systems. Organizations Like the Audubon Society and concerned citizens to spoke out passionately in defense of the river. A leading champion of this cause was Marjorie Carr, whose unprecedented determination and concern for Florida’s natural heritage led to the founding of the Florida Defenders of the Environment.

In 1969, just as it was beginning to look like Menendez’ 400 year dream would be realized, and with a 9,000 acre reservoir in place, the steam roller of ‘progress’ came head to head with Marjorie Carr, the FDE and the swelling ranks of impassioned environmentalists. The project was halted by Richard Nixon in 1971, pending further studies. In 1991, it was officially de-authorized.

The partially-completed canal remains in limbo. With deconstruction already approved, 21st century Floridians watch and wait as a handful of local politicians cling desperately to 19th century values and continue to hold the river hostage by blocking funding for the rivers restoration. At issue—good fishing. In the final decades of the 20th century, while researchers researched and politicians wrangled, the fish living among the submerged snags in the artificial Rodman Reservoir were growing fat and happy. Fishermen stuffed their wells with lunker bass, boat manufacturers, tackle companies and tournament organizers stuffed their wallets. And all these people stuffed their hands into the hands of campaigning politicians.

Today, most Floridians don’t realize they are paying nearly a million dollars per year to maintain this big, artificial fishing pond or that they are financing the continued destruction of one of Florida’s finest natural treasures; a river formed along an ancient fault line from a massive earthquake millions of years ago, making it one of Florida’s oldest and most unique rivers. They don’t realize the ecology of the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers have been drastically altered by this reservoir they are paying for. They don’t know that the majority of this river’s flow comes from one of the largest springs in the world—Silver Spring. They don’t know that several species of fish and eels and even Florida’s beloved manatees are blocked from migrating up and down the river. They don’t know that the people operating the dam—on behalf of the Florida taxpayers—make no attempt to regulate the output of water through the dam to mimic the natural water cycles necessary for the health of the river and forests downstream from there. They don’t know that organizations like Audubon Society, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Putnam County Environmental Council, Adventure Outpost and others are working hard to have this dam removed and save this natural treasure that belongs to the people of Florida.
Unlike so many natural tragedies that are changing the face of Florida's natural landscape, this one is easily reversible. All it will take is an end to the apathy that has settled over this issue. Every year, the citizens of Florida continue writing the checks to maintain this artificial pool that serves no real purpose. The dam generates no hydro-electric power. The reservoir is not a holding facility for water to be used later. Rodman Reservoir is simply a artificial fishing pond in a State brimming with natural fishing ponds, being maintained and funded for the benefit of a handful of fishermen and the huge boating and fishing lobbies who outfit them.

Most Floridians don’t know there is a bitter battle being fought on their behalf. When they boat and fish in other parts of the river, they see nothing to indicate that part of the river is being held hostage. Upstream and downstream from Rodman Reservoir, Ocklawaha flows on, seemingly undaunted by the turmoil that surrounds her. There she remains, as Sidney Lanier proclaimed, one of the “sweetest waterways in the world.”

For more about efforts to remove Kirkpatrick Dam and restore the Ocklawaha, visit the Florida Defenders of the Environment website at:  http://www.fladefenders.org/  "




Friday, July 15, 2016

Alonso Sails

There's an art to paddling places like St. Augustine. Like a photographer who comes prepared to change lenses as the scene dictates, the paddler should come prepared to experience all aspects of the area—including its rich history. By "outfitting" ourselves with a little background information and being willing to occasionally put a filter of imagination over our eyes as we survey our surroundings, a casual nature outing transforms into a meaningful exploration of one of the most interesting and history-rich places in the state.

Sometimes when I paddle near St. Augustine, I try to imagine the scene as Alonso Cabale saw it that day in 1763 when he sailed for Cuba. It was a somber day in one of the most eventful years in Florida’s history. After a 250-year reign, Spain had lost Florida to Great Britain. Now, the entire population, including Alonso and the last 89 Timucua Indians, was sailing for an uncertain future in Cuba.
I picture Alonso leaning against the wooden railing and scanning the marshes around the Castillo and. I wonder what images reeled through his mind, formed in the 54 years since his birth in a mission village north of town. I picture him squinting toward the north, far up the broad channel of Tolomato River for a final glimpse of the hazy tree line of Guana Peninsula, where Tolomato and Guana Rivers join. Perhaps he recalled the huge shell midden where his ancestors had gone for over four thousand years to clean fish and shuck oysters, or the nearby ceremonial site where he heard the tales explaining his people’s origins. I wonder if his elders sat with him at the edge of this 100-meters wide shell ring and recounted the beliefs of his ancestors. Had they taught him their spiritual connection to the land and instilled in him a respect the plants and animals and the need to give thanks for everything the land gave?
On his forays into the forest, Alonso would have seen the ruins of the Christian mission that served a village near the ancient shell ring. This was one of many such missions that had been built across North Florida. It was at these remote outposts of Spanish influence that his people had been forced to renounce the beliefs of their ancestors and proclaim allegiance to the unfamiliar religion of the Spanish. They had been taught sacred tales inhabited by plants and animals they knew nothing about. They had been made to recite tales of great deeds done by people from unfamiliar cultures on mountains and in valleys they had never seen.
The final blow to the mission system came from English raiders from the north who systematically destroyed the missions and their associated Indian villages. Most of these raids had ended by 1704. By the time Alonso was born, five years later, the Florida interior was an uninhabited wilderness punctuated by widely scattered ruins of decaying missions and overgrown clearings that once held thriving native villages.
The mission period lasted just over a century. As the dust settled from the English raids, all that remained of the Timucuan and Florida’s other great native cultures were a handful of villages near St. Augustine. In his youth, Alonso could have hopped on a horse and, in a leisurely day of riding, visited most of the surviving native people of Florida. The names of these small villages, most of which had populations counted in the dozens, read like a sad obituary of a people with no mourners. For the children of St. Augustine, names like Yamasee, Guale, Apalachee, Jororo, Pohoy, Tocobago were probably more strongly associated with these impoverished villages than the once-mighty nations they represented.
Shifting his gaze a bit to the left, Alonso could have seen the small copse of trees in the marshes north of St. Augustine that marked the site of Ft. Mose—the first free black settlement in the New World. Like Alonso, most of the residents of Ft. Mose had been born on the land of their ancestors. The life-path that brought them here involved slave raiders attacking their coastal West African village, being packed like sardines into ships and enduring a hellish ocean crossing that killed many, being sold and resold as slaves, toiling on English plantations, suffering unspeakable brutality and finally escaping to the relative freedom of Spanish Florida. Now they stood with Alonso Cabale at the railing of a boat carrying them to an unknown fate. Like their Timucua shipmates, the free blacks of Ft. Mose had no intention of living in a Florida under English control. They were bound for Cuba and the next chapter in their tragic lives.
As he watched Florida growing small on the horizon, I wonder if Alonso had a sense of that moment’s gravity. I wonder if he knew that he would be the last Timucuan Indian to lay eyes on Florida. And when he died in Cuba a few years later, I wonder if Alonso realized that his final heart beat would be the last in an unbroken thread of beating hearts that stretched back nearly 14,000 years.
The history that has played out in the marshes of St. Augustine over the last five centuries is undeniably heavy. But to ignore the history of this or any other place we explore is like going on a photo shoot with only one lens. You get home with a lot of great pictures of mountains, but it’s not until some beautiful yellow petals fall from your boots that you realize you had been standing in a field of foxgloves.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hidden Realm at the River's Mouth

It’s a strange reality that the wildest and least accessible part of many rivers is their mouth. That’s certainly the case with Ocklawaha and Suwannee—the two rivers we’ll be paddling this weekend.
In earlier times it was not the mouths but the headwaters of certain rivers that stood among the world’s great mysteries. Fantastic myths and legends were often associated with these unknown realms and the expeditions sent to find them would become the stuff of legend—think Stanley and Livingston’s search for the source of the Nile and the explorations of Orellana, Humboldt and others of the Amazon.
Closer to home, it was the St. Johns River that defied understanding. When the Bartrams arrived in 1765 to give an accounting of Florida’s flora and fauna, the Governor of the newly acquired British colony asked if they would add a little side-trip to their expedition; If it’s not too much trouble, could you please find the head of the St. Johns?
It was just the latest in series of such expeditions, stretching back to the very founding of St. Augustine in 1565. Pedro Menedez, like many who followed, believed (and hoped) that the head of the St. Johns connected to the head of some other river that flowed westward and into the Gulf. His attempt to prove his theory was thwarted by the natives south of Lake George, but his dream lived on. For the next two centuries, every nation that controlled Florida hoped (and tried) to find a natural, cross-Florida water route. And when it was finally learned that a natural crossing did not exist, people started kicking around the idea of creating one. In the end, Menendez’ dream proved to be the seed of an idea that sprouted 400 years later as the Cross Florida Barge Canal. But that’s another story.
Today, with Florida’s rivers thoroughly mapped and their high flanks settled, it is often their mouths that remain as their wildest and least accessible parts. These areas are characterized by low wetlands where the ground is too soggy to build and the much of the river water threads through braided networks of back channels. Paddlers have a name for such places: Paradise!
Early explorers looked into the mouths of unknown rivers with trepidation, rivers like the Ocklawaha. Long after the middle St. Johns had become a known entity, the mouth of Ocklawaha represented a brooding mystery. For 17th century Spaniards, the Ocklawaha was known as the Rinconada, “the hidden or unknown corner.”
Across the Peninsula, the mouth of Suwannee River—the area we’ll be paddling this Sunday—is that river’s wildest section. Here again, the same maze of backchannels that make it a paddler’s paradise today made it a forbidding no-mans-land for earlier Floridians.
In 1821, two men were tasked with selecting a site for the new Territorial capital. One of them was convinced the high, fertile lands along the Middle Suwannee were perfect. But when they sailed from St. Marks, across the Gulf to explore this promising land, the boats captain couldn’t find the river’s mouth. The vast swamplands and multiple channels hid the entrance. Finally, after trying a few wrong rivers, they gave up and returned to St. Marks. With time running short, they went up the St. Marks River and chose a suitable spot—an abandoned Indian village site called Tallahassee.
Even as late as the 1890’s the mouth of Suwannee was considered deep wilderness when the Brewster/Chapman Expedition arrived. No surprise, they saw (and shot) some of the last ivory-billed woodpeckers in these swamps.
Today, like the vast wetlands heading the St. Johns and the still-wild corners of the Rinconada, the quiet, shaded backwaters embracing the mouth of Suwannee River remain the undisputed realm of many wild species—and the occasional paddler.