Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Vital Signs

Some days the beauty of a gently flowing spring is enough. Some days I need more. I sit on the rock ledge overhanging the pool's edge and set my gaze into the water, looking for that place far below the surface, where cobalt-blue fades to black. I watch for some hint of the life-force I know must be there; that same indefinable spark of vitality that sparkles in a person’s eyes. We cannot describe it and yet we know the instant it is gone. The Calusa believed a person’s soul resides in the pupil of their eye. We say, "eyes are windows to the soul."

Some days I slip below the water’s surface and glide through the flowing ether, past schools of bream and darting needlefish and weave through billowing pastures of eel grass and bitter cress, over the intricately sculpted limestone rim of the vent and then down into the lightless chasm. I’m in utter darkness. Everything I see and feel—the water’s coolness, the power of its flow, the pressing silence—is the pure essence of the earth. Its temperature becomes my own. I am buffeted by Florida’s pulse; awash in her "vital signs."

I wonder how these vital signs compare to ten years ago; a hundred years ago. How strong was Florida’s pulse the day de Leon landed? Did it skip a beat?

Back on the spring bank, back in the world of air and light, I watch as a bluegill pops a midge on the water surface. Small ripples radiate away and are quickly smoothed-over by the ouflow of the spring’s boil. I am awed by the thought that this vent has surged without interruption for thousands of years. It makes me aware of my own unlikely heartbeat. My body rocks lightly with my pulse. I know the strength of my pulse relies largely on my own behavior. But there is more. Regardless of how well I eat and how healthy my lifestyle, my heartbeat has an expiration date. It is here that the metaphor falls apart. The pulse of water surging through the rocks below me could continue indefinitely.

Powered only by rainfall, Florida’s springs will continue to flow as long as the aquifer system is kept healthy. In its natural state, the only outlets for water flowing through the aquifer were spring vents. But then thirsty humans arrived. Those without easy access to a clean water source tapped the aquifer with wells. In a general sense, water wells are artificial spring vents. With the flick of the wrist we can turn our faux spring from a slow-flowing "seep" to a first magnitude gusher of "tap" water that has been diverted from some spring. With a population near 20 million and unchecked permitting, the volume of water being bled away before it gets to the springs is staggering. Every spring for which people have kept records has gotten weaker. Some have stopped altogether. Florida’s springs are dying before our eyes.


My mind drifts again to another day at another spring--a cobalt- blue pool deep in the Chassahowitzka Swamp--where I recall my friend Stacy Matrazzo and I hanging our feet in the water and talked about Aldo Leopold. Stacy was writing her Master’s thesis about the renowned conservationist and had been spending time in his home turf in Wisconsin. She explained that Leopold’s conservation ethic did not happen all at once. It had grown steadily throughout his early life. But there were some pivotal moments. In his story, "Thinking Like a Mountain," Leopold described a life-changing moment in which he watched the "fierce green fire" leave the eyes of a dying wolf he had shot. "I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain."

That is the spark I watch for in Florida's cool blue eyes. I want to see, if only for a life-affirming instant, that which is known only to the land and to the spring. I want to believe that, if conditions were just so, I could look deep into the unblinking, cobalt stare and glimpse Florida’s fierce blue fire. Maybe if I looked from a certain angle, at just the right instant, when the sun was at the perfect height and the light was just so, the life-force of the spring would appear to me, like the legendary "green flash" of sunset.

According to the remarkable number of sages who’ve proffered their wisdom on this matter ("remarkable" because none I’ve talked to have actually seen it), if one watches the thin line of the horizon at sunset, when conditions are just right, one can see a burst of green light the instant the sun disappears.

I’ve watched for the green flash several times, but only as a whim when I was already at the beach. I’ve never seen it, but I felt I got close one day as my brother Henrik and I sat on the warm sand of a California beach, basking in the evengloam and watching the sun set. Henrik had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer so I had flown to San Diego to spend time with him. We talked about many things; everything, but that thing. He told me I should lead tours in California in addition to those I was already leading in Florida. "You can be bi-coastal!" he had beamed. We avoided discussions that made any reference to the future, but with every beer, it became increasingly obvious that one of two things was going to happen; we would either "go there" in our conversation and initiate a tear-flow that might never stop, or we would embark on one of those monumentally mindless endeavors that are the hallmark of great friends with a great buzz. So, we slid off our barstools and strolled onto the beach; in search of the fabled "green flash."

As we sat on the sand swilling beer, we discussed everything we knew or had heard about the green flash. It wasn’t much. We sat and we talked and we watched the pastel sky soften and when the time came, we glared at the sun as it slipped over the edge. It was a wonderful moment, not because of the green flash—no, we did not see that—but because it allowed us to enjoy that most-special of all nature’s gifts, a moment of hope.

Henrik died within the year. These days, when I go to the beach, I try to stay until sunset so I can watch for the green flash. Like looking into the spring, I realize I will probably never see that special thing. If I ever do, I will know it wasn’t the angle of the sun or special atmospheric conditions that made it happen.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Audubon and the phoebes

 Phoebes have returned to the Ichetucknee. Watch for these little gray birds with darker heads and off-white bellies sitting on low shrubs and snags along the river's edge. True to their nature as "flycatchers" (a group of them is called an "outfield"), phoebes spend much of their time watching from their perch for flying insects. When a winged morsel is spotted, the little "tyrant" darts out over the water on a quick, aerial sortie and snatches it nimbly from the air. A good identifier for these birds is their habit of continually pumping their tail. If these clues don't help and you're still unsure if the bird you're watching is a phoebe, just ask it. These chatty little birds are happy to introduce themselves with their sharp, raspy—‘pheebee, pheebee.’ 

 But, ask as we want, there are still many things phoebes won’t tell us, like where they've been all summer. What place could possibly be so appealing that they would abandon Ichetucknee every spring, just when things are getting good. One day, they are flitting among blooming dogwoods, myrtles, hollies and haws, with their fragrant promise of fruit, darting after winged insects or plucking a stranded minnow from a shallow pool, the next day they are gone. How could any other summer home compare?

 Of course, we lovers of the Ichetucknee are biased. I'm sure John Audubon felt equally strong about Perkiomen Creek, the small, rock shrouded stream near the plantation he managed in the early 1800’s near Philadelphia. When phoebes arrived there very early in the spring, he concluded that they must have been “prompted more by their affection to the place than by any other motive.” Clearly, Audubon never saw the Ichetucknee (is my bias showing?).

 Setting aside my own loyalties, I must admit that Perkiomen Creek sounded like a gem. In fact, the descriptions of “beautiful rocks along the shores” and “projecting stone(s) over the clear water” are vaguely reminiscent of the upper Ichetucknee. It even had caves along its shore; one of which became a favorite “study” in which Audubon would read Edgeworth and Lafontaine or work on his own writings and drawings.

 Audubon wasn't the only one who loved this cave. A pair of phoebes had a nest attached to the wall near the cave entrance. With the kind of patience and curiosity known only to true naturalists, Audubon spent every day of many weeks quietly observing the birds nesting and raising their young. The adult birds became so accustomed that he could almost touch them. The young didn't have a choice. When the parents were off feeding, Audubon would take one, or sometimes all of them, into his hand for a closer look.

 Among the mysteries of nature Audubon contemplated was whether these fledglings would return to Perkiomen Creek to raise their own families. He decided to mark them so he would recognize them if they returned in the spring. He first tied a thread around their legs, but each time they picked it off. Finally, after several failed attempts, he decided to use silver thread. It seemed to work and a couple of weeks later the birds left.

 The following spring, he found two of his “tagged” birds nesting a short distance up the creek. His experiment was a success. But it wasn't just his own knowledge about phoebes that was advanced by his efforts. This would prove to be the first recorded use of the now-important research technique known as bird banding—one small step for Audubon, one giant leap….well, you get the idea.

 Sadly, Audubon’s cave and the adjacent section of Perkiomen Creek were destroyed to make a dam. Audubon was alive when this happened. I can no more imagine his sense of loss than I can imagine the loss felt by all those people who knew and lived alongside the now-flooded section of our own Ocklawaha.

 I wonder also about Audubon’s phoebes. What brand of confusion races through a tiny mind when every synapse in its brain and every wisp of instinct leads it to a place it “knows” to be a rocky grotto with memories of its parents and of its first flight, only to find a flat sheet of water.

 When I hear the autumn song of Ichetucknee's phoebes, as they flit among the golden bur marigolds and pluck scarabs form cardinal flowers, I wonder if they are cheerier than the ones they sang for Audubon. I wonder if phoebes feel gratitude for such places as Ichetucknee.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Introducing Viva Timucua: The Other Anniversary

This year marks the anniversaries of two important events in Florida’s history. One you've surely heard about. The other you probably have not. One spawned festivals and lectures across the State and nationally (even internationally). The other has gone unnoticed by all but the most knowledgeable Florida historians. But what makes these two anniversaries especially important, the reason I'm mentioning them together, is that they are intimately related. In fact, we can't honestly and fully discuss one without mention of the other.    
As you've probably guessed, one of these events is "Viva Florida," the state-sponsored commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida. In 1513, de Leon, waded ashore (probably somewhere near St. Augustine) and claimed the land that had belonged to the Timucua people and their ancestors for nearly 14,000 years. He renamed it, "La Florida."

 It was a fateful event, not only for the Spaniards who had unknowingly added a continent to their real estate portfolio, but also for the Timucua. The bewildered natives had no way of knowing that de Leon was just the first of a virtual stampede of explorers, soldiers and colonists from many foreign lands that would soon follow. Nor could they have known that, in just two and a half centuries, these newcomers would erase them from this land. We've heard this story so many times about so many tribes, we know it by heart—disease, warfare, slavery, cruel mistreatment, forced rejection of long-held beliefs, forced acceptance of an unfamiliar religion. Each is a wrenching tragedy that typically ends with a destitute band of people clinging  to life and to the last vestiges of their once-proud culture, until something—one last epidemic, one last betrayal, one last massacre of men women and children—ends them. And always, a hollow justification. 

The Timucua's final tragedy lasted exactly 250 years. It ended on the docks of St. Augustine in 1763. England had recently won possession of Florida and now nearly all of the residents of Spanish Florida emigrated to Cuba. With them went the last 89 full-blooded Timucuan men, women and children. Those who survived the journey found disease, starvation and squalid living conditions in their new home. Within four years, all were dead. The last full-blooded Timucuana man Juan Alonso Cabaledied in Cuba in 1767.

This is also the 250th anniversary of the Timucua's departure from Florida.
There’s something uncanny about the symmetry of these two anniversaries. The fact that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the story’s beginning and the 250th anniversary of its end, and that the story itself lasted exactly 250 years, seems almost too perfect for something so tragically imperfect. It's the kind of thing that would  have made an excellent foundation for a dual commemoration that gave full, unwavering focus on the tragedy. It could have been a well-balanced acknowledgement of both events focused on exploring the many facets of this complicated story. In fairness, the Viva Florida campaign has done some of that. But, it has been an open-ended approach that simply begins with de Leon's arrival and explores everything that has happened in the 500 years since. In short, it has been a grand re-telling of Florida's history. For me, the uncanny symmetry of these two events would have made for a perfect framework around which to tell the full, unbiased story of what happened to Florida's natives.  

But rather than bemoan this missed opportunity, I prefer to use this pair of anniversaries as a good excuse to pay homage to the native Floridians and learn what we can about them and their intimate knowledge of this land. Toward that end, Adventure Outpost will devote much of the next several months to exploring the story of the Timucua's last days. We'll do it the same way we explore all of Florida’s wild stories—by getting out there and exploring the sites where they happened. I'm calling this series of tours, "Viva Timucua."

For those of you who don’t have a great love of history (don’t feel alone, that’s most of you), I should stress that these tours will essentially be like all my other tours. The main difference will be that the pre-trip “talk” that I usually give (only about 5 – 10 minutes) will focus on that part of the “Viva Timucua” story that pertains to that day’s trip. On the water, these will be the same relaxed, casual (and usually spread-out) paddle trips that we always do. As always, those who want to hear about some of the plants and animals we’re passing can stay close to me, while those who prefer to be away from the group are free to do so. Our trips are always about going at your own pace and hearing as much or as little as you want.
Some examples of the trips I’m planning to do as part of this “Viva Timucua” series are:
“The Dunes.” On this paddle we’ll explore an area southeast of St. Augustine that witnessed the two keystone events in this story—de Leon’s arrival and the Timucuas departure. These were the two events that marked the beginning and the end of this 250 year story. At our lunch/stretch break, we’ll poke around a bit in the dunes and examine some of the amazing plants (and animals?) that thrive in this harsh environment. (this is the trip we’re doing this Sunday, 8/04/13)
 “Ft. Mose.” This paddle will take us into the marshes north of St. Augustine to the site of the first free black settlement in N. America. The inhabitants of the Ft. Mose settlement  boarded boats at the beach of their small island and sailed out to board the larger boats that would take them, along with the Indians and the rest of the residents of Spanish St. Augustine, to Cuba in 1763. 
“Mission Santa Fe.” This trip will take us into the remote upper reaches of Santa Fe River, past the site of the mission village of Santa Fe de Toloca, where Alonso Cabale’s parents and ancestors lived. This mission gave its name to the river.
“The Hontoon Owl.” On this tour-story we’ll explore the area around Hontoon Island and Volusia Blue Spring, which were at the southern edge of the Timucua territory. We’ll discuss the fascinating archaeology of the area, including the unique animal effigy (totem?) poles and what they may have meant to the natives.
“The Fountain of Youth.” On these springs tours we’ll talk about de Leon’s legendary quest as well as what the springs meant to the Timucuas. There will be several trips under this heading, including Ichetucknee, a section of the middle Suwannee with a very important connection to this period, and Silver Spring.
I’m sure there will be other trips in this series, but these are the ones that come to mind at this sitting.
NOTE: We are currently overhauling the website ( www.adventureoutpost.net ), so the calendar has not yet been updated to show the "Viva Timucua" tours. If you want to know what's being planned, please e-mail me at riverguide2000@yahoo.com and I'll give you the latest. The calendar should be current by early - mid September.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Clark Island Gator

I step out of my old red pickup and hardly notice the door's squeal or the crunching of small seashells under my boots. Nor do I notice the squadrons of wading birds prodding the nearby mud flats. In a few moments I’ll grab my binoculars and study the wild menagerie, but not yet. My first task on this hot July morning—a ritual evolved over sixteen years of guiding tours—is to study the sky and the water. I need to check paddling conditions to determine this day’s route.

Leading tours in this quiet corner of Florida’s Big Bend, just north of Cedar Key, has one distinct advantage over other coastal areasoptions. With countless barrier islands and large swaths of salt marshes we are able to paddle in a greater range of weather conditions than most other parts of the Gulf Coast.

In ideal weather, we can venture off shore, crossing mile-wide spans of open water to reach great birding sites on a few isolated islands. On smoldering mid-summer days when afternoon squalls are likely, we’ll stick to the near-shore islands, stopping to explore the wrack on sandy white beaches or maybe hike into the scruffy interior of an island in search of interesting wildlife or Indian middens. If an early breeze is already churning white-caps by launch-time, we’ll keep to inside passages, enjoying the calm water in protected bays and marshes.

This morning, the signs are mixed. On the drive in, clear, blue skies had promised an idyllic day. But as I step onto the beach, a stiff west breeze buffets my face. I cling to the brim of my hat and watch the breeze pester the nearby forest, rattling palm fronds and causing the Spanish moss to swirl in the oak boughs. There's only one option today. We’ll have to keep our route behind the islands, setting a course for the secluded tidal lagoon known as Preacher’s Hole.

Fishermen know Preachers Hole as a place for full-figured lunkers. But for me, the real attraction is its seclusion. Without a map, only seasoned locals know the narrow passage slicing between Raleigh and Clark Islands. While this wouldn't have been my first choice of routes on this day, it’s not a bad one. Best of all, it means we’ll be visiting my friend Felder Tiggs. *

It’s a strange irony that paddlers seek places where they are least likely to encounter other humans. And yet, some of the most memorable events on our tours involve people we meet. But, it can’t be just any person. They must be entertaining (whether they mean to be or not). Naked Ed, for instance, only has to hang out (okay, I could have used a better choice of words) at his palm-thatch hut at Lily Springs and he’s guaranteed a steady stream of giddy visitors. As his name implies, Ed rarely wears more than eye-glasses and a grin. And that’s what people find so amusing. Felder Tiggs has other gifts.
Until recently, Felder owned Clark Island, one of the low, palm and oak shrouded islands that crowd this remote corner of the Gulf. It’s an attractive little island, but not much different from the scores of other islands in the area. What sets it apart is its location alongside the narrow entrance into Preacher’s Hole, a nearly land-locked tidal lagoon with an exceptionally deep sink near one edge. It’s a “honey-hole” known to many local fishermen.
When Felder first bought Clark Island, he hoped to make it a paddler’s retreat. He talked of camp sites and maybe even some cabins. He’d treat bigger groups to an in-the-rough banquet of wild Florida cuisine of oysters and fresh fish. It was a fine plan. But the paddlers never came, not in numbers that could be considered "commercial."  With their interests geared more toward the sugar-sand beaches and good birding spots of the outer islands, few people ventured eastward across Clarks Bay to the Hole.
On those occasions when I steered a tour group to Preachers Hole, Clark Island was usually quiet. Sometimes there would be a few fishermen camping among the oaks. If we were lucky, we’d spot Felder hard at work. He was always glad to see us. Abandoning his labors, he’d climb down to the oyster shell beach and help everyone out of their boats. With his deep southern drawl, handsome, weather-worn face and the ever-present pistol strapped to his side, he made a memorable first impression.
Eager to tout the natural beauty of his island, Felder would take us for a hike. Our first stop was the back marsh, a shallow, 10-acre basin thick with needle rush and cord grass. From there we’d enter the welcome shade of a low, wind-sculpted coastal hammock forest. Weaving our way beneath gnarled scrub oaks and pines, Felder and I became a team—him telling great stories about what had been happening on the island, and me pausing occasionally for any teaching moments we happened upon.
After a mile of scrub oaks and coontie, we’d arrive at “the sink”, a surprisingly large, 10 ft deep sinkhole located in a densely shaded oak/myrtle forest near the islands center. The sink was the highlight of the tour, partly because it was an interesting natural feature and freshwater oasis for wildlife, but also because the remains of a huge alligator rested on the bottom.

When it was alive, Felder frequently spied this gator moving between the islands. It grew fat on raccoons, rodents, fish, birds and anything else it could sink its teeth into. The sink hole oasis on Clark Island was a favored haunt. Then, one day Felder found the gator dead.
In the months that followed, the rotting corpse of the gator became the highlight of Felder’s impromptu tours. With each successive visit to the sink hole, the corpse was in a further state of decay. To say it stunk would be a gross (very gross) understatement. But, being a Southern gentleman ever-eager to accommodate his guests, Felder would always climb down into the sink, and pry open the gaping maw to illustrate what a fine large animal it had been. It was entertainment at its best—interesting and disgusting at the same time—and everyone loved it! (proving, once again, that beauty is in the eye of the nose-holder!). To this day, when I see someone who was on one of those tours, their face beams like a school kid’s as they recount the story of Felder Tiggs and the Clark Island Gator to their friends.

One day, a few months after my latest visit with Felder, I returned to Adventure Outpost after a day on Withlacoochee River. My worker came out of the store with an excited look on his face. “Lars,” he said, “an old guy came by with something for you that you've gotta see.” I went in and there, lying on the front counter was a huge alligator skull. “He said you knew this gator and thought you might want this skull.” To this day, that skull hangs on the wall in the front room of Adventure Outpost—a constant reminder of a good friend and a great place.
*  UPDATE - This is a true story. However, “Felder Tiggs” is a fictitious name (a composite of some other locals) I used until I got permission from him to use his real name (as you can imagine, he can be hard to track down). Since that time, I have seen him and shown him this story and he generously gave me permission to use his name. I can now give due credit to my good friend (and interesting character), Pat Westmoreland. Pat, by the way, was also the source of the authentic dugout Indian canoe we have on display at Adventure Outpost. He obtained it from We Wa Indians in Nicaragua when he was down there working with them doing.....well, that's another story

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Canary's Song

It’s a tribute to cave divers like the late Wes Skiles that photos of people swimming in the Floridan Aquifer have become common-place. Everywhere, we see pictures of divers in the most serene settings imaginable—swimming through dream worlds of icy-blue water and cream-colored limestone. They ease through grand, underwater passages and squeeze through the earth's pulsing arteries. In some photos they are drifting as though suspended in the ether, the quintessence, illuminated by celestial shafts of sunlight. Like modern hieroglyphs, these photos line our great halls and the corridors of our public places with depictions of legendary places and heroes doing heroic deeds. They are morality tales with a common theme; water is precious; never take it for granted; do all you can to protect it.

Wes once showed me a photograph of a cave diver drifting in a submerged cave. As cave-diving images go, it was relatively unremarkable. In fact, the only clues that it was taken in a cave were some limestone projections visible in the background. Judging by the diver’s enthusiastic “thumbs-up” and by his excited eyes, visible even through his mask,  it appeared to be a photo of a young man having the experience of a life-time.

Wes was quick to point out that he had not taken this photo; it was a self-portrait, taken by the diver of himself. Wes' emphasis on the fact that the diver was alone was my first clue that all was not right with this happy scene.

Pointing to the limestone in the background, Wes said “I know this place.”

He then pointed to the tanks on the diver’s back, “And those don’t hold enough air to reach that spot in the cave and make it back out. He’s already dead and doesn’t even know it.”

In that instant, with Wes’ guidance, I realized that I was not looking at a photo of a happy diver; I was looking at a man about to experience the last, and most horrifying moments of his life. As I stared at the photo, trying to corelate the tragedy I now knew to be happening with the happy appearance, I realized it was a perfect metaphor. Wes had devoted his life to sounding the alarm that behind the beautiful facade of the springs, a huge tragedy is unfolding.

Knowing that most of us will never dive in caves, he called our attention to the springs—the only part of the aquifer system we’ll ever see. He compared them to the celebrated coal-mine canaries, used by miners to detect dangerously low oxygen levels. The springs are our visible indicators of the aquifers health. And, it doesn't take an expert to see they are sick. Our canaries are gasping.


On a recent paddle tour down Santa Fe River, as our small group drifted over the fresh-water geyser called Poe Spring, feeling the earth’s pulse gently rocking our boats, we discussed Florida’s aquifer system.  I explained that rain water seeps slowly through the limestone to the underground system of channels and pockets; that some water is in the ground for many decades, maybe even centuries, before it works through the system and reappears from a spring; that the aquifer provides the vast majority of Florida’s drinking water.

I then explained to the group that the aquifer is in jeopardy. It's being degraded by over-extraction and pollution from agriculture and home owners who continue to over-fertilize and spray pesticides with reckless disregard. Pointing to the green-tinted water of Poe Springs, I described breath-taking blue water I knew as a child. I pointed to the barren bottom of the spring pool, where the only signs of life are clumps of brown algae, and describe the meadows of eel grasses and other plant species that grew here only a decade ago. A German boy added that he had learned in science class that Florida’s springs, when healthy, are among the most diverse freshwater habitats in the world.

We spent the next few hours paddling down-stream, stopping to admire every spring we passed. I felt like a museum docent leading tourists down vaulted green halls and showing them our amazing collection. I described each piece, gave a little history, and then moved aside to allow everyone a few moments contemplation before moving to the next piece.

In Blue Spring, a young girl asked, “What would happen if, by some miracle, pollutants were kept out of the ground from now on and only pure rain water was allowed to percolate through the limestone?” I smiled at her charming innocence, and tried to think of a way to break the news to her that adults are not that smart. But then it occurred to me waht a great question it was—not only because it’s a comforting notion, but because we need to visualize such possibilities. So, here we go--imagine if we really got serious about limiting extraction and restricting the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, it would require sweeping changes to the way we do things like grow food and landscape our yards. Most importantly—and really the biggest challenge—is that it would require sacrifice. Food products would probably get more expensive, but they’d be healthier. Our yards might not be the exact shade of green we like, but they’d be healthier. All aspects of our lives would be much healthier.

Best of all, if we stopped polluting, Floridians could look upon the increasingly-green, increasingly-cloudy springs not as lost causes, but as healing wounds. Their toxic flow would be like a draining infection. Every ounce of toxins that flowed from the springs would mean one less ounce of toxins in the aquifer. Future generations of Floridians would be able to look at photos of clear, blue springs and divers in underground caves—those same timeless hieroglyphs that will surely line their great-halls and sacred chambers as they do ours—not as depictions of ancient history and poignant reminders of long lost wonders we called springs, but as touchstones. They’d flock to displays like the Blue Path exhibit now showing at the Florida Museum of Natural History and look upon them as beacons of hope--hopeful reminders of what will come when all of the toxins have been flushed from the system. They will be tributes to the sacrifices of their ancestors of the early 21st century who had the foresight to change the way they did things—fertilizing, spraying pesticides, spilling paints and oils, using water frivolously—so Floridians could, once again, have clean drinking water.

There really is power in the knowledge we have gained from people like Wes Skiles. And yet, we’re not acting on it. Our springs are already turning green, and most are already showing the obvious symptoms of too many nitrates in the form of a thick coating of algae on all submerged objects. And yet, there is no sense of alarm. The fact that the canary is dying doesn’t seem enough; maybe it will have to fall in our glass of water before we notice. I wonder if Wes ever looked out on a room full of legislators and saw only grinning fools in dive-masks giving a hearty thumbs-up.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Finding Sanctuary in Water

I’m not sure what I expected to see in the heron’s eye that day, maybe some sign of its soul. The Calusa said eyes are windows to the soul. If there was ever a moment this bird’s soul would be shining from its jet black “windows,” it was now, standing knee-deep in the float-glass waters of Newnans Lake, gazing, with the tranquility of a monk, toward a smoldering, burnt-orange sunset. I wanted to believe that shining black well held the knowledge of the Universe—the knowledge shamen and monks can only dream of—but all I could see was the shiny speck of the reflected sun.

In the hour that I watched, the bird barely moved a muscle. It just stood and contemplated the colorful western sky, oblivious to me and seemingly oblivious to the hundred other herons doing exactly same thing. They weren’t a flock. They were a hundred widely-spaced individuals—none closer than two hundred feet apart—and all seemingly moved by the same primordial instinct to come to the shallow north end of Newnans Lake and stare at the setting sun.

I may never know why the herons gathered at Newnans Lake that day. My romantic mind wants to believe I stumbled upon some previously unknown heron sun-worshiping ceremony—something akin to the fabled elephant’s graveyard. Whatever it was, I know it’s probably too simple or too complex for me to comprehend. But one thing is certain; water was a critical element. Too deep for land predators and too shallow for gators, this thin veneer of water was the ideal setting for these birds to indulge in their transcendent contemplation without the burden of fear. Like all species, herons know that life in Florida is a gift of water.


Floridians are becoming increasingly passionate about our water. With a flood of new information coming from an amazing community of researchers, cave divers, geologists and devoted people from a variety of backgrounds, our understanding of Florida’s life-giving water systems—the underground aquifers—is growing exponentially.

The love of Florida’s springs and aquifers goes far deeper than intellectual pursuit. It comes from that powerful, intangible place in all of us that’s too big to name. When pressed, we usually defer to catch-all words like, “spirituality.” While many people in our spring-loving community, (I call it the “Springs Republic”) shy away from discussions about the spiritual aspect of their passion for springs, none deny it.

Everyone comes to their love of springs from a different place. For some, it was born in the carefree days of youth, playing and seeking relief from summer’s heat in their cool waters. Others associate them with family baptisms or perhaps more personal spiritual quests. Some never saw it coming. They arrived at springs as objective strangers, perhaps for jobs or research or by pure luck of geography when they relocated to a home near a spring. But, like many before them, they inevitably fell under the water’s spell. To know springs is to love them.

There’s nothing new about the current up-welling of love for Florida’s springs. It just feels that way. When you think honestly about it, there’s no getting past the fact that we are all “new” Floridians. All of us are trying to re-learn and re-form the bond that the native people had. But it's not easy. We are relative strangers in a relatively unfamiliar land. While Europeans have been here for a respectable 500 years, it hardly matches the 15,000 year run of our predecessors. More importantly, our cultural and spiritual heritage has nothing to do with this land.

Unless you are Native American, your spiritual/religious heritage is rooted in land far from Florida. Our ancient tales and holy texts—the stories that tell us who we are and where we came from—are all inhabited by places and plants and animals and land features we know nothing about. Christian children learn the words frankincense and myrrh early, but wouldn’t recognize it if it was in their hand. How many times have you seen Mount Arrarat? Jerusalm? Mecca? Mt Fuji? When was the last time you dipped your toes in the Jordan, or did a cannonball into the Ganges or Eurphrates. There are "sacred springs" and “holy wells" throughout the Old World that would make Buddhist or Jewish or Christian Floridians weep if they ever sat at their banks, while their Florida “home” brims with over 1000 springs.

I wonder what acts of reverence the Timucuan performed when they gathered alongside Silver Spring; how did their songs sound when they danced on the banks of Ichetucknee? I wonder how many Timucuan eyes welled as they approached Ginnie Spring. I wonder how many would weep if they saw it today.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Schedule of upcoming Tours

We're in the process of overhauling our website - www.adventureoutpost.net  so the calendar (as well as trip descriptions, river conditions, etc) has not been updated. To help get the word out about what we are tentatuvely planning, we're posting the Long Schedule here and also on our Facebook Page (be sure to "like" the Adventure Outpost group page if you want to be kept in the loop).
As always, these trips are subject to change—especially if we haven’t had any expressed interest in a scheduled trip and someone suggests something different. The moral of this story—if you’re considering a trip, please let us know. You won’t be obliged to sign on or bound in any way. It will just help us decide if I can change a trip for a request.

Long Schedule


20 (Sat): Ichetucknee (FULL)
21 (Sun): Cedar Key
22 (Mon): Manatee Encounter - Crystal River
27 (Sat): Hontoon Island / Blue Springs S.P.
28 (Sun): Bartram’s Battle Lagoon
There are still many OPEN DATES in April! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
02 (Thurs): Crystal River Manatee Encounter - Last manatee tour of the season!!
04 (Sat):  The Santa Fe less-travelled - Hwy 47 to Ichetucknee confluence
05 (Sun): Ichetucknee / Santa Fe (Long Version)
10 (Fri): Canaveral Natl. Seashore
11 (Sat): Rock Springs Run
12 (Sun): Ocklawaha (Silver R. – Gores Landing)
14 (Tues): Cross Creek : The World of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
18 (Sat): Ozello
19 (Sun): Chassahowitzka
20 (Mon): Weeki Wachee
24 (Fri Eve): Moonlight paddle on Santa Fe R.
25 (Sat): Cedar Key
26 (Sun): Waccasassa / Wekiva
28 (Tues): Lost Springs of Ocklawaha
There are still many OPEN DATES in May! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
01 (Sat): Wild(ish) Side of St. Augustine (NEW ROUTE! & shorter trip)
02 (Sun): Deep Creek
07 (Fri): Rainbow River
08 (Sat): Suwannee Wilderness Trail
09 (Sun): Cross Creek The World of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
14 (Fri): (HIKE) Paynes Prairie: History and Lore of the Great Savanna
15 (Sat): Steinhatchee
16 (Sun: Gum Slough
17 (Mon): Homosassa River
22 (Sat): “Wild Lore of Ocklawaha River
23 (Sun): Bear Creek
29 (Sat): Prairie Creek
There are still many OPEN DATES in June! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
01 (Sun): “Lost World of the Ivory-billed” in the Lower Suwannee backwaters
06 (Sat): Bartram’s Battle Lagoon on St. Johns River & Alexander Spring Run
07 (Sun): Silver River
13 (Sat): Rainbow River *
14 (Sun): Withlacoochee (South)The Limpkin Patch
20 (Sat): Cedar Key
20 (Sat evening): Moonlight Paddle on Santa Fe R.
21 (Sun): Ocklawaha (Gores Landing – Eureka)
26 (Fri): River Styx: X-Stream Exploration
27 (Sat): Olustee / Upper Santa Fe
28 (Sun): Chassahowitzka
* There are still many OPEN DATES in July! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
02 (Fri): Deep Creek
03 (Sat): Wild(ish) Side of St. Augustine #2 (NEW ROUTE – shorter trip)
04 (Sun): Wild Side of St. Augustine #1 (Ft. Mose route – longer trip)
10 (Sat): Shired Island Island Hopping
11 (Sun): Cedar Key Island Hopping / Sunset paddle
17 (Sat): Bar-hopping down Suwannee River
18 (Sun): Prairie Creek
24 (Sat): Cross Creek
25 (Sun): Spring hopping down Santa Fe River
31 (Sat): Wild(ish) Side of St. Augustine #2 (NEW ROUTE – shorter trip)
* There are still many OPEN DATES in August! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
01 (Sun): Wild Side of St. Augustine #1 (Ft. Mose route – longer trip)
There are still many OPEN DATES in September! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
17 (Thurs): Weeki Wachee
18 (Fri): Ozello
19 (Sat): Black Creek
26 (Sat): Wakulla River (Concurrent with St. Marks Monarch Butterfly Migration Festival)
27 (Sun): Wacissa River  (Concurrent with St. Marks Monarch Butterfly Migration Festival)
28 (Mon): Aucilla River  (Concurrent with St. Marks Monarch Butterfly Migration Festival)
*   There are still many OPEN DATES in October! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
14 (Thurs): Chassahowitzka
17 (Sun eve): Presentation: "History & Wild Lore of the Nature Coast" (Crystal River @ Plantation Inn)
18 (Mon): Suncoast Keys: Haunts and Hideaways of the Gulf Coast Pirates 
20 (Wed): Chassahowitzka
21 (Thurs): Weeki Wachee - Mermaids, manatees and more

23 (Sat): Crystal River: Manatee Encounter
*   There are still many OPEN DATES in November! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
For information or to make reservations, please call: (386) 454-0611 or e-mail: riverguide2000@yahoo.com