Saturday, October 18, 2014

Charybdis: Moved by the Tides

I watched the tide come in today. It was an unplanned entertainment; one minute I'm piloting my green-and-rust pickup and trailer-load of kayaks along Ozello Trail, a narrow thread of asphalt strung through a dozen small islands off Florida's west coast, the next, I'm standing on a level, rocky plain watching the glistening edge of the Gulf of Mexico slithering around my toes.
It was late afternoon and I was in the quiet coastal region known as the Suncoast Keys. Unlike the Atlantic coast, where sloped beaches and a steady pulse of waves mask the rising water line, tides here advance quickly across the table-flat terrain. From a distance, the approaching water moves like a sliding sheet of glass. But up close, we see it’s more complicated than that—and much more interesting.

Behind a dense tussock of saw grass I spotted a line of raccoon tracks.  I stooped for a closer look. As I did, a thin veneer of sea water slipped up and quickly filled each track, one toe-print at a time. In a few minutes, these tracks along with traces of countless other life-defining moments in countless tiny lives will be washed away. Charybdis was exhaling and she holds her breath for no man.
There is something very special about myths like Charybdis, the Greek goddess of tides. Her story gives us an image of the land as a living, breathing being—an image that’s far more powerful than any telling of the science.  To the Greeks, tides were not the rising and falling of sea level, but the land itself rising and dipping into the sea. It was the slowly heaving breast of Charybdis. It’s a beautiful image that has stayed with me since I first learned it in grade school. With our culture becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, it seems a worthwhile exercise to conjure the image of Charybdis once in a while and imagine the world as a living, breathing being.

Ozello. Charybdis inhales.
A glass-smooth sea slowly transforms into a fractured, rocky plain. Networks of miniature streams form on the freshly exposed rocks. The newborn rivulets are precocious; born moving, slowly at first, but soon quickening into tiny torrents chasing the retreating sea. As the water continues dropping, the channels get narrower and faster. Finally, nothing remains but a labyrinth of cracks— tiny arroyos in a flat-rock desert, awaiting the next flash-flood of life-giving water.
Cedar Key. Charybdis exhales.
It’s an evening in springtime. Slivers of moonlight flash like tiny comets across the water. As the sea creeps landward, a male horseshoe crab becomes excited. He patrols the shallow water, swimming parallel to the shore. Charybdis is nearing the end of her exhalation. A female crab makes her way toward the beach. The alert male intercepts her and climbs onto her back. He clasps her shell with special appendages. A hundred renditions of this passion play are happening up and down the beach. Some females have as many as a half dozen males in tow. Just above the highest tide, the female burrows into the sand and lays eggs. At the same time, the males deposit their sperm onto her eggs. For 550 million years, horseshoe crabs have felt the tug of the full moon and the warmth of Charybdis breath.
Sam’s Bayou, Homosassa River. Charybdis inhales.
The freshly exposed rocks are covered with nutritious plankton—a banquet for many small species. But, time is limited. This unique landscape with all its bounty will wash away with the next tide. Denizens of this intertidal world must work fast. Fiddler crabs emerge from chimneyed burrows and scramble across the mud eagerly sucking plankton and leaving bb sized pellets of filtered sand in their wake. Their journey across the sand is marked by a series of these piles of sand pebbles—tiny cairns, marking the way for any who wish to follow.
Marineland.  Charybdis inhales
The sea recedes, revealing a low shelf of dark, loamy rocks. They are random and yet there is vague symmetry to their placement. What are they telling us? What geomancers hand cast them and what did he see in them? He finds meaning in the arrangement of the stones. Others decipher ancient glyphs in the stones themselves. The rich, dark brown humus nearly reeks of the ancient forest. It is their winnowed remains. Every frivolous bit was discarded; the water pressed from every cell. Chlorophyll of a tree compressed into a molecule. Every animal and every living thing reduced to their essence. Pressed, packaged and stored in the rock. Though the geomancer did not cast them, he reads them well.
 Fernandina Beach.  Charybdis exhales
The goddess loves her finery. She adorns herself with gifts brought by her lover Poseidon, god of the sea. When they were young, Poseidon would impress Charybdis with his craftsmanship, pounding beautiful sculptures from the only material at hand—beach stone. As he aged, the sea became more complex. Multitudes of sea creatures provided an endless selection of baubles and gifts to offer Charybdis. Sea shells, starfish, sand dollars, urchins and beautifully formed bits of bone and cartilage lay thick at her feet. Later still, as the land became inhabited, the gifts brought by the sea grew to include exotic seeds and woods from distant lands. Today, the sea is an old man. He still delivers gifts to his beloved, but they reveal his declining health. Instead of shells and bones and polished wood, he brings tacky trinkets, the cast-off of infidels, wayward buoys, discarded traps, Styrofoam, chemicals, oil and assorted plastic gimcrack from toy soldiers to oil drums. It hurts the sea to know he has little to give but costume jewelry.
Ozello. Charybdis coughs
Nutrient rich water seeps through the saw grass and laps against the rotting stumps of recently dead palms. Tiny acorn barnacles hoist their feathery legs from cone-shaped shells, seining the water for microscopic plankton. Like French girls standing on the rubble, waving flags to their liberators, the barnacles stand on the decaying remains of fallen trees and wave. They celebrate their rescue from the desiccating sun, drinking deeply the returning nutrient water. They know only the moment and think nothing of the carnage around them.
Fenholloway River.  Charybdis gasps
There is little activity on the shores of this, a river long-since sacrificed to a pulp mill. A few hardy plants cling to the upper beach while a destitute population of small animals rummage through the wreckage. They have little to fear from otters or raccoons.

Charybdis sighs

Saturday, September 27, 2014

For the Love of Melons


It's Halloween and, once again, pumpkins throughout the land are wondering how they got involved with a pagan Celtic holiday devoted to such un-pumpkinlike things as witches, goblins and training children how to beg food. It's an odd fate for one of Florida’s most important native foods. But if you stand waaay back, squint your eyes and look at it from the corner of your eyes, Halloween starts to look like a time when our culture actually reveres pumpkins.
Of course, appearances are often deceiving. While the pre-season frenzy of pumpkin-buying seems promising, it falls apart when the big day arrives and we find that, rather than being celebrated, the pumpkins are carved into likenesses of scary, dentally-challenged human heads.
  If you ever need reminding of how different our culture is from the original Floridians, take a moment to consider the name, "Chassahowitzka." The fact that Seminoles gave this beautiful waterway a name that means something like “place of hanging pumpkins” reveals more than a simple appreciation for this large fruit, it speaks to a respect for nature. In contrast, most modern Floridians consider it the height of humor to bash pumpkins or to see how far they can toss them.
The sport called “Pumpkin chunkin” evolved, from what I imagine began as a neighborly feud over who had the more attractive wife or car or children or dog or lawn or pumpkin, into a serious competition in which Chunkers (I have no clue what they are actually called) use catapults, trebuchets, ballistas, air-cannons and various other devices to hurl their prized fruit. Hard-core chunkers selectively breed and grow chunkin pumpkins for maximum aerodynamics. They also breed them for toughness so they won’t break on impact. (I guess it’s easier to work with experienced pumpkins than to train new pumpkins for every chunk-meet).
But pumpkins can take heart in knowing that we humans find bashing other large fruits almost as hilarious. For comedian Gallagher, bashing juicy produce--especially watermelons--is not just gag to warm up his audience before the main act; it is the act. In fact, his jokes are basically just time-fillers while he places his next juicy victim on the smashing block. Dozens of fruit are smashed in a typical show and, with every smash, people nearly pee themselves with a toddler's glee. It was one of the most successful comedy acts of the 1980’s.
Some people give melons the respect they deserve. In fact it was another humorist, Mark Twain, who penned one of the most reverent passages ever written about watermelons. "The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. (Mark Twain. “Puddn’ Head Wilson”). The rest is all seed spitting, face plunging and smashing in one form or another.
I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching a couple of documentaries about two very different topics. For all their differences, there was one thing they had in common and it revealed some valuable (and uncomfortable) truths about our culture. The first is that Gallagher is apparently a genius who has found our society's G-spot and he uses this knowledge to seduce a huge segment of our society. The second revelation is that the love of abusing melons goes far deeper in our culture than the raincoat-clad minions huddled before Gallagher's dripping pulpit; it goes all the way to the hallowed halls of academia. 
The first program was about weapons of the Middle Ages. For nearly an hour (actually about seven minutes after commercials), the host introduced a collection of devices that showed the creative lengths people will go to kill each other. Each weapon was presented with a well-honed formula, beginning with the weapon’s history. For most, their origins could be traced back to a wooden stick (which was presumably picked up by the first ape to stand upright, who then swung it at the second standing ape (and, presumably, any nearby fruit).
The host then brought in an expert who described the weapon's clever construction. When he finished, the two men took it to a field and fired it at a melon. To avoid looking like a couple of mischievous school brats, they explained that melons are used because they have the same firmness as a human skull. But, despite the somber delivery of historical facts, ballistics and any other adult-sounding tidbits they could conjure, every segment ended with the men giggling like a couple of spider-bearing 5th graders chasing girls on the playground.
The second show, “How the Universe was Made,” began with some clips highlighting the topics the show would cover. I was relieved to be back in the company of adults. But, no sooner had the gray-haired astronomers started talking about asteroids, than I detected a worrisome twinkle in their eyes. Every fiber in my melon-lovin’ body tightened. Quicker than I could screech, “where’s the remote!” one of the astronomers was hoisting a melon onto a stand. I knew what was coming and yet (as the producers so cleverly knew) I couldn’t look away. After carefully placing an explosive charge inside the melon, the camera zoomed-in on the two wide-eyed researchers huddled in the distance (different playground, same school boys). The camera panned back to the ill-fated melon, stoically awaiting its fate. After some hurried mumbling—something about how the earth’s firmness is amazingly comparable to a melon—they pushed a button and splat, the Gulf of Mexico was born.
We have to wonder what our ancestors would have thought of our treatment of a fruit that has served us for nearly 5,000 years; and not only as food. In Northern Europe, melons were powerful status symbols. Cucumbers had their day as well. At various times they were associated with sex and sexuality, fertility, vitality, moisture, abundance, opulence, luxury, gluttony, creative power, rapid growth and even death. In a round-about way, some of these associations persist in the use of cucumbers in cosmetics.
Florida’s native people also made good use of the cucurbits, growing gourds (for dippers) and squashes; possibly as early as the Late Archaic Period, around 500 B.C. Somewhere along the way they also started cultivating pumpkins. But they were nothing like the orange beasts that will be adorning our doorsteps this weekend. Like so much of those early cultures, little is known about how they used cucurbits for food or medicine. More is known about the Seminoles who replaced them.
According to the late Dr. Julia Morton, Florida’s first-lady of plant lore, Chassahowitzka’s namesake “hanging pumpkins” were actually the small (3 – 4 pound), tan squashes known as “Seminole Pumpkins.” Weighing between 3 – 4 pounds, these mottled, tan-colored squashes are actually more closely related to butternut squash than the large squashes we call pumpkins. While rare, these long, trailing vines can still be found in Florida’s wilder corners. A friend found some growing near St. Johns River several years ago, weaving through tree branches well off the ground. The Seminoles made good use of their vining habit by planting them next to oak trees—ideally dead ones that would allow them more sun.  
While I never thought I’d hear myself wax sentimental about pumpkins and melons, I must admit I’m troubled by the implications of how we treat these important fruits. If we don’t respect gifts of nature that have sustained us for thousands of years, less “useful” species don’t stand a chance. It makes me worry about the fate of our planet. To demonstrate, I’ll place this melon on this stump…

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Spanish Moss

  Next time you find yourself in the hospital wearing one of those stylish backless gowns, take heart in knowing it could have been worse. Had you been a Florida aborigine with fevers, the local shaman might have wrapped you in Spanish moss and told you to hop on the grill while he lit a fire under it. Don’t you feel better?

  For thousands of years, Florida natives and the Euro-Floridians who followed have found many uses for Spanish moss. If there were such things as plant celebrities, Spanish moss would surely be a superstar.

  The name Spanish moss comes from early French settlers in Louisiana who called it barbe Espagnole, or “Spaniards beard”. The Spanish countered, calling it "Frenchman’s wig." Meanwhile, a Swedish botanist quietly entered the naming game.

  In the mid-1700’s, with the creation of Carl Linnaeus system of binomial nomenclature, that systematically organized all plants and animals and gave the Latin names, the business of naming Spanish moss was no longer in the hands of whimsical name-callers, but in those of high-browed academics with an eye toward serious science. So, with the pomp of a nobleman (which he was) Linnaeus stepped up to the proverbial plate and named the plant Tillandsia, in homage to his noble friend Tillands because of his tendency to barf (nobly, I'm sure) every time he got on a boat. Okay, so much for high–browed academia. In Linnaeus' day, botanists believed the tiny gray scales that sheathed Spanish moss’ wiry strands acted to repel water. It was later learned that the scales actually collect moisture and nutrients from the air, but by that time Tillands and his celebrated water-repelling stomach were firmly entrenched in the annals of botanical nomenclature. The species name, usneaoides, refers to its similarity to lichen called usnea or “old man’s beard”.

  Seen from a distance, the long festoons of Spanish moss waving lazily in the breeze give an easy, ethereal effect to any setting. Up close, however, all that southern charm is gone with the wind. Fluffy masses of wiry, gray strands evoke images of Einstein on a bad hair day. Look closer still and you might discover Spanish mosses best-kept secret--flowers. Many Floridians have lived entire lives against the backdrop of moss-draped live oaks without ever noticing the small greenish (sometime pale blue) blooms nestled among the strands. When you find one, take a whiff (but not too hard or the tiny bloom with disappear into your nose). The first time I smelled one, I recognized it immediately. While I had never been consciously aware of the scent, I knew it. Spanish moss blooms have probably scented every warm summer breath of my life,
   Early explorers were intrigued with Spanish moss--mainly because Indian women wore moss skirts and shawls draped loosely over their otherwise naked bodies. (Special note to any of you considering going "retro" and reviving this attractive fashion--over 160 species of insects, spiders, mites and other unfashionable critters are known to raise their annoying little families in this plant). In addition to clothing, the moss had other uses. Babies were sometimes bundled in it and a decoction of boiled moss was rubbed on the heads of newborns to give them curly hair. Later, simplers (folk healers who used plants for cures) used it for “female problems” and gallbladder ailments.

  While most of these folk remedies faded into obscurity, at least one bridged the gap between lore and science. In Louisiana, where Spanish moss tea was used by wild crafters as a treatment for diabetes, researchers have found that it reduces blood glucose levels in rats 4 – 8 hours after ingestion. To date, no diabetes drugs have been derived from Spanish moss, but research is ongoing.

  Another example of modern science propping up folklore is found in the use of Spanish moss as bandaging material by both American Indians and soldiers during the Civil War. Since that time, the plant has been found to contain an enzyme that breaks down dead tissue and enhances healing. It has also been found to have both analgesic and antibacterial properties. To top it off, tests at the Mayo Clinic showed that sterilized Spanish moss is more absorbent than an equal weight of cotton. And, we aren’t making Spanish moss bandages because  …?

  Perhaps the best known use of Spanish moss was as cushioning material for horse buggy seats and later, automobiles. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, a thriving cottage industry of gathering, curing and selling Spanish moss kept food on the tables of many Florida cracker families. Alachua County was at the heart of the trade. In Gainesville alone, three commercial ginning operations bought moss from private “pickers” and processed it for use by upholstery and car manufacturers.

  These days, having survived the simplers, moss pickers, and a devastating blight in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Spanish moss has returned to doing what it does best – decorating our wild places with its graceful, southern charm and providing housing for warblers and countless little creepy-crawlies. Even chiggers need a home.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ancient River Crossings

If I ever offer a series of tours titled, “The River Fords of North Florida,” Prairie Creek and Steinhatchee River will be the featured waterways.

Funny thing about streams; when they happen to run in the same direction we are headed, we are eternally grateful for them. We build some sort of floaty contrivance (a technical industry term) load ourselves and our stuff onto it, and then let the water do the work. But if we are travelling by land and our path arrives at that same river, it is now our greatest foe. 

For the early natives of our area, Prairie Creek likely served as a convenient artery for moving themselves and their goods between Newnan’s Lake and Paynes Prairie.  During wet periods they could have paddled onto and across the prairie (lake) basin. But when it became too dry for boating yet too soggy for walking, travelers had to walk the high ground around the basin. On the east side, this would have meant and unavoidable crossing of Prairie Creek. 

If you've paddled this beautiful run, you know its flanked by broad swamps for most of its length. This made good crossing sites scarce. One site with low banks, slow flow and shallow water fit the bill better than others. It was there that the vast majority of people traveling around Paynes Prairie likely crossed Prairie Creek for thousands of years.

As with most old crossings, Prairie Creek Ford and the trail leading up to it are now overgrown and barely perceptible. But for the paddler with an old map and a keen eye (or, at least a keen guide) the ancient cut, carved by a parade of boots, hooves and squeaking wooden wheels, is still visible on the river bank.

The story was the same for early travelers along the Gulf Coast. While many coastal streams were short enough to bypass around their heads, longer ones had to be crossed. As in other environments, these fords relied on shallow water. But they had another issue—tides.   Coastal waterways rise and fall with the tides—sometimes many miles upstream. So, it was critical that any ford of a coastal stream be above the highest reach of the tide (called the “tidewater”). Driving Hwy 19/98 through the Big Bend and Gulf Hammock areas serves as a good case study. This route carries you past the head of shorter streams and along the tidewater of the longer ones.

On Steinhatchee River, the best fording conditions are found a short distance above Steinhatchee Falls. Here, a hard, level plateau of limestone (the same one that forms the cap of the falls) provided solid footing for people and, later, horses and wagons. The Falls themselves are the tidewater in normal conditions.

Now, imagine you are an archaeologist looking for artifacts of earlier cultures. What better place to look than a place where you know people not only congregated as they prepared to cross, but also spent time. If you've ever hiked in Florida, you know how hard it is to pull yourself away from any place that offers a cool swim and a re-fill of the water jugs. 

Historians are grateful for fords as well. Early explorers (and many later explorers as well) apparently hated keeping log books and chronicling their routes in journals. They often mentioned only the most striking landmarks. So, for the historian sleuthing the records in an attempt to retrace an explorers route, mention of river crossings can be invaluable. Students of Florida's First Seminole War are especially fond of the Steinhatchee ford because it was here that Andrew Jackson's Army camped before pushing on toward the Suwannee and an eventual attack on the Seminoles living there.
We know the exact location of this camp because it was described as being alongside their crossing of Steinhatchee. In a time when the Florida frontier was still largely a mystery, the Steinhatchee crossing offers a rare opportunity to scribble an "X" on our maps of Jackson's invasion.

So, if all this talk of crossing and bypassing rivers has subliminally made you actually want to get ON a river rather than bypass it (if I was an evil genius, that’s the kind of mischief I would enjoy!); or if you, like me, enjoy the sense of connection to the past that comes from visiting a place where countless Indians, settlers and soldiers stood and scratched their heads as they pondered the river; or even  if you’d simply like to paddle a beautiful waterway with as little jabbering about fords as possible, I think you’ll find everything your adventurous heart desires on this Saturdays, (8/23) Prairie Creek excursion. If that trip isn’t to your taste (maybe you prefer more open water with less chance of pull-overs)  or if you find you a have a sudden and inexplicable urge to experience the excitement of a tidewater, we’ll be doing Steinhatchee River on Sunday (8/24).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

July Paddle Tours

Here are the tours we have on the schedule so far. There will be more listed as we go along, so for the most current updates (as well as full descriptions, prices, difficulty, etc) go to  -    If you look at the calendar, click on the river/tour name on any date and a full description will open. 

As always, these tours are subject to change—especially if we haven’t had any expressed interest in a scheduled tour 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.

July  (2014)

02 (Wed):   Silver River
04 (Fri):  Suncoast Keys: Haunts and Hideaways of the Gulf Coast Pirates 
06 (Sat):  Cedar Key
12 (Sat): Ocklawaha (Gores Landing – Eureka)
13 (Sun):  Prairie Creek
19 (Sat):  Steinhatchee
20 (Sun):  Bear Creek
27 (Sun):   Silver River

There are still many OPEN DATES in August! Let us know where and when you want to go, and we’ll schedule it.
For information or to make reservations, please call us at Adventure Outpost: (386) 454-0611 or e-mail:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stakin' a Claim to the Weed Patch

Looking back on my life’s path over the last 50 years, I now see it was inevitable that I became a river guide. Put every job I worked and every passion pursued into a big pot, add river water, stir and then pour the mixture into a canoe-shaped vessel, and the glob will congeal into a funky hat with a river guide under it.
 One of my earliest passions was outdoor survival—especially edible wild plants. In those days of the early 1970’s, information about edible plants was scarce. Euell Gibbons and a few others had written books, but they invariably discussed plants from other parts of the country. Fortunately, we had our own edible plants guru right here in Gainesville, a botanist named Margaret Cole.
Margaret was the perfect forager. Not only did she know how to find and prepare every wild edible in North Florida, she also knew how to defend her favorite foraging grounds from her fiercest competitors, her students.
At first, I didn't understand her genius. With every lesson about a certain plant, Margaret included a description of the best locations in North Florida to pick it. I was pleased to learn that edible wild plants thrived in every habitat imaginable and often had ranges that spanned the entire State and beyond. Oddly, however, it seemed none of them grew close to our hometown of Gainesville. Margaret’s directions always started with, “drive about 2 hours …”
Even as a teenager I understood the basic principal of foraging—take in more energy from food than you use in getting it. Driving two hours for wild foods seemed like a losing proposition. I soon arrived at that uncomfortable place in my thinking known to all hunters and foragers alike; the place where rationalizations fail and we must admit (to ourselves , but rarely to others) that we can get it cheaper at the store. It is here that the hunter must rise above mere intelligence and admit that he enjoys killing animals, for whatever reason. Plant foragers have different motivations. For most of us, the driving force is the challenge of living off the land.
In the end, my inner cave-man pummeled my inner accountant and gave me the go-ahead to embrace my new passion.  Many weekends of my teen years began with me hopping into my old ’63 Valiant and setting off for the obligatory 2 hour drive to….wherever. 
It wasn't until I discovered lots of great edibles growing in Gainesville--even in the heart of town--that Margaret’s clever deception revealed to me. But, I didn't feel deceived. I had learned a lot from those foraging trips, including many new and amazing places and a deeper appreciation for plants. Nothing infuses a plant with the aura of value more than having to drive two hours to find it. To this day, when I come upon a patch of dandelions, my first instinct is to stuff my pockets with their treasured leaves.  But this level of appreciation can be a hard sell. Patsy listens politely and nods patiently when I explain that as a “good provider” it is my duty to keep dandelions and other edible “weeds” flourishing in our yard; then she points to the mower.
Today, foraging is much more popular than the Euell Gibbons days. It’s even crept into “civil” society as growing numbers of gourmet chefs are recognizing the value of using wild edible plants, for both the unique flavors and for their chic-appeal to environment-minded millennials.
For me, the greatest value of the interest in wild edibles is that it makes people mindful of their natural environment. It also heightens awareness of the un-natural environment. Nobody who’s eaten dandelions or read about their amazing edible and medicinal properties can ever again watch a TV herbicide commercial in which the spokesman—perhaps a ruggedly handsome yard-guy with a thick Scottish accent—implores you to poison these green treasures in your yard, without feeling like he just kekked yerrr dog.   
Best of all, foraging is easy. Bookstores now carry many books about edible wild plants. Some deal specifically with Florida species. It’s as easy as buying a foraging guide (as well as a good plant ID field guide—very important!) and heading to the woods. But before you go please note, no edible plants grow anywhere near Gainesville. To find them, you’ll need to crank up your car and drive two hours ….


Friday, February 28, 2014

Lessons of the Hontoon Owl

On the bank of Hontoon Island under a spreading live oak tree stands a simple totem pole carved in the shape of an owl.* Its wooden eyes stare at the river with an air of wisdom far beyond what we normally expect of a log. Calm and indifferent, they hint at many closely-held secrets—and all the answers.

Eyes with wisdom we rarely expect of a log
Archaeologists have looked to the Hontoon Owl for answers. Why, for instance, did the Timucuans carve it and place it on this prominent spot on the river bank nearly five hundred years ago? What message was it meant to convey? They know that some cultures considered owls to be good omens while others thought they were harbingers of evil. Not much help there. For now, it seems the best place to look for clues to the Hontoon Owl‘s message might not be in the owl’s vacant eyes but in our own quirky psyche.

Deep in the dark, gooshy recesses of the human brain there’s something—a synapse? a cluster of cells? a parasitic worm with an odd sense of humor?—that compels us to tell the world, "I was here!" Think back to your own childhood and every time you saw workers pouring cement for a sidewalk. If you were like most kids, you immediately calculated the best time to return and convert the walkway to a monument to yourself. With the speed of the prodigy your parents hoped you would be, you feverishly calculated (in your head) when the workers would be leaving and what time it would get dark enough to cover your deed. You then overlaid this data (still in your head) onto your best calculations of how long it takes cement to harden, and concocted your evil plan. For most of us, the prospect of our pending immortalization was thrilling beyond words. It’s an instinctive thrill we seem to never outgrow. The conquerors of the New World based dark careers on it.

When Ponce de Leon staked his claim to Florida, on his second landing on the southeast coast, he placed an inscribed stone monument on the bank of a stream. The stone was never seen again and no record was made of the message inscribed on its face. And yet, though it was written in an unknown language by people of a foreign culture, the Indians could as easily guess what it said as we can.
Half a century later, when French explorer Jean Ribault came to Florida, he brought items absolutely necessary for claiming new lands; a boat-load of settlers and five stone columns to be used as territory markers. As he worked his way up the coast looking for sites to build a fort, Ribault erected columns on prominent banks of rivers found to have good harbors and good lands.

 Chief Athore shows Laudonniere the stone column left by Ribault
(From a painting by Jacques Le Moyne)

When fellow explorer Rene de Laudonniere arrived at St. Johns River a year later, in 1564, he found that the Indians had adorned Ribault’s column near Ft. Caroline with flowers and nature objects. It had become an object of worship. It’s a safe bet he was surprised by the Indian’s reverence for the column; probably even pleased. But, the column’s message was not meant for the Indians. It was for any Spaniards or other European’s that passed that way. When the Spanish learned of the columns, they got the message loud and clear and promptly sent an expedition to find and remove them.

Humans aren’t the only animals that leave calling cards. For most species it’s a matter of survival, either for the individual or their species. Some do it to define their territory. Bears will stand and claw the trunk of a tree to tell trespassers, "this is my property, keep out!" Sometimes they‘ll claw as high on the trunk as they can reach, a subtle footnote reading, "…Oh yeah, and I’m this tall."

Some animal’s boundary markers are more subtle. One day, while paddling Chassahowitzka River, I noticed something moving in a clearing near the river bank. As I eased closer, I could see an otter rolling excitedly on the ground and rubbing its body against trees and shrubs. It was totally enraptured, like a cat in catnip. I later learned from a trapper that this was a "scent post," where neighboring otters smear pheromone-ladened musk to define the boundary between their territories.

On a recent paddle around Hontoon Island, as I passed the Hontoon Owl it occurred to me that the need to stake claims is still alive and well in our own society. Some of us spray-paint "tags" on subway walls the way small dogs pee on shoes. Others build tall buildings and name them after themselves, the way big dogs pee on little dogs.

As I paddled away, I glanced back at the owl one last time before rounding the point—as if something might have changed. Nothing. It just stood there like a monk, contemplating the river and minding its own business. Maybe its message is more obvious that we think.

* This is actually a replica of the owl totem—the original effigy carving is in Ft. Caroline Museum near Jacksonville.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Request for manatee sightings on Ichetucknee

With our changing climate and environmental conditions, the ranges and seasonal movements of some of our wild animal species are changing. Those changes are bringing new challenges to the efforts to protect those species.

A case in point is the Florida manatee. In recent years, their range seems to have slowly pushed a bit northward. In North Florida's Ichetucknee River, where they were rarely seen twenty years ago, sightings have become common--especially during high water events.

In an effort to better understand this change in the manatees usage of Ichetucknee, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission  and the Ichetucknee Alliance have asked me to document manatee sightings on Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers. This project will rely on reports from people who live near these rivers or use them regularly--good old fashioned word-of mouth.

For this project, I’ll be looking for two kinds of sightings; past manatee sightings  people have made on Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers, and any future manatee sightings on these two rivers.

For past observations, I’m interested in ANY sightings people have made in the past, regardless of how long ago it was. This will help us determine how manatee usage of these rivers has changed over the decades. Please include any details you can recall, like how many manatees you saw , when you saw them (even something general like "early '60's" would help) and the general location on the river. If you happen to recall anything about river conditions (high, low or average) at the time of your sighting, that would be helpful as well.

For future sightings of manatees in Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers, I’m hoping to get the date, number of manatees, and the general location on the river. It would also help if you notice any distinguishing physical features (scars, cuts, etc.) on the animal’s bodies. Photos would be great.

Manatees near the wild rice marshes of Ichetucknee
This will be an ongoing study, so even if you spot a manatee(s) in Ichetucknee a year or two from now, I'd still like to hear about it.

The best way to report manatee sightings is to e-mail me at If you prefer to call with your information, we can be reached at (386) 454-0611. Otherwise, if you're passing though High Springs and are feeling neighborly, please stop in and visit us at Adventure Outpost and tell us about your sighting in person. We are now located in the center of town, (beside the big parking lot across from Great Outdoors restaurant).

I would appreciate if you would help spread the word to anyone you know who lives on one of these two rivers or uses them regularly.

The information I gather will be posted in some public forum (including this blog), but I’m not sure where, yet. For updates or information about the study, call Adventure Outpost sometime after March and we’ll be able to tell you where it’s posted.

Thank you, in advance, for any help you can provide for this project. I look forward to hearing from you.

Lars Andersen

Adventure Outpost  LLC
30 NW 1st Ave
High Springs, FL   32643

(386) 454-0611