Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Enduring Legacy of the Spanish Missions

As visitors enter Suwannee River State Park, their eyes are immediately drawn to a break in the far tree line that holds the promise of a fine view. They saunter across 50 yards of gently sloped lawn shaded by a high canopy of widely-spaced live oaks to the top of a high limestone bluff overlooking Suwannee River. Until recently, they would also find a historic marker under one of the nearby oaks. It’s metal face, darkened and weathered by the elements, gave the appearance of being ancient and imbued its message with a sense of ancient wisdom. In bold, raised letters it said, “Suwannee is a Creek Indian name meaning Place of Echoes.” The visitors would read the sign and then look down the steep-sided canyon embracing the molasses-brown river below and marvel at how perfectly the name fit. It felt right. But it wasn’t. Historians have concluded that "Suwannee" was derived from the name of a Spanish mission, San Juan de Guacara.

First located at Baptizing Springs around 1612, San Juan was later moved to Charles Spring after a disastrous rebellion by the Timucua natives in 1656. This new location put it next to the primary crossing of Suwannee River and made it one of the most important missions on both the river and the Mission Trail. Soon, the Spanish were referring to the river as the river of San Juan. The name probably would have stuck if there wasn’t already a river with that name; the river that still carries the Anglicized version of that name, St. John’s. To distinguish this smaller San Juan River from its big sister, they called it the Little San Juan, or “San Juanee.” With time, the name morphed into “Suwannee.”
In 1704 and ’05, English colonists from the Carolinas and their Creek Indian allies raided north Florida. Unable to take the massive defenses of St. Augustine, they settled on destroying the fort’s supply network—the missions, along with the Timucua Indians that had come to rely on them. They were partially successful. The missions were burned and the surviving Timucua Indians—a people whose ancestors had lived in north Florida for thousands of years—were forced to relocate to a handful of small villages near St. Augustine and the protection of the Castillo de San Marcos.

Today, nothing remains of the mission system except a handful of overgrown sites and those rare buried artifacts that are the raison de vivre of archaeologists. Nothing physical, that is. But look closely at a map of North Florida and you’ll find the land is virtually crawling, or should I say, “flowing,” with traces of Spanish missions.
All across north Florida, rivers, lakes and towns preserve the last traces of the Spanish period in their names. Most obvious are rivers. St. Johns, St. Mary’s, Santa Fe and St. Marks all retain the name of missions once located on their banks.
Like San Juan de Guacara, some missions names were simultaneously preserved and altered by the forces of linguistic evolution. One such was San Francisco de Potano. This mission, located a bit north of Gainesville, would eventually give the tattered remains of its name to the beautiful hardwood hammock in which it was located, “San Felasco.”
Far to the west, beyond Suwannee River, the name of San Pedro Bay seems to have preserved a mission's name without a scratch (or scribble), until we find that the mission's full name was San Pedro y San Pablo. However, while "San Pablo" didn't survive the rigors of time in the name of this bay, it was salvaged, though slightly altered, in the name of nearby Lake Sampala.
In one odd instance, a mission preserved the name of an Indian tribe that might otherwise have been lost to history. Twenty miles up one of Suwannee's northernmost tributaries, the Timucuan village of Arapaha was chosen for the site of mission Santa Maria de Los Angeles de Arapaha. Today, the mission and the Indians are recalled in name of their home river, the Alapaha.
While missions were the primary features of the mission system, they weren’t the only ones. Cattle ranches were a vital component. Where the missions provided corn and Indian labor (and Christian converts!), the ranches supplied St. Augustine with beef and ranch products. One of the largest was the La Chua ranch at Paynes Prairie. The name, “La Chua” would come down to us through the centuries as "Alachua," the name of a County and a town in the northern part of that County.
In today's unsettled social climate, where increasing numbers of people are calling for the removal of controversial monuments and re-naming places because they (like most of us) don’t like the people or events that inspired some of them, I have to wonder about the fate of the mission-inspired names of our rivers and other natural features. There is little dispute that the missions played a leading role in the demise of Florida's native populations. If the name-changers set their sights on Suwannee, the managers of Suwannee River State Park might want to re-install the old plaque and revive the old legend about the name. Then again, a name like “River of Echoes” might be equally abrasive to the kinds of people who would rather turn a deaf ear to history than embrace our mistakes, learn from them and move forward.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Steinhatchee River

If plunging over a waterfall in a barrel is on your bucket list, I have two suggestions. First, put it at the end of your list (if you don't understand why, then go ahead and move it up to the front). And second, do your practice runs over Steinhatchee Falls. The "Falls" as the locals call them, have everything an aspiring daredevil could want; a nice county park with ample parking for media crews, a rocky, limestone bottom for an added element of danger, and a name the news crew will love. "Steinhatchee" is Seminole for "dead man's river." Best of all, the falls are only a few feet high. This translates to a short hang time, which means you'll be out of the water and into the media frenzy before the reporter can say "did anybody put film in the cam….."

Below the Falls, Steinhatchee River offers a scenic study Gulf coast geology. Look closely at the limestone that stands as low ledges and random outcroppings along much of the lower river and you'll see fossils of sea creatures that lived here nearly 45 million years ago when this area was under water. Occasional shoals and areas pocked with solution holes create shallow, Swiss-cheese moonscapes on the river bottom that are not only attractive, but fun to paddle. Detailed maps will show a few springs along the river. But, like the falls, the promise of them is more exciting than the reality. Like all Florida's springs, these used to be more substantial. Today, they would more accurately be labeled "seeps," whose greatest contributions to the river might be as stinky conversation-starters for passing paddlers. 

Steinhatchee is a blackwater river. It’s dark brown, tannin-stained flow originates in Mallory Swamp. After a 20 mile meander through the swamp, most of its flow disappears into a network of underground channels. A few miles later, after passing under Hwy 19, it re-emerges a bolder, more clearly defined stream. After winding through ten miles of well-shaded forest, picking up the meager flows of Steinhatchee, Iron and several other small springs, the river widens dramatically. In its final miles before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, Steinhatchee River bears no resemblance to its upper reaches. Four hundred feet wide and lined with salt marshes and sparse coastal hardwood forests, the river here is more about the sea than the land—as are the people who live in the quiet little fishing town of Steinhatchee at the rivers mouth.


Beavers, whose range currently does not extend south of the Suwannee river basin, have an obvious presence here, including a well built dam that is easily seen from the river. Manatees and otters are frequently seen in the area below Cooey Island.


The name Steinhatchee, originally spelled Asten Hatchee, is a Seminole word meaning "Dead Man's River." There's no record of why the river took this name, but I'm happy to report that corpses are scarce along this quite stream these days. During the First Seminole War, Andrew Jackson led his army across the river at the famous old ford at Steinhatchee Falls (the launch site for or paddle trip) on his way to attack the Seminole towns along Suwannee River. Two decades later, Zachary Taylor followed the same route and camped alongside the ford during the Second Seminole Wars. It was during that conflict that the seeds of the first settlement along the river were planted in the form of Frank Brook on the river's north bank near the present town. These days, the town's reputation for being a favorite refuge for presidents is bolstered every time Jimmy Carter comes down to spend time in this, his favorite fishing retreat in Florida.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sturgeon Watching tour - Friday, 7/17

In light of the recent tragedy, the time seems right for some public outreach on behalf of one of Florida's most spectacular species--the Gulf Sturgeon. With so many looming tragedies in Florida's wild places and the seemingly inevitable loss of our springs, the resurgence of the Suwannee sturgeons is a badly needed success story.

Our 5.5 mile paddle will take us through a couple of the most active sturgeon jumping sites on the river (currently--it changes as the year progresses). We will be joined on the water by Dr. Ken Sulak, lead researcher for the USGS sturgeon studies on the Suwannee. Along our route, we will meet up with Ken's research team who will be in the process of netting and tagging sturgeon. As we watch, Ken will give us a brief description of these amazing animals and will tell us about their project (much of our current understanding of this species comes from the work of Ken and this team). After a brief "show and tell" about netting, tagging and documentation, the team will then release the fish back into the river. This will be a rare opportunity and one that Ken and I have been planning for a couple of years as we waited for ideal conditions (which we now have). The 5.5 mile tour will run from 9 AM to about 1- 2 PM. This stretch also passes some great historical sites, so attendees should come prepared for random outbursts of "history and lore" as we paddle--(it's what I do! ;o)
Here's some text from Dr. Sulak:
"In the late 1980s the Gulf sturgeon was on the brink of extinction, down to about 1,000 individuals in the Suwannee River.  State and federal protections reversed that, halting harvest, promoting restoration.  As a result, the Suwannee River population has rebounded to about 10,000 fish.  Sturgeons are ancient but complex animals with a complicated life history.  Spring is for spawning in the upper river, after a winter of intense feeding in the Gulf.  Summer is for hanging out in deep areas, jumping but not feeding.  Come fall, it is time for the annual return migration to the Gulf. 
Jumping has two main functions - to take in air to refill the swimbladder to maintain buoyancy control, and to make big loud splashes that are part of social communication.  Sturgeons keep in touch with each other by a language of clicks and splash sounds.  When the river gets low, sturgeons congregate in deep holding areas - and the jumping and clicking increased dramatically. 
A single adult female matures at age 12 and produces several hundred thousand eggs once every three years.  High fecundity is part of the recovery success of the species.  Good water quality, and absence of dams (migration roadblocks), and upriver gravel beds for spawning are other important parts of the recovery story. 
The final element is a productive low salinity estuary that provides winter food for juvenile sturgeons.  The success of sturgeons is one sign of a healthy river and estuary ecosystem, so much so that the sturgeon has been adopted as the logo of the national Waterkeepers association."

Kenneth J. Sulak, Ph.D., Research Fish Biologist
Lead Scientist - Coastal Ecology & Conservation Research Group
Sturgeon Quest Leader
Southeast Ecological Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
7920 NW 71st St.,Gainesville, FL 32653,


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lessons of the Dune

The story of the demise of Florida's Timucua people began and ended in the dunes near St. Augustine. They were the first thing Ponce de Leon saw when he arrived in 1513 and the last thing the natives saw as the last 89 Timucuans sailed away 250 years later. It was the perfect setting. The story of these dunes is, in many ways, a microcosm of the story of Florida itself. Most of this land was, at one time or another, covered by dunes. They represent Florida’s essence—raw and elemental.   

Anyone hoping to gain a true understanding of Florida and the people who live here should begin by studying the plants and animals that live in the dunes. Ponce de Leon would have done well to heed this advice. Imagine how differently things might have gone if he had spent his five "lost days" learning the lessons of the dunes and taken those lessons to heart. He wouldn’t have had to look hard to find them.
One of the first plants the explorer would have encountered would have been prickly pear cactus (Opuntia  humifusa)For thousands of years, Florida’s native people had not only learned to co-exist with these plants, they relied on them for food and medicine. At times, they even made short seasonal migrations to harvest the ripe, red “pears.” But for unschooled newcomers, prickly pears were probably little more than ever-present nuisances with long, pain-inducing spines.

Having ignored all warnings from the prickly pears, de Leon would have found even more species eager to teach him the perils of trespassing in places he wasn’t welcome. Of all the scenes I’ve imagined of Ponce’s first days, none is more satisfying than picturing him gyrating through a bed of sand spurs (Cenchrus spp.) doing the “Ow! Ow! Ow!” tippy-toe dance. You know the one; everyone who’s walked bare-footed through sand spurs knows this dance. While the Spaniard didn’t understand Timucuan, the language of sand spurs would have been clear. If he had taken this message to heart, de Leon might not have returned to South Florida a decade later and been fatally pierced by a different kind of “thorn,” a native arrow.
Most of the dunes lessons are not so painful. In fact, most require nothing more than mindfulness and a sense of curiosity. Take the lessons of the sea oats (Uniola paniculata). If de Leon had contemplated these important dune-stabalizing plants, he might have learned about adaptability. When sea oats are covered by sand in a storm, they simply sprout new roots from the buried stem and push up new growth from their growing tip.

If he had a microscope (okay, now I'm really stretching the imagination) he could have learned another of the sea oats valuable lessons—coexistence. These plants are colonized by beneficial fungi which increase the root's surface area and thereby enhance their ability to take in nutrients. The lives of both the oat and the fungi are bettered by their cooperative relationship.

Coexistence is a common theme in these dunes. Ambling among the soft, rolling swells of sugar-sand, de Leon would certainly have spotted gopher tortoise burrows. These burrows are used by at least 365 species of insects, mammals and reptiles of several species, all of which comfortably cohabitate in the dark passages.
This lesson might have been reinforced with a stroll on the beach (nobody can resist beach-combing). As he splashed along the frothy edge of wave-wash, Ponce might have found a Portuguese Man o’ War stranded onto the beach. As a seasoned sea farer, he would likely have known these animals as they are common throughout the Atlantic. He might have even felt a kinship with such an adventurous creature that goes through life on a private journey guided only by the prevailing winds (a jelly after my own heart!). But, familiar as he was, de Leon might not have known the animal’s greatest strength.  The Portuguese Man o’ War’s various body parts are actually different animals. This is not one animal but a colony of coexisteing, co-dependant species. None could live without all the others living together in this amazing animal/colony.

Our hero would also have done well to study the wrack. There, piled above the highest wash of the tide, he might have found affirmation of what the Timucuans were trying to tell him (and what a girl named Dorothy would learn centuries later), “there’s no place like home.” This could have been learned from any one of the many exotic seeds found among the seaweed and flotsam. If he had looked around, he would have found that none of the plant species represented by these seeds were growing in those dunes—none had successfully germinated here, not then and not now. Like all species, these exotic seeds evolved in specific conditions of climate and soil which means they have special requirements to germinate and thrive.

Wherever he went, be it vegetated dune swales or the nearby flatwoods, de Leon would have been surrounded by one of the elders of Florida’s plant communities—saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Recent DNA studies suggest that some saw palmettos may approach 10,000 years of age. This would have been accomplished by the plants habit of regularly sprouting new, prostate stems and sinking new roots from them. Granddaddy saw palmettos could be the clonal descendants of plants whose fruits were eaten by Paleo-Indians (and paleo-critters). As we would expect of such an elder, the lessons of saw palmetto are both numerous and profound. For me, none is more important than the fact that they are hard to cultivate. When removed from an area, they have difficulty reestablishing. This lesson perfectly symbolizes the tragic loss of Florida’s native people just 250 years after de Leon.

Unlike the Timucuans, who have been silenced forever, the dunes remain; still here to teach their lessons to anyone who will listen. To learn one of their most vital and urgent lessons, we must return to the old master, the prickly pear cactus. Look again at those long spines. As I mentioned before, they help the plant defend itself. What I didn't mention was that they guard the plant's most precious possession—water. The thick, succulent pads are spongy reservoirs of water—a vital necessity that desirous, thirsty animals try hard to access. We modern Floridians would do well to learn from old man cactus.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

This weeks tours: Silver River (Sat) & Ocklawaha (Sun)

If I were to plan an itinerary that best showcased Ocklawaha River--its archaeology, history, geology and wild inhabitants--it would look exactly like this weekend's lineup. On Saturday's (5/30) Silver River trip, we launch into the river's birth place (not just Silver's but also, to a large extent, Ocklawaha's), the aptly named, Mammoth Spring. This spring is the source of nearly a third of Silver River's flow. The remainder comes primarily from the 29 additional vents feeding the river in its first mile with a fraction coming from surface runoff from rainfall and seepage from the adjacent swamps. The river's human story begins here as well. Artifacts uncovered from the limestone rimming the spring pool and along the river speak to nearly 14,000 years of continuous use of the spring and river, beginning with the first humans who arrived in North Florida at the end of the last Ice Age.

More of the story will be revealed on Sunday's (5/31) paddle of a lower section of Ocklawaha River. An Archaic Period burial mound, steamboat landing and an ill-conceived dam offer visible, palpable connections to that part of the story that has included humans. In the big picture, that has been just a sliver of time. Decaying stumps of ancient giants and limestone ossuaries packed with the remains of land animals and aquatic species--some marine, some fresh water--dating back tens of millions of years, help keep it all in perspective. Our time here has been a footnote in this volume. 

But this river's story is not just a memoir written in past tense. It is a living, breathing place whose story is still unfolding.The Ocklawaha river-forest wakes anew every morning. It will be as fresh and vibrant on Sunday as it was 5,000 years ago. While it's a different forest from that of the Timucua--some species are gone, others have arrived and the sizes of some trees are certainly different--it still pulses with life. As with all rivers, the Ocklawaha's story is being written in real time; a new chapter every day. How that story will go from here is up to us. 
So, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I'm going paddling this weekend--wanna go!?

Here are the details:

- Saturday, May 30:   SILVER RIVER
This river is about 1 hour south of Gainesville. We'll be meeting there at 10:00 A.M. The cost is $39 for "wanna go" members ($50 for non-members). With your own boat it's $25 for members ($35 for non-members). NOTE - There is also an additional $10 in park & launch fees.
 On this downstream-only paddle, we will launch near the river's large head-spring. We be on the water about 2.5 hours. Since we'll be done by about 1:00 we won't stop for any kind of food/eating break. 
As we make our way down stream in the 30 - 40 ft wide channel, we are treated to an unbroken panorama of cypress, ash, gum, red maple and an assortment of other trees and plants associated with the Ocklawaha river basin, of which this is an important part. There are always plenty of water birds, especially near the head spring. Turtles, gators and and other reptiles always keep things interesting, as do my personal favorites, the river otters. The quiet paddler with a searching eye will usually spot one of these stealthy hunters on about 3/4 of our trips.
The most popular animals on Silver River are the Rhesus monkeys  (actually macaques - see below). Even though exotic species are never welcome in natural habitats, its hard not to enjoy watching these interesting, amusing Asian/African primates. It's not their fault they wound up in the forests of central Florida. But be very careful and never approach them. They can be aggressive and have a wicked bite.   

Tropical green meets icy blue
Our launch site will be near the river's water source, the Silver Springs group. The main vent--Mammoth Spring--is one of the largest springs (in average flow rate) in the world. This area is within Silver Springs State Park. The main river channel within the park is a public waterway, with free access to all. Please be very respectful to other boats by staying off to the side when they pass. We want all visitors--paddlers and tour boat passengers alike--to have a positive experience when they explore Florida's beautiful waterways. It looks bad for everyone when there is friction between boat operators.
Perhaps the main thing that sets Silver River apart from other waterways is it's water. Crystal clear and relatively deep (averaging about 6 - 8 feet, with a few much deeper holes), few waterways rival this one for sheer beauty of its water.
Likewise, few waterways can match the diversity and numbers of species that you find on Silver. Put down your paddle and float with the current  (save this for the downstream part of the trip!) and you'll soon find crowds of small fish (mostly of the sunfish clan) drifting along in the shade of your boat. Feel free to bring swim-wear and snorkeling gear if you think you might be inclined to jump in and meet the river inhabitants face to mask.

All eyes...and ears!

The most popular animals on this trip, and the most unusual for any of our trips, are the monkeys. Earlier in this century a number of Rhesus monkeys escaped into the wild from Silver Springs Park. The most prevalent story is that they escaped from sets of the old Tarzan movies which were filmed near the springs. But, in reality, their presence can be credited to (blamed on?) Col. Tooey, a concessionaire at Silver Springs park in the 1930's. To add some tropical flavor to his "jungle cruise," he released some of the monkeys on a small island in the middle of the river. He didn't realize they could swim. Today, they are well established in the bottomland forest along the Silver and a bit of the Ocklawaha Rivers.   
If you do see any (I'd say about 4 out of 5 paddlers will spot at least one), be sure to keep a safe distance - and DON'T FEED them. They are fun to watch, but they can be aggressive and will bite if you get too close.


This is now an easy one-way, downstream-only paddle of about 2.5 (3 hours if you do a lot of poking around and taking in the natural wonders--large and small--that line every inch of this run .) (Note: we encourage poking around and taking in the natural wonders--large and small--that line every inch of this run.).

- Sunday, May 31:  OCKLAWAHA RIVER #3 (Below the dam)
This one is about 1 hour southeast of Gainesville. We'll be meeting at 10:00 A.M. The fee for this trip is $39 for "wanna go" members and $50 for non-members. It's $29 with your own boat ($40 for non-members).

Lunch stop
The Ocklawaha is wider here than above the reservoir and much more braided. Many side streams and confusing forks make this an interesting area to explore, but can turn a leisurely paddle into an extreme workout if you make a wrong turn. You won't want to get to far ahead of the guide on this trip.
Sydney Lanier, a well-known writer of the 1800's, called the Ocklawaha the "sweetest water-lane in the world, a lane which runs more than a hundred and fifty miles of pure delight betwixt hedgerows of oaks and cypresses and palms and bays and magnolias and mosses and manifold vine-growths..." Unlike so many early descriptions of wild Florida, which are merely frustrating glimpses into long lost worlds, this passage could have been written today. And, aside from the fact that he was sitting on the deck of an Ocklawaha steamboat, Lanier's instructions on assuming the "attitude of perfect rest" could just as easily be followed by the kicked-back, modern day kayaker. He suggested you hike your left leg onto the boats railing, "then tip your chair in a slight diagonal position back to the side of the cabin, so that your head will rest thereagainst, your right arm will hang over the chair back, and your left arm will repose 

Baby night herons!
on the railing. I give no specific instruction for your right leg, because I am disposed to be liberal in this matter and to leave some gracious scope for personal idiosyncrasies,...dispose your right leg, therefore, as your heart may suggest. Having secured this attitude, open wide the eyes of your body and your soul; repulse with a heavenly suavity the conversational advances..." of others, "then sail, sail, sail through the cypresses, through the vines, through the May day...and so shall your heart forever afterwards interpret Ocklawaha to mean repose." I can't count the times I've rounded a bend of the Ocklawaha, and found someone in our group laid back in their kayaks, in the "attitude of perfect rest." It's the perfect river for "repose".

This is the Ocklawaha that Pulitzer Prize winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings knew and loved. And it's the Ocklawaha to which some of Florida's most celebrated musical troubadours, including the late, great Will Mclean and Don Grooms, retreated when the press of civilization became unbearable.
The wide open channel on this part of the river offers an excellent panorama of river forests and swamps that in places, stretch a half mile back from the main channel. Here, we find the usual menagerie of wildlife that love such places. Cormorants and anhingas swim in the tannin stained brown water, catching small fish, while several species of wading birds tiptoe slowly through spatterdock, pickerelweed, water hyacinth and cardinal flowers at the rivers edge, stalking small fish, reptiles, amphibians and small crustaceans.

otters love this river too
Other animals we frequently see are alligators, turtles and snakes, usually basking contently on a sunny log. Otters live here too, and while they're very shy, the observant paddler will often spot one diving for fish along the rivers edge. The forest floor of these heavily shaded woodlands are low and damp, making them prone to flood in heavy rain events (including hurricanes!) - great for wildlife, not so great for human habitation. Except for a couple of isolated homes, perched at a distance from the river, we see very little sign of civilization on this trip.
Occasionally, the winding channel carries us close to the high piney bluff which borders much of the river basin. This steep bluff, formed by an uplift fault during an earthquake millions of years ago, marks the northern edge of Florida's famous sand pine forest - the 'scrub.'
This trip will appeal to people with a variety of interests. As history buffs dream of Acuera warriors and the steamboats which once once plied these waters, birders and animal lovers will be getting a lot of use out of their binoculars and cameras. And if you, like myself, are a fan of Marjorie Rawlings, this trip will give you a chance to explore a remote section of Florida that remains much as it did when she stayed nearby at the Fiddia homestead. In addition to it's scenic beauty, this stretch of the Ocklawaha also serves as an excellent 'living museum' of man's 12,000 year relationship with nature in Florida. As we make our way downstream, we work back in time - starting with our launch at the George Kirkpatrick Dam, where we see man's most recent (and most destructive) attempt to 'tame' the river, we paddle past a couple of old steamboat landings before stopping for lunch at a large Indian burial mound.
This is an easy paddle on slow, tannin-stained waters. There is plenty of water here so you won't have to pull over any shoals or shallows. There are a few tricky forks so you won't want to get too far away from the guide.
For more description, go to:  and click on "river trips" and then "Ocklawaha River"

RESERVATIONS REQUIRED for all trips! You can make a reservation any time before 5 PM the afternoon before the trip. HOWEVER, there's no guarantee that - a.) you will be able to contact us, b.) that there will still be spaces available, c.) we have not already left the store with the boats. The earlier you call, the more likely you are to secure a spot.
- All reservations must be secured with prepayment, using cash, check or credit card (by phone is OK). -
CANCELLATIONS: You can cancel up to 24 hours before the trip and get a full refund. After that, your payment is forfeited.
Wanna Go?
- If so, please Call us at Adventure Outpost (386) 454-0611 and we'll get your payment information and give you trip specifics.
- If you're not sure, write or call with any questions and we'll be glad to answer them.
- If not, do nothing. By not responding we'll know you want to pass on this trip. You won't hear from us again until your next trip notice.
Lars Andersen
Adventure Outpost  LLC
30 NW 1st Ave
High Springs, FL 32643
(386) 454-0611
* No trees were destroyed in the sending of this contaminant free message, though a significant number of electrons may have been inconvenienced.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Coming of Age in the Wild Kingdom

Some of my earliest introductions to the wildlife beyond Florida was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom TV show, hosted by Marlin Perkins. In fact, it was probably while watching Marlin send his trusted side-kick, Stan (or was it Jim?) to wrangle exotic man-eaters of every persuasion, that the seeds of a future river guide were planted.

One of the program's more memorable scenes showed how deserts are reborn when the rains come after a prolonged drought. The scene opened with Marlin firmly wedged in some desert shrubbery with only the snout of his binoculars protruding from the foliage. Whispering enthusiastically, Marlin would describe the animals gathered at the watering hole and the life-and-death struggles they endured. Then, after pinting out some particularly deadly creature and elaborating on incredibly dangerous they were and implying that only a fool would go near one, he'd send Jim (or was it Stan) in to annoy it. The segment would then conclude with Uncle Marlin giving some finely-crafted segue into the wisdom of having insurance - "as Jim scrambles across the savanna, with the angry lion close on his heels, he's probably wishing he had more protection. Speaking of protection, here at Mutual of Omaha..."

All-in-all, I have to give the Wild Kingdom show credit for giving me some valuable life lessons. For instance, I now know that wildlife loves when the rains come, so I often go to recently dried-out areas after it rains to see what's stirring. I also learned that insurance people are truly awesome creatures, who can wrestle lions and run like gazelles when things don't work out as planned. I avoid them altogether.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Darwin Misses a Link (to Florida)

February 12 was the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday--Happy 206th, Chuck!!. Around the world, scientists raised their glasses and toasted the man who, among other achievements, developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. He based this concept largely on observations he made during a five year voyage of the South Seas aboard the HMS Beagle.

When he first proposed the theory in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, people were aghast. The thought that all animal species (including humans) evolved from a common ancestor was more than most people were able or willing to accept. Today, however, scientists, theologians and most of the educated world have come to accept evolution as fact (Oh, hi Kansas; didn’t see you there. How’s the corn and all? No, we’re not talking about you. Gotta go!) 

The concept of evolution has broad appeal, being relevant to a wide range of interests including, animal behavior, anatomy, human sociology, psychology, and all other sciences. It helps that it is more easily understood and observable, and yes, maybe even a bit more exciting than most other sciences (Oh, hi chemistry, when did you get here? How’s the old pH doing? Wow, look at the time! See ya!)

In recent years, especially since the lead-up and celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009, so-called “Darwin tours,” have become increasingly popular. If I know the most highly evolved species on the planet (and I think I do), I'm guessing the anniversary inspires herds (flocks?) of Orvis-shod evo-tourists to descend upon Darwin sites throughout the South Seas. At this moment, they're probably scrambling over the rocky, Galapagos landscape after giant land tortoises, while, on St. Jago they are gazing up at the cliffs where Darwin pondered exposed marine fossils; they’re scratching the ground in Patagonia for fossils of Megatherium (a giant, ice-age ground sloth); stalking foxes on the Falklands; and traipsing the wilds of Chile in search of mockingbirds. And, everywhere, they’re marveling at Darwin's genius and the wonders of evolution.

Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to visit the famous Darwin sites (survival of the fattest wallet). But, don’t worry, if you want to marvel at the workings of evolution, we have some striking examples right here in North Florida. In fact, if Darwin had directed his explorations to our humble neck-of-the-woods, he could easily have seen similar animals and made some of the same observations he made in the South Seas. He could have found Megatherium fossils in the Ichetucknee limestone and marine fossils in the rocky bluffs flanking the Suwannee. And, yes, he might have even seen a mockingbird or two.

One thing Darwin would not have found here are marine iguanas. The closest thing we have are alligators. That could have been a problem. At one point, Darwin decided to see how long an iguana could stay under water without breathing. So, following normal protocol of good scientific inquiry, he tied a rock to an iguana and chucked it into the sea. When he pulled it up an hour later it was still alive. He was very relieved… as was Darwin. On another occasion he grabbed an iguana by the tail and tossed it (sans rock, this time) into the water to see how well it could swim. If he had tried such experiments on our own big “lizards,” it might not have gone so well. He might have been eligible to be the first recipient of the Darwin Awards. Although if that had happened, he never would have written his book, and there would be no such award and therefore…. (How’s that for a paradox!)

In the grand scheme of things, Ichetucknee’s biggest disappointment for Darwin would have been the absence of those now-famous finches. After all, without them and their diverse island-based variations, he might never have had the idea of divergent evolution (where separated populations of a single species evolve differently, developing traits best suited to their new environment). Or would he? If he’d come to North Florida and spent some time at the springs (is there any doubt!?) he could easily have made similar observations of a very different species—river snails.

Among the most prevalent (though not always noticeable) creatures in North Florida’s spring-fed rivers, river snails mill about in quiet, barely-moving crowds across gently waving meadows of Vallisneria and Sagittaria. They trek across open sand and scale miniature cliffs. They leave invisible trails across riverscapes of logs, rocks and sunken debris. The abundance of these peanut-sized snails is attributable to two traits common to all Florida spring’s—plenty of calcium (ideal for making strong shells) and an abundance of microscopic algae on which to feed.

River snails are found in all of our springs. And, while they are all superficially similar to the layman’s eye, there are subtle differences from one spring to the next. In fact, many species of river snails are only found in one or two spring runs. It’s divergent evolution at its best. Who needs finches!?

But snails and fossils weren't the only things Darwin would have liked about Ichetucknee. Like many modern-day visitors, Darwin would have enjoyed a cup of “morning Joe.” During his five year exploration around South America, he developed a strong affinity for maté, the caffeine-ladened beverage made from the steeped leaves of Ilex paraguariensis . Here again, we could have accommodated Darwin nicely. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), a close cousin of maté, is common in the Ichetucknee Forest.  Best of all, it is loaded with caffeine. Like natives for thousands of years, Darwin could have started his day on Ichetucknee enjoying a warm cup of morning “Yo.”