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,