Friday, November 18, 2016

Ichetucknee: All-star of the Springs Heartland

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

Ask a  hydrologist and he'll tell you Ichetucknee's story begins long before its emergence from its namesake spring in a namesake park. He'll tell you about its spring-shed--the underground equivalent of those above-ground watersheds so nicely diagrammed in our grade-school texts that show rain water running down hills and valleys into rivers. If he's feeling brave, he might begin at the beginning, describing a time when Florida was under a shallow sea and animal remains settled on the bottom. This accumulated and compacted for millions of years to form a layer of limestone 1,000 - 2,000 feet thick in places. He'll tell you about the vast network of hollow channels that formed in this rock and now carry underground streams and reservoirs of water called the Floridan Aquifer. It is water from this aquifer that makes up the bulk of water gushing from the springs of Ichetucknee.

By this point, our impassioned hydrologist will likely be alone--maybe with one or two sympathetic companions. If you happen to be one of them and foolishly feign a remnant of interest, he's likely to continue with a description of some creeks in Lake City that disappear into sink holes and join the underground channels of the aquifer as they course towards their eventual reemergence at the Ichetucknee springs. He'll watch your eyes as he makes this last statement to make sure you understand the implications. "Everything that washes into those creeks goes into the aquifer--our drinking water!" he'll say. "And some of it will emerge at these springs, where it will pass through the gills, wash the leaves and quench the thirst of every living thing it passes between here and the Gulf of Mexico." These springs aren't the beginning or the end of Ichetucknee's story, they are the middle--a brief interlude while the Big Girl does a set change.

As it gushes from the head springs to begin its six mile journey toward Santa Fe river, Ichetucknee begins as a narrow stream threading between 15 foot high walls of limestone. Sculpted by quick flowing water for thousands of years, the rock formations along this stretch are a wonderful contrast to the scenery we typically see on other Florida rivers. Soon, the high banks move further apart and become obscured by a fantastic variety of aquatic plant life and trees. Another mile and several springs bring us into a nice cypress forest which lines the river for the rest of the way.

By the end of the six mile run (a couple of miles beyond where we'll end this trip), the Ichetucknee's springs have combined to form a substantial river which adds nearly 233 million gallons of water to the Santa Fe river every day.

Great egret
Ask a Naturalist (ideally a Florida Master Naturalist--shameless plug) and she'll explain that, on its relatively short run of six miles, Ichetucknee passes through a surprising diversity of habitats. In the first quarter mile, it wends narrowly under a high canopy of bald cypress, ash, red maples, hickory and basswood. The lower shroud of redbud, Virginia willow, swamp dogwood and salt bush is crowded, in many places by a tangle of climbing hemp, ground nut and dodder vines. Phoebes, vireos and prothonotary warblers love this area, when they are here.

Fifteen minutes into the trip, we enter a broad wild rice marsh, where a nice mix of submerged and emergent vegetation supports a birders dreamscape of ibis, cormorants, anhingas, wood ducks, wood storks, great egrets and limpkins. Some summers we spot an occasional roseate spoonbill. When the river is running at above average levels, manatees ascend the river and are usually spotted in this marsh section.

An hour into the trip, you'll enter a more mature, high-canopied river forest of bald cypress, ash, red maples, tupelo, water oaks and hickory. Pileated woodpeckers, as well as a few smaller members of the woodpecker clan, like this area. Watch for barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, prothonotary and parula warblers and listen for yellow-billed cuckoos, tanagers, and red-eyed vireos.

Shhh! don't tell this beaver we can see him behind that blade of grass.
River otters are commonly seen in all sections of the river. Equally common, though less commonly seen, are beavers. After being trapped out of Florida in the 19th and early 20th centuries, beavers have re-expanded their range. The southern extent of their range is now the Suwannee and Santa Fe River basins (of which Ichetucknee is a part). The fact that they were here before the trappers arrived is confirmed in the river's name. "Ichetucknee" is a Seminole name meaning, "place of the beavers."

For many paddlers, the highlight of paddling Ichetucknee are its turtles. Suwannee cooters, yellow bellied turtles and others crowd nearly every large log along the river. Watch the river bottom for dark, fist-sized loggerhead musk turtles. Conversely, alligators are scarce. We haven't seen a gator on one of our Ichetucknee tours in over two years.


But your understanding of Ichetucknee's importance will be incomplete until you hear from a historian. Over the past 14,000 years, these waters have quenched the thirst of an amazing cast of characters beginning with the Paleo-Indians who left traces of their passing in the river bed and surrounding countryside. For several hundred years, right up to the arrival of Europeans, Timucua Indians lived near the head sporing in a village called Aquacaleyquen. They enjoyed the convenience of having a ready source clean, clear water to quench their thirst after a hard days work. So, too, did Hernando De Soto and his army--the first Europeans to sully this corner of the Springs Heartland. After storming the village and camping on the banks of Ichetucknee for a couple of autumn weeks in 1539 (during which time he held the chief and his daughter as human shields against the angry villagers), the Spaniards moved on to inflict their unique misery on native people throughout the southeast.

In the 1600's, Franciscan priests from the mission San Martin, which sat alongside the river a short distance below the head spring, baptized Timucuan converts in these waters. In 1704, this same water was used by Georgian soldiers to wash the blood from their hands after raiding and burning San Martin. Seventy years later, we can safely assume that Daniel Boone filled his canteen with Ichetucknee spring water as he traveled the ancient trail that passed near the headspring on his search for a Florida homestead.

But, that was the past. All we know of the future is that a small band of nature lovers is going to paddle down these same clear waters this weekend. Wanna be one of them? Call us for a reservation - (386) 454-0611. Otherwise, watch out website calendar for future dates -

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Wisdom of the Ancients: Horseshoe Crabs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ocklawaha: A Reversible Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more about efforts to remove Kirkpatrick Dam and restore the Ocklawaha, visit the Florida Defenders of the Environment website at:  "

Friday, July 15, 2016

Alonso Sails

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

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


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hidden Realm at the River's Mouth

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Song for Cannon Spring

Rodman Reservoir drawn down (Lars)

There is nothing so dramatically empty as a newly filled reservoir. I never really knew that before this morning, when I stood on the shore of Rodman Reservoir and stared out across a glass-smooth sheet of water where, just a month ago, I paddled a relict segment of Florida’s oldest river and slogged a boneyard of ten-foot stumps—the stone-grey remains of a magnificent forest. It was a sobering moment. But it must have paled compared to the loss felt by local residents when this reservoir was first filled in 1969. For them, it wasn't memories of a few happy days paddling that were covered; it was a lifetime of memories. I imagine there are people living in the surrounding countryside who, every now and then, pull crusty photo albums from their shelves and flip through images of a forest and a river and some cool blue springs they knew like their own back yard. It was their back yard. They call children and grandchildren to their side and slowly, reverently, point to pictures. They tell stories. And, when they are done, they put the book back on the shelf and everyone goes back to what they were doing. From that day forward--or so this story goes in my mind--those children and grandchildren look out across a Rodman Reservoir that has somehow changed. It looks and feels somehow emptier than it ever did before.

New life emerges among ancient stumps  (Lars Andersen)
Memories are powerful things, but mainly to those recalling them. Its only when they are accompanied by photos and images and shared with lots of people that the power of those memories is carried forward. Thankfully, photos of Rodman Reservoir (drained and full), Cannon Spring and this lost section of Ocklawaha River are no longer the stuff of dusty photo albums. During the last couple of drawdowns, a growing number of artists, photographers and videographers, have captured images of this bit of Florida's lost natural heritage and have shared them widely. Facebook and other social media have become the bane of injustice everywhere. This last drawdown an amazing array of photographers and artists--people like Mark Long, Jenny Adler, Margaret Tolbert, John Moran, Leslie Gamble Joe Cruz and Matt Keene--explored the exposed valley and captured images of this lost part of wild Florida. Their work and their generous sharing of it are helping make a new generation of nature lovers aware that sixteen miles of the Ocklawaha River and a handful of springs were taken from the people of Florida in 1969 and are still being held. The challenge now is to maintain this momentum by keeping those images circulating and inspiring an outcry that will be heard in Tallahassee.


One day near the end of the drawdown, a small group of us river people shuffled onto Erika Ritter’s and Karen Chadwick’s pontoon boats at Kenwood and set off for a day on Rodman Reservoir. We were a diverse group — a scientist, historian, river advocate, museum director, artist, videographer and river guide (Bob Knight, Steve Noll, Lisa Rinaman, Peggy Macdonald Demosthenous, Margaret
Tolbert, Matt Keene and me, to be specific) — who had come to lend our voices to a documentary about the reservoir and all that was lost when it was filled in 1969. Inspired by the art of Margaret Tolbert, the film is being produced by Florida Defenders of the Environment. Our plan was to spend the first few hours exploring the relict river-channel and the field of ten-foot, stone-grey stumps—the graveyard of the once magnificent forest—before making our way upstream through the 16-mile reservoir to Cannon Spring near the upper end. Videographer, Matt Keene would film and interview as we went.

A couple of hours into the trip we took a break to gather our thoughts and enjoy the scenery. Matt moved to the front of our boat and turned his camera forward—time to let the reservoir speak for itself. Others took the opportunity to scope some birds that had taunted us during filming and caused some editable moments that went like, “then the Legislature voted against…wood storks!” or, “the fishing lobby has spent large sums to…bald eagle!”

Ghosts of a long ago forest (Lars Andersen)

For me, the break was a chance to let my imagination off the leash and contemplate the Timucua people who once lived in this valley. For thousands of years, they stalked deer, foraged edible and medicinal plants and, I assume, daydreamed about their lives and loved ones. I wondered if they ever gathered at these springs for religious ceremonies, maybe to worship them or the earth mother from which they sprang. I wondered how important this river was to them. Was it ever considered sacred?

These thoughts, set against the image of Matt standing on the bow with the tall stumps scrolling slowly behind him, reminded of a story I once read about a night in1897, in the coastal wilderness of southwest Florida, when archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing stood on the front of his small boat and sang to the night and to the Universe.

Southwest Florida was still wilderness when Frank Cushing arrived with a small crew of laborers to begin excavations in the site known today as Key Marco. Hot, bug-infested and packed into the putrid muck of a dense mangrove forest, Key Marco was archaeology at its worst. But, it proved worth the effort. In the end, the site would yield over 1,000 wooden artifacts—more than any in North America—including some of the most beautiful artworks ever produced by Florida natives. For Cushing, however, it wasn’t the artifacts that fired his imagination, it was the simple wooden posts scattered throughout the site. He realized these were actually pilings that held homes and other structures over the water. These people, more than any Floridians before or since, had an intimate connection to the water. They lived with it. Cushing called the site, the Court of the Pile Dwellers.

Word of the incredible site soon spread. Fearing looters, Cushing remained on the site for the duration of the project, digging by day and documenting artifacts by night. Hunkered under the glow of lanterns on the stern deck of his small boat, he carefully rinsed and wiped the mud from each object and then logged it into the book. With each passing week, as the trove of unique artifacts grew, Cushing became increasingly awed by the people he felt he was beginning to know. And so, one evening, exhausted from weeks of hard digging and inspired by the amazing water-loving people he was coming to know, Cushing climbed to the front of his small boat, threw back his head and sang. According to a companion, “we rowed far down the river to hear the voice of the echo…As we glided, almost noiselessly…Cushing stood in the bow of the boat and raised his voice in song to the mystic people…to those who furnish motives for poem, tale and song…He who was of the present stood on the bow and sang the songs of a people of the past, in a baritone voice strong, clear resonant, almost barbaric, that sent echoes vibrating over the waters. It was the touch of an artist and peopled for us the seas with the Pile-Dwellers of the coast...”

A pilgrim arrived (Lars Andersen)
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Cannon Spring Run. Nobody spoke as our two-boat parade glided quietly up the arrow-straight run; a procession of worshipers moving up the aisle of a beautiful green cathedral. The vaulted ceiling of cypress and tupelo boughs high overhead swayed as a gentle reminder that a world swirled outside. But in this sanctuary, all was calm.

We arrived at the spring and stepped off the boats like pilgrims arrived. All of us, in our own ways, had come to “take the water.” We spread out around the basin; some perched on logs while others sat in quiet contemplation, marveling at the miraculous blue. We took pictures and, one by one, talked into Matt’s video camera to share more of our thoughts about the springs and the sad reality that they would soon be gone. Before we left, I filled a clear glass bottle with the cool water.

As our boat crept down the narrow run away from Cannon Spring, I studied the water in my bottle. It was perfectly clear and perfectly colorless.

Cannon Spring (Mark Long)
This bottle held one of the spring’s best-kept secrets--water is clear. Removed from it’s setting, this elixir that was so richly blue in its limestone basin, was as clear as the jar holding it. Unlike the cobalt strokes on Margaret’s canvas and the shimmering blues in all those photos, the springs are not true-blue at all. It is a hydromancer’s illusion, a trick of lighting. The spring’s iconic color exists only in the place of its creation. It cannot be bottled; cannot be carried away. In a few short weeks, that blue will fade and disappear. Frank Cushing would have found something sadly familiar in this story.

With each passing day and every new artifact cleaned and pondered, Cushing's understanding of the Pile Dwellers grew. These were no simple fishermen. They were a people as complex and diverse as any, whose artisans were as adept at crafting hunting implements like atlatls as brutal weapons of war like a sword edged with sharks teeth. They were also capable of breathtaking works of art. One of the finest discoveries in the site was an elegant wooden carving of a panther. Cushing recognized this figure to be a well-known entity in the natives system of beliefs—a water god. It’s hardly a surprise that a people whose lives were so intimately tied to water, worshiped it.

Many of the artifacts were painted. Carved wooden tablets, wooden masks and a deer head with articulating ears were all adorned with red, black, white and blue images. One wooden plaque had a painting of a beautifully stylized woodpecker. Round bubbles dripping from its mouth indicate it was speaking, hinting at animism and religious symbolism. The fact that the woodpecker was almost entirely blue hints at a connection to water. Was this another water god or totem akin to the water panther carving?

As Cushing washed away the mud from each artifact, an artist named Wells Sawyer painted detailed pictures of them. This would prove to be fortuitous. With the protective muck removed, the objects began drying. Some, including most of the wooden masks, deteriorated to soggy chips. Others remained intact, only to have the colors of the painted images fade. As a result, the only people who ever saw the woodpecker in all its blue glory were Cushing and his crew. Today, the wooden plaque with the faded black outlines of the woodpecker can be seen in the Florida Museum of Natural History. But the blue is gone. The rest of the world knows that beautiful blue woodpecker only from Wells’ painting.  

Split view of Canon Spring (Jenny Adler)

As our boats slipped away from Cannon Spring, I looked at the colorless water in my bottle. It occurred to me that the only blue that will ever leave this spring pool will be in the vibrant, cobalt strokes on Margaret's canvases and the images captured on all those river lovers' phones and cameras.

Today, sixteen-miles of the Ocklawaha have been flooded again and the newly-sprouted seedlings of red maples, tupelo, bald cypress, ash and other species ready to reforest this valley have been lost. Gone, too, are  Cannon Spring and the handful of other springs in this part of the valley. For the next few years, until water managers decide there's too much vegetation in the reservoir for motor boats, we'll have only photos and paintings to remind us of Florida's loss.

Like Wells Sawyer's paintings of Cushing’s woodpecker, the images produced during these periodic drawdowns will be invaluable to future Floridians. Our descendants will look at these paintings and photos the same way we look at Sawyer's paintings of the Pile Dwellers amazing artworks and wonder why such rare and precious beauty was handled so carelessly. They will ask what kind of fools were they who let such treasures be lost.