Monday, July 31, 2017

Return to the Primordial Beach

It’s been a fine wet summer and many of North Florida’s lowland rivers have spilled their banks. Sections of certain swamp-lined rivers—Prairie Creek, Withlacoochee and parts of Ocklawaha to name a few—are no longer defined by their banks, but broad sheets of water that simply disappear into the forests on either side.

For many paddlers, high water events stir something inside us that tells us to load our boat and get out there. When the paddling gets gnarly, the gnarly get paddling *.

Topping the list of opportunities brought by a flood is the chance to paddle through low river forests. In normal conditions, we descend the river like spectators who can only watch the forest scroll past. But when a river swells and jumps its bank, it allows us to paddle out into that forest wonderland where we are presented with yet another fine opportunity--seeing our fellow paddlers in a state of utter enchantment.

Next time you’re in a swamp, look around at your companions. There won’t be a day-dreamer in the bunch. Even the most seasoned outdoors-persons are on high alert in a swamp. They—we—move slowly and deliberately, scanning our surroundings with the excited curiosity of children. We are aware of every sound, every scent.

Even the youngest swamps feel timeless and primordial. But older swamps—those whose mature trees create a world of deep shade and warm, sultry air—are primordial to the point they evoke a sense of spirituality in us that often borders on mystical. We are awed by their grandeur. We gaze at the massive trunks of cypress, ash and tupelo rising from the water like the columns of a grand cathedral and our eyes are automatically drawn upward to vaulted ceilings of shimmering green foliage flecked with brilliant shards of light. Elsewhere in the spacious hall, the shrill calls of warblers, flycatchers and woodpeckers take on a penetrating, almost haunting quality as they echo from the high rafters and dark recesses. But, damp, earthy scents and an unbroken floor of tannin-stained water are ever-present reminders that this sanctuary is far older and far grander than anything man has ever erected.

It is this wonderful play of water and wildlife that brings me to the best of all the opportunities offered by a flood; the chance to glimpse the primordial origins of life out of the sea.

Once upon a time, the only living things on the planet lived in the sea. All the land above the sea was barren rock and sand—and void of life. Sometime around 400 – 450 million years ago, primitive marine plants like mosses and liverworts began colonizing that barren shore. With time—lots and lots of time—natural selection allowed some to evolve characteristics that allowed them to remain out of water and reproduce. With the groundwork laid, animals began sending their own pioneering species into the world of air and light. It was the animal kingdom’s first out-of-(water)body-experience.

Those first arrivals were small, segmented creatures that closely-resembled their present day descendants, millipedes and centipedes. For those pioneering species, survival hinged on one important thing—staying hydrated. It was a monumental challenge and one they never quite overcame. To this day, every critter on the planet—including the one that wears hydration packs and buys water for a dollar per pint—works hard to keep from drying out.

From a distance, that first primordial beach would have appeared barren. Only on close observation would you have found a thin, spongy carpet of simple plants, mosses and liverworts rimming the high tide zone. Poking into these mases with a stick (I’m not sure what kind of stick we’d find since there was no wood yet. Hmm!), you might have revealed some of those first air-breathing animals nosing about in its damp, shaded recesses.

Today, compliments of recent flooding, the primordial beach has been resurrected in some of the swamps of North Florida—sort of. Paddle slowly among the cypress, tupelo ash and other floodplain species, and look closely at the trunks, just above the water line. There, you'll find small patches of mosses and liverworts, wicking up moisture from the water below. Crowded onto these welcome sanctuaries of dampness you'll often see gatherings (quite dense in ideal locations) of small animals—mostly arthropods—that look strikingly similar to those that colonized the beach primeval.

With their regular home on the forest floor now under water, dense communities of millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs and rolly-pollies huddle near the water line on the exposed tree trunks and floating vegetation. But, these communities are not functioning in the usual manner. Centipedes and millipedes, creatures usually locked into a deadly predator-prey relationship, are now spooning. Rolly-pollies stand brazenly exposed to predators. And all are lethargic, having lapsed into an energy-conserving stupor as they wait out the flood. They are the displaced refugees waiting to return to their homeland.

Of course, not all of the forest creatures are as nostalgic as human paddlers. Pileated woodpeckers descend on these refugee camps like pirates, gorging on the assorted crawlies they find under dislodged chunks of bark. Other birds--chickadees, titmice, vireos, wrens and other gleaning birds—are joining the feast, wreaking their own brand of havoc. on the vulnerable refugees.

It’s an interesting time, but if you plan on coming out for a frolic on North Florida’s’s forest/beach primeval, I suggest you hurry. Water levels are dropping fast and the snack bar is running out of grub(s).

* As a sometimes-responsible river guide, I should clarify that the flood waters I'm talking about in this article are those found in quiet, flooded swamps, where the water moves slowly, if at all, in a sheet flow through the forests. Flooding in the main channel of a waterway is a different animal altogether. Those are very hazardous conditions, suitable only for expert paddlers. Most significantly, paddling on raging flood waters will not get you into any of the interesting things I’m describing here. You're warned. Now get out there!!

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