Requiem for a River

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I went to the Kenwood boat ramp last week to see it for myself — how much had the Ocklawaha River risen since the end of the drawdown, and would I still be able to see the tree stumps that reveal the drowned forest below?  I paddled the river during the drawdown, when the Ocklawaha was briefly restored to its natural flow, revealing bubbling springs and sandy banks. Now I felt compelled to witness the reverse, to see how the rising waters covered the treasures below. I was surprised to see that the river level had not yet risen significantly, so I inflated my paddle board and began to paddle upstream. Dark, low clouds filled the sky—which seemed fitting, and I estimated I had about 1 1/2 hours to wind my way through this apocalyptic riverscape.

The Rodman Reservoir had been lowered for the past several months, and, like many others, I took the opportunity to see rarely uncovered springs like Cannon Springs and Tobacco Road. I joined the Florida Defenders of the Environment at Kenwood where Lars Anderson pointed out springs and historical features, and later Captain Karen Chadwick, North Star Charters, gave me a tour on her skiff. I paddled from Eureka West to the boat ramp across from near Payne’s Landing and saw fishers lining the newly uncovered banks.

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On this day, though, I came by myself, to  be in silence on the water. The overcast day was still, the quiet only broken by the occasional motorboat. The fishermen waved as they went by, and the silence was restored. Several friends told me that they did not want to see the rising water, that it would be too sad. I understood their feelings, especially those of friends who have loved the Ocklawaha for a long time. I am a relative newcomer to Florida and have become enchanted by its springs and rivers and Old Florida, but people who grew up on the Ocklawaha have entirely different stories to tell.

In “How do we Grieve the Death of a River’,  activist Winona LaDuke asks “How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.” Mining tailings have destroyed the Waatuh River, or “Grandfather”, in southeast Brazil, a river central to the lives of  indigenous people .

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Ocklawaha at dusk
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Ocklawaha near Eureka West

Many years ago longtime residents grieved as they lost access to their land and homes when the Ocklawaha was first flooded, and they grieve again as the waters rise again, drowning the the sandy banks that provided sanctuary for alligators and birds. The “Restore the Ocklawaha River” Facebook page shows sadness—some  discovered the Ocklawaha’s springs for the first time this year and now mourn the loss. Others wonder why some voices count more than others—why do the voices of the bass fisherman count more than the poor fisherman who cannot afford a boat and have lost access to much of the river? But there is hope as well. The Save the St. Johns Tour brought scores of newcomers to the Ocklawaha River and made many of us realize that we can regain what was lost.

As I paddled among the stumps, I recalled the river bends upstream near Eureka West and the times I swam in Cannon springs. The sky was darkening, and the wind was becoming stronger, so I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. I paddled through the dead trees — the water was slightly higher than when I paddled this area previously. I had to take care that hidden roots would not catch the fin on my board and pitch me forward. I wished I had seen the forests before 1968, when the Ocklawaha was first flooded.

I paddled hard against the wind and reached the boat ramp. As I deflated the board and packed up, I watched the fishermen pull up to the ramp, also trying to beat the storm. Just as I reached the main road, the storm broke, and lightning filled the sky. I was surprised that I had become so attached to the river in such a short time. I am sorry that the state of Florida insists on drowning the Ocklawaha River, but I am glad that I came to bear witness.

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On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics

Here is my second blog about sailing, science, and research methods in the Caribbean with Exxpedition. Next week–back to Florida and the Okhlawaha River.

 

Last week I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics, and fortunately, the boat had also been adapted for novice sailors. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and environmental groups and, also, to conduct research on a sailboat. This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic.

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Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon

By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

Plastic and sunken sailboat mar Trinidad beach. environmental activism.
Subsistence fishing near plastic strewn Trinidad beach

The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. The spacious starboard forward berth had been converted to a ‘science’ room and held a microscope, beakers, and sieves. I wondered how the microscope would fare with the boat aslant, heeled to catch the wind, and figured that I would soon find the answer.

We planned to collect samples, or ‘ do science’, upon reaching, first, Barbados waters, and then, several days later, St. Lucia. Our two scientists would perform the skilled scientific work, and the rest of us had supporting roles, ranging from dropping the large trawler into the water to documenting coordinates and times of the different samples. On Sunday morning, we left Trinidad for the two day sail to Barbados where we would do our first round of sampling.

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Swimming under a rainbow

Two days later, we arrived in Barbados, slightly green at the gills, but excited that we made the crossing. We delayed our first Barbados sampling because since a majority of the crew had gotten seasick. I’m no stranger to throwing up in the course of fieldwork, but I have never had to tether myself into a heeling boat to do so.  Once anchored, we sudsed up and threw ourselves into the water, laughing and diving like mermaids. With fresh clothes and a hearty breakfast of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, we all felt like new women, and it was time to begin trawling for plastics.

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Hauling in the manta trawler

Trawling required all hands on deck, a labor-intensive process that involved everyone. First, we extended a large pole, perpendicular to the boat, which would support the aptly named manta trawler, shaped somewhat like a ray. The manta trawler, about 4′ long, was designed to skim across the surface of the water, catching plastics and seaweed in the small net at its tail. Another team tossed the mantra trawler overboard, and it took several attempts to insure that the trawler’s tail lay flat upon the water. Unlike our first crossing, the Seadragon was in relatively calm waters, moving slowly at 1.5 knots, but even at the slow speeds, lowering the trawler and holding the lines was a challenge with the boat’s rocking motion.

Meanwhile, a second team filtered sea water samples through a series of sieves, then analyzed particles under the microscope below.

I watched Alice carefully pour water into beakers while the boat heeled, port side significantly higher than port. She poured a total of 80 samples, both control and variable samples, careful not to spill the data.  Soon, these materials will travel in labs in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, and teams of faculty, students, and lab assistants will analyze the samples on solid ground.

I wonder how many of these scientists realize what was involved in collecting these samples–the physical labor, the seasickness, and the laughter among our team. The results will be presented in a scientific and objective manner, perhaps in charts or figures, that obscure the people and emotion involved. Controls are necessary in scientific research, to have points of comparison. My work, however, focuses on people and communities, and my research has no controls. Instead, in my writing, some of my richest material comes from exploring  my interactions with others and how our worlds come together. In my work on intentional communities, Being the Change, for example, I recognize that my repeated visits have shaped some of the communities I lived in, and I know that I have become a better person for these interactions.

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

I wish we had more opportunities for scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars to work together and learn about each different research methods. We would all benefit from seeing our work through other eyes. After this trip, I will continue my ethnographic research, focusing on waters of the US southeast, but with a  new appreciation of scientific data collection and its translation into scientific evidence.

There is No Magical Place Called Away

I am reposting the blog I wrote for Exxpedition, an all-women’s sailing and research team exploring solutions to marine plastics.

http://exxpedition.com/2016/02/26/there-is-no-magical-place-called-away/
After several days at sea, the crew of the Seadragon disembarked in Bridgetown, Barbados. Our sail from Trinidad was rough, and we were excited to stand on solid ground and to meet fellow environmentalists in Barbados. We had arranged two days of meetings with schools, universities, and Bajan environmental organizations to share concerns about marine plastics and their effects on marine and human health. Although eXXpedition is a sea-based mission, these face-to-face conversations, to me, became the most important and interesting part of our trip. After all, the plastics that litter the world’s oceans come from the land, so our solutions, too, must be land-based, and we need to work together across borders to save ourselves and our seas.
The Seadragon had reached Barbados two days earlier, our 72′ sailboat dwarfed by the cruise boats, tankers, and container ships anchored in the island’s small port area. Once unpacked, these ships disgorge the thousands of plastic bags, wrappers, and bottles that pass only briefly through human hands on their way to landfills and, worse, the sea. Marine scientists had presumed that these plastics amass into enormous plastic islands, floating in perpetuity in 5 separate oceanic gyres. However, more recent research suggests that these plastics disintegrate into micro particles that migrate back from the ocean into our bodies. For the two previous days, in between bouts of seasickness, the crew had trawled Bajan waters to find traces of these micro particles.

We anchored in Carlisle Bay, and our skipper Shanley ferried us by dinghy to the public dock near Independence Square. From there, our tight knit group split in two and headed in separate directions. One group met with primary and secondary schools and representatives from Marriott hotels, and my group made presentations at the University of West Indies at Cave Hill and Lockerbie College. That evening, we reconvened for a brainstorming session with the Future Centre Trust and representatives from local environmental groups.

 

Seadragon

 

We told stories about our successes and failures, our victories and frustrations. We commiserated about non responsive governments and friends who turn a blind eye to debris. In particular, we discussed the difficulties of creating a cultural shift, making reusable bags and cups the norm. One of our Bajan colleagues commented that “There is no magical place called away”–our plastics essentially last forever, in the oceans, on land, and now in our bodies. We shared strategies and successes in motivating our own communities to reduce their plastic use. Most important, we came together–Bajans, Americans, and Europeans-as peers to navigate towards a cleaner future.


Ocean toxicity is a wicked problem, meaning that the problem is complicated, with no single cause and no single solution. Some of the best responses will be local and grass-roots, emerging from the specific skills, cultures, and values of different communities. It is not a matter of telling people what to do. After long histories of colonialism and overbearing development agencies, it’s time to listen, strategize, and collaborate.

In addition to our meetings and presentations, we had scheduled beach clean-ups in both Trinidad and Barbados. At first, I wondered if these events weren’t just some feel good exercise, but instead these clean-ups gave us more time to talk in more depth with our hosts. On both islands, we literally got our hands dirty, picking up bags and bags of trash with gloved hands, and learned about the challenges specific to each island. In Trinidad, over 35 people came to the cleanup, having only 2 days notice, and we met people dedicated to sea turtles, trash, and clean water. In my own fieldwork, that’s when the best conversations come–working side by side, not in formal interviews.
This collective brainstorming reminds me of what Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as Gandhi’s third way–in a dialogue or conflict, listening to others, hearing their concerns, and working to address those concerns can produce answers better than any of the parties initially proposed. To move forward and solve this wicked problem, we need ideas and solutions from multiple religious and cultural viewpoints, disciplines, and professions.
We all own this problem now. The magical “away” is now our bodies, and everybody suffers as toxics leach into human and animal bodies. Although the burden falls even heavier on those with less access to clean water and health care, nobody can buy their way out of this problem. Women’s health, in particular, will be affected because these toxics are endocrine disrupters which means they disrupt hormones. Removing large plastics such as bottles is one thing, but removing disintegrated micro plastics seems a Sisyphean task.
The opportunity to work on a sailboat and collaborate with others drew me to join eXXpedition, but some of the most gratifying moments have been on land. We set sail tomorrow for St. Lucia where most of us will disembark and return home. The Seadragon will sail northward with a new crew, but I am confident that the bonds and friendships forged in our short time together will help us continue the work that brought us together.

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here is the blog I wrote for Trak Kayaks about our kayak camping trip to the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. Hopefully we will take the Traks back to the Bahamas in 2017.

By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

We had brought our TRAK kayaks and paddling gear from the US and then rented stoves, camping gear and a local cell phone from the Out-Island Explorers. Our shake-down trip through Florida’s 10,000 Islands demonstrated just how much the boats…

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Losing Cannon Springs

River withclopuds2.jpgTwice last week, I swam in the blue waters of Cannon Springs. I brought my mask and snorkel so I could see the vent and the fish that swam in the hole. Even from the shore, I could see fish in the spring—the water was that clear. The entire Okhlawaha River is beautiful, but its hidden springs are gems that are worth working for. I had paddled south from the Payne’s Landing entrance and north from Eureka West to see the different moods of the river – the twisty s-turns closer to Eureka straighten out as the river widens on its northward course.

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I wanted Liz, my fellow adventurer, to see the Okhlawaha River in its lowered—or natural—state, and especially I wanted to show her Cannon and Tobacco Springs while we had the opportunity. I had told her about swimming in Cannon and tromping up to see Tobacco Springs and knew she would want to do the same. After our shuttle, we pulled her kayak and my paddleboard to our launch—which had significantly more water than it did several days ago. I had heard that the water was up, that they were releasing was from the Moss Bluff dam, and from the shore, the flow did seem faster. We shrugged and pointed downstream, loaded with masks, snorkels, and snacks.

As we floated, I tried to point out the features that Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, had mentioned on my previous trip. We had seen wooden remnants of a steamboat launch, one of the 96 landings on the 135 miles along the trip from Palatka to Silver Springs.Okhlawaha.png

When steamboats traveled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests.

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File photo, Ocala Star Banner

I love looking at maps and charts, and considering rivers as highways ‘flips’ my perspective on maps. When I want to get from one place to another, I search for roads or maybe trails if I am hiking or biking. Before roads penetrated the swamps, though, land travel was difficult, if not impossible. Most people traveled by boat, so the waterlines on the map—not so much land features—are critical. So, the borders, the intersections where land meets water, those draw my eye because those spaces allowed the interaction of people and place.Screenshot 2016-02-07 20.02.27.png

As we floated downstream towards Cannon, I kept wondering if we had missed the spring. The river seemed slightly different, more swollen, and disorienting. Even the gators seemed larger, and we saw several who did not seem afraid of us. In fact, one swam along with us which was not reassuring on an inflatable paddleboard.

 

 

When we reached the entrance to Cannon Springs, I realized how much the water had risen. Only three days before, the spring run was clear, but now it was tannin-colored, and water flooded over areas that had been dry land. We paddled upstream towards the spring and met Karen, Margaret Tolbert and Javed coming back down, their kayaks loaded on Karen’s skiff. Margaret and Javed had been drawing and painting along the river that day. They shook their heads as we passed by. Cannon springs was now brown, its brilliant blue drowned out by the incoming water. I was sorry that Liz did not get a chance to see Cannon in its blue state.

On March 1, the river will start to rise again to flood stage as the Rodman drawdown comes to an end. The Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam will again create the Rodman Reservoir or Lake, and the banks along the Okhlawaha where I saw fisherman, birds, and gators will be submerged for another three to four years.lotsofegrets.jpg

The Rodman Dam was initially built as part of the larger Cross Florida Barge Canal project. The Cross Florida Barge project was stopped in 1971, in large part by efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr, and Cross Barge area has become the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. The Rodman Dam, though, has remained in place, a point of controversy between groups who want to restore the river’s natural flow and those that want to maintain the reservoir.

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Even if the Okhlawaha River were restored to its natural flow, the land needs time to heal. In constructing the aborted Cross Florida Barge Canal, giant crushers rolled along the banks, uprooting trees and shredding the landscape. Landowners along the river lost their property and never regained access to their land, even after the project ended. Today you can see the ruins of the Strange house, now on Greenway land, and imagine the wonderful view of the river they must have had.Lizinhouse.jpg

Slightly downstream of the Strange House lies Payne’s Landing, yet another reminder of loss and heartbreak. In 1832, the representatives of the Seminole and the US Government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in which the Seminole would leave their cattle, relocate to Oklahoma, and received compensation after resettlement. By all accounts, many of the chiefs were bullied or tricked into signing the treaty and refused to leave Florida, a chain of events that led to the Second Seminole War.

We took out at Payne’s Landing and reversed our shuttle. Despite the flooding of Cannon Springs, the day was spectacular, a sunny winter day in Florida, and we were happy to be on the water. Most people are happy at the take-out, and they should be. Whether fishing  or paddling, a day on the water is usually a good day. Nonetheless, there are somber undertones — Payne’s Landing, the crushers, and the incipient re-drowning of this landscape makes me think about the river’s history and the people who have called this home.

Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs

riverand clouds3 copy.jpgI had started to wonder if Cannon Springs and the Okhlawaha River was going to be my holy grail. Starting in September and lasting until March 2016, the Rodman reservoir on the Okhlawaha River is drawn down, the river-lake levels lowered substantially. This draw down occurs every few years—to prevent fish kills and reduce the vegetation that obstructs the water—and exposes the natural flow of the river.  The lowered levels on the Okhlawaha River offer us a glimpse of the past and a future that could be—without the Rodman Dam. I was especially interested in seeing those springs like Cannon that reveal themselves only during these periodic drawdowns.cspring4 copy

My first attempts to get on the river resulted in a series of major errors—locking the keys in the car at the remote Kenwood boat ramp, battery-less GPS and camera, and less than complete information about boat ramps. (I am now my own case study in fieldwork errors for my Religion and Fieldwork class.) As more and more spectacular pictures adorned my facebook feed, I was even more determined to see—and swim in—Cannon springs.

Finally, I made it—twice in one week. Armed with the GPS coordinates, my husband Kevin and I found the elusive put-in across from Payne’s Landing. We turned down a sandy road, lined with ‘NO ATV’ signs, and bumped our way through the small Hog Valley community towards the river. We launched and pointed our boats upstream. The entrance to the Cannon Springs Run was approximately one mile south of Payne’s Landing, and the entrance had been described as ‘unmistakable’, a tree-lined clear passage. I was also hoping to find Tobacco Springs situated between Payne’s Landing and Cannon Springs.

The river at Payne’s Landing is broad with an expansive vista. Several fisherman sat on the east side of the river, where the draw down has exposed the beach. The day was overcast, but warm, a seemingly auspicious start to our journey.  Some parts of the shore had healthy trees that have survived the flooding, while other patches revealed the desolation of a dying landscape.

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Heading south, we heard shots which continued for about 15 minutes—target practice, we assumed, so we paddled on, but a bit unnerved. Soon after, the batteries in both the GPS and the camera failed. Three inauspicious signs, but we kept going. We settled into a rhythm against the slight downstream flow and saw woodstorks, ibis, egrets, and a variety of herons—and of, course, gators.

We paddled mostly in the center of the river, avoiding the vegetation near the banks where gators like to hide. Kevin paddled into the vegetation once and heard the unmistakable splash of a startled gator. After about half a mile, the wide river narrowed into a series of s-curves, and dark lines on the trees along the bank told us what has become the new normal for water levels— the flood stage caused by Rodman/Kirpatrick dam. lines copy.jpgFinally, we spotted what had to be the entrance to Cannon Springs. Everyone said that the entrance to the Cannon Spring Run is unmistakable—a tree-lined corridor, and they were right.

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The water cleared quickly as we paddled up the short spring run. First we saw several vents that are part of the larger Cannon Spring system, then the blue spring itself.  The spring is relatively shallow so the vent is visible. I pulled out my mask and snorkel and dove into the clear water to see the vent. (Swimming in January is a major benefit of living in Florida.)

 

Seeing Cannon Springs once was not enough, so when I saw the Aquaholics trip down the Okhlawaha River scheduled for the following Saturday, I immediately signed up. I met the group at 9 am at Eureka West boat ramp, and after shuttling cars to Payne’s Landing, we floated downstream. Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, joined us in her kayak for the float and offered both historical and environmental perspectives on the river and its ecoheritage. She is also Vice President of the Putnam County Environmental Council and member of Florida Defenders of the Environment has been working to restore the Okhlawaha River to its free-flowing state, carrying on Marjorie Harris Carr’s environmental legacy. As we floated downstream, Karen pointed out historical features that I would have otherwise missed and also led us to the elusive Tobacco Springs.

We saw a number of milled logs, remnants of the days of logging the surrounding forests. She also pointed out the wooden remnants of a steamboat launch area. When steamboats travelled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests. Just a few wooden remnants are visible now. steamboatlaunch2.jpg

Then, finally, Tobacco Springs! Kevin and I had looked for it, but never found it. Not surprising – the spring run was clogged with water lettuce. Our group of intrepid kayakers (and my paddle-board) pushed our way through the vegetation until fallen trees blocked our path. We dragged our boats onto the bank and walked a several hundred feet through fairly dry muck. The spring was worth it – deep and not as clear as Cannon Springs, but full of fish. We peered down into the spring from the ruins of an old dock. None of us dared swim here, given the possibility of alligators in the cave below.

 

Just beyond Tobacco spring, we explored the ruins of the Strange house on land that is now part of the Florida Greenway. Dr. Strange built a house on the Okhlawaha River, complete with pool, patio, and river-front view. The family lost access to the land during construction of the never-completed Cross-Florida Barge canal. Tragically, Dr. Strange and his grandson were killed when their truck rolled into the river.strangedoor copy.jpg

 

I found my grail – Cannon Springs and Tobacco Springs, gifts from the current drawdown. I hope to get back out again soon. Karen said that the river has already risen, and starting on March 1, 2016, the reservoir will continue to fill, rendering these springs almost imperceptible. The exposed beaches will be submerged again, drowning nesting areas for birds and turtles. I’d like to paddle this section of the Okhlawaha River again, just to see what it is like when the water floods again, but I have a feeling that I will be disappointed. River withclopuds2.jpg

Ninja Spring Hunting

Subject line: “Looking for partners in crazy kayak adventure.” When I saw this email from Liz, I said yes, no questions asked. Liz had heard of a small spring in a salt marsh in the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail between Dallus Creek and Steinhatchee. The area managers said the area was dangerous and inaccessible which was all the encouragement we needed.  We chose January 24, the only day free of bike rides, paddling trips, or hikes, and a winter date would minimize encounters with bugs, snakes, and gators. Several weeks out, who knew it would be the second coldest day of the year – and what good luck for us.

To Cold

Three of us—Liz, Steve, and I—met at the Good Times Marina and Bar in Steinhatchee at 10 to caravan to our trailhead. The Who Dat bar had been closed the day before due to the cold weather. Liz led us through Steinhatchee, around the beach road, and through the rutted forest road until we reached the locked gate where we would begin our journey.

 

 

Our plan was a combo hike/drag/paddle which Liz admitted could be ‘ridiculously easy or a serious challenge’. I had my inflatable SUP which is easy to carry, and Liz and Steve both had kayaks. Although we had all looked at the terrain on google earth, we had no what conditions we would face. So each of us had various combinations of hiking and water clothes. From our virtual scouting, we assumed we had about a ½ mile hike, dragging boats and SUP, then another ½ mile drag/paddle/slog until we reached the spring. We thought the terrain might be like this:Scrub nr Dallus Creek.jpg

We parked our cars at the locked gate and discussed our options—do we hike in and scout first, or start dragging boats? We considered our options over the still-warm brownies Liz had baked that morning and decided to scout the area first. The area was remote, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, although one man came by and told us he was undercover for the FWSA—a non-existent agency. I think we seemed as sketchy to him as we probably looked to him.

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The morning was still very cold, and we knew that we would be hiking through streams and swamp, possibly falling in. The three of us had fairly different ideas of what constituted appropriate gear for swamp hiking – Steve had hip waders; Liz had drypants; and I had neoprene. We debated bringing our PFDs in case someone fell into a hole. After all, this is a karst landscape.

Road

As soon as we walked around the locked gate, we realized that dragging boats would be impossible. The road was chewed up and muddy. We slogged along for about ½ mile until we came to a small canal. At this canal, we knew that we had to cross a small stream and head cross-country (or cross-swamp) for another 1/2 mile southwest. From the google terrain, it looked like we would go along a tree line, across several hammocks, and across a marsh to reach the spring. We also all knew that there was a good possibility we would not be able to find the spring.

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We crossed the stream and went into the grass on the other side. Once we left the line of trees, the landscape opened up to a vista of sawgrass punctuated by hammocks with palm tress and pine trees. We also saw areas of needlegrass where the terrain was likelier to be lower and wetter. The day was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky—it was a great day for a walk in the swamp. At first, we headed into the needlegrass, but it was mucky and difficult for footing. We corrected our course, aiming for a series of hammocks. Skirting the hammocks would put us on higher ground, better footing and easier to see the terrain. The sawgrass and needlegrass was almost as tall as we were, so finding this spring would not be easy or obvious.

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We bushwacked through saw grass and needle grass, and across several hammocks, taking care not to follow any gator trail deeper into the swamp. The sawgrass was sharp, and my hands stung from the cuts when I took a shower back at home. We mostly walked through water except for when we climbed onto the hammocks—a little bit of hog heaven— which got our feet out of the water. We had seen a road sign Hog Root Rd and hoped we didn’t surprise any feral pigs. We continued through the grass, consulting the GPS, necessary because we had so little visibility. The GPS said we were only ¼ mile away, so after a brief water brief, we continued.

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With .17 to go, we plunged into the needlegrass where we thought we might find the spring. The area was lower, wetter, and likely to be muckier. We debated the risks and should we continue and finally decided to turn back. All of us admitted that twenty years ago, we probably would have continued on, but I suppose we are all wiser now. We followed our tracks back through the grass back to the muddy car and back to the road. Even though we did not find the spring, perhaps an airboat is the only way to get there, we had a fun hike through stunningly beautiful terrain. And, at least for now, the spring remains a hidden gem.Palm in marsh.jpg