Learning to Love a Landscape

When I moved to Florida 9 years ago, Like many new Floridians, I was all about the beach and the surf.  I moved to Florida as a whitewater paddler. So, I raced out to the beach whenever I could and surfed my whitewater kayak in the waves at Crescent Beach. I loved Florida’s tidal waters and estuaries, and what could be better than playing in the surf in December and January—especially after many long winters in the north. It took a while to fall in love with Florida’s rivers and springs, but when I did, I fell hard.

My friends and my now-husband raved about the springs and the rivers of north central Florida, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. I had floated down plenty of rivers in Iowa, where I had lived before. I wanted to surf!2014-03-15 17.33.46.jpg

On our first date, Kevin and I paddled on Juniper Springs, along with biologist Stephen Kellert and a group of biology graduate students. Soon, we paddled up and floated down the Ichetucknee spring run, which I loved. Looking down from my boat, I saw fish and manatees swimming below me.Manatees on the Ichetucknee.jpg

I began to learn the rich history of Florida’s waters and explored the sheer variety Florida offers. We paddled and camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, visited rivers and springs, and continued to surf in the Atlantic. But now, the springs have stolen my heart——seeing the tannin line where spring meets river, paddling under the trees on the Suwannee Rivers, and swimming in the springs along there Santa Fe River.Suwannee

I didn’t realize how much I had come to love the springs until a recent visit to Oregon, a place we had wanted to visit for years. Kevin and I sat by the river in the spectacular Columbia Gorge, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the sunset. But I was homesick. I had spent my summer paddling on different springs, and I wanted come home. And as soon as I came home, I took my paddle board to the Ichetucknee and felt at home.

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Strange and Wonderful Everglades, Pt. 2

We paddled from the Everglades City Ranger Station on an unseasonably warm December morning, riding the tide 9 ½ miles towards our campsite on Lulu Key. Melodi, Scott, Jill, Kevin, and I are all seasoned wilderness paddlers, but we signed up with Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural history of the region. Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours regaled us with the strange but true stories of human, plant, and animal life of the Everglades.

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Don gave us the option of a mangrove tunnel or white pelicans. The pelicans won unanimously, so we headed out Indian Key Pass towards Indian Pass Key. As we neared the island, we saw hundreds of white pelicans crowded on the beach. I had never seen a white pelican before—they are much larger than brown pelicans. Coached by Don, we remained a good distance from the beach to avoid spooking the birds.

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We paddled slowly, watching for signs that the birds noticed us.If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do. If a number of birds started moving towards the water, we would back off. We paddled slowly around until we were able to land on the outer edge of the island, unseen by the birds, and watched the mix of brown and white pelicans, just hanging out doing what pelicans do.

 

After we left Indian Key, we went west along the outside of the islands until we reached Lulu Key, our home for the next three days. Lulu Key sits on the boundary of the Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands. Kevin and I had paddled to Lulu Key from Goodland, Florida on an earlier 10,000 Islands trip, but had never approached from Everglades City.

 

Today was New Years Eve. I had heard about the legendary New Years Eve celebration on Lulu. Mike Ward, now represented by a pair of white shrimper boots, had homesteaded on Lulu Key for years and took care of the island—much like Naked Ed on the Santa Fe River in north Florida. A number of people had been on the island for several days, and a row of tents lined the beach. Later tonight, friends would gather for happy hour and later an impressive fireworks display.tents

We found space at the far end of the beach and set up our tents with a water’s edge view. Our hard work done, we floated in the balmy water for the rest of the afternoon.

One of our strangest neighbors on the beach—sea pork, a gelatinous looking blob that is not edible.  It looks like a squishy rock underwater. Sea pork.jpg

(http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/24422254)

This blobby creature apparently has the beginnings of a spine at the embryonic stage, making sea pork a distant relative. (A new perspective of strange relatives.). Don also showed us carnivorous mollusks that stalk and eat other mollusk, surprising all of us, especially the vegetarian, since we assumed most mollusks and shelled creatures were scavengers.

Lulu Key treated us to beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Greeting the sunrise with a cup of coffee is one of my favorite parts of camping.

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The next day—New years Day, we paddled the short distance to Picnic Key where Don had seen rare African orchids in bloom.  We beached our boats and walked about fifty feet inland, to the edge of the swamp.Africaorchid2.jpg

No orchids were blooming at the time, but we saw a number of orchid plants. The tiny seed pods had traveled with the wind, from Africa to Florida, and found fertile soil here, making me wonder about the term ‘invasive’. What counts as a native plant?

Don also pointed out a small field of sea purslane, an edible plant with a slightly salty taste. He later showed us a native Florida coffee plant; its beans were so small that making a cup of coffee would be a Herculean effort, though perhaps worth it under the right circumstances.

seapurslane.jpgWe continued paddling around Picnic Key until we came to a tunnel leading to a hidden lake.

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On our final day, we paddled through the interior islands back to the Everglades Ranger Station.stillwaters3.jpg

The day was still, and the water glassy, but the clouds told another story. Our three days on Lulu Key were warm and sunny, but a system was moving in. The next day would bring a cold front, with rain and dropping temperatures. Before we reached the Ranger Station, we had a final float, luxuriating in the warm water before we all headed north to the Florida winter awaiting us.

This trip whetted my appetite for the Everglades, and I realize that I have quite a bit to learn about human and natural history. Maybe we’ll come back for next year’s New Years Eve celebration.

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Everglades Part 1: Paddling a Re-inhabited Landscape

On December 31, our kayaks packed and loaded, our group of six left the Ranger Station at Everglades City and headed for Lulu Key. Lulu Key  straddles the borders of the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades.  Interestingly, though we wanted a wilderness paddle, to spend New Years Eve ‘away from it all’, we entered an area that has hosted waves of residents, from the Calusa to turn of the century homesteaders and outlaws to contemporary visitors. stillwaters3All of us are experienced wilderness paddlers, but we went with Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural histories of this region. We all knew that Don is a self-proclaimed story-teller, and, over the three days, Don regaled us the strange and bizarre habits of people, plants, and animals.

I had just finished reading Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Mathiesson, an historical novel about Ed Watson—farmer, entrepreneur, and possible serial killer who homesteaded on the Chatham River in the Ten Thousand Islands. Mr. Watson apparently killed his hired men instead of paying them—a rather chilling austerity measure, and this book depicts the wild west character of life in this remote part of Florida in the early 1900s. As I read the book, I recognized some of the rivers and keys from previous paddling trips, but I had yet looked into the region’s history before.  The store on Chokoloskee Island run by Ted Smallwood, a character in Killing Mr. Watson, is now a museum about Chokoloskee history.

Camp Lulu Key is relatively easy to find because it is on the exterior, on the gulf. Without map, compass, and gps, it would be easy to get lost. And, for several hundred years now, people have come to this area of Florida to disappear, escaping the law or persecution, among other things.Fakahatchee area.42 From Lulu Key, we paddled north, inward, first to West Pass, matching the shapes on our charts to the land masses we passed. We wove our way through passes and channels, all lined with mangroves. The subtly different shades of green alerted us to the narrow channels between islands.

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We rode the incoming tide to Fakahatchee Island, home to a small fishing community in the early 1900s. We beached our kayaks on the boat landing, after receiving permission from the two men who were camping there. Anderson GravestoneInland, we found a small cemetery with headstones mostly from the Daniels and Anderson families. The islands hold other ruins but the ubiquitous mosquitos discouraged us from further exploration. Although there has been no official settlement on Fakahatchee Island for decades, the island shows evidence of recent habitation.Fakahacheecamp4 copy

We left the boat ramp, circumnavigating the island counter-clockwise and saw the cistern and the pilings that once supported the fish-house, where the homesteaders kept their fish on ice. Today, pelicans and other birds appreciate the perch.pelicanonmangroave

The other side of the island exposed the layers of shells that the Calusa had much used to build up the island, centuries before. Fakahatchee was one of the higher elevations among these low-lying islands, and the mounds laid by the Calusa provided habitat for turn of the century settlers and later campers.

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After we left Fakahatchee Island, we wended our way back through the mangrove islands, now fighting the tide, and finally reached our camp on Lulu Key in time for the sunset. I was glad to be back in the open, on the gulf. The interior is beautiful, but its convoluted and quiet passages remind me that the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades can still provide refuge for those who wish to slip away into the wild.

Christmas Eve in the Springs

Sunrise on the Homosassa River.  A hawk’s cry pierced the early morning stillness, interrupting my reading. I had been reading a particularly dense book on religious experience and the body, preparing for an upcoming

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class. I tried to return to the abstract world of ideas but the hawk’s cries anchored me in this placid morning. This is a perpetual dilemma for me—wanting both experience nature and writing about it at the same time.

The day before we paddled upstream from the Last Resort, just a short distance to the Homosassa headsprings. We paddled downstream to the to the confluence of the Homosassa and Halls Rivers, then upstream in search of the headsprings. The paddling was not difficult, although we realized later that we were against the tide in both directions. The weather was unseasonably warm, even for Florida, and we caught some of the winds from the large weather system moving through north of us.

The Halls River is a hidden gem, and we had never heard of it. The Halls River has few public access point, so perhaps that is why we had not yet heard about it. The Homosassa and Halls are close, separated by a line of trees, but seem like entirely different ecosystems. The Halls River meanders, bounded by grasses of the tidal flats. The Homosassa reminded me of the rivers and springs of the Ocala Forest, with trees, hammocks, and scrub.Halls River

We paddled upstream for several miles against its weak flow until we came to a large pool, thinking this might be where we would find the headsprings. Then we found clear water streaming into the pool and continued upstream, though several pools and narrow streams. The river was ours except for one fisherman in a small kayak. Kevin in grassFinally, we saw signs with green arrows, pointing to the two headsprings, marking narrow, overgrown passages navigable only by kayak or paddle board. We found one spring easily, a small vent filled with fish, but could not get through the grass to find the second one.

We had taken our time, swimming and exploring, relaxed and calm on this beautiful day. At the Halls’ headspring, we realized that sunset was in two hours, and both of us picked up our pace.  As I paddled downstream, I wondered how I maintain this state of peace and absorption into my surroundings—being in my body, focusing on water, manatees, and rivers. Even writing about water is a distraction, and I hope to find a balance between reflection and writing. At this moment, though, The tranquility of the Halls River, however, drew me in, as if I had melted into this landscape.

The sun broke out for our final day of paddling on the Chassahowitzka River, putting in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground.Chaz cave

We swam around—but not through—the caves at the headspring, up Baird’s Creek to the “crack”, then around the arms of Salt Creek. The arms of Salt Creek feel primeval and remote from any peopled landscape. I had paddled far up one narrow arm and saw a small head in the water swimming quickly straight at me. An otter fortunately, but a clear reminder of my place in the food chain in the swamp.

I had been wanting to paddle the Chaz, as the river is called, for a while, and this exquisite river lived up to its reputation. We swam and paddled all day, seeing manatees, a wood stork, kingfishers, and my friend, the otter.

Chaz woodstork

Days like this make me glad that Florida is my home and remind me that those of us who live here are entrusted to care for this fragile landscape. I know that many others feel that way—I saw two men in a small houseboat insuring that paddlers did not touch the manatees that swam near their kayaks.

Trees from the Chaz

It was Christmas Eve and time to get back home. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and new classes are coming, but I know that, amidst the hubbub, I can draw upon the peace and stillness of sunrise over the Homosassa.

In William Bartram’s Wake

On December 4, 2015, 42 people set out in canoes and kayaks to commemorate the 250th anniversary of William Bartram’s travels through Florida. Bartram first explored Florida in 1765 and returned in 1774, enchanted with its peoples, plants, and animals. He recorded his journey in his book Travels which has become a guide for adventurers, poets, and scientists. Bartram fell in love with Florida over two centuries ago, and Paddle Florida designed the Bartram History Paddle to help us see Florida through Bartram’s eyes. The Paddle Florida route: Screenshot 2015-12-15 16.13.05

The night before we left, we camped at Salt Springs, one of the few sites that Bartram visited twice. Sam Carr and Dean Campbell, our Bartram liaisons, explained what we would see on our journey and the hazards. The wind had been blowing from the northeast for several days, and the wind and waves would make our journey north across Lake George rougher than expected. I was paddling a 17’ NDK Pilgrim Explorer but many others had shorter boats, less suited for rough water.  By that evening, we decided that only a few of us would make the journey across Lake George and that most would paddle down and back Salt Springs run, known by Bartram as Six Mile Run, and meet us at the following night’s camp.

The zip-zip of tents coming down awoke me at 5:30 am, way too early for any hope of coffee. By 8:30, the group had eaten and was eager to head down the Salt Run. As we neared Lake George, the spring’s clarity gave way to the darker river water of the St. John’s River, the lake being just a wide spot in the river. The wind picked up somewhat as we left the sheltered spring run and neared Rocky Point, another Bartram site. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County committee, led by Sam and Dean, had created Bartram maps and posted Bartram QR coded signs that we would see along the way. Rocky Point would be our last chance to turn back. None of us wanted to turn back though.Rocky point

At Rocky Point, we crossed Lake George to the west—or lee—side of Drayton Island. Bartram had camped on the east side of the island. Drayton Island has houses on it and a twice weekly ferry serves the island’s residents. The wind was strong, and the paddling difficult, although all of us who crossed had seaworthy boats. Bartram traveled with a boat that he described as essentially a canoe with a sail, and I wondered how such a boat would handle in these conditions. Bartram wrote about storms developing while he was on open water, and our summer squalls can be fearsome. I lamented the loss of our lunch stop on Drayton Island, especially later after hearing that Dean’s sister had baked cookies for the group.  We continued north, seeing few people or boats, until we reached our destination, newly-built fish camp Renegades on the River. After the day’s isolation, I was not Santa expecting on a jet ski, but the fire pit and the tiki hut were more than welcome.

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On Sunday morning, only a short paddle from Renegades, we visited Mt. Royal, where Sam read an excerpt from Travels. We climbed on top of the mound and Sam described Bartram’s lament that the area had been degraded by settlement in the 15 years between his visits. William Bartram was a Quaker from Philadelphia and, unlike many of his peers, was concerned about the destruction of the environment and of native cultures. Perhaps this explains why William Bartram and his Travels draws so many followers.

We continued north on the St. Johns River, hugging the eastern shore hoping to find the springs detailed on our maps. For most of our journey, the western shore appeared remote and wild, and the eastern shore was dotted with houses, fish camps, and towns. In Bartram’s time, the St. Johns River divided the British side from the “Indian” shore, and the British encouraged settlement in their territory. Paddling north, we saw Welaka Springs, Johnson Springs, and Satsuma Springs, all on the eastern side.

Satsuma Springs lies on private property, and the owner kindly allowed us to visit this spring. From our conversations, it is clear that she is a true caretaker, or steward, of this spring, as Naked Ed protects for Lily Spring, and they are models for the rest of us. Satsuma is a sulphur spring, and I quickly took the opportunity to soak my tired muscles. The spring seemed warm in comparison to the air temperature, and getting out was much harder than getting in.

The sun came out, and the wind died down for our last two days of paddling. We made our way along Murphy’s and Dunns Creeks, past several Bartram sites including Spaulding Lower Store and the Seven Sisters Islands. Several paddlers remarked on the size of our creeks, that they would be called rivers anywhere else. Still, the twists and turns of the creeks were a pleasant distraction from the wider and straighter St. Johns River. Both days we stopped for lunch at the Georgia Boys Fish Camp which has existed for over 60 years. Visiting places like this fish camp remind me that Old Florida holds so much rich history—you just need to get off the main roads.

We ended in Palatka, under a cloudless sky, nothing like our first two days of paddling. We were treated to a fish fry at the St. Johns River Center, which features exhibits about local history and environment, a fitting end for our journey. These past four days of immersion into Bartram’s travels on the St. Johns River have whetted my appetite for more. I’ll be back.

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barriers islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.