02 Feb 2012

29 January 2012: Fakahatchee Day 2

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

On Sunday we had another day of no traveling, and we had a busy dance card. First, our friends Clyde and Niki Butcher arrived at our cabin. Elam and the Butchers have been very close for many years and have spent years of their lives together in Florida’s swamps. Carlton drew inspiration from the focus Clyde’s work brought to the backwater areas of Florida. They’d only arrived back in Florida the previous day, after spending weeks in the west photographing places like the Grand Canyon.

We spent the late morning and early afternoon wading through the swamp north of the cabin, on a mission to find the Guzmania, a rare genus of bromeliad. We stepped off the road toward the swamp. Feeling the January water rise up above my knee heightened awareness. But the shock quickly went away. The walking was easy, though we moved slowly to avoid tripping on tree roots beneath the surface. We gathered in a small area where the cypress knees and pop ash were adorned with light green bromeliads. They clung to every surface. Carlton and Clyde worked through several sequences of photographs. Clyde compared his recent experiences of the west with Florida. “Out there, you can see everything from your car,””he said, referring to the wide open space and the dramatic scenery. “Here, if you want to see anything, you have to get out and get your feet in the mud.”

“In the water,” someone chirped.

In the afternoon our party expanded to include Renee Rau, Mike Owen, and Donna Glann Smyth from Florida State Parks, and Tom Maish from Friends of Fakahatchee. They tracked us into the swamp, emerging from a bank of cutgrass and stepping over a large cypress log, which was in the process of being swallowed by sprouting cocoa plum and young cypress. We all stood knee deep in the stained water and greeted each other. I was intent to talk to Mike Owen, a man whose personality is matched by an expansive natural history knowledge. Mike has worked at Fakahatchee since 1992, leading interpretive swamp walks, monitoring air plants and orchids as well as other species, and guiding management activity like prescribed fire and the removal of invasive species. He knows the Fakahatchee Strand like no one else. It was in his first 6 months on the job that the infamous John Laroche was caught taking rare orchids from the swamp. At the time, Mike Owen was new to the swamp and its hidden gems. Mike told me that Laroche was so cavalier about his exploits that as he stood surrounded by garbage bags full of the poached flowers that day, he gave an impromptu field lesson, teaching the young biologist several species of orchid. The Laroche story was eventually made into a book by Susan Orleans called “The Orchid Thief,” and subsequently, the movie “Adaptation.”

After lunch we trekked into an area called the Western Slough. It was more open than the thick, jungle-like growth we found among the Guzmania, and the water snaked through tall cypress and entered a stand of pond apple, where we paused. The sun moved lower in the sky. I asked about the effect of geology on plant communities, and what makes the Grand Canyon of Florida so different than anyplace else. Mike told us that Fakahatchee’s unique airplants are supported by slow moving water flowing through a trench in the limestone substrate of south Florida. Beneath the protective canopy of bald cypress, the water remains cooler than the ambient temperature in the warm months and warmer during the cold months. The effect of this shielding from extreme cold is that the forest is able to support species that do not occur elsewhere on the North American continent. He’d taken us here to show us the orchids. Ghost orchid, dingy orchid (Mike is known to spit dramatically at the ground when repeating this unfortunate name), clamshell orchid…they are all there, including one dingy orchid that John Laroche had taken, and Mike had returned, lashing it to a tree two feet above the water. It’s the only one of 84 that survived. Many of the plants we saw have been alive in the swamp since before Mike Owen began working here.

The Fakahatchee Strand is a geologic feature, extending roughly 20 miles north and south, and roughly 5 miles wide. The northern extent is on Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which we’d be visiting later in the week. It was easy to think about the landscape connection as we stood knee deep in the swamp with our naturalist friends. From where we stood the water fed south into the Ten Thousand Islands, one of the most important commercial fisheries in the United States near Everglades City. Around our legs the dark water slipped past us with an almost imperceptible slowness.

For more information on the Fakahatchee and Florida’s State Parks @ http://www.floridastateparks.org/fakahatcheestrand/

For some pictures from the trip through the Fakahatchee during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition see my Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/75103055@N03/sets/

and Carlton’s (much much better)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/carltonward/

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28 January 2012: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

It was well after dark when we arrived at our destination, a small private inholding in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. A carload of friends from Tampa arrived and met us near the end of the route. We traveled on bikes, following a little road north from Jane’s Scenic Trail about 2.5 miles before it opened into a tiny clearing. I could see the silhouettes of wild-growing royal palms towering in the dark. Cypress knees stood in dark water off the road on both sides. On the edge of a 2 acre lake was a tin shack with a porch and swing, a classic swamp hunting cabin. A good walkway led out to the lake, where yellow eyes drifted in the cutgrass and cattails. On the door was a plaque that read “Welcome to the Fakahatchee Hilton.” We bathed on the porch under cold water drawn from a well through an old green hand pump. We put on warm clean clothes as someone lit a campfire. We dragged out a grill and gorged on steaks and collard greens. Carlton sat near the fire with Suzie, who’d escaped law school long enough to travel with us for three days.

Our camphouse was simple, weather-beaten, swampy. It had a big porch on the front with a swing, and a balky screen door into a single room. The corrugated tin siding was streaked with rust. The owner said that in 1960 Hurricane Donna had blown the entire building back and left it lying at an angle to the rest of the clearing. He pointed out how one corner hung out over the swamp behind the house. A walkway had been erected around one corner to allow a person to get around the side without stepping into the swamp. They’d left it where the hurricane had put it.

The story of the connected landscape and connected water we’ve been following had added a dimension as we entered the flooded timber. There were big wild animals moving around somewhere near. I recalled reading my old advisor Dave Maehr’s panther book and his description of the Fakahatchee. The Florida black bear is common here. The night was still as we settled in to sleep. Somewhere in the night I woke and heard a pair of barred owls calling back and forth from a tree above the camphouse clearing, slipping into their bizarre laughter, their silhouettes bobbing rhythmically toward each other in the branches. In the night it felt like a far corner of the world.

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28 Jan 2012

Day 9 and 10: Everglades Tree Islands

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week Carlton, Elam and I camped on and documented a remote tree island in Francis Taylor Wildlife Management Area north of SR 41 in Water Conservation Area 3A. It was a beautiful island, only a couple of acres but of moderate size for these small domes of trees. It was quiet too, and surrounded by clear water and stands of sawgrass. It was good to be there after camping for two days on the C-67 canal, within earshot of SR 41. The black surface of the water and the big cumulus clouds caught the slant of the sun, and the green grasses shone in the afternoon light. The beauty of the surrounding marsh was nearly enough to distract us from the real importance to conservation and restoration of the Everglades that the tree island itself represents.

The island we visited is one of many research sites under study by the South Florida Water Management District, led by Director of Wetland Watershed Science, Dr. Fred Sklar. Since 1998 Dr. Sklar and his squad of ecologists have been monitoring nutrient deposition, plant communities and succession, and the ecology of wildlife on tree islands. Prior to Dr. Sklar’s work, very little was known about this distinctive and prominent feature of the Everglades landscape.

We asked Dr. Sklar to help us understand what SFWMD knows and how it is trying to address tree island ecology. A team of scientists and water management officials, including Assistant Executive Director Robert Brown, met us at mid-morning Thursday, and spent the early afternoon huddled with us under a canopy of cocoa plum and pond apple near the head of the island, explaining to us the patterns they are uncovering with their work.

Human manipulation of water flow has interrupted the processes by which tree islands grow and survive. Since 1940 the number of islands scattered throughout the Everglades has plummeted. In WCA-3, for example, tree island acreage is down from 24,800 acres to roughly 8100 acres, and the number of islands has fallen by almost 60%. Dr. Sklar told us things began going wrong in the 1940s, when lower levels of water in the central Everglades dissolved the layer of peat that develops on tree islands. In the 1960s we reversed course and began raising and maintaining high water in WCA-3, which is still destructive to tree islands. High water levels inundating the dry parts of tree islands eventually kill the species that grow in the “head,” the upstream end of the island where elevation is highest and the least water-tolerant trees grow. High water prevents the germination of seeds, leading to a loss of tree regeneration and preventing the growth of understory species and young trees that would otherwise replace older or damaged trees as they die off. Elsewhere, at the perimeters of the Everglades ecosystem canaling and water distribution have starved tree islands out of existence.

From an ecological standpoint tree islands are the anchors for wildlife in the Everglades. They provide roosting habitat for wading bird species, such as white ibis, tri-colored and little blue heron, snowy egret, white egret and great blue heron. They are a dry refuge for species of all kinds, from birds and small mammals to snakes, frogs, turtles and lizards. Whitetail deer are commonly found on tree islands. Even Florida panther and black bear have been documented on tree islands, far from their normal upland haunts. These islands are hubs of biodiversity in what is otherwise an inhospitable landscape for terrestrial wildlife. As the islands die out they become more spread out, making it harder for wildlife to travel from island to island. The proximity of the islands to each other is what enables all species to travel and reproduce.

Despite the grim prognosis, Dr. Sklar and his team of ecologists have a full plate of research ahead of them. As the the Everglades watershed changes through the back-filling and decompartmentalization projects introduced under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) of 2000, SFWMD is in position to monitor the effects on tree islands and biodiversity. At this point there seems to be agreement that less water is needed in areas such as the one where our tree island was located, while many other areas have to be re-inundated in order to restore the processes that generate tree islands. Continued research is vital to our understanding of these unique islands.

As we rode back toward SR 41 on our visitors airboats the first rain of the expedition began to fall. It was a short sprinkle, but it punctuated the end of our ten days in this water-bound wilderness. I was energized by the new knowledge absorbed, and by the commitment of the scientists to make sure we finally get the water right in the Everglades.

For some mediocre pics of Everglades wading birds check out my Flickr!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/75103055@N03/sets/72157629064570853/

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25 Jan 2012

First full day: Day 2

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

Day 2 of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition began at the Joe River Chickee. At least three of us (Carlton, Elam and Joe) awoke from a sleep of over four hours for the first time in weeks. The morning light came up and we saw that we were in a bowl of water about 1/4 mile wide. There were fish jumping near the base of the red mangrove trees all the way around our bowl. The sky was clear and there was no wind. It was humid, and the dew was as heavy as it would normally be in the wet season. Without much discussion, the morning took on a relaxed pace. We were all a little fried from the mental stresses of the preparation for our Expedition. It felt good to have left those worries behind, if only temporarily. We made breakfast with flatbread and Nutella and cream cheese with bananas. Elam tended the coffee press.

Mallory and Elam paddled out first around 11, while Carlton and I packed more slowly. As we got under way I fished a jig up next to the mangroves and caught a 12″ speckled trout. A slight north wind picked up. We made our way slowly. We stopped to follow a pair of dolphin smashing baitfish against the mangroves. Carlton fussed with my phone and its poor service. Several times he got far ahead of me during our paddle. I decided that I still needed to work on loading my kayak properly since everyone else was faster than me. It wasn’t until later that Carlton told me that he’d been frustrated with the wind and the poor service and that his speed was due to his “paddling emotionally.”

We caught up with Mallory and Elam at the second Joe River chickee, where we’d planned to eat lunch. They’d been waiting patiently for us for some time. The next leg would involve crossing a broad stretch of Oyster Bay, where we expected to get spray from the northwest across our boats. We were running behind after Carlton and I had spent too long on our first leg. I changed into rain gear, not wanting to arrive in the dark in wet clothes at a place where we could not build fires. We set out paddling and made good time across the bay. A small-ish leatherback sea turtle bobbed in the waves between the bow of my boat and Mallory’s boat. I stood up to get a better look and the turtle disappeared under water.

We arrived at the Oyster Bay chickee in short order. It was sheltered from the open bay by a narrow island of red mangrove trees. A juvenile yellow crowned night heron stalked sullenly across the elevated platform of the chickee as we drew near, and finally flew as our boats bumped the supports. As Elam was unloading his kayak he lost balance and toppled into the water. He was unhurt, and he’d already off loaded all of his camera equipment, so we all had a laugh as we documented the first casualty, including Elam.

Before sunset Mallory and I jumped aboard Travis 18′ Action Craft. We skimmed out across the bay as the sun was setting, blue and orange arching over a tall stand of mangrove and buttonwood trees that jutted out into the water. James McMurty played on the stereo. We made a few casts in a narrow creek hoping to find a snook or tarpon. It was a good time to be on the water, and I relished the idea of spending many of the next 100 days on the water at dusk.

For related photos go to:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/75103055@N03/sets

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24 Jan 2012

An end to the fooling around

This post was written by Joseph Guthrie

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is now off and running. If you’ve been following it from my blog this might come as a surprise. My apologies. The last few months are a blur of activity and frantic preparation, where we had no time to properly prepare ourselves, much less fill in the background through our blogging.

We made it to the start by working insane hours, working the phone and email around through all hours of the night. The two and a half weeks between the holidays and the start of the Expedition Carlton and Elam and I all suffered from intense sleep deprivation as we hurried between meetings and our computers, buying gear, talking to our collaborators, organizing our equipment. We shopped for a trailer that could carry our kayaks, bikes, paddleboards, camera equipment. We researched specific properties, specific wildlife species and conservation issues we wanted to highlight. Before we could get into any depth we would be distracted by another more immediate concern. The dry bags for stowing gear on our kayaks were out of stock. The wireless service provider for our portable wi-fi hotspots wanted a contract that we were not willing to pay for. We had two phone interviews and a conference call all going on at the same time. The rudder kits for our kayaks, which we naively thought we’d assemble ourselves, were far too involved and we needed them fixed by a pro. It seemed like one million adapter wires and batteries and connectors flooded the dining room table of Carlton’s house. Details, details, details…it was chaos.

The packing and organizing continued up to the moments before we launched our boats from the beach. Elam, the organized one, had pulled all nighters loading his gear into his vehicle at his home in Blountstown on Friday night. He arrived on Saturday in Tampa. Once the inside of the trailer was finished on Saturday night, Elam’s gear was ready to go in. He and our trailer driver Rick Smith retired to a hotel for well-earned sleep. Carlton stayed up all night Saturday packing his camera equipment and doing last minute stashing and captioning of photos from our route scouting for distribution later. I, the least equipment-laden of our team, managed two hours of sleep.

And then it was Sunday, the day of our departure for Everglades National Park and the start of our trip. By Monday evening we were camping beside Florida Bay. Brown pelicans sailed overhead as we took our spanking new kayaks out for their maiden voyage, a 15 minute spin. Mallory, the most experienced paddler of the group, provided instructions. We still had not rigged the kayak solar panels that we wanted to power our devices while we were out in the wilderness for seven days. We still had not loaded reliable satellite imagery into our GPS for our navigation. The press was mingling in our group. Important people would be arriving in hours to see us off. How would we be able to do this with so little practical preparation?

Somehow we pulled it off. Carlton and I were both awake that last night until 5 a.m. Once the sun was us up there was no more chance to fool around with the phone or the computer. We had to load the boats and go. Packing took until 2:30 in the afternoon, nearly two hours later than we’d intended, but we finally shoved off into the Bay. A flock of willet milled in the shallows just down the beach. The weather forecast was perfect. As I pulled through the first paddle stroke I felt relief begin to work through my system. Now we had to just go do the thing.

Pictures:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/75103055@N03/sets/72157629016855501/

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23 Jan 2012

Day 5 – Entering the Sawgrass

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

An update from the team: “We are in the sawgrass in the middle of our route through the Everglades. We are on schedule and food is holding up well. At night the insects drive us into our tents, and we end up sleeping for 8 or more hours, a nice departure from the weeks of no sleep we had leading up to the start of the expedition. Poor cell service makes blogging difficult, but the signal seems to be improving, so bear with us. The scenery is unreal. Poling a kayak through the sawgrass is a true Everglades experience.”

A view from the kayak as the team crosses the heart of the Everglades…

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Stopping to have lunch in the sawgrass.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Joe adjusts his gear, preparing to make the trek across the open sawgrass.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Sunrise over the Sawgrass Prairie…

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Day 4 – Shark River

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

Paddling along the upper headwaters of the Shark River on Friday, January 20.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Carlton loads his kayak from the dock at the Canepatch campsite in Everglades National Park.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

21 Jan 2012

The Expedition Begins!

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

View from the kayak…

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Leaving the marina at Flamingo, the team paddles up Buttonwood Canal toward Coot Bay.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

The team paddles into Florida Bay.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Expedition Launch Events

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

Carlton and Superintendent Kimball send a live update of the launch to The Everglades Foundation Water Supply Summit in Tallahassee on Tuesday. The Tallahassee audience included Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

The expedition team presents a limited edition Florida Wildlife Corridor map to Everglades National Park Superintendent, Dan Kimball.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Joe Guthrie, Superintendent Dan Kimball, Elam Stoltzfus, Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Carlton Ward Jr.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Carlton is interviewed by Miami’s CBS news channel 4.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

The team prepares their kayaks at the edge of Florida Bay.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

20 Jan 2012

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition Preparations

This post was written by Carlton Ward Jr

Carlton and Joe begin to unload the kayaks from the expedition trailer.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

The expedition support trailer sits at the edge of Florida Bay.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Carlton does some last minute wiring of equipment at the Flamingo campground on Monday night.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition