This post was written by Joseph Guthrie
This week marked a step closer to the beginning of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Now less than two months from the start, we are feeling the pressure mount. So we embraced the opportunity to engage with our route in a more tangible way, after months of strategizing, meeting, planning. And while flying the Florida Wildlife Corridor from 1000 ft at 170 mph isn’t exactly putting boots on the ground, it was much more engaging than sending emails and staring at satellite images for hours. With the help of LightHawk, a volunteer-based environmental aviation organization that donates flight time to conservation groups that seek an aerial perspective, we flew the route from State Route 192 in Osceola County to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which overlaps the Florida/Georgia border north of Lake City, Florida. This represents the northern half of our planned route (see route map), including a 100 mile stretch of the St. Johns River.
The planned route of the Florida Wildlife Corridor (red line), from the Everglades to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.
Our flights began on Monday near Silver Springs, Florida, west of the Ocala National Forest. We met our pilot where he lived, in an airpark, which we found fascinating as a living arrangement. Named Leeward Air Ranch, this was a community populated entirely by pilots and their families. Every home had a hangar, inside of which were assorted aircraft from helicopters to float planes and glider craft, to the Cessna 210 we flew. The signage around the neighborhood was amusing, alternating between the frightening – transient aircraft? – and the absurd “Give way to aircraft by pulling off the road.” Neighbors walking their dogs stepped aside and waved as we taxied past their driveways. No landscaping was within 30 feet of a road, to avoid interfering with taxi-ing aircraft. The foot tall stop signs were, as Carlton sometimes says, only suggestions.
We flew on three consecutive days. Tuesday morning we got aloft before the sun broke over the eastern horizon, and I snapped pictures of Carlton from the backseat of our plane. The fog was heavy in places, low to the ground. The sun came up, sending a blaze of light through the cabin of the plane. When a nice scene presented itself we threw open the window, sending a shuttering blast of air into the cabin. We held our cameras out the open window, taking bursts of photographs shot straight down at the tree-tops, or “spray and pray,” another phrase you hear around Carlton.
Carlton scans the landscape south of Lake George at sunrise.
The trees sent long shadows across the blanket of fog, giving the land a nice cross-hatching pattern. In places the cypress domes protruded from the fog, islands of green, red and brown. The plane carried four of us, including the pilot and his wife, herself a pilot. As we flew we talked about the land, noticing things we’d have never seen from Google Earth. Here and there we found flooded sections of timber. In other places we saw where the forests are narrowed by roads, or a housing development, or lakes. We saw what the understory of industrial pinelands looks like.
We marveled at the size of Ocala National Forest and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a place so immense and remote that for 10 or 15 minutes on Tuesday afternoon we were unsure where we were as we flew above it. There were no roads or logging trails for miles, almost nothing identifiable as a landmark across vast expanses of swamp and forest. Even from the perspective of our plane it was an intimidating landscape, as a wilderness is supposed to be.
In the next month we will do this again for the Everglades watershed portion of our route. The LightHawk pilot was excellent, demonstrating his patience as we had him fly multiple orbits around our landmarks and points of interest. I can only hope the next one will be as easy and as safe to work with.