Monday, December 15, 2014

A Split from my Sunday Routine

I've learned to listen to the voice inside that needs to re-connect with nature. I heard it Sunday morning and I altered my plans to visit my go-to hiking spot, Split Oak Forest. I like to enter the Forest through Orange County's Moss Park, but I was warned that the trail might be wet. And sure enough it was flooded and the December water was painfully cold. But I marched on through the marshy area that connects the two parks and I was rewarded by the appearance of a young buck crossing the trail near the boundary to the Forest.

On this brilliant cool day the textures of the trail caught my eye, from small yellow flowers to fluffy grass-like native plants back lit by the sun. I wasn't sure if I'd take photos at all, as I really just desired peace and solitude, but I really love the sense of timelessness I feel when I'm in the flow of taking pictures.

I made my way to Lake Bonnett, the pay-off for my hike, and I enjoyed the stillness of the place with a pair of Sandhill Cranes. It's amazing to me that this oasis of beauty is minutes from the booming Lake Nona area, within earshot of the Orlando Airport. I saw a large Fox Squirrel, numerous deer and a speedy armadillo. Except for a solidary runner, I had the whole place to myself – just me and the colors and textures of nature on a crisp day. These are the kind of places that remind me that Florida has a wild soul, and to tame her would be a sin, as she would cease to be Florida anymore, just a nameless, sterile paved over paradise. There was drama in the Forest this day in the contrast between light and dark, stillness and motion, and splashes of color contrasted against monotone backgrounds. I wonder if this became my new routine, would it become old and stale, or would a weekly dose of Mother Nature still have the same power to sooth my soul?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Colors of the Chaz

Some say Florida doesn't have a Fall season, but as I type this it's 41 degrees outside, the heat is on, and I'm wearing a sweatshirt. Perhaps it arrives later than it does up north, and it's more subtle, but Autumn squeezes its way into Florida eventually. And we do have color, but it's not always the red, oranges, and yellows seen in cooler climates. I recently immersed myself in spectacular Florida color while kayaking the Chassahowitzka River near the Gulf coast.

The "Chaz" as it is commonly referred to, has an interesting history. Like so many other rivers and springs in Florida, it is rich in archaeological evidence of indigenous people camping along the water. The name Chassahowitzka means "pumpkin drying place in the Seminole language. In the early 20th century the area was logged extensively for bald cypress and red cedar and there was even a small town  developed around a lumber mill called Centralia. Today much of the land around the river is publicly owned, being purchased by the state in the last thirty years.

View of the Chassahowitzka Springs and River, State Archives of Florida
Chassahowtizka Spring, 1923, State Archives of Florida

A recent spring clean-up led to the discovery of a plethora of artifacts, from Paleoindian arrowheads, to children's toy pistols.

A luminous red tree stands out like a beacon against its green counterparts

It was brisk when we put in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground and there was a fire burning beside the river to warm up campers. Despite the chill there was a brilliant blue sky and the clear water was tinged with a cyan-aqua tint that indicates the presence of springs. My colleague John Moran had advised me to seek out a a feature known as "Miss Maggie's Crack" or simply, "the Crack." A relatively short paddle off the main river down Baird Creek eventually narrows and requires leaving your kayaks behind to hike the final fifty feet to the spring. The spring head is situated in the center of a shallow lagoon lined with a yellowy limestone bottom. A horizontal gash full of brilliant turquoise indicates the location of the Crack where spring water flows up from the aquifer. The Edenic-like setting was tranquil and alluring, and on a warmer day I may have plunged into the depths of the spring for further exploration. But I knew it would be chilly to be in wet clothes when I was back on the main river, so I did my best to stay dry.

Our put-in point was at the campground on the eastern side of the river.

My buddy William kayaking down Baird Creek.
Eventually the water becomes too shallow to paddle further.
The "Crack."

After leaving the Crack, we paddled a bit further down river, and headed up the run of Crab Creek Spring. Giant ferns, colorful flowers, and prehistoric air plants covered the banks. The land around the spring is apparently private property as a sprawling compound dominates the setting. The spring, which appeared to have several vents, was surrounded by invasive Hydrilla that was covered with an ugly brown substance.

Next we paddled to Seven Sisters Spring and found it crowded with swimmers. We followed a nearby spring run as far as we could until the footing on became too difficult due to loose rocks and swift current. One of the vents was unoccupied and we surrounded the elliptical hole where the spring pierced the limestone, straining to photograph the wonders beneath the surface. None of my photos did it justice  it was really quite magical, as I've found ever spring in Florida to be. The colors and textures were fantastic.

Before heading back, I stopped to try to photograph the huge amount of fish that swam in what I imagine was another spring by the campground. The water clarity wasn't good enough to see the spring, but it appeared to be very deep. Throughout the excursion, we passed through huge schools of mullet, flashes of silver mercury streaking under our boats. As the majority of my trips are on freshwater creeks and lakes, it was filling to see the enormous numbers of saltwater fish. It was also clear to me that the growth of the area bordering the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge has had a detrimental  effect on the water quality.

Yucky browns and greens of algae are evidence of water quality issues.

In addition to the beautiful blues of the spring water, and lush green forest there was an abundance of wild flowers in bloom, in particular asters. I found myself drawn to these vibrant stands of purple flowers growing on the banks, again and again. The huge bushes reminded me of azaleas, and they were everywhere.

This half day excursion was just what I needed to break up my "house renovation is taking forever" doldrums. Even the drive from Orlando was fun – passing through large parcels of unspoiled Old Florida always sets me right. Sometimes to break up a funk you just need a splash of color!

A bright red leaf on the bottom of crystal clear waters of a shallow spring run.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Old Florida Gratitude: Presents from the Past

I was not born in Florida, but it's the only home I've ever known. I was 18 months old when my mom and I flew down to Gainesville to meet my Dad, who had already started his new job for the city. I have no memories of the snowy Midwest and while I know that it's me in those baby pictures in Michigan, there are no memories attached to them.

So in my own internal survey of what I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving, I must put at the top of the list that I'm grateful that my parents decided to move to Florida. Today only 36% of the folks living here are natives, and this state's colorful history is one of folks from other places leaving their mark here – from Ponce de León to Henry Flagler.

Who needs a swimming pool?
I grew up in Gainesville in a suburban neighborhood at the end of the block near the woods. Critters would leave the sanctuary of the woods and explore our yard; gopher tortoises, box turtles, snakes, and fireflies. My mom still lives in the house I grew up in and she still has deer and armadillo amble through the property, but sadly no more fireflies.

The second thing I am grateful for is growing up near those woods. It was our playground and in our young minds live oak branches became jet planes, the paths became motocross trails for our bicycles, and we became army scouts searching for the enemy. It was fertile ground for our  imaginations. I remember signing up for a nature course at the local trail shop with Tom Allen from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (and son of Ross Allen). To my surprise, they didn't take us to any of Gainesville's well known settings for nature like Paynes Prairie or the San Felasco Hammock. To my surprise, the nature course, led by the famous naturalist, simply explored the woods near my house. I guess our silvan playground was something special.

The woods are still there today, pretty much unchanged.

Mrs. Old Florida in the Gainesville woods, Thanksgiving 2011.

As I started fourth grade my mom went back to work because my parents had made the decision to purchase a weekend retreat. Most Gainevillians had Crescent Beach condos, but my parents chose a different location, the tiny town of Welaka on the St. Johns River. One of my dad's best friends had purchased a place there, directly across from the mouth of the Ocklawaha River, and we soon began making the hour and twenty minute drive from Gainesville every Friday night.

While River Bend Villas was anything but Old Florida, the location was off the beaten path. Tiny Welaka was and is in my mind the quintessential small Florida town – one stop light and the majority of the businesses there were fish camps. Our place was right where the river widened to form Little Lake George at a spot called Beecher's Point. If the tide was low enough we could walk along the water's edge and find Indian pottery. I caught my first bass there, saw my first manatee, and had a close encounter with a cottonmouth that still gives me nightmares. But we also caught blue crabs, had fish fries every weekend, and made trips up the Ocklawaha to swim and picnic.

That's me in the center, clowning around on the Ocklawaha River.
Jumping off the rope swing at Welaka Springs.
That's me with flippers on, in front of the mighty St. Johns River in Welaka.
My Dad with a couple lunkers. 

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Old Florida at places like Welaka, Micanopy, and Palatka. I took it for granted then, but I don't today.

Looking not-too-thrilled to be in my Cub Scout uniform; woods in background
I was a Cub Scout and a Webelo, but I never made it to Boy Scouts as my troop dissolved and for some reason I didn't rejoin another troop. Webelos, the intermediate rank between Cub and Boy Scouts, stands for "We'll be Loyal Scouts." My favorite memory as a Webelo was a camping trip at a spring on the Santa Fe River. I don't remember the name of the spring, if I even knew it, but I remember it was on private property and we had the entire spring to ourselves for the whole weekend. We put watermelons in the spring to chill and when we finally ate them, it was the best watermelon I've ever had. Our entertainment for the camp out was to ride inflatable rafts from the spring head down the run, jumping out just before we reached the Santa Fe's darker water. We did this over and over and over, the force of the current making it a challenge to avoid crashing against the bank.

I'm grateful I grew up around springs and unspoiled wilderness. The Florida I grew up in was tiny towns and mid-sized cities with lots of forests or farmland in between. As a kid, long car rides bored me but today long drives through the country restore my soul.

We took several epic Florida vacations, and I'll always treasure the memories and the photos from our Sunshine State trips. My favorite was staying on remote Sanibel Island in a small cottage. I'd get up early every morning and scour the beach for seashells. We went to Thomas Edison's Winter Home in Ft. Myer's and Edison became my childhood hero. After Sanibel we cut across the state and visited Lion Country Safari on the other coast.

I also remember a vacation to the panhandle with a glorious sailboat trip, staying at little motels on Ormond Beach, and many frequent visits to St. Augustine. There was lots to do in Florida before Disney, and it didn't cost a fortune to do it.

My brother and I on Sanibel Island.
A memorable trip to Cape Canaveral (Kennedy Space Center).
Living less than an hour from Silver Springs, we often took out-of-town visitors there.
As a kid, I absolutely loved Marineland.
With my uncle at Six Gun Territory near Silver Springs. Loved that place too!
With my Mom in St. Augustine.
I'm grateful for these experiences in the other parts of the state, they give me a baseline with which to contrast the Florida of today and it helps me to appreciate the remnants of Old Florida that survive into the 21st century. Looking back into my childhood, I am reminded by how these experiences shaped me into who I am today. I am committed to doing my part to preserve Florida's culture, its history, and its natural environment.

I love hearing the stories from Floridians who have been in the state for generations – it helps me to imagine what the state was like before we arrived in '66. Feel free to leave a comment and share what you are grateful regarding Old Florida.