Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition
Story by James Branaman
After a night of torrential downpours snapped heavy oak boughs and dropped temperatures into the 40s at Rainbow Springs State Park, the morning sun teases golden from behind a curtain of steel-gray sky. The Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition team, 15 days into a 70-day, 900+ mile hiking, biking and paddling expedition across the state, is hosting a “trail mixer” event in which they’ve invited the public to join them for a paddle on the Rainbow River. Though the forecast threatens more blustery conditions, expedition member and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt looks optimistically toward the small opening in the dark clouds and remarks, “It’s beautiful looking down at that spring. The turquoise waters … a little bit of gray makes the color pop.”
Over the last two weeks, Dimmitt, along with expedition members Carlton Ward Jr. and Joe Guthrie, have slogged through swamps, paddled crystal clear rivers and swam in springs with manatees, and they are still within an hour or so drive of their Tampa Bay homes. The group hopes the path they are traveling on this hiking, biking and paddling adventure will soon become part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a protected, connected landscape throughout the state that forms viable corridors for wildlife to move through. As Ward puts it, “Without the connectivity, nature gets turned into islands surrounded by development, or as some people say a zoo without bars.”
Dimmitt gathers the trail mixer crowd and begins introductions, but ironically, explorer Carlton Ward is missing. Lost on his own accord, he and fellow expeditioner Guthrie were last spotted trotting down the rolling hill toward the springs, like two boys running off to play in the wilderness, which essentially they are. In fact, they’ve made successful careers of it. Ward is a conservation photojournalist and National Geographic explorer, Guthrie a wildlife biologist specializing in bears. In 2012 Ward, Guthrie and Dimmitt, along with filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus ventured out on a similar journey as the team traveled 1,000 miles in 100 days. That venture resulted in the documentary film Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee, featured on PBS and an award-winning book.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor really began in 2006 when Ward attended a lecture by Tom Hoctor, Director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida. Hoctor was discussing the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, a long-standing scientific vision for critical linkages throughout the state that according to Ward just didn’t have much public or political notoriety at the time. Ward recalls, “I raised my hand and said, this is really great but can we call it Florida Wildlife Corridor or something that is easier to understand?” Hoctor and Ward would collaborate from that point on, co-founding The Florida Wildlife Corridor. Since then, they and the rest of the team have continued to put a public face on the science.
Watercolor by Mike Reagan
The team spent a good part of their first week exploring the Green Swamp northeast of Tampa and even donned fire gear to participate in a prescribed burn. “The Green Swamp is one of these natural treasures hiding in plain sight of Tampa and Orlando, only an hour away from either and it’s the source of 4 major rivers,” says Ward. The Peace River, Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha all originate there, as well as the Hillsborough River, which Ward describes as “the definitive element for Tampa Bay" and the source of most of the water for over 3 million people. "I can’t think of anywhere else in the state that is such a combined headwaters for as many major rivers,” Ward continues, “It’s just amazing, beautiful swamps, palmetto flatwoods, remote sections of cypress and live oaks totally blanketed with resurrection fern hanging out over the river, it’s world class nature experiences that are pretty under appreciated by the surrounding urban areas that depend on it.” Ward explains that because the aquifer is so close to the surface there, some refer to it as “the water tower” for the Tampa Bay and Orlando regions because its elevation allows water to flow out in all directions and the rainfall there pressurizes the whole Floridian aquifer. “It’s such a vital piece of land that needs connections to other properties,” he says, noting that despite its ideal habitat, there is no resident bear population in the Green Swamp, a prime example of why the Florida Wildlife Corridor is needed. “100 years ago there were bears in every county in Florida,’’ Ward says. “Originally bears and panthers would walk right through what is now Orlando on their way up the Lake Wales Ridge north and south. (Now) I-4 between Tampa and Orlando is pretty much a wall of concrete and associated development.”
“It’s amazing bear habitat,” Guthrie says of the Green Swamp, “Ecology wise, there’s no reason (why) there is not a bear population there, cause it’s got what it needs, it’s just that they (bears) are stuck between Tampa and Orlando,” he explains referring to a healthy population in the Ocala National Forest. “I-4, US 27, I-75 and US 19 have kind of boxed it (the existing bear population) in.” Additionally, Guthrie describes the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge bear population to the northwest of Tampa as imperiled since it has dwindled to an estimated 11 individuals. A connected corridor between these lands could lessen the Ocala density (and nuisance bear incidents), strengthen the Chassahowitzka population and possibly even establish a resident population in the Green Swamp.
According to Ward, the next step is directing funding from Amendment 1 into strategic land conservation that helps complete the missing links in the corridor. "The voters spoke with a 75 percent majority that we want water and land conservation and I hope that the lawmakers can see the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision as an example of how those funds can be responsibly used to accomplish a long-term goal.” Guthrie puts it bluntly, “There’s so much to fight for in Florida, just because Amendment 1 is coming, we can’t relax, we can’t assume that it is going to be used as all the voters intended. We’re going to be right there, watching and trying to keep everyone honest.”
Back to expedition day 15 and more than 50 people in canoes and kayaks have joined Dimmit, Ward and Guthrie on the water. Powder puff clouds slide across the sky like tumble weeds as a stiff breeze sways empty rope swings and pushes hard against the boats already going against the current. The pace is strenuous, but each stroke brings the paddler rewards for the struggle. A bald eagle soars overhead. A cormorant suns itself, wings outstretched like a scarecrow, atop a shallow-water marker. Otters splash playfully, then slip elegantly below the surface.
This leg of the journey complete, the group gathers for a photo, raising colorful paddles under what are now crisp blue skies punctuated by the waving green grasses and jewel-hued waters of the Rainbow River. Soon the expedition team will head off into the wilderness and the trail mixer crowd will return to their daily lives, but they’ll take with them their own experience of joining the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. As Deborah Keller of The Nature Conservancy pulls her kayak from the river, helping hands guide it toward higher ground. Keller traveled three hours from Tallahassee to meet the expedition team. “It’s great seeing people of all ages, from all over, here, sharing the belief that theses lands can be connected.” She acknowledges it’s still early in the journey, but her confidence is clear, “We’ve done a lot in Florida, but we haven’t fixed it. But it is still possible and we can do it!”