Biology was always my favorite class in high school. Freshman year Introduction to Biology was taught by C.A.R. Johnson, a quirky old fellow that had a lot of love for his subject, and for his students. C.A.R. always enjoyed taking his classes out for walks around Lake Ellen, behind Glenbard West High School, to show us the many varieties of trees that grew in that picturesque setting. He had a variety of stock phrases that he would use… some as teaching aids, and some as a way to keep the group together, and listening. “Tree of Heaven… smells like the OTHER PLACE”. “Xylem and Phloem… food flow through ’em.” “Slippery Elm… leaves like sandpaper!”  These stock phrases worked like a charm, to glue these little facts into our brains.  When some of the kids would start to wander off, he would draw us back together, saying, “Come little brother… come, little sister.”

Years later, I would find myself following another person on nature walks, but this time it was on the beautiful barrier island, Camp Lulu Key, in southwest Florida, in the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge.  The person leading these walks was another interesting character, known as John “Crawfish” Crawford.  John is a Marine Educator with the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service (MAREX).  The thing that initially drew me to Camp Lulu Key, was the gathering of fellow kayakers to the remote island for the New Year’s celebration, far away from the dangerous roads and loud gatherings on “amateur night”.  We partied, to be sure, but the next morning, we would always be there to do the cleanup.  Our motto was to always leave it as we found it, or leave it BETTER.  We picked up the remains of the night before, as the tide was on its way out, leaving 100 yards of tidal flats where the water had been, just hours before.  The morning of New Year’s Day, during my first trip to Lulu, I noticed John.  He was wearing his trademark white rubber shrimper’s boots and walking out from his campsite, which was nestled amongst the red and black mangrove shoreline.  A small crowd was quickly forming behind him, following his every move.  “Hmmm… interesting…”, I thought, as I quickly stashed the trash in my tent, and joined the group.

It was more than just “interesting”, following Crawfish onto that tidal flat… it was fascinating.  He would pause, pick up a live shell, and then talk about it for a bit.  He would tell the common name, like “lightning whelk”, and then go on to tell its Latin name (Busycon contrarium), and some of its particular traits.  The “contrarium” part of the Latin name was due to the fact that, unlike most other whelks and conchs which, when held “crown up”, had their opening on the right, the lightning whelk had its opening on the left… giving this shell its other common name, the “left-handed whelk”.  Crawfish had a wealth of knowledge about the shells, crabs, sponges, and other invertebrates.  Like a sponge soaking up water, I tried to learn all I could while following, listening, and asking questions.

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My friend, Kent Van Slyke, holds a live lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium), which we found crawling along the tidal flats recently, on Pavilion Key, in Everglades National Park.  In the second picture, you can see the whelk’s “operculum” – the “trap door” that protects the animal from predators, covering the left-handed opening and the soft animal inside.

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Fast-forward.  I’ve picked up a lot of bits of information over my 25 years of kayaking in SW Florida & beyond, through observation & investigation on my own, sharing with other knowledgeable people, and through my studies with the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP), associated with the University of Florida.  My instructor for the Master Naturalist Program was Cindy Bear-O’Connor, who is the Site Coordinator at the Randell Research Center, an ancient Calusa Indian shell mound at Pineland, Pine Island, FL.  This is an outstanding program, which I would highly recommend to anyone that is interested in furthering their knowledge of the many varied Florida ecosystems.

You could say that I am now, a “version” of C.A.R. Johnson and John Crawfish Crawford, and myself, combined.  I don’t claim to have the extensive knowledge of either of these two men, but I will say, quite proudly, that I know more than most.  It is my pleasure to be able to share that knowledge as a kayak guide for Everglades Area Tours, in Chokoloskee FL, at the doorsteps of Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.  It is a true pleasure to open up some eyes, while showing off the amazing abundance of life in this tremendously diverse natural area.  If you’d like to follow along with me, subscribe to my blog, or come join me on a kayaking trip, and see nature’s beauty through your own eyes.

Come, little brother… come, little sister!

http://evergladesareatours.com/

 

 

 

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“The Battle of Fisheating Creek” sounds like it may have taken place at an obscure Civil War battlefield, but this is a battle that is being waged today, between one of Florida’s cattle baron families, and the public.  The creek has been traveled by the public since the early days of Florida’s settlers, when the waterways were the highways that were used for trading and travel.  These days, it is used for recreation, by paddlers, campers, hunters , fishers, birdwatchers, and photographers.  It has been immortalized in stunning black and white photos by the world-famous photographer, Clyde Butcher.

Fisheating Creek is well-known amongst the kayakers and canoers of south Florida, as a great place to see the kind of scenery and wildlife that you might only expect to see in old-time photographs.  You can still see the real natural beauty of this place, just a little over 100 miles south of the city that “The Mouse” built, Orlando.  Fisheating Creek is a nature photographer’s paradise, with majestic cypress trees, spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the tea-stained red-brown, yet clear water, twisting and turning throughout its length.

Here, you can get up-close to nature in its beauty, with great blue herons that squawk at you angrily, as they give up their fishing spot, and hot-pink roseate spoonbills, swishing their heads side-to-side as they search for shrimps and small fishes in the shallow waters.  Sometimes, as you glide silently amongst the cypress trees in the narrow channels, you get a hint of what is to come.  Downy feathers cling to the bushes, and an earthy odor of guano tests your senses, just before a flock of a hundred white ibis fly up, with their “grumpy old man call”… awk, awk, awk, awk… like an old geezer complaining about kids invading “his” sidewalk with skateboards.   The limpkin looks at first, like the older brother to the ibis, because of its general shape, and the long, somewhat curved bill.  But they are larger, they are colored brown with white specks, and they are louder as well.  Their cry will wake you out of your reverie, and if you’re fast enough, maybe you can snap a shot before he takes off with his apple snail meal.

Of course, being wild Florida, there are gators, big and small.  You might not see any for a few miles, but then again, you may see enough that you will lose track if you try to count them all.  These gators are wild, and wary, and are unlikely to approach humans.  They are much more likely to watch as you approach, then silently slip into the water, still watching, with just their eyes and nostrils protruding above the surface.  If you get closer… poof!  They submerge and wait for you to go past, before quietly surfacing again.

In the 1980’s, Fisheating Creek’s natural beauty began to be known by more than just the local residents.  People came from miles away, to paddle its pristine waters, and camp & fish on its shores.  They recognized the creek for the treasure that it still is, mostly, to this day.  That was perceived as a problem by Lykes Brothers, the big cattle company that owned hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the creek.  They claimed ownership of the creek, and erected fences and felled trees across the waterway, to restrict access.

The Battle of Fisheating Creek had begun, and Lykes Brothers had fired the first shots.  These were answered by people such as Becky Hendry, and then Ellen Peterson, through the organization that came to be known as “Save Our Creeks”.  David Guest, now a lawyer for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against Lykes.  Working with Guest, Monika Reimer searched through nearly a century’s-worth of records, until she found a hand-drawn map from the 1920’s that proved conclusively, that Fisheating Creek had historically been a navigable waterway along its 50 mile length.  It was the evidence that was desperately needed, to stop Lykes in its tracks.  In 1997, it was decided in court, that Fisheating Creek belongs to us, the public.

In the 1997 agreement, it was decided that exotic vegetation that had clogged Cowbone Marsh, about halfway between Rte. 27 and Lake Okeechobee, would be removed, to restore the natural flow of the creek.  That task was turned over to the Florida Game Commission.  According to Earthjustice, the money that was appropriated for this purpose, was misspent, and instead, was used to buy swamp buggies for hunters and fishermen.  The Army Corps of Engineers got involved, and brought their own “solution” to the Cowbone Marsh “problem”.  Their plan is to dump 50 million pounds of sand in the marsh, and build several roads through it, effectively splitting the creek, creating a lake, and cutting the flow of water to the lower part of the creek, and Lake Okeechobee.

David Guest and Monika Reimer are in the process of filing several legal actions to prevent this, but in the meantime, a series of dams have already been built across Cowbone Marsh.  As recently as July 2008, I paddled from Lake Okeechobee up to Cowbone Marsh.  At that time, the flow of water was still getting through the marsh, and I was able to paddle my kayak the 9 or 10 miles to get to where it was blocked by water hyacinths.   In September 2009, I kayaked from the Fisheating Creek Outpost by Rte. 27, nearly 12 miles downstream, to where thick grasses had blocked navigation from the other side of Cowbone Marsh.  At that point, I had paddled all but 1 or 2 miles of Fisheating Creek, from the mouth, to approximately 36 miles upstream.  I was eagerly anticipating being able to “connect the dots” after the exotics were removed.

On my last attempt to reach Cowbone Marsh via the mouth of the creek, the flow of water had trickled to almost nothing, as a result of the dams that had been built at the marsh.  Only a mile into the trip, the water was so shallow that I had to get out and walk my kayak for a hundred yards at a time.  This is a kayak that can easily float in 8″ to 10″ of water.  After slogging through the shallows like this, for 2 1/2 miles, I gave up the effort and turned around.
Cowbone Marsh dam pic 1Pic #1 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Cowbone Marsh Dam pic 2Pic #2 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Cowbone Marsh dam pic 3Pic #3 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Now I hear about this misguided plan to change Cowbone Marsh, and Fisheating Creek, forever.  These closed-door decisions have been made, with zero input from the REAL owners of the creek, you and me… the public.  I am just one paddler, but this doesn’t just affect me.  It affects every member of the public that might want the future generations of, not only Florida residents, but of the USA and the world, that want to have the natural beauty of Florida’s still-natural waterways to remain pristine, for the people, and the animals, to enjoy.

What can you do to help?  Visit the following links, and donate your money, or your time.  They will both be needed, and you can help.

Earthjustice:  http://earthjustice.org/features/campaigns/into-the-swamp
Save Our Creeks:  http://www.saveourcreeks.org/index.html


The Myakka River is a unique river… a treasure, for a nature-loving kayaker like myself.  It meanders back & forth through natural oxbows, trying to put off its eventual mixing with the salt water at its mouth, 30 miles away, in Charlotte Harbor.  If you were to stretch this river out straight, it would probably be five times longer than it appears to be, on a map.  These wildly twisting turns create niches along the way, with deep narrow channels of moving water, bordered by shallow weedy marshes that are loaded with wading birds of all kinds.  There are the elegant black-necked stilts, bold-patterned anhingas, and the strangely exotic and colorful roseate spoonbills.  The drama is apparent with the many places on the shoreline, where the weeds are flattened to the ground by sun-seeking alligators.

Compared to many other rivers, the Myakka seems to have more than its share of gators.  Driving into Myakka River State Park, just east of Sarasota, it seems that every time you drive over the bridge, or go to the concession area, there are people ooh-ing and ahh-ing and snapping pictures of gators from a safe distance.  For a tourist adventure, you can book a short trip on the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal… huge airboats that carry a sizeable crowd out to Upper Myakka Lake, where you can take more pictures of the gators from a safe location.  If you’re lucky, there might even be a wading bird or two that aren’t scared out of their wits by this monstrosity that invades their feeding areas.

I prefer a quiet approach, that doesn’t leave the local wildlife scattering to the winds or the waters.  A quiet paddler may see deer, wild pigs, raccoons, otters, turkeys, white ibis, and a wide variety of herons and egrets.  Probably because the river isn’t bordered by residential areas for many miles of its length, the alligators are far more likely to show their more natural behavior.  Rather than being accustomed to our noisy intrusions, the gators along the upper parts of the Myakka still have a natural fear of anything that is bigger than they are… or bigger in most cases, I should say.  There are some BIG gators in this river.

“THEY… are afraid… of US???” – I seem to hear you asking.  Well, yes.  These alligators are very wary of intruders.  If you like to chat loudly with your fellow paddlers, you’ll still see gators.  Most likely though, all you will see is their eyes and nostrils barely protruding above the water’s surface.  Then, as you approach, POP!  They submerge.  If you & your paddling companions have a lull in the conversation, you may see the gators laying on the bank up ahead, warming their cold blood in the mid-day sun.  As you paddle closer, they start shifting their positions, then finally stand up and walk to the water, sliding gracefully in until they can hide their bodies while keeping a hesitant eye on you.  Then… goodbye!  You won’t see them again, unless you sit quietly and wait.

If your group can move quietly downstream, including keeping your paddle strokes as silent as possible, you will see even more.  There are places along the river where it is not uncommon to see as many as 20 of these prehistoric beasts looking like a lineup of cut logs.  The river is never terribly wide, so it seems that you can’t pass by quietly enough and far enough away, to keep from spooking them.  It looks like a scene from an old Johnny Weismueller Tarzan movie, when you see a mob such as this, rushing the water in a frantic effort to disappear into the depths.  The difference is, there is no film editor, to add in the scene of Johnny swimming, knife in mouth, then wrestling the rubber critter and stabbing it to death before he can become its lunch.  It takes a Hollywood writer and creative film editing, to create that kind of drama.  In all actuality, these are just some nervous animals that don’t want to deal with “the unknown”… YOU.

A few years ago, my paddling group had heard of a place that’s downriver from the state park, known as “The Deep Hole”.  We were told that it was in the vicinity of Lower Myakka Lake, and that it was a natural sinkhole, that was 50 to 60 feet deep.  The surrounding lake is quite shallow and fairly large.  In the dry season (winter, to you “snowbirds”), water levels in the river and its lakes drop significantly.  The gators like to have water nearby, that is deep enough for them to be able to disappear completely.  They can be found in isolated spots along the lakes and the river, but they tend to congregate in numbers in places like The Deep Hole.  I have seen as many as 60 alligators in the vicinity of the Hole at one time.  This is especially impressive when you consider that the entire Hole is no larger than a football field.

During our group’s first visit to The Deep Hole, we were understandably cautious.  Despite our combined years of experience kayaking in Florida, we had never seen so many gators concentrated in once place.  The smallest ones were about 6 feet long, and I hesitate to estimate how long the largest could have been.  I will say this: when you see a gator that is a foot tall while LAYING DOWN… that… is a B-I-G gator.   Our group decided to close ranks to form a raft, with all of the inside kayakers holding onto the cockpit coamings of the two kayaks that they bordered.  The two outside kayakers would control the movement of the raft with their paddles, awkwardly moving the group into the center of the Hole as a unit.  It worked well, although as the paddler on the right, I wanted to move to the center of the Hole, while our paddler on the left would have preferred not to.  Lots of pictures were taken, along with a decent video of the nervous chatter amongst the group.
A couple of years later, the group returned, with a “Been there, done that.” attitude, and a somewhat relaxed opinion of the real danger that exists, in being surrounded by at least 40 (on this occasion) large, wild alligators.  We had two people, myself, and Joe, that were eager to capture this moment on video.  Despite the vocal warnings of some of our companions, Joe and I paddled into the center of the Hole, and drifted our individual kayaks as we shot and narrated our videos.  We drifted casually, and even bumped our kayaks together, chuckling as we got video of each other, saving the moment digitally.

There were gators lined up on the shore, sunning, and there were more wary gators that had entered the water upon our somewhat silent approach.  We had been there long enough, that some of the gators that had previously submerged, were coming up for air.  A bald eagle was eating a fish in one of the nearby cabbage palms, and anhingas dried their wings in the warmth of the sun.  It was a peaceful and tranquil scene.  It didn’t last.

Wham – SPLASH!!!  My kayak was suddenly rocking with an impact to the bow!  Without thinking, I instinctively dropped my camera (still running) and grabbed the paddle that was laying across my lap, and did some quick bracing moves, to keep from turning over.  The whole incident was over as quickly as it began, but that’s all it took for my heart to triple its beat.  I stabilized myself, and backed my kayak up, catching my breath from the close call.  I’m still a little bit amazed that I didn’t let out a string of obscenities through the whole event.

It was NOT an “attack”.  I’ve had this exact same thing happen on numerous occasions, but in the other instances, it had been with the “gentle giant” manatees that frequent the local waters.  That will get your heart rate flying as it is, but in THIS case, there was the added thought of all of those teeth, and all of those nearby toothy companions.  You could say, that it was a nervous moment for me (understatement of the year!).  The manatees in the previous instances, and this gator, just happened to be surfacing in a spot that was already occupied… by ME.  When it felt the weight of my kayak on its back, it panicked.  It just wanted to get away, and in its rush to escape, it hit my bow, HARD.  No offense meant, and none taken.  It’s just another story for the campfire, or for the blog.

One thing that you will learn about me, as you read my blogs, is that I’m a bit of a storyteller.  Some storytellers are notable, for the way that they, shall we say, “embellish” a story.  In an attempt to make the story better than the reality, the plot may be “punched up”.  “Facts” may be inserted ie: “there was a SEVENTEEN-FOOT-LONG  gator, staring at us hungrily!”  You will never see embellishments like this, in the stories that I tell.  Every tale is TRUE, as it happened.  Does this one sound a little bit too “fantastic”… maybe… “fictionalized” a little bit?  Watch my video, and decide for yourself.  The “action” starts about 3 minutes into the video: