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.


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.


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!