WEEKI WACHEE — They pushed off the riverbank, sinking their paddles into the cool aquamarine water. With smooth and efficient strokes, the two friends paddled upstream swiftly, past signs announcing "Private Property" and "For Sale," past a water cabbage trapped in a thicket, and past a father swimming with his two young sons.
Gwynne Brunet, 34, and Laura Jenkins, 31, were on a mission: to find the perfect picnicking places along the river. Where there's a good place to stop, there's often more than footprints. Within a few hours, the pair filled several pink trash bags with evidence of good times gone bad: discarded bottles and aluminum cans ranging from Welch's Strawberry Soda to Natural Light Beer.
Brunet and Jenkins are members of the Kayak Nature Adventures Paddle Club, based in Gulfport, which recently was granted a permit by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to enter the spring-fed river from a restricted area known as "the bluffs" located inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. In return for access, the volunteers on Sept. 18 collected bags of garbage — most in the form of beer cans and bottles, some looking as though they were plucked off the shelf yesterday, others wearing the faded logo of old marketing campaigns.
"I've been paddling on the Weeki Wachee for 25 years," said event organizer Kurt Zuelsdorf, the owner of Kayak Nature Adventures. "When you're on the river, it's nice and clear. When you get out of the boat and take a walk along the shoreline, the garbage is really quite overwhelming."
Zuelsdorf has been organizing waterway cleanups in the Tampa Bay area since 2003 and is perhaps best known for his work in the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve in Pinellas County, where more than 150,000 pounds of trash have been collected.
In most cases, including Clam Bayou, the majority of the garbage comes from water runoff from streets and yards. But along the Weeki Wachee River, there are no drains emptying to transport rubbish. In many cases, trash along the river was simply left behind by humans.
For Zuelsdorf, the solution is simple: While you're out enjoying the river, take a garbage bag, pick up your own garbage and grab a little more.
"If everybody enjoying the water picked up a little bit, we could wipe this out," he said.
Each step toward keeping the area clean makes a difference. In 2007, as a result of erosion, vandalism and illegal activity, Fish and Wildlife officials ultimately closed access to the popular swimming spot, also known as "the sandbox," which is a mile and a half west of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park within the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area.
"It's typically not the commission's policy to close areas," said wildlife biologist Chad Allison, who serves as area manger. "We like to keep things open to the public."
But the agency was unable to police what had grown into 300 visitors a day during the summer months. Once the access point was closed, there was still a backlog of paperwork to complete.
"We had a year's worth of reports to the Sheriff's Office a couple of feet tall," Allison said.
The agency has since been able to focus on its mission of management and restoration. The coastal scrub ecosystem found within the management area is rare and has begun to show signs of recovery.
"It's indicative of plant communities that were prevalent when sea levels were higher," Allison said. "It's gotten further and further away from the coast. It's not very common. The more it's protected, managed and restored, the better."
Scrub jays, threatened due to habitat loss, were once prevalent in the Chassahowitzka. Allison hopes with additional measures of support and restoration, the land will once again be able to support the species.
And there's hope that could be a reality one day.
Zuelsdorf says he's always amazed at how quickly wildlife returns once space is restored.
A young girl and her father climbed up the embankment after exploring the river.
"We saw a mama deer and her baby," she said. "The baby still had white spots."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.