Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: An early fog, a broken link

Editor's note: The three members of the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition are filing weekly dispatches of their 1,000-mile, 10-week journey to highlight the value of keeping an open pathway through the state for wildlife. Here is the story of the second week.

The sun is bright and the midday air crisp at the saltwater fringe along this stretch of Florida's Nature Coast. Palms and sawgrass rustle in the breezes that are building and cutting southeast across the marsh from the Gulf of Mexico.

The day began in stillness with cold fog hanging tight to Crawford Creek, soaking every surface, especially my kayak, it seemed. As I paddled upstream searching for the sunrise, perfect reflections of the shoreline were painted on the black and glassy water. With fog holding back the dawn, the only signs that time was passing at all were the slight current against my bow and the shifting of the mist.

We began the week immersed in the Green Swamp under steady rains, and our route followed the water downstream. We paddled the Withlacoochee River and hiked the Florida National Scenic Trail along its banks. On Jan. 17, 75 paddlers joined us at Withlacoochee State Forest for our first weekly "Trail-mixer," this time hosted by the Florida Forest Service.

We parted ways with our guests and the Withlacoochee that afternoon and spent the night at Chinsegut Hill near Nobleton. The next morning we left this 250-foot-high sand hill and bicycled 30 miles west to the coast. Crawling up the peaks and racing down the valleys of the Brooksville Ridge burned my legs and gave perspective to the water's journey — why the Withlacoochee had turned north to find a lower path of resistance to the gulf.

Bicycling, we traversed a patchwork of state forest and agricultural lands that could potentially work as a corridor, but also passed new subdivisions, a golf course and shopping plaza at U.S. 19, breaking up the habitat and making connectivity more difficult. This fragmentation is likely the reason the black bear population surviving in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is said to be the most isolated and genetically impoverished in the world.

Our camp on Crawford Creek was near the end of the Chassahowitzka River's 5-mile path to the gulf. We had swum and filmed its headsprings before paddling west, giving a glimpse into the aquifer and taste of the days to come. We will explore coastal springs, hopefully with manatees, as we paddle north through the saltmarsh past Crystal River, before reconnecting with the Withlacoochee River where it completes its 141-mile journey to the gulf near Yankeetown.

Follow their progress here in Perspective, at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org, wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/term/florida-wildlife-corridor-expedition and on social media: Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor; Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor. Follow Ward's photography at Instagram.com/CarltonWard and Facebook.com/CarltonWardPhotography.