Wild Florida isn't gone. That's one important thing environmentalist Carlton Ward Jr. can tell us as he finishes a 1,000-mile mostly self-propelled journey through our state today. It's not all paved. It's not wall-to-wall strip malls or a gazillion-hole golf course. It's still possible to string together a pretty good trip through the woods in the 21st century.
At least for now.
Ward — and a few close friends — started their expedition in the Everglades in January. They hiked, pedaled bicycles, rode horses and paddled kayaks, meandering through the mangroves, sawgrass, cypress, scrubs, pines and across prairies, ponds, lakes and rivers. This morning — it's Earth Day, by the way — the mud is sucking at their boots as they climb out of the Okefenokee Swamp near the Georgia border.
They have seen crocodiles and alligators, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, otters and orchids during the last 100 days. They have photographed the tracks of Florida panthers and black bears, admired bald eagles and swallow-tailed kites, brushed aside scorpions and ticks.
Ward's ambition — other than to experience what may have been the greatest camping trip in the state's modern history — was to explore what environmentalists hope will become "Florida's Wildlife Corridor.''
A wildlife corridor is a green way, so to speak, a strip of mostly undeveloped land sometimes narrow and sometimes wide, that connects our parks, preserves, refuges and national forests. These green bridges allow shy terrestrial critters such as Florida panthers and black bears to move from wilderness to wilderness.
The concept is hardly new — Florida biologists have been talking about wildlife corridors for more than 25 years. But what's been missing is federal and state recognition of their importance and a mechanism to protect them. As it stands now, a poorly conceived road, golf course or gated community could essentially wall off key wildlife migration routes.
Larry Harris, a University of Florida biodiversity expert, first championed wildlife corridors in 1984. His protege, the bear and panther biologist David Maehr, next took up the fight. Maehr died in a plane crash while studying bears in 2008. Harris died of natural causes in 2010.
Carlton Ward Jr., who admired both men, decided he'd give it a try.
A lot of people know Ward only by his striking color photographs. They're found in galleries, calendars, magazines, private homes and coffee-table books. They celebrate Florida landscapes, Florida cowboys, Florida commercial fishermen, Florida wildlife.
Ward is an eighth-generation Floridian. His kinfolk were here in the 19th century when bison roamed North Florida prairies. His cowboy ancestors lost calves to wolves, panthers and cattle rustlers. Two relatives fought the Seminoles during the longest Indian War in U.S. history (1835-1842); his great-grandfather, Doyle Carlton, governed Florida during the Depression. His family today includes ranchers, landowners, attorneys and business people with fat checkbooks. Ward, who was born in Clearwater and lives in Tampa, likes to spend his blessings on preserving Florida's natural and human heritage.
He's only 36. He is tall and sharp-featured and polite like a cowboy from that Patrick Smith novel, A Land Remembered. Friends describe him as serious and single-minded, probably because he tends to ignore any sentence that contains "can't be done'' once he has made up his mind.
For his expedition he picked Joe Guthrie, a husky 32-year-old Kentuckian, bear biologist and expert birder who seldom says "can't be done.'' Another team member, Elam Stoltzfus, 52, wades past alligators and shoots video without complaint. Perfect.
Mallory Dimmit, 35, who has known Carlton since childhood, is a professional environmentalist who grew up on horseback among ranching kin from the well-known Lykes family. When her old friend asked if she wanted to walk from one end of Florida to the other, use the woods as a toilet, bathe infrequently but enjoy many opportunities to commune with rattlesnakes and mosquitoes, she never thought to reply "it can't be done.''
"When?'' she asked, and started putting gear together.
The expedition was six years in the making.
In 2006 Ward heard about an ambitious road-construction project proposed to run 125 miles from Lee County to Highlands County — directly through some of Central Florida's last undeveloped private and public lands, smack in the middle of the state's most important bear and panther wildlife corridor.
Gov. Jeb Bush supported the proposed toll road, Charlie Crist not so much. The recession put it and other similar projects on hold. Relieved by the delays, Ward and Dr. Tom Hoctor, who directs the UF Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning, began making plans and raising the $200,000 needed to fund an expedition.
"My goal is to call attention to the importance of wildlife corridors,'' Ward told supporters. His dream, he told them, is to walk into a Starbucks one day and hear people talking, not about Lady Gaga but panthers and bears and their need for wild lands.
They said goodbye to the aide who drives their equipment truck. Between mangrove trees they launched their kayaks and dipped their paddles.
Pay attention. Things happen:
The crocodiles in Everglades National Park don't molest them, though the ravenous mosquitoes and sandflies do.
Two days pass. Ward keeps his balance when he paddles his kayak over an alarmed alligator in shallow water. When the alligators and water disappear, he and his team push their boats through the sawgrass like Bogie and Hepburn in The African Queen. At night the mosquito cloud descends again.
They're lost in the dark.
They know that U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail, is somewhere up ahead. But the canal that will take them to the road is not where their GPS says it is supposed to be.
Exhausted, they camp. In the water. Try to sleep. Keep one eye open for pythons.
In the morning Joe Guthrie slashes his way through the sawgrass and finds the canal. Fortunately, videographer Elam Stoltzfus sees the cottonmouth in his kayak before sitting down.
Mallory Dimmitt paddles ahead stoically.
Sweetbay magnolia. Sword fern. Coco plum.
A turkey vulture on the afternoon thermals.
The rarest cat
At the equipment truck parked on the Tamiami Trail they trade their kayaks for mountain bikes. Now they pedal on a shadeless, rutted, behind-punishing Big Cypress gravel road for 41 miles. When they stop to fix a flat in the dark, mosquitoes find them. Wild Florida is not a Jimmy Buffett song.
They wade through Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park among the gators and ghost orchids. They are hiking through Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge when they see the tracks of America's rarest cat.
Once panthers were found from the end of Florida to Canada. Now they breed only in the Southwest Florida wilds. About 100 are left. Miami is crowding in from the east, Naples from the west. There is no more room for the panther population to expand except to the north, following a corridor of green.
Adult male panthers, competing for mates, fight each other to the death. Young males cross highways and ranchlands and orange groves looking for their own territory and mates. At present there are no females north of the Caloosahatchee River. The most determined young males swim across the river and look for them anyway. Traversing the imperfect wildlife corridor that still exists, one young panther actually wandered all the way to the Georgia border before turning around. Some that migrate north are hit by cars when they cross busy roads. Some make it back to South Florida and are killed by a bigger male panther.
A few days later:
Near Fisheating Creek, where wild turkeys gobble in the oak hammocks, a nice woman introduces herself and serves them her famous Gator Gumbo for lunch.
Joe Guthrie almost gets sideswiped by a truck's side-view mirror as they ride bikes on State Road 80. Hours later, they begin a 20-mile against-the-wind paddle through Arbuckle Creek.
Hold your nose:
"Thank God for Handi Wipes,'' Carlton says, dabbing his armpits. Elam grows his first beard ever. Joe and Mallory watch for swallow-tailed kites and try not to breathe deeply.
Salad. Roast beef. Power Bars. Apples, oranges and bananas. Once in a while, if they're close to a road and encounter their equipment truck, they grab a steak. Mostly they eat so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they swear to give them up forever once their trip is finished.
Blisters. Sunburn. Dry lips.
No spouses or significant others.
On ARCHBOLD Biological Station, a nonprofit preserve near Lake Placid, they encounter scrub jays, Florida's only endemic species. Joe discovers scratch marks left by a bear on a sand pine trunk. Later he catches an 8½ pound bass in Lake Annie. His stomach complains but he lets it go.
Look around and remember:
Endangered plants found nowhere else.
Curtiss' milkweed. Short-leafed rosemary. Wedge-leaved button-snakeroot. Wild Florida.
They hike. They ride horses on dozens of Florida ranches, crossing prairies and pastures, exploring pines and palmettos. "The ranches are the key to wildlife corridors in Florida,'' Ward always explains. "Panthers and bears cross them all the time. Did you know that 1 million acres, from the Tamiami Trail to Orlando, belong to ranchers?''
Most people don't know.
White-tailed deer. A lowing cow. A jet heading south.
One morning Joe is talking to a cowboy when a scorpion emerges from under the quiet man's collar. Joe ponders the nature of cowboy etiquette. Is it proper to lay hands on a macho cowboy? Or will he risk a punch in the nose?
Joe slaps away the scorpion.
"Thank you,'' the wrangler says.
A killer road
They paddle Lake Kissimmee. On Brahma Island they sleep in a bunkhouse. On the wall is a photograph that displays a couple of grizzled, camouflaged men who include — hmmm, could it be Johnny Depp? The movie star apparently accompanied his Florida-resident daddy on a Brahma Island hog hunt.
Watch where you step.
An endangered snail kite floats over the reeds.
Cabbage palm. Crested cara-cara.
Paddle. Hike. Eat peanut butter and jelly.
Interstate ahead. Gulp. Take a gander at the traffic.
I-4 is used by 50,000 vehicles every day. I-4 is not the only wildlife barrier on the corridor but it is the most deadly.
A squashed rattlesnake. Bits of fur, offal, skin, bone. Death is everywhere.
A Joe Guthrie story about the time he tracked a bear from South Florida to this very spot. It turned around rather than even try.
Carlton and his team watch from the grass for a break in the traffic. Run don't walk. On the other side they wonder if they have just experienced the most dangerous part of their trip.
One day a special "wildlife underpass" will be built beneath I-4 in this very spot. Carlton can't wait. Neither can the bears and occasional panthers.
On Lake Winder the starlight is bright enough to navigate. They pitch their tents and listen to the intimidating roar of the froggie orchestra. Nobody wants to talk anyway.
On the state's longest and historically most important river, the St. Johns, the alligators are longer than their kayaks. Great blue herons squawk at them as they must have squawked at William Bartram, the famous explorer, in 1774. Carlton photographs a limpkin picking the meat from a snail.
In Ocala National Forest they swim in a spring as clear as a martini. Later they hike by moonlight. Moths fly into the webs constructed by giant orb-weaving spiders. Horned owls moan a requiem.
At Camp Blanding, a 70,000-acre wilderness owned by the military, they shower, change clothes and feel almost human. After mess hall hamburgers, they ride bikes for a while, then hike through one of those once common but now all-but-gone long-leaf pine forests that endangered red cockaded woodpeckers absolutely need to exist in this world. Joe Guthrie listens to distant hammering and entertains woodpecker thoughts.
A Camp Blanding biologist warns them, "Don't backtrack on this road tomorrow. It's going to be hot.'' Translation: Military manuevers start at dawn with live shelling and bombs.
Where the wild things still are
A day later there is smoke on the wind. Carlton Ward Jr. makes a call on his cell phone which, at least this one time, is actually working. They're going to have to change their route if they want to avoid hiking into a forest fire.
Thirty six hours later:
West of the city of Starke. They hike into a clearing.
They see a series of buildings in the distance, surrounded by razor-wire fences.
The state prison.
Dead Man Walking. Old Sparky. Death by Lethal Injection.
Black vultures soaring above them, they duck back into the woods.
A Monday afternoon in wild Florida:
There are pines and palmettos and roots and broken limbs and rufous-sided towhees. Also the sound of traffic.
I-10 presents another barrier to Florida's wild things. At this time there are no plans, nothing definite anyway, to build a wildlife underpass. Until then, animals will die every day.
A Tuesday morning. They kayak on the Suwannee River past tricolored herons, red-shouldered hawks, soft-shelled turtles on logs, garfish. Cabbage palms bow to the river bank with grace and humility. Alligators crash into the river like frightened Steinways.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Paddle, paddle, paddle.
Thoughts on an April Saturday: Despite we-can't-imagine-how-many shopping malls, golf courses, highways and 19 million residents, wild Florida still manages to survive. Carlton Ward Jr. and his team have seen it. He has taken many pretty photographs. They'll look great in a calendar or a coffee-table book one day.
Still, he is hardly ready to uncork the champagne or perform an end-zone dance. It's the 21st century, after all, and there are perils aplenty.
Florida's current political leadership is indifferent and sometimes hostile to environmental concerns. In 2011, in fact, the Legislature weakened dramatically the landmark law that for decades managed growth in sensitive areas. Gov. Rick Scott also ordered the state's water management districts to reduce their budgets by $700 million and told employees to be kinder to developers and big business.
The recession is ending. People will start spending again. Sooner or later a developer will propose a new gated community on a spot where bears and panthers now creep through the underbrush.
Sen. JD Alexander — who has led the effort to make USF Polytechnic into a separate university in Lakeland — is also lobbying, once again, for that high-speed toll road through Central Florida. The highway would go through the Republican millionaire's ranch and open lots of adjacent land for development. For the wildlife corridor, and the panthers and bears that use it for travel, it could be a tragedy.
Near the Florida-Georgia border.
Carlton Ward Jr. and friends dip their worn paddles into the Okefenokee Swamp.
Waiting in the distance, beneath the cypress trees and beyond the boot-sucking mud, is dry wild land.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 and [email protected]