Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Perspective: A river goes underground

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 fifth week.

The ribbon of damp earth is punctuated by limestone ledges, their bronze patinas textured by mosses a few shades darker than the palmettos skirting the footpath. In the flat, predawn light, sturdy tree trunks define the shifting horizon and measure forward progress. Weaving among oaks, sweetgums, maples and palms, we descend toward the sounds of swishes and ripples of water rushing over rocks.

Drawing closer, the Aucilla River reveals itself beneath a sheath of fog insulating it from the cold morning. Fighting with numb fingers, I set my tripod low among cypress knees and work to compose a frame that will hopefully capture even a bit of the awe I feel rediscovering this hidden corner of Florida's "Forgotten Coast." After a few long exposures, shafts of sunrise start to break up the scene. I pack my camera and head downstream seeking a different view. After a couple hundred steps, the forest closes in from both banks and the river swirls like a giant bathtub drain and disappears underground. This section of the Florida National Scenic Trail is named the Aucilla Sinks Trail for the series of circular sinkholes that provide portals to the river as it flows beneath and through the limestone bedrock.

Having biked several straight days from the northern Nature Coast around the Big Bend, it feels good to slow down and begin more than a week hiking the Florida Trail. It will carry us to the wild heart of the corridor and halfway point of the expedition. With five weeks and more than 500 miles behind us, my body has finally adapted to our pace. That's a good thing because our first day back under the weight of our backpacks included 18 miles through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, 2 miles through shin-deep water and much of it in the rain. When fighting the wet wind to set camp on a berm looking over a vast salt marsh and the Gulf of Mexico, fellow expeditioner Mallory Lykes Dimmitt said we had reached the end of the Earth.

Four more days in the refuge, the trail entered the 632,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest, which combined with adjacent conservation lands, anchors nearly a million protected acres. On scale, it's the Everglades of North Florida. Still east of the Apalachicola River, we hiked along the wild and twisted Sopchoppy River and later waded through a 4-mile stretch of swamp that's part of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness Area. There were sections of the trail where Joe Guthrie, expedition member and bear expert, points out bear claw marks on what seems like every other pine tree.

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.