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Perspective: Carried by a swift current

A North American river otter peers out over a tributary of the Ochlockonee River. The team had paddled for 14 miles, including exploration of Wood Lake, near where this otter and its family were seen. The Ochlockonee runs along the edge of Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest that, combined with adjacent conservation lands, protect more than a million acres of habitat.

Photograph by Carlton Ward Jr., carltonward.com

A North American river otter peers out over a tributary of the Ochlockonee River. The team had paddled for 14 miles, including exploration of Wood Lake, near where this otter and its family were seen. The Ochlockonee runs along the edge of Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest that, combined with adjacent conservation lands, protect more than a million acres of habitat.

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 sixth week.

We launch our kayaks one by one into the dark waters of the Ochlockonee River, picking individual routes through cypress and other trees in this flooded forest to open water. Drifting with the current, we position our boats near to hear our soft-spoken guest, a local forester named David Morse who knows this river well. David informs us that the spot where we camped and launched is not normally used as a river access, but that with the high water we should be able to connect to the main river channel with some winding but without too much trouble.

We follow his lead; his slim solo canoe slips effortlessly through the downed branches but our craft are not nearly as graceful. It's a slalom course of sorts, and I'm reminded of how much I love paddling, and how good it feels to be back in a boat and aided by current after wearing ourselves out hiking. We've just completed a long eight-day stretch of the Florida Trail, which culminated in a "swamp tromp" trudge through Bradwell Bay.

The pine flatwoods and the titi (pronounced tie-tie) and tupelo swamps of Apalachicola National Forest (and all the landscapes we've traversed in the first five weeks of the Expedition) seem like lush green anomalies when contrasted with the mostly bare branches enshrouding the Ochlockonee. It's still winter here, and we see no one else on the river as we descend for 2½ days. It's peaceful and delightfully wild, a perfect way to mark the end of week five and begin the second half of our 70-day trek.

We turn north on the Crooked River, a narrowing, meandering backwater that separates St. James Island from the mainland. We're greeted by a stiff wind, and the final mile to the primitive camp seems never-ending. We finish out the Crooked River the next day, paddling alongside a dolphin and under a bald eagle as we wind through the salt marsh to Carrabelle.

The final river in this leg of the trek is Florida's biggest: the Apalachicola. We put in in Blountstown under a flat gray sky that precedes a cold front, awed by the width of the river and the force of the current, making the previous five days of paddling feel intimate in comparison. We're able to move 5 miles an hour in this current when paddling, and our first day goes by without much fanfare, more concerned with packing out for the next four unsupported days and preparing for the freezing temperatures to come. The Apalachicola in February is windy and lonely, punctuated by vacant houseboats tied to bare trees along the banks. Spring has not arrived, but if you look closely at the bud end of the stems overhanging the river, you can see that it's coming. We paddle on, gulf-ward.

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.

Perspective: Carried by a swift current 02/19/15 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2015 4:53pm]
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