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 first week's dispatch, from biologist Joe Guthrie.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition began with a two-day bike from Haines City up through Davenport, crossing U.S. 92 and U.S. 27, dodging traffic and ducking past sprawling construction projects pock-marking the old sand dunes of the Lake Wales Ridge, where 90 percent of the uplands have been developed. It was an unpleasant beginning.
Not long after our scramble across U.S. 27 we confronted Interstate 4 east of Polk City, at Hilochee Wildlife Management Area. There we crossed beneath the highway in a tunnel built at the time of the interstate's construction, to allow a past owner to move livestock and farm equipment back and forth.
Things improved after crossing the interstate. We're now hiking our way through the Green Swamp to find the headwaters of the Withlacoochee River. The Green Swamp is a massive and delicate natural hydrologic pump station, where four Florida rivers seep from the ground. The Withlacoochee, the Hillsborough, the Peace and the Ocklawaha rivers each emerge from the Green Swamp. As we walk along, the water slips among cypress knees, tannin-stained, the detritus of the swamp churning softly in the eddies. This water is said to be cleaner than that of most watersheds, with the lack of development surrounding the swamp and the lengthy detention time of surface water here.
The Green Swamp teems with wildlife — commonplace but endlessly interesting critters like deer, turkey, river otter, barred owls cackling wildly in the dark oak hammocks. We stop, photographing some, gawking at others as they gawk back at us. We investigate the fresh remains of a bullfrog near the edge of a small wetland, and decide that the owl that had flown as we came into view had made a meal of it. It is only through conservation and protection that we can ensure this swamp and its natural riches aren't lost.
On the first day of our hike it rained through the afternoon and much of the night. Under our rain gear and loaded packs we smiled and joked. The stress brought on by months of preparations and planning have begun to lift as we focus more on the trail before us over the next 70 days. We set camp in the rain, dove into tents and changed into warm, dry clothes. We made fire with material collected before it began to rain. We prepared a meal of soup, couscous and sautéed vegetables. At the end of a long hike there was satisfaction in having maintained a small dry space, in the fire's warmth, and in simple food. I ate two heaping plates.
Follow their progress here in Perspective, at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org and on social media: Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor; Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor.