Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Honoring Terry Tomalin's legacy: Embrace fear, explore Florida

Terry Tomalin left a legacy: Explore the world. Expand your perspective. Overcome your fears.


A cormorant hunts for fish under the surface of the Rainbow River in Dunnellon.

The presence of the Tampa Bay Times late outdoors editor is still felt in the communities he was a part of, both among friends who knew him well and readers who followed him on journeys around the state.

Terry's love of nature inspired two journalists to break out of their comfort zones and embark on a Florida adventure of their own — despite some pretty serious fears. Staff writer Caitlin Johnston and designer Tara McCarty spent two days immersed in the state's natural beauty, including rivers, canyons and canopies.

The plan was simple: snorkel down the Rainbow River and zip line over the Canyons in Ocala. Except Tara is afraid of breathing underwater, and Caitlin is terrified of heights. But the two knew that confronting their anxieties was the only way to experience the richness of Florida. In true Terry fashion, they chose exploration over fear.

Tara: KP Hole park; Rainbow River

I get anxious. A little ball in my chest seems to stretch and pulse with every breath, keeping the panic alive.

It happened in the Keys, when I was floating with a noodle and a mask in the Atlantic Ocean, feet above the Florida Reef, the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world. It happened again when I was close enough to touch a grazing manatee in Crystal River, the only place in Florida you can legally swim with sea cows.


Tara McCarty, left, and Caitlin Johnston, witIn the Times, in honor of Terry Tomalin's legacy of overcoming your fears, snorkel in the Rainbow River in Dunnellon on Wednesday.


Tara McCarty, left, and Caitlin Johnston, witIn the Times, in honor of Terry Tomalin's legacy of overcoming your fears, snorkel in the Rainbow River in Dunnellon on Wednesday.

I've always liked the idea of snorkeling but not so much the practice. I end up seeking refuge on boats more than enjoying the experience of exploration.

I explain all of this to Travis Lowke, a diving instructor from Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, who served as a guide down the Rainbow River.

Once in the shallow water on the river bank, he tasks us with a little breathing technique to get started:

"Put the snorkel in your mouth, your face in the water and just breathe deep breaths."

Once I get into the rhythm of breathing slowly and purposefully, it becomes much easier to do it with my eyes open at the same time.

Next to me, Caitlin is struggling to keep her breaths steady. They come too quickly, shallow and ragged. Travis said it's because of the cold — the water is 73 degrees — but Caitlin attributes it to nerves.

Turns out, we are both apprehensive about the challenge the other picked. But we're both adamant about learning new skills and wanting to spend more time outdoors. So here we are, snorkels strapped to our heads and heart rates climbing.

Feeling more confident after a few drills, we take a pontoon boat nearly a mile up-river. Idling next to a large tree with a rope swing, we dangle our flippers off the back of the boat, then slide into the water. Now there's no option but to swim with the current back to where we started our journey.

I start slowly, panicking slightly about treading water. But keeping my legs straight and flipping my ankles back and forth provides all the buoyancy I need. Even easier? Actually snorkeling. Once horizontal on the water's surface, I float without difficulty and, while breathing correctly, even relax.

Travis points out white, little fish congregating around bubbles coming from the river bottom. He says they are waiting to eat the bloodworms that live in the sand. He dives down, turning over the sand in his hands, stirring up the site for the fish to feed. I feel a wave of accomplishment when I successfully dive down and touch one of the bubble sites (just for a second, though. No bloodworm stirring for me!).

Travis asks where my hesitation and anxiety come from. He wonders if it is the thought of the unknown.

I never doubted the mechanics of the snorkel and goggles, something Caitlin wrestled with early on.


Tara McCarty, left, and Caitlin Johnston, witIn the Times, in honor of Terry Tomalin's legacy of overcoming your fears, prepare to go snorkeling at Rainbow River in Dunnellon.

"I know this is designed to help me," Caitlin says, "but there's something unnatural about a human breathing under water."

After an hour of practice, I am doing flips and somersaults, even diving with a cormorant to a reasonable depth of the river. It swims past us and Caitlin and I follow, both elated by how relatively easy it seems now to submerge ourselves completely and kick down to the river floor.

Close to the end of the trip, I'm trailing a giant turtle, when it suddenly disappears from sight into tall sea grass that carpets the river bed. Panic sets in again. If the vegetation can conceal a reptile of that size, what else is it hiding?

The thought of accidentally swiping a creature or disturbing a habitat with my flippers causes instant stress. Cue fight or flight mode. I know I should ask Travis for help, but he's snorkeling with Caitlin at the opposite bank. They've found more turtles, and a baby swims through Caitlin's hands. She's so overjoyed with this interaction that the two have no idea I'm grappling with major anxiety.

I give in to my fear and turn toward my safe place, the shallow water where we practiced.

That little ball in my chest returns. I plunge my face in the water, look down. The sea grass is swaying — beautifully, innocently. I flipper faster. Legs straight, arms straight.

When the green grass gives way to sand, I rejoice. But I hadn't conquered my fear. I remember Travis' breathing lessons. I take long, deep breaths in, then out. Over and over.

If I could just end this trip by being able to relax under water, it might count for something.

Caitlin: The Canyons; Ocala

We're only 20 feet above the ground but it might as well be a thousand. I wrap my arms around the tree trunk supporting our zip-line platform, turn my head away from our group and try my best to breathe.

But as I shift and look toward the long span of heavy-duty cable connecting our platform to another 200 feet away, my breath catches and my body tenses against the tree.

Why? Why did I think this was a good idea?


Caitlin Johnston, in honor of Terry Tomalin's legacy of overcoming your fears, leads a group over a rope bridge while exploring a zip line course at the Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours in Ocala.

I have been petrified of heights my entire life. I refused to scale the monkey bars in elementary school for fear that I'd plummet to my death, like Mufasa in The Lion King. What had convinced me to cross two rickety rope bridges and fly along more than a mile of zip lines, I wasn't sure.

I've always thrived on challenges. I'm the first to volunteer for a new experience or book a trip to a place I've never been. But frozen on that wooden platform, I lose that innate urge to move forward.

If I take a wrong step or a piece of gear gives out, I will fall a couple feet before the lanyards catch me. I'll then dangle over whatever piece of scenery I was supposed to gleefully zip line past — a man-made lake, a canyon, a canopy of trees, an exposed rock cliff that looks like it belongs in Colorado more than Florida — until one of our trained guides can retrieve me.

The fear of such a fall is paralyzing.

Pretty soon, I'm the last one left. Tara has already zipped along the first line, her terrified yelp reverberating through the trees. There's no more waiting — the only direction left is forward.


Tara McCarty, in honor of Terry Tomalin's legacy of overcoming your fears, explores a zip line course at the Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours in Ocala.

I turn toward our guide Joe, who is wearing Superman socks with capes fluttering off the back of them, and ask him, yet again, to check my harness.

"You're good to go," he says. "Have fun with it."

Fun. Right.

I take a deep breath, place my left hand and then my right over the cable trolley, and sit back in my harness. I release the tension in my body and step forward.

Just like that, my body soars over the treetops. And just like they are supposed to, the cables and my harness keep me safe.

I thought I would be too terrified to enjoy the views as I zipped by them, but once I'm off the platform, I'm fine. If anything, I'm invigorated. The adrenaline is addicting.

I soon fall into a pattern. I freak out while waiting my turn, heart thumping like a jackrabbit. I ask Joe to double check my harness. I hesitate for what feels like forever, terrified to let go and trust. But each time I fly through the air, I'm so exhilarated I can't help but grin. I reach the end of the cable and I'm jumping around, eager for the next. That is, until I have to step off the platform again and the cycle repeats itself.

The Canyons tour is no joke. The company claims to have the highest and fastest zip lines in the state and the longest over water in the country. By the time we reach the latter — at just over a fifth of a mile — I'm finally relaxed enough to enjoy the incredible views around me. It's easy to forget I'm in Florida, a state where elevation change doesn't seem to exist.

In order to cruise along "Speed Trap," we first have to step off the "Tower of Terror," before we plummet 135 feet over the blue-green lake below and hope we maintain enough momentum to arch up to the next platform.

I've learned something about myself: the less time I spend on the edge, convincing myself to step forward, the better. So this time I take a running start and leap off the tower, hollering with pure joy.

Just as I begin to feel comfortable, we approach a 200-foot rope bridge. We've already conquered eight zip lines and a shorter (75-foot) rope bridge, but this one feels different. The aptly nicknamed Old Rickety creaks and sways as I make my way across.

Tara is lucky enough to have a 255-pound man she nicknamed Starfish stomping across the bridge right behind her.

"Hey, Screamer, you don't have to look around," he calls, using his (ill-chosen) nickname for her. "Just keep going. Get across the bridge."

"I have to look around," she yells back, terrified. "I have to get footage. I have to look at everything."

Tara was tasked with recording GoPro footage of our adventure, and right now I can't be more thankful that it's her responsibility and not mine.

She looks left, toward the mass of trees and canyons we've already zipped through, breathing shallowly. She swings her head right, eyeing the glimmering quarry below, sweating.

I watch her from the safety of the platform, but my high has faded, and I'm reduced to my anxiety-filled safety position, arms wrapped around the tree, head and helmet pressed into it.

While I had found a way to let loose and enjoy the thrill of zip-lining, the bridge was different. It required me to methodically plod ahead and that change in momentum zaps my bravery.

For the first time all day, I find myself longing for the next zip line and that feeling of euphoria as it carries me over the beauty of Florida.

• • •

Our fears were certainly not eradicated by this trip, but we understand them more.

Both adventures had a common thread. The guides urged proper form and encouraged us to set our own pace and take in our surroundings: gliding with fish along a river bottom; zipping up to 45 mph past massive limestone cliffs.

While we battled nerves, we also gained a greater appreciation for the state we live in.

There's so much of Florida to experience if you take the plunge or step off the platform.


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