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  1. Opinion

Perspective: Trials on the trail for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Margo McKnight, the vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium, paddles downstream on the Steinhatchee River. She and 40 other paddlers joined the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team for their “trailmixer,” a weekly event that allows a limited number of people, depending on the day, to hike or paddle or screen a movie about the corridor, and mix with the team.
Published Feb. 8, 2015

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 fourth week.

This week brought us into the heart of Florida's Nature Coast, to Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and beyond. We rode north on our bikes along mostly empty county roads each morning, listening for logging trucks and people trying to beat the clock to work. Dipping off paved roads, our pace eases and the sunlight flashes through the trees as we pass.

The forests here are varied, their character changing with each change in elevation. In the sand hills, where it's high and dry, we find longleaf pines and turkey oaks, the brown leaves rattling dryly against a breeze. Moments later, coasting downhill, we roll along through swamps, standing water and cypress and tupelo trees, sweet gum, red maple, buttonbush. Nearing an opening the hardwoods gradually give way to palm hammock and cedars at the edge, before finally spreading wide into a grass and sedge marsh, with clear-running tidal creeks inching toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The land here has taken on a wildness that reminds me of John Muir's descriptions in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. North of Steinhatchee I'm stunned by the glassy surface of Hagen's Cove, where thousands of shorebirds are strewn across the Gulf plain, dunlins and willets and gulls taking crabs from a shallow grass bed.

Things go according to plan, mostly. Switching from biking to kayaking or hiking brings discussion of who carries what, and the plan for the rest of the day, which often includes meeting with landowners or other hosts. It's at these points, where months of planning and coordination play out in real time, that we lose focus, forget things, fall behind schedule and get into little squabbles — often in this exact order.

One day we biked between Cedar Key and the lower reaches of the Suwannee River. After 20 miles we arrived at the river, where we would meet a paddling guide and launch downriver for the town of Suwannee. We'd sent our kayaks off with the guide the week before to save vehicle space while they weren't in use, making sure to lock our boats to their trailer, but forgetting first to inform the guide, and second, forgetting to give him a key. The outfitter had to backtrack two hours from Suwannee to Fanning Springs and then south to Fowler's Bluff to meet us with the trailer rather than hauling our boats to us by water.

Recognizing our mistake, the guide quietly adjusted and drove with the trailer to meet us. The change didn't register until we were safely away on the wide curves of the lower Suwannee. As we cruised downriver with the warming sun full on our faces the guide, a gregarious man named Russ McCallister, crowed, "Friends, the most dangerous thing you can bring onto any boat is a schedule!"

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.

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