Florida’s natural wonders were in the news last year for all the wrong reasons: toxic tides, green slimes and rotting marine life. Losing paradise has long been a fear in Florida, so I recently traveled to three areas to experience what things are like now in this state rich with woods, wildlife and water.
I began in the Keys, with 80 miles of cycling and a night in a tent at an unexpected jewel of a state park. Campers urged me not to reveal it. I will, though, because it exemplifies a lot of Florida refuges: man-made facsimiles of nature.
After that was a hike along 12 miles of wilderness beach of Canaveral National Seashore at Central Florida’s Atlantic coast. It’s rarely traversed on foot. I got cell service, but the sense of isolation hinted at haunting. Visually, it was astonishingly beauty-and-beast, and not for the nudists I interviewed. I’ll explain.
The final outing was 25 miles of paddling on the Suwannee River through federal refuge to the Gulf of Mexico. I stayed for an inspirational starry night, sleeping in my canoe, tied off to a cypress knee, lulled by currents and thinking of pirates plying those black waters in pristine times. It was the most moving of the three stops.
Far apart, each setting affirms the state is endowed with natural wonder. Each is wounded by water abuses. And each tells a story of remaining paradise.
FLORIDA KEYS: CYCLING
My journey started in Tavernier, 15 miles below where U.S. 1 lands in Key Largo.
I parked at Audubon’s 80-year-old Everglades Science Center to unload my bike, invited by Jerry Lorenz, research scientist there for 29 years.
He is a fish biologist focused on the well-being of roseate spoonbills as an ecosystem stethoscope for the Everglades, Florida Bay and the Keys. The flow of life-sustaining water through that closely connected geography has been crippled by sugar agriculture and urban growth.
“It’s nothing compared to what it was 25 years ago,” Lorenz said. There have been enormous die-offs of seagrass, eruptions of algae and, often, no bonefish, permit, trout or snook “to be caught in Florida Bay.
“We as humans screwed it all up and we have the capability of fixing it.”
The widely advocated and chronically delayed fix: More water at the right places in the bay at the right time. “We have to give it a chance,” Lorenz said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
My ride on U.S. 1 or the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail — a puzzle of discontinuous, paved paths — took in at first mostly restaurants, motels and a din of unbroken traffic.
Occurring to me was something Richard Hilsenbeck, formerly of the Nature Conservancy, said: “We are back to 1,000 people coming to Florida each day.”
They all seemed to be barrelling by that day, tailgating to Key West.
At the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center, I overheard a woman: “Hello, we are looking for a beach.”
“We don’t have many beaches,” responded Walt Pooley from behind the counter. “We have beautiful water.”
Pedaling again, iconic scenery unfolded and Pooley had it right about the alluring, hypnotic water.
Don “Trapper” Heiss, a retired Ohioan with a $49 tag clinging to his rod, dropped a line from a bridge into a crystalline tide below. It looked nothing like the muddy rivers of his state, he noted.
Rafael Reyes and his buddy, Roger Calvo, muscled a gorgeous mutton snapper out of that water onto the pedestrian bridge where they were fishing. Impressed walkers closed in, phones out for photos.
After a day of fish tales and snapshots, I rolled into Curry Hammock State Park in Marathon. On an island, it’s tiny with 29 campsites, absent from some tourism maps, and lovely.
In the 1980s, this piece of Keys was distressed mangroves and piles of waste sand from the nearby dredging of channels for real estate development.
It was resculpted in the early ‘90s and is now lush with native sea oats, love grass, sea lavender and Bahama nightshade.
Florida is gaining experience at re-creating nature from environmental atrocities, such as the headwaters of the St. Johns River and a long stretch of the Kissimmee River, but at crushing costs to taxpayers.
The night I camped turned really dark and rain pattered lightly. But sunrise was fireworks for a swim. Curry Hammock offers a constructed but charming beach.
My camping neighbors, John and Nancy Finn, retirees from Central Florida, have visited many parks in Florida and the U.S. They love Curry Hammock most, worrying it may be the next calamity.
“When the God-almighty tourism buck stops rolling into Florida, then maybe they will find a way to stop what’s happening,” he said.
CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE: HIKING
Two days later and 300 miles to the north, I had a chat before starting my 12-mile wilderness hike at Canaveral National Seashore.
An undressed woman I guessed to be in her 70s, not giving her name for fear of embarrassing her children, said pleasantly: “Now you take your clothes off.”
Nope, not getting sunburned.
Canaveral spans 25 miles. At the north and south ends are 6-mile roads dotted with parking lots that host 1.7 million visitors annually, said seashore superintendent Myrna Palfrey, and fill to capacity on many weekends.
The last parking lot and beach access at the ends of both roads are clothing optional. There isn’t any state or federal prohibition and there’s little local law-enforcement will to intervene.
But bare skin seemed fitting as the seashore is naked of civilization — save for a tiny storm hut for turtle biologists — along the 12-plus miles of deserted seashore spanning between the ends of the roads.
There were no condos, boardwalks or airplanes towing banners, and no other soul except, in the haze of salty air, imagined Spaniards rowing ashore 500 years ago.
After miles and hours along undulating dunes and rushing surf, the solitude was profound. The beach had a timeless rhythm that ignored me.
Foraging shorebirds stitched the wet sand with their beaks. Blue herons chased fish across sandbars. Speedy beach crabs dashed to their holes.
Wanting to download, I called my wife on Facetime video. She was teaching in chilly Ukraine, wearing a coat in class.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, as I panned my phone along the Atlantic’s edge.
But it’s not unspoiled. The seashore follows a barrier island. To the east is the ocean. Along the island’s west side is the Mosquito Lagoon, long a famously pristine section of the Indian River Lagoon.
In recent years, Mosquito Lagoon has festered with pollution-fueled algae.
Additionally, University of Central Florida professor Linda Walters and students have found the lagoon laced with microplastic from the decay of fabrics, rope and more. They are researching whether that harms shellfish.
Littering the beach, to my dismay, were plastic bottles, rope, food containers, shoe soles and much more. The debris washes ashore constantly, challenging staff and volunteers.
Ever wonder where untethered helium balloons — sea-turtle killers — land? Kristen Kneifl, the seashore resource manager, said she can retrieve dozens in a day, and find as many the next.
A dozen miles on sand was tiring. Specks appeared in the far distance that with each step would gradually sharpen into young, old and multicultural beachgoers.
Mikal Norvell of Orlando has been visiting Canaveral more often than usual this year because of Red Tides along Gulf of Mexico beaches.
“It’s depressing,” he said.
SUWANNEE RIVER: CANOEING
Two days later and 200 miles to the northwest, I launched my canoe.
I grouch now and then of moving to the high desert, sick as I am of Florida’s worsening waters.
A reason to stay is the Suwannee River: born in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp; a black ribbon in its youth, a bluff-and-rock-lined gush of spring water in its middle; and a swamp-embraced, tidal river at its conclusion.
The river is clear, tannic, stunning and hurting.
“Springs on the Suwannee are all badly polluted,” said Robert Knight, director of the Florida Springs Institute. “They contribute more than 5,000 tons of nitrogen per year to the river and the river pollutes the gulf.”
My canoe and I were trucked upriver from the town of Suwannee by a prince of an eclectic guy, whose diesel rumbles on the cooking oil of local restaurants.
That was Russ McCallister, volunteer fire chief, owner of a logo-printing company and proprietor of Suwannee Guides and Outfitters.
McCallister seemed excited on my behalf as he hoisted one end of my canoe to the river and hinted at what would come. “It will look exactly like it did at the turn of the 19th century,” he said.
The river banks, often a quarter-mile apart, are walls of big trees rising from swamp. Those wetlands were thick with butterflies.
The Suwannee and Canaveral were equally remote for opposite reasons. The beach is vast and exposed, while the river is private and secluded.
Canaveral is boisterous with roiling waves, and after a time you don’t listen. The Suwannee is intimate and still and you hear everything.
Former University of Central Florida professor Reed Noss told me: “We still have a tremendous amount of wildness in Florida, though not much true wilderness. A lot of areas still operate fundamentally according to natural processes not overwhelmed by human civilization.”
Polluted but wild, not yet overwhelmed and awfully seductive: That’s the Suwannee.
Much of the venture was a serpentine course through the 54,000-acre Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.
Refuge manager Andrew Gude said the protected landscape would qualify as classic wilderness if not for roads in its interior.
Gude warned: “From April until October, the bugs, the blood-sucking insects, spiders and snakes, it’s biblical. It’s truly old Florida.”
At sunset, while in the middle of the wide river for photos, biting gnats suddenly swarmed. I wondered if it was possible to choke on them. They left after dark. I slept in spells of an hour or so, waking to the luminescence of the Milky Way, satellites, shooting stars, Big Dipper and its sidekick, the North Star.
Long before sunrise, I made coffee, untied and ghosted with the current. The river had a perfume of wet cedar and suggested liquid silk at first light.
It felt enveloping.
If there is no true paradise, what remains is good.