Category Archives: EcoAdventures North Florida

WFSU-TV is hiking, paddling, snorkeling and generally getting dirty and wet in the wild places of North Florida. Living, breathing, fully-functional ecosystems always surprise and delight, especially when you’re the only person for miles. Browse our stories and if you see something lacking, leave a comment and let us know!

Purple pitcher plant flower

Video: Liberty County’s Carnivorous Plants are Colorful and Deadly

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wildlife watching is big business in Florida. In a state with the unique natural resources we have, that’s no surprise. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has determined that it brings, more or less, $5 Billion to Florida a year. When we say wildlife watching, we usually mean birds and butterflies. Animals that are cute, colorful, and/ or ferocious. What Eleanor Dietrich wants you to consider is that wildlife watching could also mean wildflowers. And just as it is thrilling to watch an eagle or a heron catch a fish, carnivorous plants might be the most thrilling of wildflowers. Luckily for those in our area, the Apalachicola National Forest in Liberty County is a hot spot for these strange and beautiful killers.

Eleanor Dietrich

Eleanor Dietrich holds one of her free self-guided Liberty County Wildflower tour guides. She has several local businesses distributing these with the idea that wildflower populations could benefit the local economy.

State Road 65 between Hosford and Sumatra is unofficially the Liberty County Wildflower Trail.   For many, this is the scenic route to St. George Island.  What Eleanor wants people to do is to pull over every once in a while to notice the incredible life peeking through the top of the grass growing on the shoulder.  She has enlisted local businesses to help distribute free self-guided tour maps, and helped create a partnership between Tallahassee Artist Helen Dull and Pam Richter, owner of T&P Florist and Gift Shop in Hosford.  Helen’s renditions of carnivorous flowers grace shirts, tote bags, and post cards at the T&P.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re interested in seeing these flowers, though I admit we’re past their peak period:

  • It’s seasonal.  Just as certain hummingbirds pass through the St. Marks Refuge in late spring, certain flowers bloom at a certain time every year.  The Chapman’s rhododendron usually blooms for a couple of weeks in March.  Carnivorous plants in and around the Apalachicola National Forest start blooming in April and go through early May.  Another set of wildflowers explodes there in the fall.
  • You never know what you’ll see.  If you go birding, you’re not guaranteed to see any specific bird.  It’s the same with these flowers.  When we got there, the yellow trumpet pitcher plants had lost their flowers, but their remarkable pitcher leaves retained their strong presence in the woody tangle surrounding the New River.  Purple pitcher plants were going strong and the dewthread sundews were just beginning to flower.  In a week, it would look entirely different.  These flowers bloom in waves, and there’s no fixing a specific date on when they’ll start.
  • White topped pitcher plantLocation, location, location.  We went to three different spots within a twenty mile range: two roadside locations and one further into National Forest.  One roadside spot had non native Venus flytraps and showy white topped pitcher plants (pictured to the left), the only place where we saw them.  In the forest, we saw an abundance of yellow trumpet leaves and of the sticky dewthread strands getting ready to flower.  At the second roadside spot, we had to do a little searching to find the carnivorous plants among the wildflowers.
  • It helps to dress appropriately.  The day before our shoot, FSU Biologist Dr. Tom Miller, who accompanied us, warned me to wear closed toed shoes.  You’ll see why in the video.  He also suggested a long sleeved shirt to minimize gnat biteage and that I spray that nasty bug spray on my socks to discourage ticks.  The best places to see the really cool plants and critters aren’t always comfortable.

Some Science Stuff to Impress Your Friends

When you go out to look at the flowers with your friends, you’ll want to drop some biology knowledge on them.  You know, to sound smart.  This is what Dr. Miller, who is smart about these things, told me, who is working on it:

  • Carnivorous plants are found in what are known as a ecotones.  Ecotones are the spaces where one ecosystem overlaps with another.  The Apalachicola National Forest has some well maintained longleaf pine/ wiregrass habitat, with the characteristic wide spacing of trees.  Through the trees you may see dense tangles of wood surrounding rivers or other wet places.  Carnivorous plants can be found in the seam between the two.
  • As you may know, all life needs nitrogen (if you didn’t know, Dr. David Kimbro broke it down for us last year).  Plants usually get it from the soil, where bacteria can convert it into a useable form (David explains it better than I do), and where decomposing plants add to it as well.  Animals get their nitrogen from plants.  The bogs where carnivorous plants grow have soils that are low in nutrients.  The plants get their nutrients from the bugs they eat.
  • Controlled burn in the Apalachicola National Forest

    A controlled burn on S.R. 65 on the day of our shoot.

    Carnivorous plants are dependent on fire ecology.  More specifically, they are dependent on disturbances to clear spaces for them.  Longleaf pines maintain their spacing through regular fire.  It clears the forest floor of oak and other woody plants and makes space for wiregrass and succulent plants.  That fire also clears a space at the fringe of the forest, where the pretty killer flowers live.  Annual mowing along highway 65 also helps.  The spot where we saw the white tops and Venus flytraps had a crew go through in recent months, installing telephone poles.

  • These flowers are pretty resilient.  They need wet conditions, but during the harsh droughts of the last fifteen years, Dr. Miller observed their numbers decline.  “I was concerned about losing the population,” he said, “instead, they seem to be pretty resilient to drought.”  That makes sense for plants that get burned and re-sprout.
  • One thing that Dr. Miller studies, and I think this is pretty cool, are these food webs contained entirely within the leaves of pitcher plants.  At the bottom of the food web are the decomposing bugs caught in the leaves.  Bacteria break them down and they are eaten by single celled protozoa.  Those are in turn eaten by mosquito larvae, which we of course find in any pool of standing water.


Pitcher plant leaf samples

Samples taken from pitcher plants along S.R. 65. The one on the right is from a newer leaf, and is swimming with mosquito larvae. The one on the left has mostly the undigestable remains of ants, where as the one in the middle has both larvae and still edible insect remains.

For more information on carnivorous plants in our area, this web site featuring Eleanor’s photos is pretty helpful.

A bee on our camera

Where there are flowers, there are bees. Our next EcoAdventure will feature more flowers and many more bees. We’re heading to the Dead Lakes, where the tupelo are in bloom and honey is getting made.

Music in the piece by pitx and Greg Baumont.

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Red Hills Lakes | Kayak, Hike, & SUP Where Aquifer Recharges

The name Red Hills is perhaps underused by those of us who actually live here. That’s why the folks at Tall Timbers set out to reintroduce us to the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, from Thomasville to Tallahassee to Monticello. In defining this eco-region and the benefits we receive from living here, I gained a new perspective on our longer running exploration of the Forgotten Coast and its own gifts and uniqueness. I’ve often written about miles of unspoiled coastline and how that benefits our seafood industry. But any large healthy tree has an equally large root system that we don’t see, and for our estuaries these are miles of unspoiled river banks, sloughs, springs, and lakes. In our last EcoAdventure we hiked along sloughs in the backlands of the Apalachicola River floodplain, little fingers reaching into the nutrient rich muck to send it on its way to the bay. In the video above, we visit the lakes of north Leon County, through which water enters the Floridan Aquifer. This is our water, the water I’m drinking as I write this. It’s the water that feeds our springs, such as those that in turn feed the Wacissa River. That water emerges from Wakulla Springs, which flows into the Wakulla River and down to Apalachee Bay.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

This adventure was about more than just the lakes, which were great to kayak and SUP. These lakes are protected by forested land that filters storm water runoff and buffers them from pollution. That’s an ecosystem service the land provides. That’s a value that we receive, as consumers of the water. We also receive the benefit of having the land to visit as parkland or, for the hunters who own private forested lands north of Tallahassee, to hunt animals sheltered in the habitat.

There is often this tension between ecology and economy, a perception that land has more value if it can be sold as real estate or built upon with stores and offices. That’s why there has been a push in recent years to put a dollar amount on ecosystem services. In our collaboration with Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, we’ve cited a study that determined the value of a salt marsh. Tall Timbers has been promoting a similar study conducted at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry an Natural Resources on the services provided by the Red Hills. For a detailed look at how Dr. Rebecca Moore determined the value of services, click here.

The total value of Red Hills ecosystem services determined by the study are $1.136 billion per year.  We focus on groundwater recharge ($229 million) and water supply protection ($615 million) in the video. Another service is pollination, at a value of $60 million. That means that the forested land around town supports pollinating species like bees and butterflies to the advantage of both farmers and us amateur gardeners. Aesthetic value is listed as $163 million.

The one thing that has surprised me the most since I started talking to Tall Timbers about this piece is that much of the forested land providing these services is privately owned. Tall Timbers estimates that there are 445,000 acres of forested land in the greater Red Hills Region. Over 300,000 acres are privately held on largely contiguous quail hunting properties. Many of these properties were purchased in the 1800s and early 1900s, sparing them from logging and preserving old growth coastal plain forest. These forests, and the bobwhite quail that live there, are what drew people here.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy


Henry L. Beadle on Lake Iamonia, 1924. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

One of the people drawn to the Red Hills was Henry L. Beadle. His hunting plantation on Lake Iamonia is where, in 1958, Tall Timbers was established. It was his desire to have a place to conduct research on fire ecology and its effect on “quail, turkey and other wildlife, as well as on vegetation of value as cover and food for wildlife.” While hunters in the area had made use of fire to manage the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystems on their property, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it became a mainstream practice (get two land managers together and see if they don’t start trading fire stories). Tall Timbers mission is to “foster exemplary land stewardship” while also “respecting the rights and recognizing the responsibilities of private property ownership.” They are advocates of “smart growth,” development with a broader view of economic feasibility. That means factoring in the value of ecosystem services when planning new development.

Lake Iamonia

It seemed like the appropriate place to begin the adventure. It’s Leon County’s largest natural lake, and it has an interesting hydrology. Michael Hill from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met us on the lake to talk about the work he and FWC have done to restore the lake. I met Michael for the first time last fall on Lake Lafayette. Like Lakes Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee, Lake Lafayette has a sinkhole that connects to the Floridan Aquifer. All of these lakes had natural dry down cycles, where the lake would cyclically empty and refill. In the early twentieth century, people viewed this draining as an ecological catastrophe.  They set out to “save the lakes.” They built earthen dams to isolate the sinkholes from their lakes. This kept the lakes full, but disrupted much of their ecology. On Lake Lafayette, Michael showed us the effects of a lake not being able to go through its normal drought/ rain cycles. Muck builds up on the bottoms of these lakes, and floating islands of vegetation called tussocks form. This alters the habitat for fish and other species. And removing tussocks is an expensive process involving herbicides and heavy machinery.

Water overflows from the Ochlockonee River on February 27, 2013.

Water flows under the twin bridges on Meridian Road, from the Ochlockonee River into Lake Iamonia.  February 27, 2013.  Photo by Michael Hill, FWC.

Lake Iamonia’s dam failed, however, and the gates were removed. This allowed the lake to dry down again, and for FWC to come in and scrape the muck off of the bottom. “We’d seen that there were two to four feet of Muck,” Michael told a gathered group of Tall Timbers employees. “Muck is aquatic plants. It’s at advanced stages of decomposition.” When the lake dries down naturally, the sun dries the bottom. When it doesn’t, muck accumulates. Seeds start growing in it, and it starts to float on the surface of the water as islands. The fish that spawn on the lake bottom prefer a sandier surface, so muck inhibits them. During Iamonia’s last dry down, FWC removed 23 acres of muck. Last year, they removed 25 more. But just as the lake was full for 40 years, Michael thinks it might take another 40 or 50 more for the muck to completely disappear.

The other interesting feature of the lake is its relationship with the Ochlockonee River. While the river does not flow directly into Lake Iamonia, it does feed the lake by overflowing into it. Michael shared some photos of this flooding, which mainly passes under Meridian Road at the twin bridges that run alongside the lake. Iamonia dries down every seven years, and it is filled by rain and by the flooding Ochlockonee.

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

After we left Michael, we went not to Leon County’s other major lake, but to land adjacent to it. It was a cooperative purchase between the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD). “Their interest was the activity centers; the ball fields and the soccer complex,” Said NFWMD’s Tyler Macmillan. “Our interest was a passive recreation area that protected Lake Jackson.” Hiking through when we did, during the rainy season, we saw a variety of water features at Klapp-Phipps Park. The were small creeks and swamps as well as places where stormwater runoff ran alongside or directly on the path. One number I found interesting in the Ecosystem services report was the value of urban/ suburban forested wetlands. Rural forested wetlands are valued around $4,600 an acre annually; those in urban/ suburban areas are valued at $8,200. The reason for the disparity is that urban wetlands are less common and, in a sense, work harder to abate pollution and filter runoff.

For Tallahasseeans who like to hit park trails, these are great. There are miles of trails in this network; it’s not hard to get lost. After years of walking greenways and trails in Tallahassee parks (we have quite a few), I’m surprised it took me so long to find this one.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze.

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze for Georgia.

When I think of this park, I think of flowers. And pollen. Years ago when I produced WFSU’s music show, outloud, we brought local zheng player Haiqiong Deng to the gardens to record a few pieces. Spring had just sprung, and after every piece we stopped to wipe a layer of yellow dust off of her instrument and our gear. The combination of music and setting made it one of my favorite episodes of the show, which ran for almost ten years.

The park has much more than these gardens, with miles of trails and Lake Hall, which I managed to not fall into while learning to stand up paddleboard (I do come close, as you can see). It’s a place where you can take your kayak, canoe, SUP, or sailboat and not worry about motorboats. Lake Hall is considered to have some of the best water quality in Leon County. Park manager Elizabeth Weidner told us that in recent years they have installed collection ponds adjacent to the roadways around the park to collect stormwater runoff.

I had a great time exploring these places, and gaining a larger perspective on how water moves through a watershed and beneath us in the aquifer.  We’ll be further expanding upon this theme while we continue to look for great places to spend a day (or more).  I don’t like to jinx myself by saying what we’ll be shooting in the coming weeks, as the weather can be uncooperative (we got the video above on our third try).  Let’s just say we’ve planned a hike in a place with a reputation for being difficult and are heading back to the Apalachicola basin for a seasonal treat.

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Hiking in the NorthWest Florida Water Management District land along the Apalachicola River.

Video: Hiking Around the Apalachicola River

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Apalachicola Riverwalk

Dr. Todd Engstrom seeks a path around the many sloughs in our way. On Day 3 of the Apalachicola River Walk, he was taking us to patches of old growth forest where the extinct ivory billed woodpecker might have made a habitat. While north Florida looks largely “untouched,” much of it has been cut for timber at some point in the last couple of hundred years. There are trees that escaped this fate.  They are hundreds of years old and not altogether common.

I fell in love with the idea the first time I heard of it, this walk along the land surrounding the Apalachicola River.  I was standing on a sandbar just north of Alum Bluff.  After a day of kayaking the river, we set up camp and got to socializing.  Doug Alderson told me of this thought of his, a hike taking about seven days, from the top of the river to the bottom.  You can see how the river changes as you paddle, from tall bluffs in the north on down to the marshy delta.   We would be in those systems as opposed to passing by them on the water.

What you see in the video above is the first attempt of what could become an annual event in the RiverTrek mold.  It was a three day hike through some of the most unique ecosystems in the Apalachicola basin.  Torreya State Park and The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve make you work harder than any other trails in Florida.  And Doug & co. didn’t always stick to trails either, bushwhacking through steephead ravines and caves (remember Means Creek from RiverTrek?).

We joined them on the third day.  Luckily I did have previously unused footage of hikes in the afforementioned lands to illustrate the nature of those places.  On the third day, however, we hiked on land owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, just across the river from Wewahitchka.  It is flat terrain, crisscrossed with those crucially important veins and capillaries of the river- sloughs.  I had a great time catching up with my RiverTrek friends (including the scene stealing Zone 5), exploring wild land, and going wherever the high water let us go.

The protected lands around the river can be appreciated for their own virtues and beauty, but they also serve to protect the river and bay (and yes, the oysters, assuming that conditions are otherwise normal).  The following is a quick guide to the lands around the Apalachicola, and a little about ecotourism opportunities on each (I listed them from north to south along the main channel):

Torreya State Park

Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Florida torreya for which the park is named is a critically endangered tree found almost exclusively on the bluffs of the Apalachicola River. The park sports one full camp site with electric and water hookups, restrooms, and a YURT (Year-round Universal Recreational Tent), as well as three primitive camping sites, and two youth camping sites meant for large groups (like Boy Scout troops). The River Walkers were staying at one of the Youth sites. There are also two trail loops, one of which takes you by the Gregory House. The Gregory House is a fully furnished plantation home built in 1849 and which was moved onto a bluff overlooking the river (If the water is low enough, there is a sandbar across the river where paddlers can eat lunch and have a view of the house as well).

The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve

Todd Engstrom climbs up side of steephead ravineMuch of the Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is not open to the public, being instead dedicated to restoration efforts: restoring sandhill habitat, managing a fire regime on upland pine forests, and restoring the flow of streams into the river channel. The Preserve is also home to a unique ecosystem, the steephead ravine, which forms over years when seeps of water cut into sand or clay hills. Steepheads are, as the name suggests, steep (I know, I was surprised too!), and make for some challenging hiking. The Preserve’s Garden of Eden trail runs through steepheads on the way to Alum Bluff, the highest point above the river and a spectacular view. You can watch us hike the Garden of Eden at the beginning of our RiverTrek 2013 Part 1 video. You can also watch us climb Alum Bluff the hard way on RiverTrek 2012.

Florida River Island |The Northwest Florida Water Management District

Hiking along the Apalachicola RiverThis is not a place you would ever find if you weren’t specifically looking for it. In fact, if you click on the link above they don’t even really tell you where to find their land on the river. Traveling south of Bristol on C379, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see signs for Forest Road 188 and for a boat ramp. This is the ramp for the Florida River, and where you’ll find the trails we explored in the video above. The spent shell casings testify to someone knowing that this place was there, and also serve as a reminder to wear bright colors if you visit here during hunting seasons.

Apalachicola National Forest

This is Florida’s largest National Forest, ranging from just near Tallahassee to the Apalachicola River. That’s a lot of protected land that buffers six different watersheds. Right near the Apalachicola, a big attraction is wildlife watching. This part of the forest is a stronghold for the near threatened red cockaded woodpecker. As you drive down County Road 65, you’ll see trees with white bands painted around their trunks. Those trees may have holes that drip sap- this deters snakes from climbing up. As the sun sets, the RCW flies back into its hole. Also near the river is Sumatra, where in late spring an incredible array of carnivorous plants will bloom.

Tate’s Hell State Forest

Graham Creek in Tate's Hell

Graham Creek in Tate’s Hell State Forest

Where E.E. Callaway found the Garden of Eden on the bluffs of the north river, Cebe Tate found hell in this forest to the south. I’ll refer you to our EcoAdventure on the lower river to get the full story. The Tate’s Hell Swamp drains into the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the forest also includes 35 miles of paddle trails, including Cash Creek and Graham Creek (which you’ll see in the linked video). There is also camping and hunting in the forest; refer to the link above for information on fees and permits.

Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area

Sand Beach Observation Tower

Sand Beach, overlooking East Bay

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages much of the land on the lower river, where creeks and tributary rivers braid the main channel. FWC has maps available for paddlers looking to explore the many waterways on the WEA and in Tate’s Hell.  The Sand Beach observation tower provides a nice view of the East Bay and the many birds and other critters that make use of it. You can get a taste of the recreational opportunities on the WEA on our aforementioned south river EcoAdventure.

St. George Island State Park

Blue Heron on Saint George Island BeachAnd of course, once you’ve made your way down the river, you can keep following the water and enjoy some camping, hiking, and beach time on one of the barrier islands that close the bay and protect the oysters from the side opposite the river.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve explored this watershed from the top of Alum Bluff to the bottom of Apalachicola Bay.    And we’re nowhere near done, either.  But the WFSU viewing area is rich in ecological marvels.  An upcoming focus of ours will be the many watersheds that span from the Big Bend to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’d like to further highlight the connections between the many terrestrial and freshwater features of our areas and our coasts. And that includes urban settings like Tallahassee, whose lakes and sloughs feed both the Ochlockonee and St. Marks Watersheds.  In some cases, we’ve already covered a few links in the chain through EcoAdventures and In the Grass, On the Reef research pieces.  Now it’s time to fill in the gaps and start looking at the bigger picture, as we’ve been doing on the Apalachicola.

Interested in paddling the Apalachicola?  Check out this post I wrote a few months ago on planning a trip using the Apalachicola Blueway Guide.

Music in the piece by Freeky Cleen and Dickey F.

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Free Events Across Forgotten Coast Celebrate New WFSU Documentary

Update March 9, 2014 – We’d like to thank everyone who came out for one or more of our events on Saturday. It was a pleasure to meet all of you (photos will be posted soon).  If you missed the premiere, Oyster Doctors will air on WFSU-TV on Wednesday March 19, 8 pm/ 7 ct.  Look for it online shortly after.

(L to R) Graduate student Hanna Garland, WFSU videographer Dan Peeri, oysterman Shawn Hartsfield, and WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas look on as Stephanie Buehler dives in to survey oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Almost four years ago, WFSU began the coastal adventure that is In the Grass, On the Reef.  Now, we want you to join the adventure.  And not through the magic of video- we want you physically there with us (but yeah, we’ll still make a video).

On Saturday, March 8, at the Ft. Coombs Armory in Apalachicola, Florida, we’ll be premiering In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors.  It’s the culmination of these almost four years of losing my shoes in oyster reef and salt marsh mud, of kayaking to field sites in rain, waves, wind, and in those winter tides where the water all but disappears.  It’s that visceral experience, as much as the research and ecology, that we’ve tried to make a part of our videos and blog posts.  Seeing and feeling that magical place where the land meets the sea underlines the need to better understand it.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

Hanna kayaks towards oyster reef experiment sites in October of 2010.

In that spirit, we’ll be having a few EcoAdventures where you, our viewers and readers, can join in the fun and get up close and personal with the wild places of our coasts.  There are three opportunities, one in each county of Florida’s Forgotten Coast and in each of its major coastal features.  These are free events, but some have limited spots available.  So register early to be a part of a lottery for these trips (winners will be selected on February 28).

A kayak tour of the animal rich marshes and oyster reefs of the Wakulla Beach unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  A walk through the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve to see the south Florida plant that’s more frequently popping up in north Florida marshes.  And a boat ride connecting the Apalachicola River and its bay, and those troubled oysters that are iconic of the Forgotten Coast.

With these trips, we recreate the IGOR journey in miniature.  Dr. Randall Hughes, our collaborator and one of the “oyster doctors” of our new documentary, will lead us through these first two trips.  In Wakulla Beach, she’ll be joined by Dr. William “Doc” Herrnkind, a retired FSU Coastal & Marine Lab professor and a guru when it comes to the critters that we have followed in this project.  This will be my first time meeting him, though I have heard quite a lot about him over the years from our research collaborators and even members of the community.  When the BBC wanted horse conch footage in our area, this is who they called.

Media attention at Save the Bay Day in Apalachicola

Media and community members gather in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Apalachicola. With Florida’s U.S. Senate delegation in town, residents sent a clear message: Apalachicola oysters deserve their fair share of water from the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin.

For our Apalachicola boat trip, we’ll be led by Apalachicola Riverkeeper‘s Dan Tonsmeire.  I could not be more pleased to have Riverkeeper involved in this event.  Participating in their RiverTrek adventures over the last two years, in addition to being a life changing experience, has added immeasurably to our coverage of the Apalachicola oyster fishery crash.  Of course, when I signed on to paddle in early 2012, I had no idea that Florida’s largest oyster fishery was so close to disaster.  Likewise, when we first applied for the National Science Foundation grant that funds this project, we wrote in a possible Apalachicola premiere not knowing that its oysters would become a large part of our story.

Since we embarked on this journey, Dr. Randall Hughes, Dr. David Kimbro and their crews have let us be there for the twists and turns, failures and successes, and ultimately the discovery that has taken their research in a fascinating new direction.  While pursuing this new direction into animal behavior and it effects on these productive ecosystems, they were also investigating oyster reef failures in drought stricken areas.  On the one hand, they have relentlessly pursued this idea that animal behavior, the menace of a predator, can influence the health of marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds.  On the other hand, does any of that matter if nature one day turns its back on these coastal habitats and cuts off the water?  It’s a question we ask as we delve into this spectacular world.  We’d love for you to join us in Apalachicola for the premiere, and join us on the water (and, I won’t lie, in the muck) as we go In the Grass, and On the Reef, one more time.

Register to attend the premiere of In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors and to participate in pre-screening EcoAdventures!

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Blue crabs are a commercially important species that rely on both salt marsh and oyster reef ecosystems. They are also important predators in these habitats, preying on marsh grass grazing periwinkle snails and oyster eating mud crabs.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Video: Cycling North Florida’s Capital City to the Sea Trail

Video: Cycling the Capital City to the Sea Trail. Project managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa show us the highlights of the planned 120 mile loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead.  They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure.  Over the next decade, this will be part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead. They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure. Over the next decade, it will become part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

I’ve often described our EcoAdventures as a glimpse of unpaved Florida, so this video is somewhat of an anomaly.  The Capital City to the Sea Trail is a twelve foot wide paved “multi-use” trail that will connect towns and outdoor destinations in Leon and Wakulla County.  Pedestrians can walk or run it, and its width means that slower cyclists (such as children or me when I finally get a bike) can share the space with faster bikes.  As you see in the video above, two cyclists going one way can pass two cyclists going the opposite way.  It’s off of the main road, so it’s a safer way to get to the coast than to ride on the highway.  Or it will be, anyway.  Most of the trail has yet to be built.

Plans for the CC2ST have gone through a process of public meetings, where citizen feedback has directed priorities for segment construction, and in some cases, redirected the trail itself.  Project Managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa took us along the planned route.  It takes existing stretches, such as the popular St. Marks Trail (between Tallahassee and St. Marks), the Ochlockonee Bay Trail, and the Trout Pond Trail, and connects them with the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla Springs (not originally planned but added after citizens requested it), Panacea, Mashes Sands, Sopchoppy, and Capital Cascades Park in Tallahassee.  When it is completed, there will be 120 miles of the CC2ST forming a loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

 The trail is more complex than shown in most of the map graphics in the video.  Here is a current map of the proposed trails.  This plan will be finalized and presented to the public in March of 2014.

Jon hopes to begin construction in the next two to three years, with the trail not likely to be completed for at least a decade.  That’s a lot of waiting.  And it won’t be cheap.  I have a few notes on the potential cost and economic benefits, as well as a few other tidbits about the trail.  I also want to note that I have recently become part of this process as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ve been finding the process through which trails get made and connected together interesting.  The goal is to connect as many trails as possible and give people options for both shorter or multi-day outdoor adventures.  Anyhow, my notes on CC2ST:

  • Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT) estimates that every mile of multi-use trail costs about $550,000 to construct.  There is a cost for the design of a project, as well as for determining environmental impact.  In some cases property needs to be bought.  A lot of the time, the trail is built on public land.
  • Let’s use the two segments that would complete the Ochlockonee Bay Trail as an example.  Two parts of this trail already exist, but two more segments totaling 2.95 miles are needed to form an uninterrupted trail between Mashes Sands and Sopchoppy.  An estimated $368,750 is estimated to be needed to acquire land for the trail, $295,000 for the design (the contour of the land and roadways it crosses need to be traversed), and $1,475,000 for construction.  That’s a rough ratio of one million dollars to 1.5 miles of completed trail.  The good news in this case is that the Florida Department of Transportation is funding these segments.  Which brings me to…
  • The money for the CC2ST will likely come from many sources.  DOT works with the OGT on state trails as they are an alternative form of transportation.  Also, many proposed trails run along roads, so they can be incorporated into road construction projects.  Private donors will be sought, and many might be businesses along the trail.
  • A recent study on Orange County trails by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council estimated that their trails system accounted for $42.6 million in revenue and 516 jobs for 2010.  The trails studied totaled 35.9 miles (they are in the process of expanding).  The study cites spending by cyclists at businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and bike shops, an increase in real estate revenue around the trails, and cyclists returning to areas they liked to purchase goods.  Jon shared one such example:
  • Jon Shields Marina, St. Marks has worked on some projects with Chuck Shields, longtime mayor of St. Marks and owner of Shields Marina.  Shields has told Jon that many of the marina’s clients learn about it through the St. Marks Trail.  They ride down, see the marina, and when they want to buy a boat, they come back.  In theory, more trail equals more opportunity for businesses to be seen.
  • When completed, this will be Florida’s largest multi-use trail.  The CC2ST team believes that this will make it the top Florida cycling destination.
  • One of my concerns, when I saw that the trail would run along US 98 in Wakulla, is how it would interact with the marshes on the side of the road.  As you head south of Panacea on the way to Ochlockonee Bay, there are considerable marshes on either side of the road.  They’re an attractive feature, and a productive ecosystem.  Jon says that in those places, the trail will run along the land side of the highway on a raised boardwalk.  They are designing it with the view from the road in mind, as they don’t want to block the scenery.
  • Now that the plan for the CC2ST has gone through three public workshops and all feedback has been collected, Kimley-Horn and Associates will finalize it and present it in March of 2014.  We’ll keep you posted on day and time when we know.

A few notes from the recent meeting of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council:

  • Liz Sparks is now the Paddling Trails Coordinator at the OGT.  She had held a similar position with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (during which she took us out on the Apalachicola WEA and Slave Canal).  One of her main projects is finding campsites along the Chipola River to facilitate multi-day kayak camping trips.  We recently wrote a piece on the Apalachicola Blueway Guide; there would likely be a similar resource for this.  And, as the Chipola joins with the Apalachicola, there would be more opportunity for mix-and-match paddle adventures.
  • Her other big project is to close gaps in the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  A gap is defined as a stretch of over 20 miles with no campsite.  Locally, there is a stretch of about 30 miles near Tyndall Airforce base where she’s looking to find a site to designate.  As Liz tells us, people are currently having to make arrangements to travel inland to camp, which takes away from the coastal adventure feel. (Watch our video on the FCSPT Forgotten Coast Segment)
  • One mission of the council is to create ecological corridors as well as trail corridors.  Tom Hoctor presented his recommendations for the Florida Ecological Greenway Network.  The idea is to preserve or create corridors of undeveloped land to give animals such as panthers and bears space to roam.  Another interesting goal of the FEGN is to provide a corridor into which coastal habitats can retreat as sea level rises.  Locally, a big priority is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge area.  They are looking at establishing a corridor along the Wakulla or Aucilla Rivers and in the Red Hills area around Tallahassee.  The idea is to give some space for salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds to move along with the receding intertidal zone.  In the Grass, On the Reef, Right In Your Front Lawn.

Well, that’s it for us in 2013.  This has been our busiest year on In the Grass, On the Reef.  I feel we found a nice balance between exploring our natural areas through EcoAdventures and deepening our understanding of our coasts through Randall and David’s research.  While the oyster crisis in Apalachicola Bay seemed to dominate our focus at times, we still hit up oyster reefs and salt marshes from St. Marks to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’ll be working on a year-in-review post soon.  As for next year, people have already begun coming to us with new EcoAdventure ideas.  And we’ve started editing the second In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, which will air this spring.  I’ll have much more information on that soon.  Until then, have a Happy New Year!

Music in the piece by Airtone and Tigoolio.
Jon and Jack on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail

Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail. On In the Grass, On the Reef, even videos on bicycling have oysters and marshes.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

(Video) RiverTrek 2: The Apalachicola’s Bluffs and Tupelo Swamps

Video: Kayak adventure in the upper Apalachicola, where we find Florida’s tallest river bluffs face a decades old man made threat.  Also, higher water lets us deeper into Sutton Lake, a back woods swamp where the oldest and largest tupelo and cypress trees of the Apalachicola basin are found.

Plan your own Apalachicola River Adventure.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

It’s amazing to see how much can change in one year on the Apalachicola River.  I’ve previously mentioned the smaller sand bars and higher water.  But the most striking visual difference is in the face of Alum Bluff, probably the iconic image of the upper river. In part 1 of this adventure, we approached it from land to be rewarded with possibly the best view of the river and the forest around it.  In part 2, we kayak up to it.  Last year, we camped there and had activities in the evening and following morning that kept me from just being able to hang out and enjoy the bluff from my boat.  As I did so this year, Alex Reed, our co-captain as well as a geologist, was inspecting the rubble from a landslide that occurred earlier in the year.  Some of the rocks unearthed were millions of years old.

A few miles down the river, we explored an area that had been on my mind as RiverTrek approached.  I was hoping that this year’s rain would let us penetrate deeper into Sutton Lake, a place that Dan Tonsmeire calls the “quintessential” backwoods swamp.  That’s my favorite part of the video, as we make our way well past where we did last year.  As you paddle the big, wide Apalachicola, you pass so many creeks, sloughs, and other side channels.  Behind the trees could be an Aspalaga Blue Spring (where we hiked in part 1), any branch off of the river might take you back to a dark, canopied swamp like Sutton Lake.  The more I paddle the river, the more I am aware of how little of the basin I’ve actually seen.

It’s a lot to fit into two videos.  I want to show you the river; that’s why I go.  But we paddled with a lot of interesting people with some interesting stories, many of which I couldn’t fit into the videos without making a full blown program of it (maybe I should do that… would any of you watch it?).  Here are a few interesting bits  about my fellow RiverTrekkers:

George Blakely and Zone 5

Zone 5 in a Personal Floatation DeviceIn several shots, you see a dog running across the mouth of a cave, down a steep path, or sitting calmly in a canoe.  That’s Zone 5, a rescue dog that accompanies George Blakely on his adventures (she even has her own pink personal flotation device).  George explains where he got such a cool name.

“In photography, Ansel Adams, he had his own system for the different tones, zones zero through nine.  Zone five is middle grey.  When she runs really fast, which she does frequently, except when she’s in the canoe, she’s middle grey.”

Todd Engstrom

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd is an ornithologist with a unique history with the Apalachicola.  He was sent to look for evidence of a bird that was thought to have been extinct for several decades.  The ivory billed woodpecker is one of the largest species of woodpecker in the world, measuring about 20 inches long.  When one was thought to have been sighted in Arkansas (a sighting that is now in doubt), The Cornell Lab of Ornithology sent Todd to scour likely habitat in the Apalachicola River basin.  As opposed to the red cockaded woodpecker, which prefers upland forests, the ivory billed prefers lowland, old growth forests.  Todd spent four months searching, from Lake Seminole to the bottom of the river.

“As a consequence of that, I was camping out, boating on the river, going to field sites.  Just really enjoyed it.  Fell in love with it.”

Chris Robertson

Chris is a returnee from RiverTrek 2012, and one of our co-captains.  For him, a highlight of the trip came on the third morning.

“It was the time of the trip when you could finally let go of everything that goes on back in the quote-unquote real world, and just kind of immerse yourself in the river and what you’re doing.  When you reach that point, it’s very emotionally and spiritually recharging.”

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.  The Apalachicola River

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.

I get was Chris is saying.  After a couple of days, the trip starts to feel like your reality.  You’ve woken up a for couple of mornings where you stick your head out of your tent and see the river.  Last year, I had a similar experience on the third day.  I spent some time paddling alone, where the only visible signs of civilization were within my kayak.  One of my favorite things about the trip is the people, but I treasured my one-on-one time with the river.

Who knows what my next adventure on the Apachicola River Basin will be.  RiverTrekker Mike Mendez has talked about an extended trip starting on the Flint or Chattahoochee.  Doug Alderson is mulling a hiking trip in the many protected lands around the river.  I’ll be planning other EcoAdventures around the area, all the while knowing that there is some corner of the river basin that needs to be further explored.

Next on In the Grass, On the Reef

The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab takes their critters on the road.  Meanwhile, back at their aquarium, tentacles are a-flailing over a tasty treat and marine megafauna try to eat our GoPro camera.  Also, I begin a new adventure as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ll give you the lowdown as the Council looks for ways to connect existing trail systems and create more opportunities for the kind of multi-day EcoAdventure featured in our RiverTrek videos.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.


Planning Your Own Apalachicola River Kayak Camping Adventure

The Apalachicola Blueway is managed by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and the trail was mapped and the Blueway Guide created by Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails.

Part 2 of the RiverTrek 2013 Adventure is now online. Witness some of the long term damage done to the river, and tag along as we take advantage of this year’s higher water to paddle into one of our area’s “quintessential” swamps. If you missed Part 1, catch it here.  In 2012, we paddled the river in it’s entirety.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

After having partaken in the last couple of RiverTrek paddles down the Apalachicola River, I have to commend Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson for the work they put in to planning the trips.  A dozen paddlers of multiple experience levels paddle 107 + miles (once you factor in side trips) over five days, camping along the way.  Even a relative newbie like me can tag along and find myself alive in Apalachicola five days later.

You’re in good hands having expert paddlers like Doug and Georgia in charge.  But, thanks to a lot of hard work by Doug, any moderately experienced paddler has the tools to plan their own RiverTrek.  Where do you camp?  Where can you refill your water?  On what sand bar can you have a Jetboil tea party?  All of those questions are made clearer with the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Trail guide.

Choose your adventure

The River Styx. Incorporating creeks and tributaries into your Apalachicola River adventure can give you a more intimate feel for the river.

Every year for RiverTrek, paddlers have to find a way to extricate themselves from work and family obligations for five days to paddle the entirety of the Apalachicola River.  But not every trip has to eat your whole week.  Consulting the handy dandy Apalachicola Blueway Trail Guide, you’ll see that there are multiple locations to put in and take out along the river.

Last year for a RiverTrek warm up paddle, I accompanied some of my fellow trekkers on a trip from the River Styx to Owl Creek.  This was an 18 mile day trip that let us see a couple of side channels as well as the river itself.  This year on the Trek, I was extracted at Estiffinulga after two days of paddling and one night of camping.  You have a lot of options, especially if you factor in the many creeks and tributaries in the lower river, in the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area (Watch our EcoAdventure in the Apalachicola WEA).

Once you know how many days you’ll be able to spend on your trip, decide how many miles you’re able to do a day.  This year, we averaged just over 20 miles a day at about 5 – 6 miles an hour, and we did 4 miles an hour with last year’s record low flows.  Of course, you’ll want to make sure that there’s a place for you to sleep at the end of the day…


Estiffinulga Breakfast

Breakfast on the Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2012. Look at how big it is! The Apalachicola is full of high, wide sand bars…

In Part 1 of our video, our trip leaders found the Alum Bluff sand bar too small for sixteen campers.  No problem.  There was another high, wide sand bar just a mile to the north, and it wasn’t even on the trail map as a campsite.  The upper Apalachicola has numerous such sand bars, which gives you flexibility in planning your trip.  Once you get past Wewahitchka at mile 42 (mile markers start at 106 at the Woodruff Dam and work their way down to 0 at Apalachicola), there are less options directly on the main channel.

This year, we had some rain and the Army Corps of Engineers had more water to release from the Woodruff Dam.  That means that the river rose a little overnight, and so we had to pull our kayaks a little further up on the bar.  Which brings me to…

Staying high and dry

Estiffinulga Sand Bar Camp Site

…Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2013. For all I know, the spot where the breakfast table is in the picture above is under my kayak here. Checking the U.S. Geological Survey’s river gauges can give you an idea about how big some of these sand bars might be.

RiverTrek occurs in October every year, during the river’s low water season.  The high water season begins in late February and continues through May.  It’s usually lowest in the fall.  This means that, typically, there are more sand bars exposed for camping then.  Typically.  Whereas last year, drought conditions kept the sand bars as exposed as they’ve ever been, this year’s rain has left them much smaller.  That’s the beauty of the outdoors.  I went on the same trip two years in a row, and things looked different in a lot of places.  But how can you know what to expect when you plan your trip?

For best camping conditions, the Blueway Guide recommends that the US Geological Survey gauge at Chattahoochee remains below 44 feet, and below 5.5 feet at the USGS Sumatra gauge.  Looking at the gauge info at the link above, I see that Chattahoochee was around 42.5 with a spike to 43.5 (when water is released from the dam) for the first day of RiverTrek.  At that height, Alum Bluff was too small for our group and Estiffinulga sand bar (the day 2 camp site) looked nice and cozy.  Within a couple of days, the gauge readings swelled to near 44 feet.

Bring all the gear you will need

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails (where Doug works) has compiled some helpful checklists to make sure you bring everything you need for kayak camping trip.  The bar on the right side of their Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail web site has links to safety tips and a recommended gear list.  You could also watch this short video we did with Georgia and her husband and RiverTrek alum Rick Zelznak, on packing for kayak camping.  In about five minutes, they give you a quick rundown of what to bring, how to organize it in your dry bags, and how to fit it all into your kayak (this was based on Georgia’s RiverTrek 2011 experience).

Plan your route.  Check the river gauges.  Make sure you have all the gear you need, and that you can fit it into your kayak or canoe.  Experience one of Florida’s great rivers.

We work hard on these videos, but it’s never the same as being there.

Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

Bike and Kayak EcoAdventure on Tallahassee’s Lake Lafayette

Video: Mountain biking, kayaking, and nature watching at the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park in Tallahassee, Florida.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Sunrise at Piney Z. LakeAs you can see in the video, a sunrise is always worth getting up for.  All the better if a sunrise that beautiful is a mere fifteen minutes from my house.  Moments before the sun peaked over the tree line to gaze at its reflection in Piney Z. Lake, we heard a ruckus of birds as they flew overhead.  We came to the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park for kayaking, mountain biking, and an airboat ride, but the reason you schedule a shoot at that time is for lighting and wildlife.  Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist Michael Hill told us that they’re getting the park onto the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.  My favorite critter of the day was the juvenile green heron you see at 0:32, but it was also fun to see anhinga, gators, and the occasional osprey.  The park also has gallinules, wood ducks (you can see a couple of wood duck boxes in the video), and over three hundred wood stork nests (located on Lower Lake Lafayette).

Tussocks on Lower Lake Lafayette

The Lower Lake Lafayette portion of the paddling trail is currently clogged with tussocks. When the water gets low, dead plant material accumulates and traps seeds. The seeds grow in these mats, which become floating islands when the water gets higher. The dead vegetation you see in this photo is a result of herbicides, the first step in clearing the trail.

My wife and I have been hiking the multi-use trails in the park pretty much since it opened a few short years ago.  We usually start in Tom Brown Park, make our way along Upper Lake Lafayette and then to Piney Z. Lake.  If we have the time, we head along the dam separating Piney Z. and Lower Lake Lafayette, and across the train tracks into the J.R. Alford Greenway.  Walking all that way, you get to wondering about the dams separating the lakes and the “fishing fingers” on Piney Z.  Those are remnants of the Piney Z. Plantation, which added the earthen dams and dykes in the 1940’s.  The fingers are an interesting feature, letting you walk towards the center of the lake and offering some nice views of the dykes that the City of Tallahassee turned into small islands when they made the park.  All of that damming has altered the hydrology of what was once a singular Lake Lafayette.  This is why the paddling trail on Lower Laffayette has been closed for the last year, as our recent big bad drought lowered the lake and caused it to become choked with vegetation.  The trail will soon be cleared and will open by Thanksgiving 2013.  Thanks to Michael and his airboat (and to Liz Sparks for setting us up with him), we were able to get a unique look at the lake and its floating islands of vegetation, called tussocks.  The dams prevent the Lake’s normal drought cycles, and so the trails require some extra maintenance.

Ardisia crenata

Ardisia crenata, and invasive plant found in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

On land, the multi-use trails need maintenance as well, and there is one thing that any of us who use the park can help with.  Chuck Goodheart, who manages the trails, is looking for help with invasive plant species, in particular, Ardisia crenata.  This plant threatens to overtake native plants within the park.  The city had spent thousands of dollars to try and eradicate it, only to have it return.  Now they’re turning to people who use the trail.  People have learned to carry bags when they walk their dogs; we can likewise bag and remove the plants and their berries when we see them in the park.  In fact, there are bags for dog waste near the Piney Z. parking area.  If people buy into it, it should be a cost effective approach.

I want to thank Chuck for riding his bike on camera after recently having surgery on his foot.  And I want to thank Georgia Ackerman for once again lending me a kayak.  Todd Engstrom and I both got to try out the kayaks we’re taking on RiverTrek 2013, which is- oh my! – two weeks away.  Todd, Georgia, and Liz are a great group to paddle with.  RiverTrek gets me thinking about the connection between the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the bay’s ever important estuarine ecosystems.  This dynamic is at play on Lower Lake Lafayette, which flows into the St. Marks River, which itself flows into the St. Marks Refuge with its vast marshes.  Upper Lafayette has a sinkhole that drains into the Floridan aquifer, the source of water for most of north Florida and parts of South Georgia.  The aquifer also feeds springs that feed rivers that ultimately feed the Gulf.  Nature has this “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing going on, especially when it comes to the way water moves.  That includes rain and everything it carries with it from the roadways and lawns in the developed areas around Lake Lafayette. (Watch as David Kimbro explains the natural- and unnatural- nitrogen cycle, and how oysters can help). In all the years I’ve been coming here, I had no idea about this, or the why the dams were there or what their effect on the lake is.  I’m glad I had this “closer to home” EcoAdventure to get to know a familiar place a little better.

For more information on the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park, visit their web site.
You can watch a video I produced on greenways and trails in Tallahassee by visiting the new and improved Dimensions web site.
Music in the video by pitx and airtone.

Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.


RiverTrek 2013 Preview: A Year in the Apalachicola River and Bay

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

RiverTrek paddlers are raising funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization whose mission is to “provide stewardship and advocacy for the protection of the Apalachicola River and Bay, its tributaries and watersheds…” (participating media members do not raise funds).  At the end of the paddle, on October 12, there will be a reception in Battery Park in Apalachicola.  There, people can greet the paddlers and bring non-perishable food items in benefit of Franklin’s Promise.  Franklin’s Promise aids the families affected by the failure of the Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs.

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150“The Good Lord giveth, and Georgia and the Corps taketh away.” Those words were spoken by Jon Steverson, Executive Director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.  He was testifying before Florida senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) during a special field hearing to address the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.  The high-profile event, held two weeks ago in Apalachicola, marked almost one year into a particularly turbulent era for this region.  Just one year ago, I was preparing to kayak the Apalachicola River for RiverTrek 2012.  The winter bars in the bay were just days away from opening.  When they did, a lot changed, including the nature of the RiverTrek videos we were to make, and the In the Grass, On the Reef project as a whole.

U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation field hearing Apalachicola on August 13.

As I prepare to cover RiverTrek 2013 (October 8-12), the answers to the Apalachicola’s water flow problems remain elusive, and frustration remains high.  Much of that frustration is aimed, as one might gather from the first sentence of this piece, at the state of Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Thirteen days into the job as Mobile District Commander, Colonel Jon Chytka absorbed decades of displeasure at the Corps’ management of the ACF basin.  “I’m going to try to find out why they sent you,” said Senator Nelson, “Why didn’t they send the generals that I’ve been talking to?”  Part of the frustration stems from the rigidity with which the Corps follows the ACF Water Control Manual, and their interpretation of the authority granted them by congress.  The economic impact of fresh water on Florida’s seafood industry is not given as much weight as its economic impact on Georgia agriculture.   The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is the only guarantor that the river flow is not set below 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is how low it stayed for 10 months starting May 1, 2012.  That qualifies as the lowest river flow in recorded history, and only endangered mussels and gulf sturgeon kept it from being lower.  Senator Rubio asked whether the Apalachicola oyster would qualify for such protection.  Crassostrea virginica, the common oyster, is the main oyster species found on the east coast of this country and in the Gulf of Mexico.  The oysters you see on the fringe of the coast are the same species as the larger ones harvested from the floor of the bay.  Apalachicola oysters are the same species as Chesapeake oysters.  To the letter of the law, and despite massive decline in oyster reefs worldwide, it is not an endangered species.

This oyster was retrieved from Dr. David Kimbro’s oyster experiment in Apalachicola Bay. They found it dead, with its meat having been eaten. Like many of the dead oysters they’ve found, it has oyster drill egg sacs growing on it. Each of the sacs (here growing on the “chin” of the oyster) contains 10-20 drills.  Low freshwater input to the bay increases its salinity, making the bay hospitable to oyster predators such as drills, crown conchs, and stone crabs.

A further source of frustration with the Corps is the speed with which the Manual is being updated.  As Col. Chytka pointed out, the process began in 2008 and was complicated by lawsuits, the amount of input from stakeholders in the affected states (over 3,000 comments), and the “technical complexities” of the system.  He projected that a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement would be ready in the Summer of 2015, after which they’d reopen it to comments and then finalize by 2016.  The oyster industry may not have that kind of time.  “I don’t see any hope for the near future,” said Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “We don’t have a near future.”

The best-case scenario for the bay, as determined by the University of Florida’s Oyster Recovery Team, is full recovery within a couple of years.  That’s dependent on being able to place a significant amount of oyster shell at the bottom of the bay.  So far, Hartsfield estimates that they’ve covered 35-40% of Cat Point, historically one of Apalachicola’s most productive bars.  By the end of the current shelling project, he believes that they’ll have covered 50% of another of the bay’s main bars, East Hole.  So, in addition to fresh water, oysters will still be lacking adequate substrate where spat could settle.  Additional funding will be needed to cover the bars fully.  There is, though, a glimmer of hope.

While frustration has remained high, so too has passion for the ecosystem and compassion for the people affected.  Says Hartsfield, “This is the first time, ever, out of all this disaster that Franklin County has experienced in the commercial (seafood) industry, that we’ve had any recognition.  And we appreciate it greatly.”  That recognition drew dozens to the steps of the Franklin County Courthouse that day to show support.  It has drawn researchers willing to work with oystermen to find solutions.  It has drawn a steady stream of regional and national media.  And it drew the United States Senate to a fishing town on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.  At the very least, lot of people are invested in finding a solution.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River.  Last year, the water was too low to paddle to where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found.  With a year of healthy rainfall, this year's paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River. Last year, the water was too low to paddle further into the lake, where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found. With a year of healthy rainfall, this year’s paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

I’m one of the media members who have found themselves returning to cover the crisis, and it started with 105 miles of paddling.  Last year at this time, RiverTrek was to be a different perspective on our local ecology than our marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass videos.  A change of pace.  Instead, it kicked off a year of content that connected the river with the coast, and with the people who care for and rely on these resources.  I now find myself getting ready for this year’s journey with a better knowledge and feel for the story, but with much less certainty about the outcome.  RiverTrek will end after five days.  For this other, much larger Apalachicola adventure, we’ll all just have to keep on paddling.

For more information on RiverTrek 2013, visit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper web site.  To watch videos from last year’s Trek, click here.

Music in the video by airtone.  “Salt in the Blood” was written and performed by Brian Bowen.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Turtle seen on Slave Canal, Florida kayaking trip.

Paleo River Adventure on Slave Canal

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Video: Slave Canal EcoAdventure

Much like Slave Canal connects the Aucilla and Wacissa Rivers, this post serves as a bridge between our oyster reef and salt marsh videos (not that we’re done talking about Apalachicola by a long shot).  One of my favorite things on this blog is when we can make connections between rivers and the coast.  Of course, rivers provide much needed nutrients and fresh water to the estuarine ecosystems I just mentioned.  But to the many cultures that predate european settlement of our area, they served as the equivalent of Woodville or Crawfordville Highway.  It’s how they got to their Forgotten Coast seafood.
Old Growth Cypress Tree off of Slave Canal

An old growth Cypress tree fortunate not to have been logged. Judging from the size of its base, Joe Davis estimates that it could be as much as 1,000 years old.

Slave Canal is one of those places I started hearing about a lot when we started doing our EcoAdventure videos.  As soon as you get into the braided channels of the lower Wacissa, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the popular river expeditions in north Florida.  You’re paddling in a canopied river swamp where people have been paddling for several thousand years.  And minus some old growth cypress trees that have been logged in the last century or so, it looks much the same as it did when various native groups made use of the waterway to make seafood runs to the coast.  But it doesn’t look quite as it did when people first got there.

Evidence excavated at the Page/ Ladson and Ryan/ Harley sites points to people inhabiting what is now the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area for 12,000 years or longer.  At that time, Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Joe Davis told us, the ice ages were ending, sea level was lower, and the coast was further away.  Those first men and women walked on dry land where our canoes and kayaks passed over.  I can almost envision paleolithic man standing on one of the many ancient midden mounds as everything happens around him in time-lapse mode.  Rivers fill and flow to the Gulf, mastodons vanish, and different cultures come and go, piling shell and bone on to that same mound.  Pretty heavy stuff to think about on a fun Florida kayaking trip.

Slave Canal signSo how do you get there?  Here are links to a couple of maps. Florida Department of Environmental Protection put this PDF together with driving directions to two put in points along the Wacissa Paddling Trail. One is for the headwaters of the Wacissa, though Goose Pasture is closer by ten miles. It depends on how long you want to kayak or canoe. It’s about five miles from Goose Pasture to Nutall Rise on the Aucilla.  Goose Pasture is also a camp ground (first come first served, call 800-226-1066 in Florida or 386-362-1001 for more information).  Scroll down in the PDF for advice in finding the entrance to Slave Canal (hint- stay to the right). If you don’t find it amongst the braided channels of the lower Wacissa, you won’t find your take out at Nutall Rise.  You may also want a map you can take with you on the water.  The Rivers of AWE (Aucilla, Wacissa, and Econfina) Explorer’s Guide is available on the Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s web site.  It has detailed maps of the rivers with tips and suggestions, and is printed on water resistant paper.  It’s the map that Liz uses at the start of the piece.

Slave Canal is our third EcoAdventure on the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area.  We paddled the upper Wacissa and got some underwater footage of Big Blue Spring.  We also hiked the Florida National Scenic Trail along the Aucilla Sinks, where the Aucilla River goes intermittently underground, peeking out in “Karst windows.”  The WMA is a marvelous synthesis of history and prehistory, wildlife, and geology.  And, well, it’s full of these cool looking places.

Nigel Foster paddles Slave Canal

This is Nigel Foster, of Nigelkayaks. This link is to the trip gallery on his website.  As you can see, he’s been a few places.

Russell Farrow on Slave Canal

And this is Russell Farrow, Liz’s other guest. Russell is a co-owner of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, and you can see he’s been a few places as well. One of his passions is getting kids into the outdoors (and away from their screens).

Oyster shell on Slave Canal mound

I do one thing on this blog all year that takes place away from the coast, but I can’t escape oyster shells. For how many thousands of years have people eaten oysters on the Forgotten Coast? This shell was on Coon Bottom Mound, the largest mound on Slave Canal.

Turtle seen on Slave Canal, Florida kayaking trip.

I’m looking forward to the next EcoAdventure, whatever that might be.  If you have any suggestions, leave a comment.

Music in the video by Philippe Mangold.