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.

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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.

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

Black mangrove propagules.

VIDEO- Mangroves and Cold, & Oyster Doctors Airs on WFSU

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Wednesday, March 19 at 8 PM on WFSU-TV, catch the broadcast premiere of the new In the Grass, On the Reef documentary: Oyster Doctors.

Withered Black Mangrove

Although it was a relatively mild winter, one or two harsh cold snaps provided Randall an opportunity to test black mangrove survivorship in north Florida marshes, where it has become a more frequent resident.

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with wrapping up the National Science Foundation grant that funds a lot of what appears on this blog, and thinking about the future of the project.  The last major piece of funded content is our latest documentary, Oyster Doctors, chronicling four years of research conducted by Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro.  On the one hand, the show is about learning how coastal ecosystems work.  And it’s about how the inner workings of salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds provide people with jobs, clean water, and protection from erosion and storm surge.  But it’s as much about the ecologists as it is about the ecology.

Randall and David, and their graduate students- Tanya Rogers, Hanna Garland, and Althea Moore– are people who get inspired to pursue a line of research.  They get excited by an idea, like predators affecting prey more through fear than through their eating them.  They get excited about places.  David gets geeked out about predatory snails on Bay Mouth Bar.  Hanna falls in love with Apalachicola and wants to figure out its oyster problem.  Randall makes observations about things she sees in St. Joseph Bay marshes and it sets her on a path.  In one case, that path led her to the video above.

Randall’s interest in black mangroves has unfolded before our eyes on this blog, starting in 2010.  These trees have a range that ends to the south and east of here, yet here they were by her study sites.  To learn more, she started experiments.  Our Oyster Doctor premiere events on March 8 gave her a reason to come down from Massachusetts (she left the FSU Coastal & Marine Lab in January of 2013) and check on her mangrove experiments.  These experiments are growing away in the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve.  One of our premiere events was a walking tour of the Buffer and a visit to the experiment site.  One reason the trees have been spreading in northern Gulf marshes are the warmer winters we’d been having in recent years.  Recent cold snaps let Randall (and a group of interested parties) better see how certain sets of trees in her experiment might survive up here.  And so, as we finished the show, which has its section on the mangrove research, we went right back into the field and gained a little extra knowledge. Nature’s inner workings never stop unfolding.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

Later that day, Randall joined Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire for an excursion within the Apalachicola River delta. Exploring the connection between freshwater bodies and coastal ecosystems has become a focus of this project since we started our EcoAdventures segments.

In the coming months, we’ll get more posts detailing Randall and David’s findings in the studies we’ve been following.  And then… well, certainly more EcoAdventures.  Through those we can explore all of our area, connecting forests with swamps with rivers and back to the coasts, where this project was born.  As people signed up for the premiere and its associated events, we left a spot for people to tell us about their connection to our local wild spaces.  I’ll be looking those over as we move forward.  I love having a window into what all of you care about.  Likewise, this blog has a comments section!  Tell us what gets you excited about the outdoors, what you’d like to see more of, what’s not being covered?

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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.

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!

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR


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.

Snakes, Eagles, & Gopher Tortoises at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center

Rebecca Wilkerson WFSU-TV

In the coming days, we refocus our attention to the coasts as we gear up for the world premiere of In the Grass, On the Reef: Oyster Doctors. This is the culmination of almost four years of collaboration with Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro. Together, we have explored the salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds that fuel Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Stay tuned for more information on the premiere event and opportunities to join us on coastal EcoAdventures.
Regena, one of the two American Bald Eagles housed at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.

Regena, one of the two American Bald Eagles housed at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center.

For this video we take a step back from the coast and travel inland to visit one of Florida’s environmental education centers. The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center is named after Dr. E.O. Wilson for his work in conservation, preservation and restoration. Dr. Wilson contributed to the development of several new academic specialties in biology and paved the way for many global conservation efforts. He also coined the term “biophilia”, meaning  “love of all living things.”  His life’s work and achievements set the standard for the development of the center and its various education programs.

The Biophilia Center is surrounded by Longleaf Pine ecosystem and is ideal for educating students on the importance of biodiversity. The programs offered through the center are available to fourth and seventh grade classes. While the center focuses on serving students, teachers and professional audiences, it is not your average field trip:

  • Students visit the center for either a 2 or 4-day program. Educators from the Biophilia Center have written hundreds of pages of curriculum that meet state standards. The curriculum can be incorporated into their classroom activities before and after their visits.
  • Currently transitioning from a private foundation to a public foundation, the center relies heavily on donations, grants, and volunteers. This allows the center to host schools free of charge. Schools only pay for transportation and substitute instructors for their classrooms.
  • The Biophilia Center is now open to the public on the first Saturday of every month. Each public day includes a focused educational program and activities based around that theme.
  • Twice a year, the center hosts a Special Needs in Nature in nature event, and they accommodate the special needs of visitors during regular programs as well. With the center also being accessible for visitors in wheelchairs, the educators hope to give everyone an opportunity to enjoy the facility and learn more about the world around them.

The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center provides an opportunity for fun, hands-on learning about the natural world and the animals within. The educators also teach visitors how to interact with the natural world and appreciate all ecosystems, shaping visitors into budding naturalists.

Visiting schoolchildren handle an eastern indigo snake with "Turtle" Bob Walker.

Visiting schoolchildren handle an eastern indigo snake with “Turtle” Bob Walker.

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR


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.


Video: Turtles, Octopus, & Crabs at the Gulf Specimen Lab

Video: Critters galore at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jack Rudloe feeding Nurse Sharks at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab

Gulf Specimen Marine Lab founder Jack Rudloe feeding nurse sharks.

If there’s one thing we have learned in 3-plus years of doing this project, it’s that everything eats blue crabs.  If you’ve watched our videos over the years, you’ve seen a gull eating one on Saint George Island.  You’ve seen (and heard) a loggerhead turtle crunch into one.  And in the video above, two octopi wrestle for the tasty treat at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, Florida (That turtle shot was taken there as well, a few months back).  Lab founder Jack Rudloe spent some time with us, feeding sharks, hermit crabs, and various fish species.  It gave us a great chance to see many of the species that we cover in this blog, and many that we don’t, in action.

In the 50 years since Rudloe founded Gulf Specimen, the facility has served an eclectic range of services.

Its aquarium features many of the small critters that we’ve chronicled Randall and David studying in Alligator Harbor, Saint Joseph Bay, or Wakulla Beach.  You won’t see any orcas doing backflips for a fish treat.  These are the creatures of our coasts, many of them common (like fiddler crabs), some of them rare (like a white blue crab).  If it’s safe to touch the animals, you can (consult the signs on the tanks).

Loggerhead at Gulf Specimen Marine LabFor almost as long as its been open, Gulf Specimen has run a Sea Turtle Program to rehabilitate injured loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley turtles.  They release 15-20 a year, many of which have swallowed fishing hooks.  The turtle in the aforementioned video is Allie the Loggerhead, released after a year in their care (full story here).  The loggerhead that tries to eat our GoPro camera in the video above is Little Girl, who is on display right now.

And then there’s the reason the lab was originally created, to provide specimens of animals to researchers, both medical and academic.  This keeps animals coming in and going out, so that the critter lineup remains somewhat fluid.

In their outreach in education initiatives, their goals mirror our own on the In the Grass, On the Reef project, only in a more up close and tactile manner.  They want you to know about the critters and their habitats, the threats facing them, and the benefits they provide us.  With their Seamobile, they can take that mission (and the critters) on the road to events like the St. Marks Stone Crab Festival.  After people crack open their claws, they could go and learn about the world their food had inhabited.  After the last year we have learned that this food only gets on your plate when there is a balance between these animals and their environmental conditions.  Sometimes, that balance is off, whether it is an overabundance of oyster drills in Apalachicola or, as we see in the video, octopus in crab traps.  It’s one thing to hear that crabs are being eaten.  It really comes alive, though, when you see it happening.  That’s mission we share with the Gulf Specimen Lab.

Over the next few months, we’ll be seeking out others who work to bring the big, wild, messy outdoors to you.  Is there anyone that you think we should be talking to? Let us know!

What is that octopus hiding under its tentacles?

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.