We dive into the Wacissa River with a team of scuba-diving archeologists. What did they find? And what do their findings mean within the larger picture of prehistoric Florida? Read on. Big thanks to David Ward and Robert Daniels of the Aucilla River Group for helping us arrange the shoot and transporting the crew to the site. And thanks to Hot Tamale, whose music is featured in the video.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Some time ago, possibly about 12,000 years or so, a group of hunters stopped by the Wacissa River and made some tools. They’re not likely to have self-identified as members of the Suwannee culture group, though that’s how archeologists classify them based on the way they crafted their spear points. These paleolithic humans left a mess of bone and rock on what may or may not have been a riverbank at the time. That refuse is of interest to Morgan Smith, a PhD. student at Texas A & M University. Continue reading →
The video for this EcoAdventure will air in September as part of a new WFSU program. What segments will air alongside this and other EcoAdventures? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Come in and have a meal, on us, here at the station. We want this to feel like your show, and we’re listening to your suggestions. Conversations start in two weeks. Spots are limited; we want small groups so that we can hear what you have to say. Visit the WFSU Listens page to sign up for one of five sessions.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
We were traveling down an undisclosed section of the Wacissa River. Robert Daniels, the retired Florida Fish and Wildlife game warden who transported us in his jon boat, thought our hosts should have been less explicit in describing their location. He preferred to say “the Aucilla River basin” on camera. He was taking us to an archeological site being excavated under the clear water of the river, and he’s fiercely protective of the watershed’s sites. There are dozens of them in the spring-fed Wacissa and black water Aucilla, many of which, along with other Florida sites, are challenging notions about early human settlement in North America. Robert worries about looters, and it’s a legitimate concern. He caught his fair share of them while working with FWC. Continue reading →
Video: We travel down the Aucilla River, the eastern boundary of the Red Hills region, the dark water of which preserves some of the nation’s oldest archeological sites. It’s also a challenging kayak and canoe trail.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Until paddling the Aucilla River during the production of this video, I had never had to portage on a river. For non-paddlers, portage is when you take your canoe or kayak out of the water to navigate around an obstacle. And on that day, there were plenty of obstacles. The Aucilla River Paddling Trail Guide recommends the river be paddled by those with intermediate to advanced skills. Fallen trees and river bends, sometimes in a tricky proximity, had us pivoting at sharp angles. This was less of a challenge for the three kayakers on our trip, but David Ward and I each ferried a photographer on heavier canoes. If you’re looking for a Florida river on which to peacefully coast, this isn’t it. This is a more adventurous river; and one with thousands of years of human usage. Continue reading →
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.
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.
So 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.
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.
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).
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.
I’m looking forward to the next EcoAdventure, whatever that might be. If you have any suggestions, leave a comment.
Have you ever found oyster shells in the dirt of your backyard? If you have and you live in Tallahassee’s Myers Park neighborhood, then you might be looking at the remains of a powerful native village that rose to prominence over 500 years ago.
I was on a shoot for the first episode of our newest program, Florida Footprints. We were at the Florida Museum of History interviewing KC Smith about her involvement in the excavation of the Hernando de Soto winter encampment in 1987. Back then the city was abuzz about the artifacts being found so widely dispersed off of the appropriately named Apalachee Parkway. They had likely discovered the central Apalachee village of Anhaica, where de Soto spent the first winter of his North American expedition. People were finding piles of artifacts in their backyards. After the interview, I asked Smith how deep I’d have to dig to see if I had artifacts in my yard.
“Do you have oyster shells in your yard?” she asked.
Oyster shells? Evidently, these were the indicator of an Apalachee site. No one is sure what the shells were used for, though she believes they were used as small dishes. This is consistent with the interpretation in the photo above, taken at Mission San Luis, of scallop shells storing food stuffs. As Dr. Bonnie McEwan, Director of Archeology at the Mission, points out, “… Apalachees undoubtedly harvested and ate a lot of oysters when they were near the coast. But because there was no way to preserve them, they didn’t carry them.” So they weren’t eating oysters in Anhaica, so far from the coast, they were just bringing the shells back. Of all the shells they carried with them from Apalachee Bay, the most valuable belonged to a resident of the oyster reef, and to all of the intertidal habitats we follow: The lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium).
Much like our coastal shellfish are economically important today, lightning whelk shells were of particular value for the Apalachee. This had less to do with their meat than it did the size and shape of their shell. Whelks are predatory snails that get quite large, with an elegant sinistral (left hand) curve. I imagine that it’s the impressive appearance of a mature Busycon that led to their use in ritual life. “The outer shells with the columellae removed were used as dippers or cups,” Dr. McEwan said, “and these were used in Black Drink ceremonies. As we discussed, Black Drink was an emetic tea brewed from yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) leaves.” Anyone familiar with the effects of holly knows where the vomitoria species name comes from. The regurgitation caused by the Black Drink was a form of ritual purification, and was a central component of the ceremonies held in preparation for the fierce and occasionally deadly Apalachee ball game (the ball game is the focus of my segment in Florida Footprints). In the second photo to the right, you can see an interpretation of what a decorated Black Drink vessel looked like.
And whelks had value far outside of our area. The Apalachee were part of the Mississippian culture, and with it part of a trade network that stretched to the Great Lakes. Whelks with chemical signatures identifying them as from the Gulf have been found in Arkansas and Illinois. “In exchange for the shells,” Dr. McEwan said, “the Apalachees received artifacts made from ‘exotic’ or non-local materials such as copper, lead, mica, and steatite, all of which were found associated with burials at the Apalachees’ Mississippian capital– Lake Jackson.” Lake Jackson was capital of the Apalachee until about 1500. Judging by the materials for which they were traded, whelks were highly valued. Dr. McEwan elaborates on this. “In general, most of these items are found in association with burials of high status individuals throughout the Mississippian world since they conferred prestige.”
Here is a video of a lightning whelk roaming nearby St. Joseph Bay:
Since we’ve started the In the Grass, On the Reef project, one of the things that has interested me most is how the many cultures of this area, spanning thousands of years, have connected with the Gulf. I’ve enjoyed the illumination I’ve received on this little sidebar to the segment I produced. The next few episodes of Florida Footprints will move forward in time to cover our history since the Spanish arrived. Hopefully, we will later also look in the other direction at the people who left oyster middens on St. Vincent Island or to the Aucilla River, where the remains of the first Floridians and the mastodons they hunted continue to be found.
My co-producers on this episode are Mike Plummer and Suzanne Smith. Suzanne is covering the de Soto excavation and the discovery of Anhaica. Mike is looking at the Spanish mission period in our area.
Watch a preview of Florida Footprints: Once Upon Anhaica:
When researching the Green Guide videos I was producing for EcoAdventures North Florida, I became intrigued by something I saw on the Palmetto Expeditions web site. Cynthia Paulson’s Green Guide brokering business offered tours based on history and archeology. I have an interest in local history and archeology, but I was surprised that it qualified as ecotourism. It turns out that historical excursions are a common form of ecotourism, as it focuses on local culture. And our local culture is often intertwined with the ecology of the area.
While the focus of this site is of course the science and ecology of our coastal habitats, we do like to occasionally look at the people, the culture, and the history of the area. This of course leads us back to those habitats, from which people on the Forgotten Coast have fed themselves and made a living for thousands of years.
Revelers at the Mighty Mullet Maritime Festival. The event was sponsored by Big Bend Maritime Center.
The Big Bend Maritime Center is an ongoing project of Florida Foresight, which is a non-profit organization that incorporated in 2002. Their vision is for balanced economic, environmental and social development of Florida’s coastal communities. Maritime museums have proven popular in other parts of the coastal United States, so it makes sense that with the rich maritime heritage of Florida’s Big Bend and no current interpretations in the area, one might thrive here, as well. In speaking with Bill Lowrie and Pam Portman, it became clear to me that this is a project they truly believe in and they have a real grasp of the obstacles they face as this project moves forward. They are very serious about this being more than a museum. Besides being an eco-tourism draw…it should be a center of local civic activity, an educational resource for area schools and a haven to preserve local maritime traditions before they fade into history. It will still be a couple of years before this effort starts to bear visible returns, but I think it may be a real gem when it’s done and I look forward to seeing it become a reality.
This mullet was an entry in a Maritime Festival cookoff. Mullet has been a major part of people's lives here for thousands of years.
Thanks to Del Suggs for letting us use some of his music on the piece. The song he’s playing at the end of the piece is Magic Chair. Here he is playing the song at the WFSU studios in 1989: