Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition focuses on state's natural environment

After a night of torrential downpours snap heavy oak boughs and drop temperatures into the 40s at Rainbow Springs State Park about 100 miles north of Tampa, the morning sun teases golden from behind a curtain of steel-gray sky with pockets of blue peeking from between its folds. 

The Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition team, 15 days into a 70-day 900+ mile hiking, biking and paddling expedition across the state of Florida, is hosting a “trail mixer” event in which they’ve invited the public to join them for a paddle on the Rainbow River. 

Though the forecast threatens blustery conditions, expedition member and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt looks optimistically toward the small opening in the dark clouds and remarks, “It’s beautiful looking down at that spring. The turquoise waters … a little bit of gray makes the color pop.”

On Jan. 10, Dimmitt, along with Carlton Ward Jr. and Joe Guthrie traveled little more than an hour east from their homes in Tampa Bay to Lake Hatchineha to begin a hiking, biking and paddling adventure along a path that represents their hopes for the Florida Wildlife Corridor; protected, connected landscapes throughout the state that form viable corridors for wildlife. 

As Ward puts it, “Without the connectivity, nature gets turned into islands surrounded by development, or as some people say a zoo without bars.” 

Fifteen days into their journey, they’ve slogged through swamps, paddled crystal clear rivers and swam in springs with manatees. And they are still within an hour’s drive of Tampa Bay.

“We’ve been in these protected areas that sort of ring the Tampa Bay area,” Dimmitt says, “It’s just a reminder that you’ve got to get out and go see them.” 

The team members did much of their training for the expedition at Tampa Bay nature spots like Weedon Island Preserve and Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County near St. Petersburg. 

Dimmitt gathers the trail mixer crowd and begins introductions, but ironically, explorer Carlton Ward is missing. Lost on his own accord, he and fellow expeditioneer Joe Guthrie were last spotted trotting down the rolling hill toward the springs, like two boys running off to play in the wilderness, which essentially they are, but with purpose. 

In fact, they’ve made successful careers of it. Ward is a conservation photojournalist and Guthrie a wildlife biologist specializing in bears. In 2012 Ward, Guthrie and Dimmitt, along with filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus ventured out on a similar journey as the team traveled 1,000 miles in 100 days. That venture resulted in the documentary Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee featured on PBS and an award-winning book. 

Education and outreach is paramount for the expedition. The blog for the current Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition can be found on National Geographic’s website where many of the comments on a recent post consisted of elementary school classes that follow the team and ask the explorers questions about their journey. 

Even though it’s a wilderness expedition they are also posting to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram daily.

Bonding with natural Florida
Catherine Valentine of Tampa joined the Rainbow River Trail Mixer after learning about it on Facebook. 

“It makes me have some hope in the middle of all the development,” she says. “My greatest joy is walking and being in nature. Whether the beach, woods or prairie, the greatest treat about that is seeing wildlife, so they help to keep joy alive in my world.”

The Florida Wildlife Corridor really began in 2006 when Ward attended a lecture by Tom Hoctor, Director of the Center for Landscape and Conservation Planning at the University of Florida. Hoctor was discussing the Florida Ecological Greenways Network, a long-standing scientific vision for critical linkages throughout the state that according to Ward just didn’t have much public or political notoriety at the time. 

Ward recalls, “I raised my hand and said, this is really great but can we call it Florida Wildlife Corridor or something that is easier to understand?” 

Hoctor and Ward would collaborate from that point on, co-founding The Florida Wildlife Corridor. Since then, they and the rest of the team have continued to put a public face on the science.

The team spent a good part of their first week exploring the Green Swamp northeast of Tampa and even donned fire gear to participate in a prescribed burn. Ward stressed the importance the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) property to Tampa Bay and beyond.

“The Green Swamp is one of these natural treasures hiding in plain sight of Tampa and Orlando, only an hour away from either and it’s the source of 4 major rivers.” The Peace River, the Withlacoochee and the Ocklawaha all originate there, as well as the Hillsborough River, which Ward describes as “the definitive element for Tampa Bay and the source of most of the water for over 3 million people in that area. I can’t think of anywhere else in the state that is such a combined headwaters for as many major rivers.” 

Ward continues, “It’s just amazing — beautiful swamps, palmetto flatwoods, remote sections of cypress and live oaks totally blanketed with resurrection fern hanging out over the river, it’s world class nature experiences that are pretty under appreciated by the surrounding urban areas that depend on it.” 

Ward explains that because the aquifer is so close to the surface there, some refer to it as “the water tower” for the Tampa Bay and Orlando regions because its elevation allows water to flow out in all directions and the rainfall there pressurizes the whole Floridian aquifer.

“It’s such a vital piece of land that needs connections to other properties,” he says, noting that despite its ideal habitat, there is no resident bear population in the Green Swamp, a prime example of why the Florida Wildlife Corridor is needed. 

“100 years ago there were bears in every county in Florida,’’ Ward says. “Originally bears and panthers would walk right through what is now Orlando on their way up the Lake Wales Ridge north and south. (Now) I-4 between Tampa and Orlando is pretty much a wall of concrete and associated development.”

“It’s amazing bear habitat,” Guthrie says. “Ecology wise, there’s no reason (why) there is not a bear population there cause it’s got what it needs, it’s just that they (bears) are stuck between Tampa and Orlando,” he explains, referring to Ocala National Forest where he describes the bear density as “incredible”. 

“I-4 and US 27, I-75 and US 19 have kind of boxed it in.”

Additionally, Guthrie describes the relatively nearby Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge bear population as imperiled since it has dwindled to an estimated 11 individuals. A connected corridor between these lands could lessen the Ocala density (and nuisance bear incidents), strengthen the Chassahowitzka population and possibly even establish a resident population in the Green Swamp.

After the expedition crossed through the area, Guthrie says, “From Haines City, having to cross I-4 and I-75, the corridor is not strong from a wildlife and ecology standpoint here, it’s very compromised … any animal would have a really hard time going through there. We’ve come through a pretty screwed up part of the state, honestly.”

Seeing great progress with greater potential 

Guthrie is quick to point out, though, that wildlife corridors in the Tampa Bay watershed can still be successful. 

“There are lots of little places that fit the description of a wildlife corridor that lots of people have done a lot of work to protect and restore in Tampa Bay so we’re not ignoring any of that at all. We totally have huge respect for the amount of work that Tampa Bay Watch and various friends of various rivers have done to protect habitat, those rivers that feed Tampa Bay, because it’s a far cry from where it was and that kind of work is what ultimately makes the Florida Wildlife Corridor real; dedicated local people working to protect what is in their backyard.”

According to Ward, the next step is directing funding from Amendment 1 into strategic land conservation that helps complete the missing links in the corridor. 

“There’s a lot of public land and a lot of land in conservation but those lands are not viable for water or wildlife without being part of an integrated network. The voters spoke with a 75 percent majority that we want water and land conservation — and I hope that the lawmakers can see the Florida Wildlife Corridor vision as an example of how those funds can be responsibly used to accomplish a long-term goal.” 

Guthrie puts it bluntly, “There’s so much to fight for in Florida, just because Amendment 1 is coming, we can’t relax, we can’t assume that it is going to be used as all the voters intended. We’re going to be right there, watching and trying to keep everyone honest.”

The journey continues

Back to day 15 and more than 50 people in canoes and kayaks have joined the expedition team on the water. They raise their paddles for a group photo. Below crisp blue skies, the colorful paddles pale in comparison, even more so as they are dipped into a cool palette of jewel-hued waters punctuated by the waving green grasses of the Rainbow River. 

Powder puff clouds slide across the sky like tumble weeds as a stiff breeze sways empty rope swings and pushes hard against the boats already going against the current. The pace is strenuous, but each stroke brings the paddler rewards for the struggle. A bald eagle soars overhead. A cormorant suns itself, wings outstretched like a scarecrow, atop a shallow-water marker. Otters splash playfully, then slip elegantly below the surface, gliding effortlessly against the flow. 

Soon the team will head back into the wilderness and the trail mixer crowd will return to their daily lives, but they’ll take with them their own experience of joining the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. 

As Deborah Keller of The Nature Conservancy pulls her kayak from the river, helping hands guide it toward higher ground. Keller traveled from Tallahassee to join the expedition. 

“It’s great seeing people of all ages, from all over, here, sharing the belief that theses lands can be connected.” 

She acknowledges it’s still early in the journey, but her confidence is clear, “We’ve done a lot in Florida, but we haven’t fixed it. … but it is still possible and we can do it!”

Follow this link to see a calendar of future trail mixers.
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Read more articles by James Branaman.

James Branaman is a photographer and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.