Early last week I was contacted along with 11 other photographers from around Florida to help with the production of Florida Forever's 2010 calendar. Joined up with LINC and FNAI we were sent all over the state to document a slough of areas now targeted for conservation and protection from development. My area, called the Saint John's River Blueway is roughly a 13 mile stretch of wetlands, creeks, and cypress swamps located on the east side of the river. From Trout Creek down to Mccullough Creek parts of the flood basins have been drained and developed by golf course communities or cut down to make room for pine trees. These assaults on the land have greatly fragmented the natural corridors for wildlife and have changed the hydrology of the landscape by eliminating the swamps necessary for percolation and filtration. An ugly and harmful trend, southern developers slowly make their way up the state with the same tactics and strong arm they exacted to essentially drain the Everglades. I enjoyed two full days of paddling and tromping through the creeks and soggy swamps around Picolata, Florida with my camera at my side and often, over my head to keep it from getting wet.
On the first day I followed the contour lines provided by the Florida road atlas (my outdoor Bible) up to Tocoi Creek. About 20 minutes into the paddle the creek turned unnavigable from deadfall and neglect so I walked another hour, hoping to run across a moccasin or gator, or something.
I crossed the creek several times on fallen trees and every time held my breath, and my camera, hoping the rotting tree wouldn't break under the pressure. Looking down at my feet, I felt as if the world had been turned upside down, reflecting trees shooting into the dank and dark depths of Tocoi Creek.
Turtles basked on the side of the banks hoping to catch a few rays that penetrated the canopy. The light started getting low so I tromped back to the truck dragging the cumbersome kayak behind me, bumping loudly over cypress knees.
A granola bar and nearly a half-gallon of water later, I pulled up to Six Mile Creek. Don't let the word "creek" fool you, Six Mile is wider than most rivers and deeper than I care to explore. The creek attracts local fishermen and a slough of boaters who stop at the highway 13 bridge for a fried anything and cold beer at the Backwoods Crab Shack. A mile upstream, however, I was all alone, just the birds, the gators, me, and the soothing dipping sound of my paddle.
By the end of the first day I was exhausted. I paddled over 10 miles, walked more than 3, and called it quits with very few images worthy of a calendar. I started thinking I picked the wrong season, that I needed a boat, and many other excuses as to why I hadn't come up with an iconic image. I was grumpy and needed sleep.
The alarm sounded at 6:30 in my Best Western bed (for lack of a camp site) and I stopped downstairs for the continental breakfast. Stale english muffins, that packaged grape jelly which always has a consistency more like jello than preserves, and a burnt cup of coffee didn't exactly have me skipping and whistling to work. Groggy, heavy, and full I headed straight back to Six Mile Creek and sighed at the kayak, as if to provoke some response from the vessel, before hauling it down to the water. The creek was still, as it was an hour before any boaters had their motors humming through the water.
About a mile up the creek the early morning light broke through the east side of the bank and started painting dramatic backdrops of side-lit mosses and red maples.
Great blue herons stood atop snags and egrets preened the matted lilies for crawfish and minnows.
Anhingas, or snake birds as they are often called, dried their wings in the humid morning light and I finally felt a warm sense of calm that things were going to be ok. I was going to make an image.
Paddling a little further I noticed movement on the bank at my 2:00. One stroke of the paddle and I turned, drifting quietly towards what I thought was a gator. Pleasantly surprised, two river otters popped their heads through the lilies and swam towards me.
Otters are known for being curious creatures when they do not feel threatened. Had I a boat, I probably would have never seen these beautiful animals. They arched and spun effortlessly in and out of the water for ten minutes not more than 10 feet in front of me. Occasionally yawning, it seems they too had a tough time waking up.
I wished I had something to give them, some way to speak with them, at least something to show them my gratitude. Maybe these photos will help protect their home. The rest of the day I was on cloud 9. Wildlife sightings, when as intimate and personal as they often are in the backwoods of Florida, leave you with a feeling of solidarity, as if a spotlight of the universe briefly shined on your little corner of the world.
I paddled on until the afternoon - until my stomach's grumbling was louder than the outboard motors trolling through manatee zones. Boats started to pepper the shoreline and people emerged from the woods on their make-shift boardwalks with fishing poles in hand. Like a change in shifts, the wildlife dispersed into the thickets following smaller creeks. Discouraged by the heat and the motors, I waited out the harsh midday light on a park bench at Trout Creek, one of the northernmost points of the Blueway until around 3:00.
I explored Trout Creek for three hours. Almost identical to Six Mile, the creek spanned about 30 yards across and lingered deep from within the forest, collecting runoff and wetland percolation until its confluence with the Saint Johns. Although more heavily populated, the creek is home to an RV park, many private residences, and a wild game preserve.
This is the dockside entrance to the game preserve. I'd hate to see what their welcome mat says.
Even with the various homes and boats lining the shores, this creek still exuded the aura of a wilderness. All along the shore I heard rustling in dry leaves and the occasional splash of a gator plunging into the water. It turns out the rustling wasn't pigs like I thought, but groups of wild turkeys kicking through the leaf litter. Quietly, I eased into the water up to my waist and waded over to the shore, hiding behind a few fallen logs. It took the turkeys about 15 minutes to get close enough for a photo and even halfway submerged in the water, they still managed to spot me. Vigilant, paranoid little creatures.
Around one of the bends I accidentally paddled dangerously close to a 14 foot gator. Longer than my kayak, this beast was scary big; a well-fed swamp dragon. I didn't manage to get any pictures because I paddled furiously to the other side of the creek. If there's a more humbling and vulnerable feeling than being only four inches from the water's surface with a massive, prehistoric reptile charging towards you, then I don't want to experience it. I've been around plenty of gators in open water, but this was perhaps the most discomforting and unnerving situation of them all.
When my heart beat returned to a normal, less-audible rhythm, I turned around and headed back to the put-in. The sun made its descent across the western side of the river kissing a few clouds before ducking beneath the horizon. During my two days photographing the Saint John's River Blueway I ran the gauntlet of emotional and physical strain. A true experience in nature. Frustration, laughter, disappointment, elation, exhaustion, relaxation, and most importantly, appreciation.
Just as I was packing up the kayak and taking off my soggy pants a man pulled up in his truck. A well matured mustache covered his lips and nestled right in the valleys of his cheek bones. He asked me if I found what I was looking for. Immersed in my work and completely self-unaware, I didn't realize that I stuck out like a sore thumb in my kayak, wielding an enormous camera instead of a pole amongst the boaters and fishermen. I happily scrolled through my images and showed him the last one. Eyes squinted, the corners of his mouth peeked out from underneath the course gray hair in a smile and said, "Yup, that's the place."