Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lake Ingraham

Freshwater mangrove habitat from Rocky Creek, one of our helicopter sites.

Every site that we sample from Cape Sable eastward to Biscayne Bay has its own energy and distinct personality. At Audubon of Tavernier, each of us have our assigned sites which we sample each month. My sites are Squawk Creek, Downstream Taylor River, West Joe Bay, and Lake Ingraham. Spread out across South Florida and equipped with their own traveling challenges, we all get to enjoy an intimate, yet love-hate relationship with our outdoor offices. 

Aerial view of Squawk Creek with four out of six nets showing.

For example, to get to Squawk Creek I fly in a helicopter from Homestead for thirty minutes at 900 feet over the Everglades. It feels like a dream, every time. Flocks of birds scatter beneath the helicopter's shadow and the undulating rivers and creeks carve through mangrove islands. Soon the ride is over and I have to jump from the floats of the helicopter and trudge through three and a half foot deep sediment before starting my sample. As soon as I land on site, the mosquitoes and horseflies sound their alarm and come to gnaw on me for a solid 5 hours. Small price to pay, right?

A small section of the mangrove tunnel just before reaching the Taylor River sites.

When I sample Downstream Taylor River I go with coworker Adam Chasey who is in charge of Upstream Taylor River. To get there we have to bring eighteen nets (35lbs each) and a separate motor (which sometimes fails) on top of all our other gear. We do, however, get to navigate at full throttle down a winding mangrove tunnel a quarter of a mile long, which then dumps us out into one of the most pristine restricted access fishing areas in the Everglades.

Setting up boardwalks so as not to disturb the sediment
while sampling net #12 at West Joe Bay.

West Joe Bay requires that we boat across the Florida Bay at 6:00 in the morning while watching the sunrise come over the Keys. Then I have to (depending on the seasons) drag a boat loaded down with nets and gear through sediment and mud for fifteen minutes before arriving on site. Joe Bay is entirely restricted from public use, so the dolphins have no fear of our boats.  

A lone roseate spoonbill preens the channel at low tide.

I’d say of all the sites, however, Lake Ingraham is the most brutal on the body and overtly taxing on my patience. When the day is done though, it’s also the most rewarding. This maddening and dichotomous payoff system seems to ring true with most great endeavors: mountain climbing, meditation, space exploration, marriage... but it seems the balance is slightly skewed in the favor of endorphins, which keeps us, ever so masochistically, coming back for more.

Homestead Canal (on right) carves through the Cape Sable landscape with 
Lake Ingraham in the background.

Lake Ingraham is the southernmost lake in the continental United States. We are sampling this area because of its tidal disposition and its historical relevance to the wading bird, shorebird, and particularly, roseate spoonbill populations.  Before the fragmenting of the Everglades and the army corps of engineers' ill-informed fumbling coup, Lake Ingraham was once a freshwater system. Homestead Canal and East Cape Canal were dug out of Cape Sable in order to allow for farming and easy access to prime fishing locations. Perhaps they didn’t realize that when the land barrier was breeched, saltwater would rush in, causing a catastrophic shift in the ecology of the landscape. So here we are now, sampling fish and water salinities to enable and track the progress of the Everglades restoration efforts. Little by little plugs will block the flow of saltwater and Lake Ingraham has a chance of once again becoming a freshwater system.

White pelicans fly over the mouth of East Cape Canal and Lake Ingraham.

Two juvenile spoonbills just east of the site.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Salt or no salt, there are plenty of birds and other wildlife preening the mudflats and roaming the murky waters. I always get excited when arriving at the mouth of East Cape Canal at first light and seeing the droves of birds.

The typical day for a Lake Ingraham sample begins at 3:00 AM with the buzz of my alarm. I head to the office and load the truck with our supplies including an 18’ catamaran motorboat in tow. I pick Adam up and we drive the two hours to Flamingo Point within the national park.

Adam begins loading up the boat, well before first light.

At about 6:00 AM we arrive and begin loading the boat with 400 lbs of gear: a canoe, a kayak, paddles, push pole, oars, minnow traps, dive weights, chains, 6 nets, field bags, scoopers, pull strings, rotenenone, and coolers. 

Sunrise over the Florida Bay on an uncharacteristically calm day

By 6:30 AM we are on the water, rain or shine, running across the northern tip of the Florida Bay.

An early-rise crocodile suns on the mud bank before the tide comes in

Around 7:15 AM we arrive at East Cape canal and pull into Lake Ingraham. We have to go in between the channel markers to keep from grounding out on the mudflats and it's all by touch. When we reach the channel to our sight, Adam mans the helm, and I take the 15’ push pole and use it as a dipstick to find the winding channel. At low tide it's easier to follow the channel but even then, the risk of bottoming out on the mud flats is greatly exaggerated by the fact that our boat is so heavy. Once grounded, it's either a waiting game or a desperate blitz to push the boat off. Out of anywhere in Everglades, this is the one place you DO NOT want to get in the water. We only use it as a last ditch effort. The crocodiles and sharks in this area are countless, hungry, and sit at the bottom of the deep runs for prey to swim, or trudge by. It’s a very scary feeling to be in the water up to your waist here.

Me, setting up net #4 at the Lake Ingraham site. Notice the color of the water in comparison the other
freshwater sites above. 

At 7:30 AM we have only two hours to set up our nets, put out minnow traps, and then drop all six. We have this time schedule so the shadow of the frame poles does not scare the fish away and negatively affect the data. When all nets are dropped, we can breathe easy, tolerating the constant barrage of noseeums. 

Because of the tidal shifts influencing water levels instead of seasonal shifts, we catch very few fish
throughout the year at the Lake Ingraham site. Hopefully this will change as the natural hydrology is restored.

Another two and a half hours to sample all the nets and we’re done, kind of. We boat back to Flamingo, unload the excess gear and then drive the two hours back to the office, muddy, mosquito-bitten, and salt-stained. By 4:00 PM we’ve loaded up the truck for the second day of sampling and head home in time to change for volleyball.

Did I mention Lake Ingraham was a beautiful place? 

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