Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recreation: Keys Style

Angela Salcito, 23, has been kiteboarding in the Florida Keys for two and a half years.

Kiteboarding is completely new to me. I guess I’ve been living too far inland for the last decade because I am blown away by the novelty of this sport. Watching kiteboarders slice through the top of aquamarine water and pump into a ten foot vertical, I get the same awestruck feeling of when I first heard about squirrel suits. Off Whale Harbor on a windy day, you can see anywhere from ten to twenty brightly colored parachute kites tacking across the horizon. It’s a relatively new sport, which requires incredible core strength and precise timing.

Adam Chasey makin wakes off Whale Harbor

Last weekend with winds at 20 to 25mph the conditions were perfect so my friends Adam, Joe, and Angela called me to join them for an afternoon photo shoot. Adam and Joe are still earning their wings while Angela, who’s been boarding for two and a half years, plays the role of teacher.

Angela is about seven feet above the water here.

Imagining a photo of a starburst sun peaking through puffy white clouds with the silhouette of a kiteboarder in the foreground, I asked Angela to start timing her jumps to leave her soaring above my camera. We tried this a few times with minimal success. She was scared to get too close, but I wanted her directly over my head for the image. I thought protecting my camera from the saltwater would be the most dangerous part of this endeavor, that is, until her knee came two inches from clipping the side of my face. Shortly after I put the camera up, but I'm not giving up. I still want that photo.

A little close for comfort.

In the meantime, these will have to do. 


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? 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wyoming Skies

A Bar A Ranch road

I just got back from a quick trip up to Colorado and Wyoming. It was great to trade the humid swamps for sagebrush and mountains even if only for five days. Coming onto the A Bar A Ranch property felt a lot like coming home: familiar faces, beautiful landscapes, and endless food. I took full advantage of their salad bar, and I don’t mean the leafy green part, I’m talking about the bottomless vat of ranch. That’s right, it went on my pizzas, fries, tomatoes, baked potatoes, and I might have even put some on my bagels. The A-A, in more ways than just dressing, is a perfect example of wonderful excess. 

Moonlight on the North Platte River

The 13 miles of private stream and river, 250,00 acres of undeveloped land, 120 horses, herds of big horn sheep, mule deer, monster trout, and energetic people (from the South) have me on constant sensory overload.

Hannah Dillard holds the seine while Benjy Duke kicks up rocks where invertebrates hide

The first day, Hannah and I headed out with one of the head fishing guides and biolgist, Benjy Duke, to do some sampling at the sister ranches: Big Creek and State Line. 

Benjy examines the seine 

Crane flies larva and leeches... mmm...

Benjy is working on gathering data on the invertebrates and dissolved oxygen content of the water along different stretches of the North Platte River, Big Creek, Savage Creek, and Mullen Creek. The purpose is to better understand the feeding cycles of the trout and using the invertebrates as indicators for water quality, determine the overall health of the system. We got to exchange ideas and methods, as his studies are the mountainous freshwater versions of mine down in the Keys.

View from State Line Ranch with Benjy and Hannah with the Sierra Madres in the background

In my two years of working at the A-A, I never took the chance to explore the other properties so this particular trip was a big bonus for me.

Head guide Patrick Sheehy ties on a fly on the North Platte River

Benjy poses with his cutbow trout which he caught off a nymph

The following days seemed to blend together in a whirlwind of flyfishing, horseback riding, and hiking while we desperately attempted to cram every behemoth activity into our little compactable weekend. Up at dawn, to sleep by 2, rinse, and repeat. Well, maybe not so much the rinse part.

Monday morning jingle

Spencer Hirst, atop Dundee, brings in horses from pasture

I have missed the smell of horses, the tug of a fly line, the reclusiveness of no cell phones, and the crisp Wyoming breeze that nibbles at a sweaty neck. Life out here moves at a much different pace, no matter how much I rushed around gathering it all up to put in my camera. Still, you can’t blame me for trying. 

My last trout of the summer, a great note to end on. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Any Given Sunday

Woodstork along Pahayokee in Everglades National Park

When we go exploring in the Everglades, normally my friends and I look on a satellite map and find a cypress dome or slough that looks interesting, then we start walking. This last weekend set our sights on a particularly large cypress dome in the middle of Shark Slough. Unfortunately, this dome was about a 3-mile walk from the road. Parking the car, we took a bearing and started trudging through the mix of submerged limestone, thick sediment, sawgrass, and ankle-high water. Twenty minutes later, we had only gone a quarter of a mile. No one wanted to admit it, but we were all ready to turn around. Luckily, a massive lightning storm rolled overhead, rescuing our floundering prides. We turned back promptly and decided that we could find other places to explore. 

Downpour over the sawgrass prairie and dwarf cypress

The storm passed over us while we sat under a covered tower to watch the exposed landscape receive the rains. Once we got back in the car and looked at the map again, we realized that we were going nowhere near cypress domes. Our orienteering was fine, but we interpreted the map completely wrong. Had we walked the three miles we would have arrived exhausted only to find a dense hardwood hammock that we wouldn’t have been able to penetrate.

Tillandsia and pond cypress during a light drizzle

Rain in the cypress dome

Feeling like we dodged a major bullet, we settled on a much more accessible dome and trudged through the warm heavy water under intermittent showers. The tillandsias and orchids received the rain with rich reds and greens.

Adam Vila paddles close to a bottlenose dolphin in the mud flats

Roseate spoonbills preen in the shallows

A reddish egret wards off a great egret

Towards the end of the day, we paddled out to Snake Bight hoping to catch the last rays of light while the skimmers and spoonbills foraged in the shallows.

A blackneck stilt pulls up algae and grass to fortify its nest

Blackneck stilt eggs on the mud flats of Snake Bight

This time of year, shorebirds are building their nests before the hurricanes have a chance to flood the coast with ripping tides.

Garl Harrold from Coastal Kayaking

Just as we were leaving, an enormous rain cloud pulled in moisture from all directions and released its weight above one of the mangrove islands. I’ve never seen such a graphic storm cloud.

Rain cloud over Snake Bight

With the way the day had progressed, it seems that on any given Sunday in the Everglades, with the right eyes, there's no end to the spectacles of mother nature. 

White ibis fly by a cumulous cloud as the sun sets