Saturday, June 2, 2012

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Florida Bay, Mac Stone, Everglades
Me with Carlton on the morning of their departure from Florida Bay
I was there for the first day of the expedition when Carlton Ward Jr, Mallory Lykes Dimmit, Joe Guthrie, and Elam Stoltzfus set out on their 100 day/1,000 mile journey from Florida Bay to Okeefenokee Swamp. I remember feeling a palpable envy knowing that they would be crossing some of the most wild and scenic regions of Florida. The simple idea of traveling 1,000 miles by your own sweat and grit, without the aid of pavement, is a crazy one by most standards. But crazy ideas and groundbreaking efforts are usually what it takes to move mountains. And if Florida is going to provide a corridor stretching from the Everglades to Georgia for endangered wildlife like panthers and black bears, well, some mountains will need to be moved.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition map
I planned on meeting up with Carlton and the crew along several stops of their journey but never found the time as I was wrapped up in my own adventures. When Carlton called me to come and join them on the final stretch through Okeefenokee Swamp, no matter what it was going to take, I knew I had to go. Having photographed his group for 100 days, it turned out no one had really taken images of Carlton, so it was my job to capture the essence of the group as a whole as well as its fearless leader. I felt a little like Nick Nichols on expedition with Mike Fay in the African Congo Megatransect, a story that I drooled over when it was published in National Geographic in 2001.

The headlights of my truck offer a quick photo opportunity before taking off on the Suwannee River
When I pulled into Griffis Fish Camp, it was 11:30 PM. There was no moon, just stars and a cacophony of frogs and toads. I had no idea where the expedition team was, just a general sense that they'd be South on the Suwanee River somewhere, camped along the banks. Carlton said he would leave a fire burning but that was at 9:00. I considered camping at the fish camp but knew that I needed early light photos of the group so I bit the bullet and paddled out into the darkness. My headlamp ruined my night vision so I turned it off and hoped for the best. Of all the things that could have scared me, the worst thing on the water at night were the wood ducks. It seemed they waited until they were right next to my boat when they would explode off the water. I felt so foolish when my nerves calmed. Finally, I pulled my kayak into camp around 1:30 and set up a tent, without so much of a stir from the team.

Mac Stone, Suwannee River

I woke the next morning at 5:30 to ready my camera gear and head out on the river for first light with Carlton. Polar fog was settling on the water and made for some great images with the looming tupelo and cypress along the banks. Carlton and I paddled upstream while the rest of the crew prepared breakfast and packed their tents. Photo shoots like these are tough. Since I didn't have any time the day before to scout locations I had to work quickly to find compositions and opportunities where the light allowed. Luckily I was able to make a few frames before the fog lifted while gentle amber light still dappled the tops of the trees.

Mac Stone, Suwannee River

It's an awkward thing being the subject of a photo, especially if you're a photographer. All my friends will tell you the same thing as I constantly ask them to hold poses or look wantonly away from the lens. I think my girlfriend fears going out on hiking trips with me specifically for this reason. Carlton mused that he had never been in front of a camera so much as that morning with me. What can I say though? It was my job! I wasn't going to let embarrassment or a small thing like courtesy get in the way of my images, I mean, do you think  Nick Nichols would ever bashfully put away his camera with light like this? I don't think so.

Mac Stone

As soon as the sun started heating up the water, the light became too harsh and we pushed back to the camp to make moves for our lunch break at Griffis Fish Camp. It wasn't until we were halfway there when Carlton told me we were actually stopping to meet up with Mike Fay, THE Mike Fay, who flew in from Washington to also join in on the last push of the expedition. (!!!!!!) Carlton had met Mike while photographing in Gabon and invited him to serve as the ultimate transect guru and guest speaker for their final arrival on Earth Day. If there's anyone on this planet who knows about major transects to protect land, Mike is the authority.

Carlton Ward gets horizontal for a frisbee
Joe Guthrie lays out for a disc on the Suwannee River
Mallory Dimmit dives for a frisbee
It didn't take long until we turned it into a frisbee battle, of course I'll only show you the one where I caught it...

While we waited for Mike at the fish camp, I ran to my truck and grabbed a frisbee and we took turns running full speed into the river for full-on layouts. Good ol Florida backwoods fun. It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks this is one of the most entertaining things in the world. Eventually Mike showed up, and like a bunch of crazed labradors, dripping wet and panting we collected ourselves and made our introductions. All I could manage to say was a fumbling, "Hi Mike, uhh.. I'm a huge fan ... umm I can't wait to take photos of you." Nothing says creepy quite like an overly sweaty, huffing, red-cheeked man with a camera. 
Carlton Ward and Mike Fay meet up on the Suwannee River to finish the last miles of the expedition together
But there we were, all paddling up the Suwannee River into Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and I couldn't have been happier. Two of my conservation heroes on either side and a darkening sky with promises of thick heavy rain. If I were going to make this look like a hardcore expedition it couldn't be all sunshine and rainbows. Luckily I packed a large golf umbrella on my kayak specifically for shooting in these conditions and when the skies opened up, I was ready.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Mac Stone

Carlton and Joe G. portage over a fallen log
Once the storm passed the Okeefenokee came alive. Prothonotary warblers echoed in the canopy and the lush swamp started closing in around the river. The Suwannee soon turned into a series of braided creeks and diffuse wetland. Trees had fallen across the water and we were forced to make a few precarious portages over the slippery logs.   This was all pretty standard procedure to Carlton and Joe, who had seen their fair share of obstacles along the trek. There's no such thing as an easy path along 1,000 miles of wilderness.

Mac Stone

By the time we made it to our campsite, we were soaked to the bone. The rain picked up again and wouldn't relent. All my camera gear was wet and I wasn't looking forward to spending the night in a puddle. Not that I had much choice though and plus, I wouldn't dare voice any complaint, not while in the presence of Mike who battled nearly every single discomfort known to man on his various transects. The chances for a fire were grim, until Joe found his axe and started to chop at burnt pine revealing lighter'd (lighter wood). We used my jet boil to get the coals going and soon enough we were warming up around a roaring campfire. Sweet, sweet, bliss.

Joe Davenport warms himself by the fire
Around the fire we talked shop all night, discussing gear preferences, cameras, and favorite whiskeys. It didn't take us long to finish the Maker's Mark I brought either, giving us that extra warmth before heading to bed. I'm sure for Carlton, Joe, Elam, and Mallory, they feared the fading light of the campfire as much as they welcomed their warm sleeping bags. With the dawn would come an end, a bittersweet finale to an incredible journey. For a crew that's been shoulder to shoulder for 100 days braving some of Florida's wildest places I could see how the finish line might actually be a daunting thing.

Mac Stone
From left, Mallory, Joe, Carlton, and Elam leave their campsite in Okeefenokee and make way for Steven Foster. 
Elam carries his bags to the boat
After packing up, the group solemnly made their way to the kayaks. With only a couple miles between them and their welcoming committee at Stephen Foster, they took their time enjoying breakfast and drinking coffee. By 10:00 AM they were on the water and heading for the final stretch. Once momentum picked up and paddles were put to water, the group moved with lifted spirits.

Alligators and warblers traversed the calm river and our kayaks cut through the mirrored landscape. By 12:00 we were at the mouth of the canal leading to Stephen Foster State Park and the rain let loose from the sky again. It was a fitting end; one last push through Florida's fickle weather to the crowds of media teams and adoring supporters.

Their arrival was well-received and people cheered as Elam, Mallory, Joe, and Carlton disembarked from their vessels. Wives, brothers, sisters, children, and daughters swarmed the expedition team with tears and warm embraces. After 100 days and 1000 miles, they finally made it home.


  1. Thank you Mac! Having you with us was a highlight. How fitting that the night before meeting Mike Fay that one of my Florida conservation heros paddled a mapless section of the Suwannee in total blackness, found our camp and set up his tent like a silent swamp ninja who had mysteriously materialized with cameras by dawn.

  2. haha! We can't both be each other's heroes Carlton, that's almost too much bromance. I will, however, accept the "swamp ninja" part. ha! Thanks for having me. I couldn't have thought of a better way to spend Earth Day than with you guys

  3. Great post Mac. Long live the swamp ninja!

  4. Loved this post, very well written.

  5. Ouch! I have a toothache, this is so sweet.