02/12/2015 Life Through the Lens, Julie Mancini

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Wild education

As I waited in the parking lot of Econfina River State Park on Feb. 2 to meet with members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, I could not help but reflect on what drove me to travel two-and-a-half hours from my home to spend the day with the team as they embarked on Day 23 of their journey across the state from the northern part of the Everglades to the Florida Panhandle.
Since briefly meeting Zach Forsburg, logistics coordinator, and Joe Guthrie, bear expert, on Jan. 24 at Rainbow Springs State Park, I’d read everything I could about them.
All of these realizations and “if onlys” rushed about in my head: why had I never heard of this before? How could I have missed this in the newspaper? (Because I rarely get a chance to read it except on Sundays.) Why did I not study science in college? How can I get my students involved in this? Can I quit my job and join them?
Almost as soon as I contacted the group, I got an email with details about how I could get my students involved. We are working on that for later this month or some time in March. Later, I was invited to meet them for an interview, and to me, it was an opportunity I could not pass up.
So, what exactly is the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and why is there an expedition? Well, think about it. According to the state of Florida’s Quick Facts website, about 1,000 people move to Florida every day.
According to the Census Bureau, Florida is 11 percent urbanized and 16 percent developed. There are plenty of people who are advocating for Florida’s wildlife because they cannot speak for themselves.
As a resident of Dunnellon since 1985, and a frequent visitor prior to 1985, I have seen the changes in the Rainbow River. These changes affect the flora and fauna that depend on the river. The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition team aims to bring awareness to everyone in Florida: its residents and visitors, its businesses and industries.
On the morning I met with the team at Econfina River State Park in Taylor County, they had arranged a phone conference with Scott Mixon from Foley Celluslose, a paper mill in Perry, a little ways down the road from where we were.
The team had traveled by bike about 33 miles the day before, and had crossed the Fenholloway River, which runs through Perry. The Fenholloway is currently being restored to a “Class III” fishable, swimmable river.
In some places, it is already designated as such, but the team members mentioned its odor to Mixon during the conversation. I made a note to check into it on my way back through, and to also find out what the different classifications of water were.
As Mixon was on speaker with conservationist photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr., Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and Guthrie were on the dock at the Econfina River, I realized that the three of them, along with Forsburg, are the perfect team to travel across Florida and make people aware of the ecosystems around them as well as the threats and the things that can be done to sustain or repair these areas.
This expedition is the second one for the trio. In 2012, they completed their first, 100-day trek from the Everglades to the Okeefenokee. The 1,000-mile expedition is chronicled in a book and a DVD documentary, both of which are available through the Florida Wildlife Corridor website.
“I did the planning,” explained Dimmitt of this expedition. Intense planning began about a year ago, including fundraising. This journey, which included hiking, biking and kayaking, will take 70 days. (Today is Day 33.)
Most Saturdays, the team has a meet-and-greet with locals called a Trail Mixer. On Jan. 24, they paddled around the Rainbow Springs headsprings with a group of locals before heading out to the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown.
The following weekend’s Trail Mixer was in Steinhatchee. The day before Steinhatchee, the group traveled about 50 miles by bike, taking Saturday afternoon off. Then they had another 33-mile bike ride to their lodging in Waukeenah on Sunday before meeting me at the Econfina River for a relatively easy day biking 16 miles, about half of it on paved roads, to Goose Pasture, which lies between the Aucilla and Wacissa rivers.
As they prepared for their journey that morning; loading their packs, attaching their Go-Pros and making sure their bike tires had air; they talked about their challenges.
“It’s hard to have the energy to go every day,” said Dimmitt. Once the crew finishes their daily trek, their day is not over. “We have late nights doing media and photo processing,” she said.
Dimmitt, Guthrie and Ward all carry cameras, and for 50 of the 70 days of the trip, a film crew is traveling with them. “The images kind of drive this whole train,” said Guthrie.
While they occasionally go “off script” and take some side trips, Dimmitt said another challenge for her is to give each place its due time. “I wish we had more time to paddle the whole Suwannee,” she said.
The last trip in 2012, they did the upper half and this time they did the lower. She also mentioned wanting to spend more time in the Goethe State Forest.
In general, the trio agrees that Florida’s springs are in trouble, but Dimmitt felt that Rainbow Springs was in better shape than some of the other springs they had seen.
Ward added that there was much more algae and eel grass in Chassahowitzka and Manatee Springs. “I didn’t see any eel grass in the Rainbow,” said Ward.
“Sometimes you have to put some forethought into making restrictions,” said Guthrie. “Sometimes you have to regulate.”
While some land is better preserved than others, the team members all felt that their goals on the road were being met. Dimmitt acknowledged the efforts made by local tourism agencies to make them feel welcome.
“People are a little bit interested,” she said. “We are seeing a lot of youth of all ages at our Trail Mixers.”
“Florida is fertile ground for connecting with youth,” Guthrie added. “There are really unique ecological systems and a whole lot of science backing them up.”
As the group pushed off on their bikes for another day’s adventure, I was invited to tag along since the ride was short and mostly on paved roads. They estimated the 16 miles would take about two hours, and I had the time to spend. I ended up stopping by a sinkhole that was right off the road, and they caught up with me there about an hour and a half later.
Orange spray paint marked a couple of tall pines next to the sinkhole indicating an entrance to the Florida Scenic Trail, which I didn’t even know existed until that very moment. Dimmitt said traveling this trail was their plan for tomorrow. They would walk alongside the Aucilla River, which actually flows both above and under the ground. Dimmitt and I walked in a little ways to observe this unique feature of the river, and I felt privileged to have an opportunity for a little side trip with an expert who loves Florida.
You can follow the 2015 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition online at floridawildlifecorridor.org/follow-along.