Posted by: floridanature | September 7, 2008

Flood Tourism & 200 Million-Year-Old Blinks

Watching Lake Monroe crest out onto the surrounding streets has become a cottage industry for my little town of Sanford over the last ten days. There have been more “flood tourists” here than the historic downtown attracts during normal business hours.

Maybe the folks handling the revitalization of the charming but woefully ignored downtown ought to take a cue from this: A little natural catastrophe now and then could be a good economic move. After all, Universal Studios down in the Theme Park ghetto counts on making folks anxious and disturbed every Halloween. Why can’t a good ol’ fashioned flood—or plague of locust, et. al.— be evoked in the name of commerce every now and then?

Yea, I know, there’s a downside to this. People on the other side of the river have been evacuated when the flood thing got out of control. And the wildlife is turned upside down by it all. When I paddled on the Lake/streets last week, it was sad to see so many dead fish—even stingrays. Dissolved oxygen coupled with a fresh stormwater runoff of chemicals, pathogens, etc. will realign any natural equation.

Our St. Johns River, which spreads out to make Lake Monroe hereabouts, is the only freshwater river in North America to have a breeding population of the saltwater stingrays. Connate seawater far upstream beyond the push of the tides is responsible for this. The little “stingeroos” (as Archie Carr called them) are part of a group (Elasmobranchs) that deal well with fresh water, and thus, are saved from osmotic peril.

The Sanford Herald, a semi-weekly paper that just celebrated its 100th anniversary, did some great reporting on why the stingrays were dying. Now that the once-monolithic Orlando Sentinel is becoming a ghost of its self, it’s great to see little hometown papers like this rise to the occasion.

Still unexplained, though, is why dead stingrays have been bagged up and left to stink to the high heavens at the side of the flooded streets near the river. That may come from the strange Southern gothic tradition Sanford still has of doing weird stuff simply for some reason that no one remembers any more.

This afternoon, I drove west toward the Wekiva to see how that tributary of the larger river was faring. I had paddled it last week, and was impressed with the way the old phantom creek beds had filled, inviting me inside for a retro look at how the river system had once flowed, strong and sure.

Today, I went with my friend Michelle who wanted to shoot some B roll for an indie film on her solo river trek. We stopped first at the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve, planning to hike a bit back to get some macro of plants, maybe wildlife. Michelle gets into the way leaves and wildflower blossoms look when a macro lens captures the otherwise unseen texture of petals and stamens.

We didn’t have to go far for our first subject: It was a gopher tortoise, and it was lumbering through the parking lot, chomping grass. It did this with grand and aloof determination for almost thirty minutes, even when we (carefully) got within feet of it. When I saw it up close, I was reminded of the great land tortoises I’d once seen in the Galapagos Islands, remembered the way they regarded our little group of scientists and filmmakers—as we might regard a swarm of gnats.

It was like, okay, as a 200 million year old species, we’re putting up with your nonsense for now. But, when I blink my eye, you’ll be gone.

Certainly, we’re the new guys on the evolutionary block, little mammals that figured out a way to keep from being eaten by the big lizards. What we haven’t figured, though, is how to keep from eating ourselves. Or more to the point, from consuming the earth, the water and air that sustains us.

No matter, the gopher tortoise was gracious to us as a photo subject, only returning to its burrow when it was ready, and not a nano-second earlier or later.

From there, we hoisted our backpacks and gear and trounced through the woods, first over a trail through some relic longleaf pines, and then down to a giant sinkhole that is almost always dry. Today, it was nearly full from the tropical storm, and I wondered what to make of it. Michelle set up her tripod and shot a golden orb spider eating a midge, and I skittered along the edge of the new pond until finally spooking a barred owl, likely here to take advantage of way the sink-reservoir drew in small critters to drink at its edge.

We then drove westward, into Wilson’s Landing park on the Wekiva itself. It was deserted, the river high and at least one sabal palm toppled over into it. Here we saw a bunch of zebra longwings, an Antillean native that is now our state butterfly, and lots of wildflowers in bloom. The cones of the magnolia were bursting with bright red seeds, just as Bartram had once described, and that was pretty neat, too.

I thought some more about the ephemeral nature of our world, about how fortunate I was to live in a place that was riddled with shards of natural magic—from the tortoises to the Caribbean butterfly, from the pond-like sinks to the little stingeroos.

All in all, maybe flood tourism wasn’t such a bad thing. I just wish the folks who were having a Kodak Moment back by the swollen lake would stroll just a little bit deeper into our natural world.

Then, maybe, we’d be around a bit longer than the tortoises figure.

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