Posted by: floridanature | February 2, 2009

Wekiva: The Road to Nowhere

billnkayakThe plan today was to paddle the Econ River. But my friend Julie had some work to do at church so I went out to Rock Springs Run State Reserve for a solo walk-about. SR 46, once a quiet little rural road, took me there, out beyond the fancy sprawl of ” Dunwoody Commons” and the gated upscale community named “Bella Foresta.” Sure sounds like Florida, eh ?

rsroldroad

Along the way, I pass the sign reminding me I was in the “Wekiva River Basin,” zip across one bridge over the river, and another smaller one that allows black bears to cross under it—instead of becoming road-kill on the asphalt atop it.

I turn into an old paved road with faded orange median strips at the state reserve. Back in the late 1950’s, real estate developers built this 1.8 mile road with the idea of staging a mega-commercial center here. A bridge across the Wekiva River near the old marina on the other side of the river would connect with the road, and a dandy new jetport would have become what the Orlando Airport is today. Except it all would have been smack in the middle of the wonderfully diverse biological terrain that cradles the Wekiva River.

The fact this did not happen makes me believe there is a God, and He cares more about wildlife and swamps and springs than airports and fast money.

I park where the developer’s old road dead-ends into a little grassy lot next to a kiosk, shoulder my backpack, and continue heading southward, except now on foot. It is early February in Florida, bright sun overhead and almost no breeze. Even the clouds seem motionless in the deep blue sky above. The trail takes me past a restored sand pine scrub community, sand so white it seems like just yesterday it was under the sea and not a million years ago. Although a kiosk sign warns hikers to stay on the trail so they don’t get lost, I take every chance I can to get off of it, following narrow animal trails through thick bushes of wild blueberry and gulberry, beyond head-high stands of saw palmettos, through now-dry emphemeral ponds.

oak, palmetto scrub

oak, palmetto scrub

A couple miles of this leads me to a series of fire break roads, and I take the second one because I want to see how some hooded pitcher plants that live there are doing. The gulllets in the road are are almost always soggy with rain water, allowing bog-loving plants to migrate out of the flatwoods and onto the path. I start seeing the carnivorous plants soon enough, and am not surprised they have been battered by the dormacy of winter. I pick up one dead stem, peeling the throat of the plant back, and see the residue left from uncounted insects—shards of fly wing, beetle leg, a glimmer of a tiny carapice. On the ground nearby, I see a lone sundew, another meat-eater, one that uses the sticky filia on its leaves to do the same work of the pitcher plant. When Bartram stumbled across these plants during his visits to Florida, he called them “sportive vegetables”, and I chuckle at that notion.

bestwinterpp

The water on the trail finally makes it impassable, and I turn around, headed for a dry fire break road to the South that promises to transport me deeper into the pine flatwoods. As I do, I hear the song of a familiar bird, one I knew from my childhood growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It’s a robin, and I stop in my tracks, and look closer at a large sand pine. There’s a dozen or so of the birds in that tree, and another dozen nearby. They’re migrating, heading back north so they can be there when all the little boys who love nature can spot the First Robin of Spring by early March, and then excited by the discovery, run in and tell their moms, just like I used to do.

I keep up a good pace, stopping only now and then for a swig of water or to snap a photo of something that strikes me as neat. I see something shiny and blue; it turns out to be a dead balloon, drifted away during a moment of far distant joy and and settling down here for its final landing.deadbaloon

There are few animal tracks today, only a lone pile of bear scat. And, since I am by myself, I do not expect to see any snakes. When hiking in Florida, the only time I have seen snakes is when a striking woman has been hiking with me, and she always sees them first—making me wonder if the wakefulness of snakes has to do with human aesthetics:

At different times, with different hiking partners—all lovely women—I have seen: pygmy rattlers (Seminole State Fores), water mocassin (Lower Wekiva Preserve), coral snake (Wekiwa State Park), and a gigantic indigo snake (northeast of Lake Okeechobee.) Beyond the aesthetics, all the women have been brighter than hell, and passionate about one thing or the other. Am figuring this one goes back to the Adam/Eve/Snake/Apple thing, although the metaphor doesn’t work precisely the way I want because, after all, I’m still in the Garden. Nonetheless, I am certain I will be bereft of a snake today, and my knowledge of that makes it easier to look for other wild stuff.

Sawgrass

Sawgrass

Plants fascinate me, and I marvel at how they change with the landscape. As the flatwoods become more flooded, I take another animal trail and trapse through a stand of sawgrass, stopping to run my fingers along the sharp serrations of the blades. I muddle about some, jumping from one unmarked wildlife trail to another, and stumble over more pitcher plants. This time, some over-educated state biologist has marked them with little flags; sometimes, the flags have metal lables with indented numbers. I see two: 529 and 530, and I hope they started counting with one and not at 500.

flagsppPitcher plants are rare and protected in Florida; that’s because the special bogs where they like to spend their lives are the places developers like to find cheap, soggy landscape to squander. With a promise to mitigate and rebuilt these wetlands elsewhere, they often get away with whatever they can. Recreated bogs like this need decades of time to readjust their chemistry,though, allowing the special conditions needed for carnivorous plants like this to thrive. With their capacity to capture its own nitrogen on the hoof, the pitcher plants prefer bogs with low nitrogen. And, that allows them to better compete for space in the terrain with plants that are not dependent on the same needs.

I stop, sit on my haunches, drink more water. I’m about five miles back in now. I’m confident the brilliant winter day will allow me a good two hours of sun to hike back out before twilight drifts across the flat Florida horizon.oldtrailjpg

I turn to go, but spot an old fire break road that looks familiar. I go to it and see it has been abandoned, and no longer kept trimmed like the others. Sabal palms and (dormant) wildflowers are growing throughout, but it still allows a good defined trail.

As soon as I am on it, though, something deep in my heart rises up and I feel a lump in the back of my throat.

It is the trail I once took three or four years ago when hiking with my buddy Steve Phelan, and my best animal friend, Shep. A sheltie among shelties. As always, Shep was a great sport, loving these trails as much as any dog can love anything on earth. He would trot a dozen yards or more ahead, only stopping once in a while to look over his shoulder at us, panting, wagging his tail, a dog made so happy with a moment and with a place.

The feeling that Shep is here now is so strong that it mimics reality, like a morning dream when images and experiences seem more real than life itself. I see his eyes now, looking up at me, expecting me to always be the best I can be. For that is what good little dogs expect of their human companions.

I think now of the poet Marge Piercy and her heart-rendering observation: Memory is the simplest form of prayer.

And I know that I am praying for my now-gone little friend, praying for all those experiences and those hikes and those trails where he led us—all the caring and smart women, all of my buds, and everyone who ever walked with me in the woods, in Florida and overseas: The Rainforest, Rupununis, Tiagas, Savannahs. And all those places that still flourish in the heartscape.

shep-atspring

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Responses

  1. I actually went paddling this weekend on the Econ. We had a great time. Saw two river otters. A few weeks back a friend and I spent the day at Rock Springs Run Preserve. We saw bear scat but no bears. I have seen a mom and cubs here a few years back. Have you had any luck seeing bears here lately.

  2. Thanks, Puc. Glad you guys enjoyed the Econ. The run from Snow Hill Rd. to the SR 46 ramp is one of my favorite stretches. Never seen a bear at RSRSR, but in the late Fall when they move around, will see a lot of tracks, scat, and pine saplings they have incised with claw/bite marks.

  3. Bill,

    Tremendous post as always. It reminds me that I need to start exploring other parts of this wonderful state.

    My son is now the staff biologist for St. Lucie County’s Environmental Resources Department and I hope to go exploring there before the next River Alliance meeting in Viera.

    If I have chance to come to Central Florida and have some time for exploring, I will call for advice.

  4. Hi Mark
    Thanks for the kind words on my little story.We’re really fortunate to have 110 square miles of land around the Wekiva system protected in public ownership—lots of diverse habitats including remote springs, swamps, and uplands. Be happy to point you in the right direction.

  5. Hi Mark
    Thanks for the kind words on my little story. We’re fortunate to have 110 square miles in the Wekiva basin protected in ownership. Some of the most diverse habitats and plant communities in Florida. Some neat little springs hidden away, and lots of primal swamp and marsh to also explore.

  6. I stumbled on your post today, and thought I would share with you that I saw pitcher plants next to the Wekiva Springs boardwalk–first time I ever saw them there. I saw at least a dozen, in two or three different locations. I haven’t identified them, but they were all green, with long pointed hoods folded over their throats. Thanks for a beautiful piece!

  7. Thanks, mikah. Neat you saw pitcher plants there. Sounds like you’re describing the classic “hooded pitcher plants” which like nitrogen-poor bogs since they can catch their nitrogen on the hoof ! Also thanks for the kind words on my little essay ! Just have a new collection of water-themed essays out if you’re interested, including a few based somewhere in the Wekiva basin. (More info on my Authors Guild website: BillBellleville.com)


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