Hidden Florida

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Until recently, Florida—specifically a biased version of Florida I had crafted in my mind over the years loosely based on a mix of bad tourist commercials and theoretical scenarios that I just assumed happened when lots of money meets tropical paradise—was never high on my list of places to visit. Crowded beaches. F-ing Disneyworld. Mar-a-Lago. Leathery octogenarian yachtsman drunkenly yelling at each other during boat-rage incidents in crowded harbors while propeller-scarred manatees scurry out of the way. (Okay, that one turned out to be surprisingly accurate.)

The hidden Florida.

Forgive me Floridians, because this mindset came before I had a chance to see the Florida beyond the isolated excess and contrived posh of Palm Beach, and see, instead, the hidden Florida, a place of true magic. A place of placid ethereal swamps, scrubby pine flatwoods, mazelike mangroves, bewildering varieties of migratory birds, prehistoric stubby-legged amphibians, subtle 8,000-year-old man-made raised mounds. Oh, and you got some wonderful folks.

My transformative Florida experience happened this past January—the golden days of pre-Covid—when science filmmaker extraordinaires, Neal Losin and Nathen Dappen, invited me and underwater master David Herasimtschuk to shoot some photos during a supported source-to-sea expedition.

This expedition involved three rad high schoolers (Noah, Kiana, and Kourtez) from Palm Beach County who, guided by wildlife biologist Alex Freeze, would bike, hike, and paddle 70-ish miles over seven days from the stunning greater Everglades headwaters, through the tannin-stained waters of the wild and scenic Loxahatchee River, past million dollar-homes and towering condos to the turquoise waters of Atlantic Ocean.

I arrived at the airport at night and was whisked to the casa of Benji Studt, who is the awesome brainchild behind the trip/film/education project and also the Public Outreach Program Supervisor at the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management (PBCERM).

Early the next day, the support team dropped the crew off bleary-eyed for an introductory swamp walk (my first). In much the same concerned tone that I’ve heard countless cautionary tales about Grizzly Bears out west, people give similar breathy, worried advice about why the swamps are a scary place. No wonder we’ve filled, plowed and paved so much of it. In reality, the swamps aren’t a soggy Jurassic Park waiting for victims, it’s a wonderland of life and beauty. Granted, our trip happened in the winter. The temperatures stayed downright pleasant and the bug hordes only gathered in modest congregations. Am I selling it?

There’s risk everywhere in life, we just have to get over it and get out. The lack of knowledge and/or fear surrounding the swamps is a pretty good reason for their decline. The swamps don’t have to be this mentally terrifying land of toe-hungry reptiles and stabby flying petri dishes. Besides, humans aren’t losing the long game here, the wetlands are, and it’s not just the bugs that’ll be high and dry. Florida is (was?) basically one large wetland, which has been rapidly filled in to feed the demand for more housing—state population is expected to hit 22 million by 2022—in a place that was never meant to have widespread terra firma or sortem populi. (I.e. lots of people—I’m not that smart I just google translated Latin for effect).

It wasn’t until too recently that scientists realized just how long humans have lived in Florida (dating on ancient beads of limestone-fossilized bone suggest 8,000 to 12,000 years of occupation). As archaeologist Chris Davenport guided us through an open grassy area, carnivorous sundew plants glistened with dew along the trail as we splashed through recent ORV tire tracks fresh in the mud. Somewhat suddenly the canopy closed in and the ground almost imperceptibly rose a foot or two. A foot or two of elevation change in Florida is huge. Not huge in measurement, but in terms of plants and wildlife. The changes in just a couple feet of difference are remarkable. Often it means entering a whole new habitat.

Within a few minutes of walking around, Chris’ trained eye spotted something in some freshly rooted sand, the work of vandals, not human ones but invasive feral pigs that cause massive degradation all over Florida while looking for food. Though their rooting pales in comparison to the modern-day human impact. Chris picked up a smooth, curved piece of ancient clay, handed it to the students and casually mentioned that the shard was likely thousands of years old. The students passed it to the crew to feel.

I’d had moments like these before when standing in front of pit houses or petroglyphs in Idaho that the Nimiipuu and their ancestors used for thousands of years. I can only liken it to the uneasy feeling of being in someone else’s house when they aren’t home. Real Florida. Though archaeologists think many of the tribes that once inhabited this area have died off, the ancestors of the Seminole and other tribes continue to use the land today.

Day two involved miles of mountain biking. We crisscrossed canals and interstates, the signs and sounds of human industry always not too far away. As we camped in the swamps that night though, the chorus of the birds, insects, and campfire drowned out the memories of the modern for a bit.

Next, we joined ornithologist Mark Cook for another fantastic swamp walk. We waded through clear calve-deep waters to where Mark had left some traps overnight to maybe give the students and the film team a look at something neat. It turned out to be much neater than neat with one of the traps yielding a 16-inch two-toed amphiuma, an alien-looking aquatic salamander. The elusive amphiuma hunts crayfish, can grow up to 3.5 feet, and is most notable for its small, poorly-developed hind legs, which Kourtez perfectly cautioned was why you should “never skip leg day.”

The journey transitioned from swamplands to river as we set out to kayak the primordial Wild & Scenic Loxahatchee River. As we put in the water Kourtez casually devoured a whole sleeve of Oreos like a woodchipper, calorically unfazed with the superpower of teenage metabolism.

The river was of a different time, with its towering cypress “knees,” root formations jutting out of the water like woody tombstones. The river snaked as rivers should past cabbage palm and lizard’s tail plants, each corner providing a stunning glimpse straight into the heart of what Florida was and in some areas, still is, and what much of the U.S. might have looked like millions of years ago when hoofed, toothed, and horned mammals of all shapes and sizes roamed semi-tropical forests all the way up to Oregon.

Florida’s very nature of being flat and often wet is the very thing that masks this magical world from modern human encroachment that is, quite literally, next door. From the ground, it’s hard to see that just 20 yards from a street could be this complex shifting ecosystem that depends on the flux and flows of seasonal water changes to thrive. A simple line of trees and a fear of getting our feet wet are all that separates us physically and mentally from connecting to the real world, which despite our concerted efforts to change it, continues to battle. It’s also why it’s so easy to ignore the steady bulldozing of wildlands. When it’s all but invisible except from the air, the transition from swamp to suburbs goes often unnoticed.

After a mosquito-heavy night far from the lights of civilization the Loxahatchee canopies and magical bends gave way to brackish waters and mangroves. Kiana mentioned missing her friends and shopping and taking Instagram selfies. Two of those things trending toward my “things I don’t miss list.” But this from the same girl who speaks German, started a recycling program at her school and cares deeply about protecting wild places. People are often more than they seem. But sometimes a leathery drunk octogenarian yachtsman is just that.

There is an abrupt transition that occurs after any extended trip in wild areas. It often involves some sort of sensory shock as if for a brief few moments the brain forgets its previous life and you are suddenly receiving a powerfully-honest, fleeting glimpse on civilization for the first time. The absurd loudness of freeways, the sheer dumbness of TV commercials at the dive bar you grabbed a burger at post-trip, how crazy fast the speed of travel in a car actually is after just hiking, paddling, and biking for days.

You’re not wrong about any of those things in that moment. We just quickly forget and fall back into the modern rhythms and culture, back to swiping and typing. After days of relative isolation, paddling out of the inland mangroves into a channel of miles of waterside homes was one of those shocking moments. House after house, many likely second homes because they appeared unoccupied. Kourtez mumbled something about how ugly a sight it was compared to where we just were.

The bizarre feeling of culture shock continued as our trip neared the Jupiter lighthouse. Manatees, those peaceful water giants, ancient relatives of elephants, clung to the shorelines avoiding the gridlock boat traffic just dozens of yards away. Their biggest predator is humans and the sharp blades of watercraft. It boggled my mind that so much traffic was allowed so close to a vulnerable species. But who can slow down progress and money? As a few manatees approached, Noah calmly sat down underwater, one of the doughy giants drifted by just feet away.

Positioned on a 20-foot bluff that would give some native Floridians vertigo, the 167-year-old Jupiter lighthouse and surrounding protected lands are an island amidst a sea of development. As the evening light faded, the powerful fresnel lens came to life and archaeologist Sara Ayers-Rigsby told us of the people who once hunted and fished the very bluffs right below us, the shells and tools from 6,000 years of habitation slowly eroding away as the sea levels rise.

Scientists predict the rising sea levels will inundate at least 200 Palm Beach County archaeological sites this century. Across the water, live bar music blared and obnoxiously bright hotel lights assaulted the dusk. The Jupiter lighthouse quietly sliced through the night.

The final few days had us hanging with delightfully cheeky Scrub Jays, seeing firsthand the power and importance of fire in shaping and propagating the land during a prescribed burn, and biking past crowded sidewalks frequented by bronzed people with tiny lapdogs. Traffic rushed by as we hurriedly peddled to get back to the wild Florida we had reveled in the previous days.

A final reprieve from the concrete jungle, we set off in the early light from John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. (We name too many parks after white dudes with important-sounding names. He might be kickass though, I don’t know.) In a wonderfully-post-apocalyptic haze, the crew kayaked past towering condos, rising and colorless in the morning mist like something out of Inception.

As much as I love the idea of a whole life spent having kumbaya cave raves in the wilderness, we spend much of our time in the world of machinery, screens and sidewalks. Nature is hardcore and not every outdoor experience will be positively life-altering (it might even mess you up good…but probably not). But with most of our time spent numbed by a fast-paced culture and targeted campaigns of digital bombardment, I’d settle for just a spark, or ripple—a skip on the record.

What will the Florida of 50 years from now look like? I wondered that as these three rad humans paddled off to meet their families and friends and post on Instagram, but hopefully for just a moment, a bit shocked by it all.

At the end of the trip when asked what part was most memorable, Noah didn’t hesitate to say although the natural wonders were incredible it was “the people, hanging with all you guys.” Damn, what a cool group of folks.

Author’s note: My memory is poor and the exact timetable of the events in this article may be off by a day or so here and there. For more info on how you can get out and explore the amazing wild areas of Palm Beach County, Florida go to jeagawildways.com and/or thepalmbeaches.com. Also, Benji would like to remind folks that while “exploring in wild Florida is no different than exploring anywhere else in the world, each region comes with its own specific risks. Just remember to wear long pants, long sleeves and a hat, both for sun protection and protection from insects…and have fun on the trail!”

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Ben Herndon is a freelance photographer, writer, and filmmaker based in rugged north Idaho. On the photo side, he gravitates toward adventure, casual recreation, and moments in-between, with the occasional foray into landscapes and history of the Inland Northwest. On the film side, he prefers a more quirky, narrative approach that many find refreshing and some sleep-inducing.