OFF THE MAP:
KAYAKING FLORIDA'S GREAT RIVERS
The Everglades may be one of the most written about---but least understood waterways in our country. More than a river of grass, it is a exceedingly complex natural system that actually begins in a tiny creek just below Orlando. That stream is called "Shingle Creek", and it flows gradually southward towards the immense sawgrass and mangrove preserve we know as the Everglades, draining the wetlands just south Orlando as it goes.
We begin on own journey when our host Hunter Reno looks for a place to launch her kayak in the urban sprawl of Orlando. Finally, she locates the beginnings of the shallow tea-colored stream. Here, in southern Orange County, the swamp bordering the Creek is more than a mile and a half wide, and is dominated by pond and bald cypress, loblolly bay and red maple. Wild turkeys and bobcats live in the woods here, and sandhill cranes and bald eagles can be seen flying above. Hunter looks at her map and realizes that, although this landscape seems wild and feral, Disney World is less than 20 miles away.
As Hunter paddles, she learns of the history of the Creek---that loggers in the early 1800's would cut cypress here to make shingles for the homes of the first settlers. These settlers in turn named it "Shingle Creek." Near southern Orange County, she meets hotelier Harris Rosen who has forged his own bond with the Creek. Rosen hopes to help create a trail that will run from the Creek down to Lake Okeechobee.
But there are other much older mysteries in store here---a team of archaeologists from Rollins College unearthed remains of stone tools used by Archaic Indians who camped on the shores of the Creek near what is today the development of "Hunters Green." Tests show these artifacts were dated to 4,000 years (Archaic), which make them among the oldest found in the Florida interior.
As Hunter continues her paddle, she notices that the Creek---despite the nearby swamp---is more linear than the natural meandering streams she has seen elsewhere. After talking with Bill Graf of the South Florida Water Management District, she learns that the creek was part of Florida's earliest attempts to "reclaim" the Everglades, which first begin back in the mid-1800's. Canals were created to link lakes south of Orlando to Lake Okeechobee to the South. By the turn of the 20th century, steamships in Kissimmee on Lake Toho could travel all the way to Ft. Myers. Some 7,000 acres of land along the creek is publicly owned for conservation purposes, and the SFWMD is the single largest owner of such land.
Hunter also learns that the National Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey have a "Frog Watch" program on the Creek and volunteers can sign up to identify and inventory the populations of frogs here. This is important because frogs are an indicator of good water quality. The viewers graphically see macro video footage of some of the frogs---spring peepers, pig frogs, and leopard frogs, all making their distinct sounds.
Hunter continues her paddle into late afternoon, sighting more wildlife with her binoculars and even taking some nature photographs of wildflowers, gators, snakes, and birds along the shore. A science class from Shingle Creek Elementary is on the banks of the creek performing different experiments to measure water clarity and chemistry, and Hunter stops to chat with them to learn about the Watershed Action Volunteer (WAV) program that helped plan the tests.
Near the lower Creek, Hunter meets Rod Schultz, Public Land manager for Osceola County. Shultz helps her better understand how government agencies like his county have acquired wetlands along the creek to help buffer it from stormwater pollution. The conservation land also creates valuable wildlife habitat. Since the land around the creek itself was settled by some of Osceola County's pioneers, like the Steffe family, it protects important historic and cultural sites.
Finally, the swamp begins to open up and the creek seems to be entering a wide expanse of water. The expanse is West Lake Toho, and as it spreads out generously before her in the bronze light of late afternoon, Hunter pulls ashore to reflect on the trip, the experiences she has had, and what she has learned about the history and singular nature of the headwaters of the Everglades.