29 January 2012: Fakahatchee Day 2

On Sunday we had another day of no traveling, and we had a busy dance card. First, our friends Clyde and Niki Butcher arrived at our cabin. Elam and the Butchers have been very close for many years and have spent years of their lives together in Florida’s swamps. Carlton drew inspiration from the focus Clyde’s work brought to the backwater areas of Florida. They’d only arrived back in Florida the previous day, after spending weeks in the west photographing places like the Grand Canyon.

We spent the late morning and early afternoon wading through the swamp north of the cabin, on a mission to find the Guzmania, a rare genus of bromeliad. We stepped off the road toward the swamp. Feeling the January water rise up above my knee heightened awareness. But the shock quickly went away. The walking was easy, though we moved slowly to avoid tripping on tree roots beneath the surface. We gathered in a small area where the cypress knees and pop ash were adorned with light green bromeliads. They clung to every surface. Carlton and Clyde worked through several sequences of photographs. Clyde compared his recent experiences of the west with Florida. “Out there, you can see everything from your car,””he said, referring to the wide open space and the dramatic scenery. “Here, if you want to see anything, you have to get out and get your feet in the mud.”
“In the water,” someone chirped.

In the afternoon our party expanded to include Renee Rau, Mike Owen, and Donna Glann Smyth from Florida State Parks, and Tom Maish from Friends of Fakahatchee. They tracked us into the swamp, emerging from a bank of cutgrass and stepping over a large cypress log, which was in the process of being swallowed by sprouting cocoa plum and young cypress. We all stood knee deep in the stained water and greeted each other. I was intent to talk to Mike Owen, a man whose personality is matched by an expansive natural history knowledge. Mike has worked at Fakahatchee since 1992, leading interpretive swamp walks, monitoring air plants and orchids as well as other species, and guiding management activity like prescribed fire and the removal of invasive species. He knows the Fakahatchee Strand like no one else. It was in his first 6 months on the job that the infamous John Laroche was caught taking rare orchids from the swamp. At the time, Mike Owen was new to the swamp and its hidden gems. Mike told me that Laroche was so cavalier about his exploits that as he stood surrounded by garbage bags full of the poached flowers that day, he gave an impromptu field lesson, teaching the young biologist several species of orchid. The Laroche story was eventually made into a book by Susan Orleans called “The Orchid Thief,” and subsequently, the movie “Adaptation.”

After lunch we trekked into an area called the Western Slough. It was more open than the thick, jungle-like growth we found among the Guzmania, and the water snaked through tall cypress and entered a stand of pond apple, where we paused. The sun moved lower in the sky. I asked about the effect of geology on plant communities, and what makes the Grand Canyon of Florida so different than anyplace else. Mike told us that Fakahatchee’s unique airplants are supported by slow moving water flowing through a trench in the limestone substrate of south Florida. Beneath the protective canopy of bald cypress, the water remains cooler than the ambient temperature in the warm months and warmer during the cold months. The effect of this shielding from extreme cold is that the forest is able to support species that do not occur elsewhere on the North American continent. He’d taken us here to show us the orchids. Ghost orchid, dingy orchid (Mike is known to spit dramatically at the ground when repeating this unfortunate name), clamshell orchid…they are all there, including one dingy orchid that John Laroche had taken, and Mike had returned, lashing it to a tree two feet above the water. It’s the only one of 84 that survived. Many of the plants we saw have been alive in the swamp since before Mike Owen began working here.

The Fakahatchee Strand is a geologic feature, extending roughly 20 miles north and south, and roughly 5 miles wide. The northern extent is on Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which we’d be visiting later in the week. It was easy to think about the landscape connection as we stood knee deep in the swamp with our naturalist friends. From where we stood the water fed south into the Ten Thousand Islands, one of the most important commercial fisheries in the United States near Everglades City. Around our legs the dark water slipped past us with an almost imperceptible slowness.

For more information on the Fakahatchee and Florida’s State Parks @ http://www.floridastateparks.org/fakahatcheestrand/

For some pictures from the trip through the Fakahatchee during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition see my Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/75103055@N03/sets/
and Carlton’s (much much better)