Thursday, February 19, 2009

2009 Elderhostel - Explore Wild Florida by Canoe

Elderhostel's "Explore Wild Florida by Canoe" is hosted at Deerhaven Retreat and Conference Center within Florida's Ocala National Forest. I attended this Elderhostel program three years ago as reported here, and a testament to my esteem for the program is demonstrated by the fact that this is the only repeated program of my nearly two dozen Elderhostel trips.

The first day's paddle was an instructional class in basic canoeing -- a brief shake-down paddle on Deerhaven Lake located on the grounds. We also were treated to a narrated fauna tour on a pontoon boat on the St. John's River, replete with numerous wildlife sightings such as this Great Blue Heron.

The next day was Alexander Springs Run, a lovely 7+ mile paddle from the springs to take-out. The storms washed out the road to the take-out, so canoeing is next to none now which has allowed the river to fill with water-vegetation, making it a challenge to navigate far from the source spring. The photo below shows the mass of vegetation floating to the right of the canoes, and this was mild compared to farther down river.

Day 3 is normally on nearby Lake Norris beginning from the Boy Scout camp, a paddle through the Cypress Strand requiring paddlers to negotiate the edge of the lake and winding between cypress trees while enjoying the osprey nests in the trees above. Unfortunately, the strong winds created whitecaps on the lake, requiring "plan B" which was a paddle up the Silver River. Upriver means against the current, and we were also against a stiff wind most of the way, making for a good workout. It proved worth it because it was an extraordinarily magnificent river to paddle, and provided another highlight -- seeing the wild monkeys populating one section, supposedly leftovers from filming "Tarzan" here 70 years ago though actually they had been placed on an island at Silver Springs as a stimulus to get people to ride a "Jungle Cruise" boat ride. But Colonel Tooey the concessionaire didn't realize they were good swimmers and all escaped downriver, and I saw a number of their offspring when I kayaked the river and got this shot. Their numbers had reached a high of 1600 so the Ocala National Forest set up feeding stations with food augmented with birth control, and the numbers now are estimated around 400 monkeys.

The paddle back down the river was a real joy, with current and wind at our backs!

The final paddle was to be the famous serpentine Juniper Springs Run through lush wilderness. We saw a movie of the huge effort that was required to re-open this run following the three hurricanes from a few years back -- without the use of power tools since this is designated wilderness area. Unfortunately, thunderstorms again necessitated a change to plan B: paddling the St. Johns River, from which we quickly turned into some backwaters and then down the lovely and narrow Snake Creek seen below...

Each morning, Dave led the early risers on a daily brisk 7am exercise hike on forest trails, often through areas burned by the 2008 lightning fire that threatened Deerhaven Center and the neighboring Deerhaven Community, both of which were saved through the Herculean efforts of firefighters, staff, and residents.

Perhaps the animal most exemplary of Florida is the alligator, and here is one is one of many gators we saw this week...

More photos of our week of paddling can be found in my web gallery, along with other wildlife photos from Florida and elsewhere.

Elderhostel programs are required to have educational components and each night we had presentations -- the hydrology of Florida springs, the efforts of the Ocala National Forest to restore trails and waterways after the three hurricanes, and a video on efforts to revive the Wekiva River. A special treat was a presentation by one of our own Elderhostel participants, Bill Clark, on William Bartrum's life and his naturalist expeditions in this area. And the final night, another of our participants, Willie Staggs, played guitar, sang with his wife, Barbara, and led us in a sing-a-long. Here's the entire group on the final evening...

All in all, it was another wonderful Elderhostel experience, ably led by the coordinator, Brenda Dillon, and her husband, Bruce.

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