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An Everglades Alternative

March 24, 2011

Wakulla Springs Edward Ball State Park, FloridaNestled against the Apalachee Bay where the panhandle connects to the larger Florida peninsula, Wakulla County mixes the wetlands of Southern Florida with the Spanish moss draped grandeur of old Georgia. This isn’t a region that is on anyone’s “must-see” list, but it should be. In fact, had we stopped here on our way south, the Everglades would have been disappointing in comparison.

Wakulla County has two great parks to its credit. We stopped by Edward Ball State Park to see one of the largest and deepest fresh water springs in the world. The opening of the spring is 180 feet below the surface and releases so much water (an average of 400,000 gallons per minute) that it is the origin the nine-mile Wakulla river.

Wakulla Springs Edward Ball State Park 2In addition to swimming and hiking trails, the park offers a 45 minute boat ride over the spring and down the river that absolutely blew us away. We’ve been on countless boat trips of all kinds and initially debated whether this one would be any different from the rest. Boy was it. There is nothing special about the boat, but the scenery and wildlife of the river is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Islands of giant, moss-draped, cypress trees, lilies and spiny cypress knees, cleave the river into narrow tributaries around which a variety of wading birds and reptiles make their home. Even the fish were unusual; repeatedly jumping several feet out of the water as if dancing for our amusement.

Wood Duck Image, Wakulla Springs Edward Ball State ParkIn our short trip on the water, we saw wildlife that we didn’t see even after six days deep in the everglades; including this wood duck, who tried desperately to avoid having his picture taken. This guy was so remarkable that it’s hard to believe he is real. He looked to us like he were a child’s toy carved out of wood, brightly painted and simply left to float down the river. That is, of course, until he flew away the moment my camera was trained on him.

Our only complaint with the trip is that we didn’t have the ability to linger. The boat forces a faster pace than we would have liked. 45 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to take in all there is to see. We can only imagine what wildlife would emerge if we were able to just sit still and watch quietly for a time. The park doesn’t allow other boats in the spring, but maybe a better way to explore the area is to launch a kayak further down river beyond the park’s boundary; something to consider for next time.

St Marks Wildlife Refuge, Florida

St Marks Wildlife Refuge reminded us of the everglades, only better

Wakulla’s second great park is St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge. The higher water levels of its wetlands reminded us of what we imagined the Everglades would be like, but wasn’t (at least St Marks Wildlife Refuge, Floridawhile we were there). The 68,000 acre refuge is home to a number of hiking trails and several endangered species, including this bald eagle. The park is also becoming a wintering spot for one of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane.

St. Mark’s isn’t a natural stop on the crane’s migratory path, but conservationists are trying to induce the birds to diversify their traditional territory. In 1999, only about 170 whooping cranes existed in the wild, up from just 15 in 1941. Even with their larger numbers, the cranes were still at great risk because they all used the same small geographic area for wintering and breeding. Given their tight concentration, a single disaster or disease could easily wipe out the entire flock. So scientists introduced a new flock from cranes hatched in

Photo courtesy of Operation Migration

captivity, hoping to create another migratory path to and from different locations. Non-profit groups, like Operation Migration, use ultralight aircraft (and pilots in costume) to lure young birds to suitable habitats. Since 1999 the population has doubled to 340 birds, six of which returned to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge last year.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t see any of the Cranes on our visit but we saw enough other scenery and wildlife to make this a favored destination on our 11-month-long (and counting) trip. When coupled with Edward Ball State Park, just 20 miles to the north, this area ranks among the best stops on all of the east coast. And almost nobody has heard about it.

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