Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Beyond Chassahowitzka

Click on photo for a larger view, then use your Back button to return to this story.  Enjoy!
"Fresh Blood!", must have reverberated through the insect world as we four humans tromped midsummer into the swamp of Chassahowitzka WMA and National Wildlife Refuge (Chaz for short) along Florida's west coast.  Each of us was enveloped in our own personal cloud of mosquitoes. Bruce Day (with headnet), John Moran and I were following Bruce Morgan whose rich descriptions had lured us here in search of deep blue gems, places where one can peer intimately into the veins that carry Florida's precious blue blood beneath her gnarly skin.

I was reminded of the pirate, Jack Sparrow, as Bruce glanced at his trusty compass, glared with furrowed brow into the thicket, and then marched purposefully ahead.  Specifically, we were in search of the headwaters of Blind Creek. Bruce had been there once.
Suddenly, there it was -- crystalline water first breaking the Earth's crust; water that  then porpoises in a series of swallets and resurgences until it finally surfaces through a big hole that forms the Creek on the Gulf. Our goal was to explore these waters, both here in the swamp and, next day, find our way up Blind Creek to its final resurgence.

Arriving at this spring in the swamp, I was awestruck. And snorkeling over the blue hole, I looked down 180 feet into an enormous cavern sparkling with rays of sunlight.  There's John diving for a closer look (video below).
After seeing this wonder, we were game to follow Bruce anywhere... so, he led us much deeper into the swamp - zigzagging - in search of the next resurgence. 
Bluestripe Ribbon Snake

There were moments of doubt and head-scratching, but eventually we saw a brighter patch through the trees ... and that turned out to be our destination.

Unlike the headspring, this upwelling was broad and mostly shallow.  It featured a long underwater rock wall about 35 feet high.  At the bottom of the wall, several springs flowed out of caves. Strange algal formations rose from the wide shallow flats, a playground for the fish.  We too had a frolic in this watery garden.
Returning to the headspring was much more challenging since it was but a dot in the swamp.  To miss it meant the Mosquito Blood Bar might get drained dry.  Despite our meandering course into the swamp, Bruce - the human GPS - led us in a beeline back to the headspring.

While taking another refreshing swim (and respite from the bugs), two strangers arrived.  The man heard a voice from the spring and asked, "Is that Mr. Morgan?"  How could two avid Florida caver friends have come to this hole in the swamp at the same time? Hmmm, probably not that unlikely.  One thing led to another, and soon the four of us were tagging along with Rod and Allee on their date where he had promised to show her some of his favorite cool places, including CAVES.  We caravanned  east to the Withlacoochee State Forest.  Rod led the way into the forest -- another long hike in rugged unmarked terrain... How do these guys find these places?

With little daylight left, we moved (too) fast past grandfather trees, fern grottoes, limerock bluffs, and finally came to a spectacular series of caves and tunnels snaking through the earth and undergrowth.  Speaking of snakes, Allee, a college prof and herpetologist spotted a beautiful coral snake along the way. "Red on Yellow, Kill A Fellow..." First one I've seen in the wild in years.

 Having had a mere taste of the riches here, dusk set in, along with a drizzling rain.  Which way do we go? Had Rod wanted to keep this location a secret, blindfolds would've been unnecessary .  I'd have been hopelessly lost without his guidance both in and out.

Mud-covered and rain-sweat soaked, we got back to our vehicles about 9:30 pm.  We were ravenous as mosquitoes, so  Rod pointed us toward a nearby tavern, where, despite our grubbiness, we were welcomed and soon sated with good food, beer, and karaoke. Meanwhile back at the campground - still an hour away -  neither John nor I had set up our tents yet, and Bruce's mate, Ann, who'd arrived earlier that evening was undoubtedly beginning to wonder where we were.  That was a late night.
The next morning, we launched the boat there at the Chaz River Campground (a Citrus County Park) and within minutes, the five of us were bathing in the sweet clear waters of the Seven Sisters Springs.  Imagine cool clear shallow water flowing over a swiss-cheese-rocky bottom.  We cavorted like otters through tunnels and caves to our heart's delight.
But on to the 'serious' mission of the day: finding Blind Creek Spring, about 12 miles away by boat... and we had to be back again before low tide drained our navigable water from the Chaz River.  This part of the coast is a maze of small islands and treacherous rocky bottom.  I had printed out some charts from AcmeMapper which we tried to follow, though we were often in dispute about exactly where we were.
The beautiful sky, palm islands, and bountiful wading birds lured us on as we picked our way from channel to channel.  Finally arriving at Blind Creek Spring was anticlimactic given the jewels of springs we had just been to.  This spring dropped off to about 50 ft deep, but the water was so dark here that we couldn't see anything.  When Ann unexpectedly bumped mask-first into the shallow wall, we knew it was time to declare success and move on.
Back in the Chaz River, I saw this lovely red "rhubarb" growing in the river.  A botany friend tracked down it's identity: Giant Amaranth.  These stems will get MUCH bigger before it freezes back.  Meanwhile, a red-green abstract.
Bumping upstream on one shallow rocky tributary, we came to a different-looking spring rich in minerals -- to the point that the aquatic plants were covered in rust.  Wonder why the water content of adjacent springs can vary so much?
Our final stop was a random little creek leading to a nondescript spring that Bruce Day was drawn to.  As we glided in a large manatee sidled up to the side of the boat and poked it's head out to see who we were.
After a sweet manatee encounter, we headed for home, revitalized by Florida's remaining fountains of youth.

These  jewels that adorn our remaining wilds must be protected for our children's children to explore... and marvel at... and find their connection with our planet.

Thanks for sharing in my adventures... and please leave a comment if you feel like it. The comments won't appear right away, but I'll see them and be sure they get posted.