People of the Water

My Fear of Water, A Journey

UF graduate students Meghan Mangrum, left, and Hannah O. Brown paddle North Florida's Ichetucknee River on a field trip for Environmental Journalism class.

Photo by Jennifer Adler. UF graduate students Meghan Mangrum, left, and Hannah O. Brown paddle North Florida’s Ichetucknee River on a field trip for Environmental Journalism class.

By Meghan Mangrum

Water – it gives life and it takes it. Rushing rivers, riptides and hurricane rains seem like such a different beast than the 24 ounces of tap water in my blue Contigo water bottle. Despite a childhood in Central Florida, consisting of summers spent splashing in Grandma’s backyard pool, I have maintained a fear of water for most of my life.

“I should have taken a Xanax,” I joked, but not really, before we launched on our journey down the Ichetucknee River. A non-mandatory field trip for my Environmental Journalism class at the University of Florida, I decided this was just the way to tackle my fear. At least I trusted that our instructor did not want to make the news for a grad student drowning on a peaceful class outing.

Our guide (and the life vest that I zipped and buckled tightly around myself) helped quiet my fears enough to grab a paddle and prepare to climb into the tandem kayak I would share with a classmate. Yet, stepping into the kayak, inches above the dark water and drifting away from the dock, brought my anxiety levels as high as the cypress trees that reached above us.

My first mate, Hannah, had the perfect amount of patience and a calming voice that assured me I wouldn’t drown. We agreed early on that the goal was to stay out of the water (which we mostly did, except the few times I accidentally splashed myself and others nearby with my paddle).

Since it was late January, the river was mystical. The naked, barren trees reached toward a gray sky and looked almost bleak. Yet it was obvious that life shined here – not so much from our colorful boats as we flowed through the water – but in the gloriously green sea grass beneath our boats, and the grasses and plants that shone bright, juxtaposed against the gray along the shore.

In many spots, the river bottom was close – close enough to marvel at the different colors of the clear water and to softly brush the sea grass with your paddle. We spent much of the trip at the front of the pack, to prevent playing bumper boats with our classmates, but also to enjoy the river in silence. The splash of our paddles as we steered around branches and over fallen trees was like a lullaby.

I didn’t feel compelled to sing “Just Around the Riverbend,” but something magnetic encouraged me to continue propelling forward. Maybe it was the first manatee we encountered and the hope to see more, or the blue heron we watched dive close to the water’s surface. But I think it was my reverence of the river itself that allowed a lifetime of anxiety to ease, now replaced by awe.

What the first peoples who discovered the rivers and springs of Florida must have thought when they first caught sight of them – what a beautiful life-giving resource they had found, what a blessing.

Water has the power to tear down homes and carve its way through limestone and land, ever flowing. Yet, water is what gives us life – isn’t that why some indigenous people dance for rain or why the ancient Egyptians based their religion around the Nile’s floods?

I experienced something beautiful that day. I paddled the Ichetucknee with wonderful new friends and supporters by my side. For many of them, our short trip was one of dozens they have taken in their lives. But for me, the trip ended with a terrific sense of accomplishment and awe. I don’t know when I’ll kayak again, but I’m sure I will. For now, I am grateful for the experience — and for the river, for letting me be a part of it.

Women of the Ocklawaha: Erika Ritter

Erika Ritter

Erika Ritter leading a trip on the Ocklawaha River.

For a couple of months every three or four years, an excursion on the Ocklawaha River is a unique journey. The examples of evaluation essays water is closer to historic levels of the waterway prior to the construction of a dam. That’s when inland waterway captain Erika Ritter most enjoys taking passengers down the river.

The Rodman Reservoir near Palatka, Fla., was drawn down in December 2011 to remove invasive plants that clog the lake created by a dam. For a few months the Ocklawaha is about 11 feet above sea level—low enough to see the ecosystems, wildlife and shorelines that are usually buried beneath 20 feet of water.

At 11 feet, thought, the river is still five or six feet about its historical level on its journey for the confluence of the Silver River to the St.

Johns River and finally to the ocean.

Ritter has lived on the Ocklawaha almost all her life. A fourth-generation Floridian, she started river tours on the Silver River in 1983. In 2006, she decided to return her business to her backyard: the Ocklawaha.

“I advertise real Florida,” she said. “People are accustomed to seeing rivers lined with boats, and docks and nice houses. They are really surprised—and thrilled—to find an area where humans have not touched every surface.”

She can fit about eight people on her pontoon boat, which has chairs with containers beneath for guests to keep their belongings dry. Ritter has maps and plenty of tales about the river’s history, including one about the failed Cross-Florida Barge Canal, a project so unfathomable and complex that an entire book, Ditch of Dreams, was written about the event that spanned more than 40 years and cost $75 million.

Ritter begins the tour telling passengers how to pronounce the river’s name. There’s no “a” after the “o;” so it’s not “oak-lawaha.” The sound is more like the “oc” in octave, she explains.

Her family lived on the river when the canal was constructed, relics of which include the Buckman Lock, the Rodman Reservoir, and a few very high bridges in the middle of nowhere.

She offers visitors her view of the continuing battle between some bass-fishing enthusiasts, the Florida legislature and environmentalists over the status of the Rodman Reservoir dam that keeps the Ocklawaha from its natural flow.

Most of Ritter’s narrative, though, is about the river and its natural history. She tells passengers about the manatees, the catfish and the natural ecosystems. She points out a small bird, stark yellow perched on a drab grey fallen tree.

“That’s a prothonotary warbler,” she says slowing down the boat, so passengers can get a better view.

Soon she stops the boat completely to get a better view of a huge lone catfish. Channel catfish and 16 other species of fish have been excluded from the river because of the dam and the Buckman Lock. The lock was designed to lift boats from the level of the St. Johns River to the level of the Rodman Reservoir.

As the pontoon boat putters past old pilings of a steamboat landing, Ritter points to her old family homestead.

“This used to be a nice peaceful area, but now it is full of exotic plants and airboats,” Ritter says.

Paul Nosca, also known as “Ocklawahaman,” joins in the narrative. “And there used to be fish camps all up and down the river,” he says.

Not long into the excursion, an airboat speeds by from around a bend. The driver looks frustrated as he tries to get around the slow moving craft piloted by Ritter. Rather than slowing, he revs his engine and glides past, forcing frothy wake toward the pontoon boat and against the fragile ecology at the river’s edge.

“They don’t care or they don’t know,” Ritter says. “They’re loud and not plant friendly. The airboats have a tremendous impact on the on vegetation and they are hurting the small end of the food chain.”

It’s not that I dislike airboats,” Ritter says, “just certain operators.”

Ritter points out more sites as the boat moves slowly down the river.

The Barge Canal

“That’s where the crusher-crawler came through,” she says.

This piece of heavy equipment was a technological wonder in the 1960s that could flatten hundreds of trees in short order, Ritter recalls. And flatten it did. Hundreds of thousands of trees fell under its maw in the effort to construct a canal across the center of Florida so boats could move from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, according to Steven Noll and David Tegeder in their book, Ditch of Dreams

“My mother knew it was coming,” Ritter says. “She sat out on the dock and cried,” Ritter says.

She was about 10-years-old when she overheard adults talk about the impact of the dam and the canal. She recalls her own fears, especially that her favorite places to play would be usurped by the barge canal. She was afraid her world would be crushed too, she recalls.

“I used to walk down to this beautiful creek. There were all the things that you could get to as a child—right at the edge of the water. Like the grass and shallows. You could play with the little minnows and stuff,” she says.

Once the canals were dug and the trees and vegetation gone, invasive plants took hold, and contractors and government agencies came to remove them with chemicals. One day, she remembers, her mother was directly sprayed.

“Most people did not want the barge canal. But the politicians thought it would increase the economy. Big boats could cross Florida using the locks,” Ritter recalls.

The lifelong efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr and others finally convinced politicians that there was more money in fishing and tourism,” Ritter tells the passengers as her boat floats past degraded woodlands.

The Cross-Florida Barge Canal was officially suspended in January 1971 by executive order of President Richard Nixon.

Slow Flow

The river banks stay flooded with water for years at a time and the river current slows.

The natural Ocklawaha had a rapid flow. Water from Silver River, near Ocala, could reach the St. Johns River in three days. The rapid flow kept the sandy bottom clean, Ritter says.

When the dam is closed the water travels significantly slower, taking up to 23 days to reach the St. Johns. Without the strong flow, algae get out of control.

As the boat glides near a shoreline, Nosca points to the banks. “They used to be white sand with easy access to the river, once you were out of the woods,” he says.

The banks he points, though, are thick groves of declining cypress trees and stumps, sagging oaks, and tangled possum haw–nearly impenetrable. Muck and detritus cover the shoreline.

“This is one of the oldest rivers in Florida,” Nosca tells passengers, recounting its geologic history through the central ridge—the area of Florida’s highlands that have persevered over millions of years of sea level rise and decline on the Florida peninsula.

“The Ocklawaha might be 17,000 years old,” he says.

Cathedral Cypress

Ritter maneuvers the boat gently against a bank and Nosca helps passengers disembark for a short excursion into woods that are usually under water.

A few mosquitoes buzz around as passengers carefully make their way through branches and knotted roots, until they come to what appears to be a wood wall. Nosca waits for the awe to sink in. It’s a cypress tree as large as a cabin and stretching what seems to stretch 100 feet into the air.

The tree is completely hollow. Standing inside the cavern of its wide base, it is possible to see the sky. Shafts of light pour through several slashes in the trunk. A bit of wispy green fringe struggles from the top against the sunlit blue background.

The tree still lives.

As the group makes its way back to the boat, Nosca points out the trees progeny. Tiny cypress barely inches high sneak up from the leaf and humus on the ground.

“They’ll be drowned in a few weeks,” he says, a noticeable sadness in his voice.

Although cypress trees grow well in swamps and wetlands, the four-year period of high water when the Rodman Dam is closed is too much for their normal life cycles. The trees typically reproduce from seeds more readily than from suckers.

The seedlings have no chance for survival. They die soon after the water rises over the banks. The suckers are just as threatened; they cluster tightly at the base of the mother tree, as if clinging to hopes of surviving another flood.

When the reservoir is full, the cypress also struggle for oxygen in the depleted and nearly stagnant high water. The trees frantically send up knees, desperate for a breath.

Cypress knees are typically spaced a foot or more from each other, but in the Ocklawaha they are glued together in grotesque malformations, resembling abstract rather than nature.

Tree after tree along both banks of the river look identical—high water mark noted by a ghostly shadow of mineral scale. Overhead are sparse patches of pale green needles fluttering in a breeze. Absent is the thick lush spring growth that healthy cypress would sprout this time of year, Ritter says.

“Because of the constant water, we’re losing the diversity of trees, too,” Nosca says scanning the bank and pointing to a few flowering haws.

When flooded, the river-channel ecosystem loses 14,000 acres of land that was used by ground-nesting birds and other wildlife along the banks.

Future of the River

The situation is controversial. Some government agencies have recommended restoring the Ocklawaha River to its natural state and establishing it as an official “Wild and Scenic River,” according to Florida Defenders of the Environment. Others believe the fishing in Rodman Reservoir and the economic benefits are more important.

Ritter says she wants to see the river the way she remembers it from childhood.

In the meantime, she hopes that people will have an appreciation of the river and see that it is a special place—a sanctuary to learn about nature.

“And when they go back to town, they will realize that there is a place they can come back to. A quiet place where humans have not totally taken over and changed the habitat and run off the wildlife,” Ritter says as she slides the boat back to the dock marking the end of the idyllic journey down the Ocklawaha.


Erin Alvarez: Landscape Instructor

A beautiful, water-efficient landscape doesn’t require a huge investment, lots of water and constant maintenance as homeowners might assume. Erin Alvarez, landscape instructor at UF Environmental Horticulture Department, says knowledge about what kinds of plants to install in your backyard and up-to-date irrigation systems is by far the best way to avoid water waste.

“A lot of people typically think they know what plant to put in,” Alvarez says, “but they don’t necessarily pick the right plants for the right place, and that results in water management issues.”

Plant selection should be the first priority when it comes to a homeowner’s property. St. Augustine grass tends to have the reputation of being the most water-consuming, but Alvarez says research shows that any type of grass would be better than bare soil. St. Augustine grass is available in several varieties, and some are more drought resistant than others.

But Zoysia and Bahia grasses use less when it comes to water consumption.

“Turf grasses, like Zoysia grass, are being marketed as being more drought tolerant than St. Augustine grass right now,” Alvarez says. “And that’s kind of a mixed message because it does tend to turn brown faster if it’s exposed to drought, but it survives the drought better than St. Augustine grass.”

She always warns homeowners to beware of neighbors’ landscape advice. Even some landscape companies do not have the proper education or training, which could lead to problems if people spend a lot of money and time investing in a landscape unfit for the area. It is a smarter move to ask your county extension office, or better yet, the university’s horticultural department if you are in doubt.

When it comes to watering your lawns, an irrigation system should be in sync with the weather as well.

“It’s never a good idea for a homeowner to set their irrigation system to Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and leave it alone. It should always be connected to what’s going on in the weather,” Alvares says.

Nowadays, technology makes management easier with systems that are connected to weather stations, have soil moisture sensors and evoratranspiration readers. According to Alvarez, these readers are becoming common and available for homeowners, where they measure weather data and determine an irrigation schedule based on rainfall, temperature and humidity.

However, even with the latest high-tech irrigation system and ideal plant selection, water conservation truly comes down to a person’s awareness.

“A lot of evidence has shown that if someone wastes water inside, they are going to waste water outside,” Alvarez says.

Other Resources

Find Your Local County Extension Offices

The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape

Sign up for “The Neighborhood Gardener,” a monthly e-newsletter from UF Master Gardener and the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program.

Jill Heinerth: Underwater Explorer and Water Activist

Jill Heinerth

When she was 2 years old, Jill Heinerth fell off a dock into the freezing cold water of Lake Ontario.

In the midst of drowning, Heinerth said the only thing she remembers is floating face down, content and unafraid.

“It was peaceful down there,” she said. “I saw the rainbow ripples on the sand below and just didn’t want to get out.”

Ever since that moment, Heinerth, now 47, said she sees life as a continuing effort to get back in the water.

As a professional cave diver and independent filmmaker living in High Springs, Heinerth has explored about 100 underwater caves all over the world. She has made movies for National Geographic, befriended a cave diving pioneer and guided “Titanic” director James Cameron on his first cave dive.

Growing up in Ontario, Heinerth’s parents never let her take diving lessons. She didn’t learn to dive until she enrolled in a scuba class in college. The teacher took the class on a dive trip to a lake in Ontario.

The water was 37 degrees and murky. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her. But within hours, she stumbled upon four tugboat wrecks in the depths of the lake.

That was it. Heinerth was hooked.

“The noise of the world completely stops when your down there,” she said. “It is very freeing. I just knew it was where I belonged.”

After she finished college, Heinerth opened an advertising agency in Ontario. Life in an office, however, didn’t suit her.

At 26, she sold her business and most of her belongings, packed a suitcase and moved to the Cayman Islands where she worked in marketing for a hotel and taught diving.

It was during those two-and-a-half years in the Cayman Islands that Heinerth began making trips to High Springs, Fla., a small town in North Florida painted with exotic, fresh-water springs, to explore its numerous underwater caves. The town was an international mecca for cave diving.

In 1996, she left the Cayman Islands and moved to a city a few hours south of High Springs.

“People don’t realize it, but the springs here are like the eighth wonder of the world,” she said. “I’ve explored a lot of caves, but these springs are the most unique on the planet.”

Heinerth now lives in High Springs with her husband Robert and their peacock, Indigo. She dives in Ginnie Springs across from her house almost every day.

It’s not that she’s looking for something in particular when she plunges into the deep, Heinerth said. She craves the experience, and if she comes across a boat wreck hidden in the sand or finds herself swimming alongside a killer whale, it’s an added bonus.

As her love of diving developed, so did her passion to raise awareness about water and the issues associated with it.

When she relocated to Florida, she opened Heinerth Productions, a film production company that she still runs today. This way, the diving was still constant, but she could now capture what she saw and share it with the world.

A brush with death — and taxes

In 1996, Heinerth was working on a film about the caves of Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. It was on that project that she met Wes Skiles, a cave diving pioneer known around the world for his underwater photography.

The two decided to work together and explore underwater caves in an iceberg that had calved off Antarctica in 2003.

Skiles, a daring diver and Heinerth, an eager explorer pitched the idea to National Geographic on a whim and got the funding.

It took them a month of diving in the minus-two-degree water before they found any caves.

At one point, while she was exploring the caves beneath the iceberg, the current unexpectedly changed. The rope that divers use as a lifeline from the caves to the surface broke. Heinerth couldn’t see more than five feet in front of her.

Her ear piece went silent. She lost contact with her team.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Heinerth said. “I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Crap, Robert doesn’t know how to do the taxes. I’ve got to get out of here.’”

But she calmed herself and made it out. It was one of her scariest brushes with death, but she went back down the next day.

Exposing the world of water

Heinerth’s proudest piece of work was a documentary series she and Skiles shot in the mid-2000s called “Water’s Journey.”

The two divers who shared a passion for film making wanted to spread awareness about where tap water came from and the importance of conserving water. They followed the course a drop of water takes through the environment, traveling through storm water and sewer systems and exploring the entire extent of the Everglades watershed.

Tragedy struck in 2010 when Skiles died while diving off Boynton Beach in Florida. Although she misses her friend and mentor, Heinerth hasn’t let Skiles’ death keep her from combing underwater caves.

She went on to work with Hollywood director James Cameron on his 2011 film, “Sanctum.” The film is dedicated to Skiles.

Because she had made dozens of films and worked frequently with National Geographic, Heinerth made a name for herself in the diving world.

Cameron contacted her to help train the actors and direct underwater scenes in “Sanctum,” a film about cave divers who explore one of the world’s most treacherous and least accessible caves.

Under Heinerth’s guidance, Cameron went on his first-ever cave dive in Ginnie Springs.

In her home, Heinerth has pictures of her and the Academy Award-winning director eating pizza while they float in the aquamarine water.

Next May, Heinerth will head on the road to present and promote her newest film, “We Are Water,” to educate viewers about where water comes from and to teach people how to protect and nurture our connection with the finite resource.

Heinerth and her husband, Robert, will bike more than 5,000 miles from Vancouver to the southernmost point of the St. Johns River, stopping in cities to present the film. The tour is an effort to engage viewers in taking action to conserve water.

“I see ‘We are Water’ as the journey of the rest of my life,” Heinerth said. “I’m going to continue to carry this message in every way that I possibly can.”

Laura Reynolds: Scientist and Advocate

Laura Reynolds

Scientists are curious people, constantly searching for answers to questions that often elude others. Laura Reynolds has found the answers she sought out, but she doesn’t think anyone is listening.

Reynolds said since moving to work in Florida as an environmental scientist and conservationist, she has seen how disconnected people are from the problems the delicate ecosystem faces.

“Part of the problem is that many people don’t think about where their water comes form or where it goes,” Reynolds said. “The fishermen in Dade County don’t even realize that the water entering Biscayne Bay affects their catch.”

Reynolds believes change is necessary now for any type of recovery to happen.

“Think about turning on the faucet on the day that no water comes out and then deciding that there’s a problem the needs to be dealt with,” Reynolds said.  “We have got to get away from that kind of reactionary thinking.”

For three years, Reynolds has been the executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, in Dade County. The group operates to conserve all natural resources, including water, and educate members and the public about the delicate relationship we all have with the planet. Years before she took the top position in the non-profit organization, Reynolds served on the Tropical Audubon Society Board of Directors as both the vice president and the chair of education.

“Really, a non-profit tries to take the science and make use of it,” Reynolds said. “If you’re just a scientist in the field and you don’t interact with some of the people that are trying to influence policy then your work just sits there.”

Born and raised in Monticello, New York at the base of the Catskill Mountains, Reynolds was always surrounded by nature, both thriving and suffering. Reynolds said her childhood turned her into an environmentally conscious scientist.

“I got to see the Long Island Sound start to come back from a very bad place,” Reynolds said.

The Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean between Connecticut, Long Island and New York City that has suffered tribulations with pollution through the years. Reynolds attributes the recovery of the Sound as evidence that restoration is possible from the brink of total pollution.

Her love for the environment spurred questions that she didn’t have the answers to. By age 9, Reynolds realized her life would be spent as a scientist finding those answers.

Laura has worked, researched and taught in Florida since she moved here in 1994. She completed her undergraduate degree in marine and environmental science at Jacksonville University. She sought more science research and her master’s degree in education at the Florida International University while also working as an adjunct professor.

After seeing a divide between people and the land, Reynolds turned her focus from research to education outreach and advocacy.

“I think that universities ought to require some kind of environmental course, whether you’re a major or not,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s so important that people understand that we live above our water supply.”

Reynolds believes a combination of political reform and an educated, conscious public is the only way to save Florida’s ecosystem.

“For the most part people are reluctant to make changes in their life because they don’t think it makes a big difference,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said she reduces her impact on the water supply by taking shorter showers, using public transportation, Xeriscaping her yard and saving rain water for irrigation through a rain barrel system.

Reynolds believes the transient, non-native population of Florida is a large contributor the state of the water here.

“Unfortunately for Florida, a lot of people were not born here,” Reynolds said. “Their roots are not here and so their actions to protect it are not the same.”

Reynolds said there are some native Floridians trying to preserve the state’s delicate ecosystem, but not enough.

“Development rights are being transferred in the northern Everglades because [natives] don’t want their land to ever be developed,” Reynolds said. “They want to see their family’s legacy continue on. We need more of that. Those are kind of people that can save a community.”





Lars Andersen: Guide to Florida’s Waters

Lars Andersen

Lars Andersen began writing about nature in the mid 1980s.  His first work, an audiobook titled “North Florida Adventure,” was an educational look at the history and locations of North Florida through the eyes of fictional characters.  Listeners can drive across North Florida and hear about sites as they pass by.

Since then, Andersen, a Florida native, has had a long career as an environmental writer and a nature tour guide.

Andersen began guiding tours in North Florida in the late 1980s.  He conducts river tours on about 60 different waterways, including coastal areas.

“We’ve had a lot of people have transformative experiences when they are out on the river,” Andersen said.  Sometimes after young people have been on a river tour with their parents, they choose nature-related fields of study when they go to college.
[pullquote class=”left”]”We’ve had a lot of people who have transformative experiences when they are out on the river.”[/pullquote]
The 55-year-old nature guide started a formal business about 15 years ago when he opened the Adventure Outpost in High Springs, Fla.

A 2009 National Geographic blurb mentioned Andersen’s tour, including some of his tips on how to approach manatees.

He views his nature-related writings as another means to educate the public about the state’s waterways, as well as some of the problems facing Florida’s water supply.

“Just being a writer really is a great avenue for continuing to learn about these things,” he said.  “I think through my capacity as a writer, I’m helping to contribute in getting this info out to the general public.”

Andersen has written guidebooks, historical accounts of waterways and articles for nature magazines.  Among his works are “Paynes Prairie: The Great Savannah: A History and Guide,” a comprehensive book detailing everything there is to know about the shallow basin in the middle of Florida.

In “Paynes Prairie”, Andersen recalls his childhood fascination with nature, and how his range expanded from his neighborhood. By his teens he had discovered the Prairie.

“I began exploring the Prairie every chance I got, often joined by friends and my brother. . . ,” he wrote.

When asked about his best experience as a nature guide, Andersen told the story of a family; a father, his son, and two grandchildren; he took out to Rainbow River.

“Three generations of people sharing this incredible experience,” Andersen said.

The day went without a hitch. They saw more wildlife than usual, and the family had a great time.

Andersen said that about a month later, the son called him to share some sad news. He told him the grandfather who had arranged the tour had died.

“That trip had been the grandfather’s idea,” Andersen said.  “He wanted to spend one last memorable day with his grandchildren and his son.”

Paul Clark: One Man, Many Springs

Paul Clark

For a systems librarian, a kind of person one might typically consider practical and studious, Paul Clark has a decided “spring” in his step. The award-winning librarian for Clay County Public Library has a passion for Florida springs as evidenced by the 1200 photos on his Flickr page. His blog, Florida Springs lists six years of news posts about, and often photos of, springs in the state.

When he is not fully engaged in literacy or reading campaigns, improvements to the library system, or lobbying state government for library funding, Clark travels the state visiting and evaluating springs. From current events, cleanups and restorations to ecological data, government actions, and grassroots conservation efforts, Clark is a reference of springs FAQs.

Clark’s site has had 165,000 unique visits and racks up about 1000 hits a week.

He lost the original URL. He was so busy with other projects including his state-wide library campaigns as well as work on a children’s book—that he failed to renew the domain name and someone else nabbed it. However, he recently reloaded material to a nearly identical URL. None of his documentation was lost and is available for anyone browsing for a stunning weekend in Florida’s crystal clear springs.

Or almost crystal clear.

Clark laments that the springs seem to be in decline—some have even dried up—but most notably, he said, they are being fouled with a native, but invasive algae. Researchers have been scrambling to determine the causes, and candidates include agricultural and lawn fertilizer, declining “grazers” that feed on the algae, higher water temperatures, declining flow rates from drought and over-consumption—or a combination of all as well as yet-to-be-discovered causes.

Clark is an ardent researcher, a skill that goes with the territory of his “day” job, so he has been able to ferret out details and facts about the status of Florida’s springs. He is alarmed by the challenges faced by these natural fountains of fresh water and that sees much to be done by the government, by industry, and by the people who use the springs.

All the more reason, Clark insists, to get out and enjoy and the springs. “We have to support the springs, participate in cleaning up and preserving these Florida treasures,” he said. After all, he added, the “well-being of Florida citizens” is tied to these water sources as they actually spring forth from the huge underground reservoir called the Floridan Aquifer, the source of most of Florida’s potable water.

Although the Florida Geological Service has documented 1,041 springs in the state, only 33 are designated “first magnitude.” These are springs with a flow greater than 100 cubic feet per second (or approximately 64.6 million gallons of water per day)

“Most people visit these well-known springs,” Clark said.

He said he enjoys discovering the lesser known and smaller magnitude springs on his own or with his children.

“I want to personally share with other families the best springs around,” Clark said. Clarity of the water is high on his lists and so is safety. Is there a lifeguard? He also considers accessibility to the water and amenities such as picnic areas, and concessions, clean bathrooms. Recreational activities such as availability for tubing, snorkeling, kayaking or camping are also important.

His favorite springs? Blue Springs is one of them. Another is Wakulla Springs, near Tallahassee where Clark lives much of his time, even though it is a long commute from his job Clay County.

For a complete list of springs and Clark’s first-hand knowledge and in-depth research of the best spots, visit his blog where he also keeps readers up to date on the health of Florida springs both biologically and politically.

Top Photo: One of the many shots Paul Clark has taken of springs in Florida.

Frank Bouchard: Enthusiast

Frank Bouchard loves the Everglades. He thinks Florida’s waterways are the prettiest of any he has ever paddled. They are one part of the environment that he is eager to share with others in order to protect it.

Bouchard lives in a fully furnished one-room tent. For $80 a month he has access to the laundry room, bathroom, kitchen, Wi-Fi, rock wall and a zip-line behind the house named the Screaming Marlin.

When he was six years old, his parents started taking him on paddling trips along the Loxahatchee River near his hometown of Palm Beach, but it wasn’t until college when he cultivated a love and admiration for nature.

The 27 year old,  who has doctorate degree in genetics and genomics, spends his weekends and free time exploring national parks across the state, and occasionally the country.

“My life is too crazy, I don’t need to make this stuff up,” he said about his choice to live in a tent, highlighting the privacy and space he has that beats other alternatives.

Where he lives is an illustration of Bouchard’s commitment to simplicity.

Throughout his time at UF though, he has looked to share his mentality with others by showing students the local nature areas.

He does this by leading trips through O.A.R., the Outdoor Adventure Recreation club at UF.

Exploring the local waters on canoe trips across the state and sharing observations about the drastic change in water levels is his way of educating others.

Last summer he paddled for seven days with his fiancée down the Everglades on “pretty much the coolest trip ever.”

He and his fiancée woke up early, sometimes at 4 a.m., so that they could avoid the wind as they crossed the salty bays to watch birds and dolphins.

“Florida has the prettiest waters,” and it’s this observation that encourages his day-to-day habits that reduce consumption.

When he moves to Southbend, Ind., in March to join his fiancée, he will take that simplicity and love of nature with him.

While Bouchard doesn’t hold a title in water ecology or management, he guides others to their first experiences and helps them understand that “the water levels are never higher.”