They say it's not the destination, it's the journey. Chassahowitzka is the perfect example for this profound statement.
Back in 2017, my husband and I stumbled upon Chassahowitzka River Campground thanks to some locals telling us about it. It is located approximately 20 miles from Weeki Wachee.
The best way to start your exploration of the "Chaz"river is to get a map from the campground staff as it can get tricky in the fingers of several creeks that come off the river. We didn't have a map on our first trip and almost cut out journey short as we thought we were lost. Luckily we ran into local kayaker's who assured us "The Crack" is right around the corner. We kayaked our way through windy and partially very narrow sections where the thought of coming eye to eye with an alligator came to mind several times. However, Florida's pure beauty of wilderness overtook my senses shortly after, alligators were so far away from my mind as I was from theirs, besides that fact that these reptiles are not very interested in us humans but I shall discuss the often misunderstood reptiles in a later blog.
Paddle stroke by paddle stroke I was overcome by feeling vulnerable and humbled, I was in the heart of wild Florida. This is a feeling us humans don't get to experience much anymore as we sit safely in front of our TV's or scroll endlessly on our cell phones. We have developed a sense of being "top of the food chain" with the risk of becoming completely disconnected of what keeps us alive - our fresh air, the warming sun, the pure water and the healthy soil. We are so scared of nature but have no hesitation to step into our car. Biophobia overtook biophilia - that is very scary.
As my kayak glided through the water, sounds of frogs, crickets, birds and cicadas became more and more noticeable. No noise of cars or people near or far - I saw it as a welcome song to their world and a plea to also leave it this way. Every now and then the narrow river would widen into lagoon sections inhabited by mullets leaping out of the water. No one knows exactly why they do this. Some theories are to add oxygen, some others state it's to get rid of parasites - my favorite of it all is that maybe they are just happy fish?!
Approximately two miles of seemingly unbeaten path, we reached a point where we had to abandon our kayaks due to fallen trees as well as the creek becoming too shallow. After a few footsteps we arrived at the crack. Old Florida unfolded in front of our own eyes: hidden, secluded and full of peace and wonder. Nothing displayed any signs of human presence except for a rope dangling from an old oak tree inviting us to get the full experience of wild Florida, to plunge into "the crack"
I call Chassahowitzka Mother Natures playground, there are so many things to see and experience. I've seen playful otters on the riverbank, came across a curious newborn manatee, watched many birds call this place their home and even had a surprise encounter with a juvenile bull shark. It's all there for us to see. Seven sisters, an underwater cave system, is quite popular in the summer months, kayaking Potters and Salt creek are highly recommended due to it's amazing scenery of cabbage palms. But my main concern when I talk about these places is for humans to respect and protect it. Unfortunately as many other places in Florida, the health of the springs there are in dire need of help. When you decide to pay Chassahowitzka a visit, please educate yourself on how you can have a positive impact on the environment. Don't litter, respect wildlife and take nothing but memories with you.
Nothing excites and soothes me more than nature. It calms my mind and cleanses my soul. When I came across the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) there was no question whether I was going to participate. The very moment the class started, I had the feeling that people "spoke my language", meaning I was among nature enthusiasts that possessed the same bottomless passion for Mother Nature's conservation as I did.
Attending the FMNP is a way for people to gain a deeper understanding of the connectedness between humans and the wild. However, I must say that the first class of every module (there are three which consist of Freshwater, Uplands and Coastal) was very intimidating as I found myself among highly educated professionals that "save the world" on a daily basis and get a salary for it. As the classes continued my intimidation slowly diminished and I found that we all learned from eachother, no matter what backgrounds we had.
The FMNP instilled a deeper understanding about Florida's ecosystems and awakened a never ending thirst for knowledge in regards to our environment. I looked forward to each and every class and dreaded the days it would end after a 6 week period. I saw this class as the perfect opportunity to widen my horizon and wish everyone living here would enroll. The field trips (you get to go on tons of them) allow you to meet some of the most knowledgeable professionals that you would not meet otherwise. For example, at Blue Springs State Park we visited Manatee Specialist Wayne Hartley who told us amazing stories he got to encounter first hand while doing research with these gentle giants.
I remember my instructor telling us on the last day of our Freshwater class that although the course is over, this is only the beginning. Words that resonate with me still and have given me much inspiration to follow my true calling.
A class mate contacted me a few months later to ask if I have any gopher pictures as she was trying to educate people at the library about them, so I went and took pictures of gophers so she would have material....and this is how I got where I am today. I kept taking and donating pictures from documenting my butterfly garden to showing people what places to visit. It lead me to create a basic website to share my knowledge and passion. My pictures have been featured in parks and exhibits. I was asked to give presentations to non-profit organisations, did a year long photo documentary and was just published in a newspaper for winning Florida's State Park annual photo contest. Our talents are given to us for a reason and it is our responsibility to share them with the world, one good deed at a time. Go find yours!
Although sea turtle season during the summer months is one of the most exciting things for me, the "chubby mermaids" are the reason I look forward to winter just as much. Manatees seek the springs once the temperatures start to drop around November since these waters keep a constant temperature of 72 degrees. Manatees can hardly tolerate anything below 68 degrees as the cold water shuts down their digestive system.
Observing them as they effortlessly glide through the crystal clear water is one experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetime. Manatee season starts mid November and ends in March, with January being the peak as it is considered the coldest month out of the year.
Blue Springs in Orange City is a popular State Park to spot the large herbivores. However, Three Sisters National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River remains my favorite. The town has an annual Manatee Festival honoring these beautiful creatures every January including free entry into the National Wildlife Refuge. Several park rangers and volunteers are happy to provide any and all information possible in regards to the refuge and the manatees. Hundreds of the herbivores gather in front of "Idiots Delight" which is the waterway into Three Sisters. A wrap-around board walk enables visitors old and young to observe the manatees as they make their way into the turquoise lagoons of the refuge. It is a breathtaking scenery.
Local businesses offer guided tours to swim with the giant mammals in Crystal River, FL. There are different opinions in regards to this activity for obvious reasons. Do I recommend to do this? Yes as I have had this humbling and surreal experience myself. However, please don't do it if you are not absolutely committed to respect their space. The recommended distance is six feet, which will leave you plenty of room to feel close. Refrain from touching or chasing them. I understand it is tempting wanting to pet them or snapping selfies. Please remember, it is THEIR home that you are entering. We all have the responsibility to live in harmony with these wild creatures. The practice of good ethics is key to creating beautiful memories without unnecessarily stressing the manatees. When you are in the water with them it should be about appreciating them and lead you to a closer understanding of the need of their conservation.
Swimming with manatees is not the biggest threat they experience. Humans are their only natural predator in regards to water pollution and boating. I can hardly recall one manatee that did not carry a boat scar.
In January of 2018 I had a bittersweet encounter with a very friendly manatee. It was literally hugging my kayak, rolling on it's belly and sticking it's snout out of the water, seemingly begging me to pet it. This was not normal behavior. This manatee displayed behavior of an animal that was fed by humans which can cause it's life. Fed manatees will associate boats with food and therefore increase the chance of getting hit by a vessel significantly. We humans have a natural desire to nurture things. We want to feed and pet these wild things without realizing we can create severe damage with our "love" . Any type of wild animal needs to be left wild and observed from a respectful distance. If an animal is in distress please contact certified wildlife rehabbers that are trained to care for them. We have to remember we want to be part of the solution rather than causing more hardship. It is a tough world for these wild creatures but we can all contribute to making it a little bit better for them.
If you would like to help, please consider the following:
Enjoy Florida's winter season and appreciate the wild ones.