KISSIMMEE - The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition has emerged from the wilderness and is now skirting around Orlando's suburban sprawl. The group recently stopped at the Disney Wilderness Preserve on horseback, and they received an unexpected gift - from President Obama.
After trudging an untold number of miles under the weight of a 60 pound backpack...
SOUND: horse snorting.
...there's nothing like strutting into your next stop atop a horse.
The Florida Wildlife Expedition is walking, biking and kayaking 1,000 miles in 100 days to publicize the need to connect the state’s wild areas into a continuous corridor. But they got a whole different perspective 12 feet high atop a saddle. Expedition member Elam Stoltzfus' trusty steed "Spark Plug" came from some of the local cowboys with the Northern Everglades Alliance.
"We went off some areas - there were no trails," says Stoltzfus. "And to have that experience of what they call backcountry riding and work together as a team. And so you ride beside one person for a while, and then you switch over to someone else, and it's time you have to get to know each other and share your experiences."
Expedition member and photographer Carlton Ward Jr. dismounted, shook off the dust and tried his best to get all the horses and their riders to line up for a photo shoot.
"Is it hard to back up the horses about three feet or four feet?" he told the crowd. "You go about the same speed, but you see everything around you. You see up above the palmettos, long vistas, long viewscapes, get to see the contours of the lakes. We went through a creek - a cypress-lined creek that was about four feet deep, so the horses got wet. We didn't, so that that was nice too."
This part of the trip was a spur off their journey from the Everglades to the Okeefenokee swamp. The Disney Wilderness Preserve was created in the 1990's as mitigation for construction done on new attractions at the theme park. It's grown to encompass nearly 12,000 acres of pine savannah and wetlands in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.
"We came here because these headwaters are so important to the Everglades watershed," says Ward. "And to show the beginnings of the headwaters refuge - an important piece of the whole puzzle."
After sitting down to a hearty meal of beef brisket and barbecue ribs, they they were presented with one of Ward's photographs - signed by President Obama. It was brought to the White House by the Northern Everglades Alliance, which is trying to protect the headwaters of the Kissimmee River.
Alliance member Rick Dantzler praised the expedition members as they stood before a group of well-wishers at the Disney Wilderness Preserve.
"And then he also signed this poster of Florida which outlines this wonderful wildlife corridor," Dantzler said, "and it says "Thanks for helping to preserve our natural wonders - Barack Obama." Pretty neat, don't you think?"
Ward then regaled the crowd with their latest experiences. Before they could reach the Disney Wilderness Preserve, they had to battle 2-foot swells trying to kayak to an exotic game preserve on an island in Lake Kissimmee.
"Just by that experience alone, this is not a hypothetical idea of connecting Florida's natural lands," says Ward. "Even though you'll walk north and hit Poinciana and suburban Florida, if you turn south, you can walk clear to Okeechobee without encountering much more than a few roads. So it's a tremendous opportunity we have, and we're very thankful to do our small part in trying to bring some awareness to it."
Dantzler, a former state Senator from Polk County, then gave them an emphatic sendoff.
"I really think that Carlton Ward and his team are really going to change the course of Florida. I think what they're doing is going to have an impact that is going to last forever," he said. "It's not just a flash in the pan - it's not just something that's going to be in the news for another few weeks. This is something that I think is going to change the way policymakers think about their jobs and their roles."
The role for the expedition now is to skirt east around Orlando and paddle north on the St. John’s River.