The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is biking, hiking and kayaking from Central Florida through the Panhandle to the Alabama state line. The three conservationists are trying to call attention to the need to preserve what they call the corridor's "integrity" --- an unbroken pathway for wildlife to travel. They recently led about 75 enthusiasts on a hike through the wetlands of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.
Carlton Ward Jr., the photographer with the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, observes that we can see our breath in the air. It's North Florida in the winter, and the temperature is in the mid-thirties when the hikers gather.
"We spent a few days on the Florida Scenic Trail, coming up through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. And when you get to the edge of the town of St. Marks, the trail gives way to river," he says. "And we wanted to have some integrity to our route where we didn't have any broken places, so we decided to swim."
Ward, Joe Guthrie and Mallory Lykes Dimmit found a fisherman who ferried their heavy bags across. And they had dry towels on the other side, Ward says. But it was still pretty cold.
"I kind of stopped breathing at the beginning," Ward says. "I had my camera in one hand, and I was trying to swim, and it wasn't working very well. I got a few pictures before I went into shock. And then trying to keep up with Mallory and Joe as they sprinted across the river. But about halfway through, once the body went numb, it started to feel pretty exhilarating and pretty nice."
The hikers won't have to go to such extremes. They start at a "trail mixer," where they munch fruit and energy bars, moving into a circle as the leaders take their places. Joe, Mallory and Ken Wimmer of Defenders of Wildlife will each lead a group of about 25. Chris Weber, the trail-master with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explains their route, a little over four miles from the Wakulla Trailhead at U.S. 98, south to the beachhead at Wakulla Beach.
"And then as you go through the woods, you'll go through just a bunch of different ecosystems," he says, "so this is a real good section for you to go through, and welcome to the Refuge."
You can tell the people who know this trail because they're wearing rubber boots to their knees. It's been an unusually rainy winter, and sometimes the only way to pass is through the cold water.
The route is through what used to be an old pine plantation. The hikers clamber over a small mountain of reddish-brown sawdust, left from the nineteen-thirties.
Ken Wimmer of Defenders of Wildlife describes the area's history.
"And the Union troops would come in and would destroy the old saltworks, and so you can find cast-iron shards out in different places where they had this old saltworks, all along this marsh," he told the hikers.
This Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is the second. The first was in 2012. This time they started at the head-waters of the Everglades on January 10th and will end at the Gulf Islands near Pensacola on March 20th. Dimmit, the expedition's executive director, says they're trying to show that there is still an opportunity to connect up the conservation lands around the state.
"We're highlighting these places that have already been protected in Florida's long and great history of land protection," she says, "but also the places that are still in need, that need to be protected and connected to complete the missing links within this corridor."
And Wimmer drew cheers at the "trail mixer" by mentioning Amendment One, which dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to preserving the state’s environment. Floridians passed the measure with 75 percent of the vote in November.
"After their highlighting and showing what can be protected, we're going to be working with the folks in the legislature, with Florida Forever funds, so thank everybody for voting for Amendment 1," he says. "So now we actually have the resources to make the Florida Wildlife Corridor real."
But as lawmakers prepare to decide how the money will be doled out, some conservationists warn that there will be many opportunities to divert it to other projects. The hike at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is the closest point on the expedition's path to the state capital in Tallahassee, only 20 miles away.
Its shadow looms.
This Saturday, the expedition will host a group paddle at Hickory Landing at Owl Creek, Apalachicola National Forest, open to the public.