Mountain Laurel on Seven Runs Creek
In 2009, I was asked to make a photo at Seven Runs Creek in FL's western panhandle for the 2010 Florida Forever calendar. The calendar featured photographs made by "12 celebrated conservation photographers" of vulnerable properties in the queue for purchase by the Florida Forever Program. Having acquired and protected over 2 million acres over the previous 20 years, in 2009 -- for the first time since its inception -- the Florida legislature approved NO funding for this program!
So, as part of the effort to get this program back on track, I was honored to accept this volunteer assignment. Seven Runs Creek in Walton County is a 15,000 acre parcel adjoining already-protected Nokuse Preserve to the south and Eglin AFB to the west. I made 3 trips to the property that spring and marveled at new wonders on each visit.
This land acquisition was successfully completed in 2013 through a complex partnership between private and public entities.
John Moran. "We're sorta lost."
In February, John Moran and I explored the lowest section of the creek - as it loses its creekiness and turns into a braided cypress swamp that flows into the Choctawhatchee River. We started at a small roadside park (Hwy 81) where the shallow sand-bottom creek flows honey-colored through a lovely forest....misleading... Soon we felt like Hansel and Gretel, trying to figure out which watery trail to take and gawking at twisted gnarly cypress knees deep in the swamp.
As darkness approached, we wondered if we'd miscalculated. This was no place to spend the night: huge cypress trees in a deep swamp, owls calling... were we even following the right course? We paddled faster and faster. Finally arriving at Dead Lake Road, our aptly-named takeout, the sky had turned a deep purple. The familiar silhouette of a big split cypress stump standing near shore was a relief... and beckoned to be photographed. Then John took off on his bicycle in the dark to ride the long dirt road back to the truck while I waited with the boats. We were really bushed when our heads hit the pillows that night.
In March, I returned, this time in the company of 'Turtle Bob' Walker who is one of the biologists working at the Nokuse Preserve, the Seven Runs property, and teaching at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center. Bob hadn't had a chance to paddle much of the actual Creek that winds through the acreage, but was game for a thorough exploration. By now, the mountain laurel and wild azaleas were in full bloom in the bottom lands.
Bob gave me a tour of the property, stopping for "visits" with wildlife, like when we encountered a large diamondback rattlesnake who was friendly enough... and many of the resident gopher tortoises, who weren't so friendly... Mostly we caught glimpses of their tail-ends as they dived into their burrows. But we recorded locations of the most active burrows for a possible later photo.
We stopped on the Creek at Bad Bridge (burnt to ruins) and waded upstream. I got caught up in making a photo of the Creek with the mountain laurel as two hours floated by. When I noticed, dark was upon us. I was grateful for Bob's patience (he is the model of patience), for this beautiful setting in which I thought I had made the "calendar shot", and for Bob's knowledge of the property and how to get back to his cabin in the dark.
The next day, we arranged to drop a truck at Bad Bridge and some fellow workers drove us to a field in the middle of the property some miles away. We were sort of following a map. As we ran out of dirt road, we had to be careful to avoid the small recently hand-planted longleaf pines dotted across the field. This was formerly agricultural land, now being restored to longleaf forest. But the Creek ravine and its seven steephead runs have never been very accessible or useful and weave through this land, relatively untouched for many decades. We could see the dark lush treetops lining the waterway across the field and got as close as we could. As we watched our ride rumble off in a dustcloud, it felt strange standing in an open field with paddles, kayaks and camera gear.
We hiked down into the woods, dragging our boats, and we came upon as lovely a spot on the Creek as I could imagine. The early morning sunlight was bursting through the canopy. I was psyched. We had the whole day ahead to explore a creek that perhaps had never been paddled before. The water level had been bolstered by recent rains and appeared to be perfect.
Seven Runs Creek Put-in
Bob was in his element. He knows most every creature and plant in this part of Florida, has a delightful sense of wonder and enthusiasm, and loves adventure. So, in spite of all the logjams, rafts of debris, and snakes, we had a blast. In fact, because of those things we had a blast. Bob taught me to smell the snakes before we saw them. I'm not kidding. This is a really valuable trick on a wild creek like this.
A closely-encountered Cottonmouth
However, I was still a bit blown away when this cottonmouth fell from its perch above my kayak as I was bushwacking through debris and landed with a soft cool thud on my hand. Even before it visually registered, my gut said "NOT GOOD!". It slowly slid down onto my kayak and then into the water (as opposed to my lap). That was before I learned to smell them. Bob got a good laugh and feigned disappointment that I got off so easy. I did hop out of my boat anyway to get the photo above. After that, we smelled, then saw, many snakes that day... We both were sorry to see old Bad Bridge (our take-out), but made a pact on the spot to paddle another section of the creek in the near future.
Lots of smelly cottonmouths.
Following through on our pact, we explored the upper segment of the Creek in April.
This time our wives, Crystal and Leslie joined us... after hearing about all the snakes and stuff, they just couldn't resist. (Yes, I'm kidding.) So this time we put in at "Good Bridge". (You knew there had to be a Good Bridge if there was a Bad Bridge... such creative names too!) And yes, Good Bridge is still functional, although it has a locked cable across it. We left a vehicle in the same field of mini longleaf pines for our takeout. The creek was beautiful as ever, snaking through these bottom-lands with tributaries (the seven runs) pouring in from left or right along the way.
This trip the snake did fall into my lap. In the lead, moving with fast water around a turn, I saw it moments too late -- hanging on a low branch in a logjam. My kayak rammed the debris as I grabbed hold of the very limb on either side of the snake to keep from being dumped over. I was locked there by the strong current. There was the snake, fortunately this time, a banded water snake, inches from my face, right over my lap. Shocked from slumber by a human face, there was only one intuitive "escape": drop into the "water"... aka, my lap. Knowing that he was non-venomous didn't diminish the experience by much of having a flipped-out snake writhing frantically on my lap, while both my hands were keeping me from capsizing. By the time I got the boat out of there with Crystal's help and beached it, the snake was under my seat and not willing to come out.
In a few minutes, ol' Turtle Bob arrived, and with glee, reached into the dark crack under my kayak seat -- trusting me when I said "I think it's just a watersnake, Bob". He gently pulled the scared snake out and after showing it around and pointing out how non-aggressive it was, released it back to the Creek. We all got pretty good at smelling out the snakes before crashing into them after that. The cottonmouths outnumbered the water snakes from what we saw.
One last note about, oh yeah, the Florida Forever Calendar. Preserving the gopher tortoise, one of Nokuse's primary missions, is another story of its own. But here I'll just say, I couldn't have been with a better guide than Turtle Bob. I had a great opportunity to photograph one of the endangered gopher tortoises. And this is the photo that made the calendar.
Here's to Florida Forever!
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