The Great Florida Outdoors: Freshwater


Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University

One of the places I have explored for many years with my outdoors buddy Ed Shindle is Cow House Creek, a first order, ephemeral wetland that flows into the Hillsborough River. Before entering the Hillsborough, it widens and slows. The drainage basin of the river consists primarily of natural wetland, urban development, and some cattle pasture.

Dry creek bed, Cowhouse Creek

We have hiked up and down the dry creek bed in April and May and witnessed the surging waters of June and July. During our adventures, Ed discovered two springs that can often be seen bubbling up.

On many trips up and down the Hillsborough River (sometimes joined by our friend Arnold, known as “Yakman”), we have noted the seasonal changes in hydrology due to high rains and drying and natural disturbances in this community. I highly recommend exploring a particular area over and over again throughout the year to learn to read the landscape.

As you explore, look at the animals that inhabit the area (changes in

Cypress roots, Cow House Creek

plumage and behavior), variations in growth and vegetation, and signs of disturbances. Think about the questions that Jim offered in the first chapter and come up with your own answers.

Knowing the history and boundaries of an area you are exploring is very important in reading the landscape. The Hillsborough River flows 56 miles from its headwaters in the Green Swamp to its mouth in Tampa Bay, and its watershed extends over parts of three counties—Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk. The history of human activity in Hillsborough River State Park dates to prehistoric times when native peoples hunted, fished, and foraged along the river’s flood plain. In the late 1700’s, Wills Hills, the British Colonial Secretary, and Lord Earl of Hillsborough, was given jurisdiction over the area. After surveyors were sent to report on the new colony, the river needed a name, and it was given the name Hillsborough River. Many events occurred over the years, including the building of forts and bridges during the Seminole wars. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked in the area surrounding the river to establish it as a public park.

As we have explored this magical river, the offerings of nature have been both varied and eye-opening, including a series of rapids created by the river as it flows over outcroppings of Suwannee limestone. We have paddled over the challenging waters of the 17 Runs, which took many hours of hard work, pulling our kayaks over logs and portaging to get down the river.

Cypress trees with glistening knees, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks fill the woods on any trip down the river. Animals include turtles, woodpeckers, owls, turkeys, deer, and occasional alligators. Limpkins, herons, egrets, anhingas, and many other varieties of Florida bird life fill the air with flight and sound.

Reading the landscape also requires you to be aware of the man-made environment. One of the roughest portions for me was closer to downtown along the University of Tampa and along the urban buildings and cement borders that line the shores. When the big boats come by, they provide a white-water experience that requires extra caution and no inviting shores for respite. Unless you like this kind of adventure, I would advise you to paddle in the more scenic and natural domains of the river!

When you are reading the landscape, look for narratives that you may not have seen before. I have kayaked on the Hillsborough River hundreds of times, but I had never come across what I captured in the picture below.

What first caught my attention was a limpkin with wings spread in a defensive posture. As I stopped my paddling to observe more closely, I noted the back of the alligator shown in the lower right. Next my eyes shifted up, and I spotted the baby limpkins scurrying along. The adult limpkin managed to hold off the gator, and eventually the limpkins scattered back into the woods and away from the hungry gator.

I can point out a few observations that pertain to reading the Florida landscape. As noted by observant naturalists, if the limpkin is actually warding off a gator, it reflects a very exceptional use of otherwise common behavior. Open-winged displays are very common among wading birds such as limpkins, egrets, and wood storks. While feeding, the birds create shadows with their wings to attract small, edible fish under the shadow. The shadow also helps the bird visualize the fish by reducing glare.

In the same way I am awakened when I notice a growth or rash that is not in the usual spot, seeing a new pattern in nature allows you a unique chance to learn new ways to read the landscape. Look for plants and animals in new patterns and locations.

By improving your skills in reading the Florida landscape, it naturally follows that you will connect more with nature. All of us need more “Vitamin N”—Nature—and fortunately you do not need to travel far to be in the middle of it.

Get out and enjoy the Great Florida


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