Expedition Florida 500 and Water’s Journey

Note: I’m back in Florida. More posts about Hawaii will have to wait… but they are coming. For now, here’s the latest adventure that I’ve gotten myself into. Enjoy!

Just when I climbed into bed late Tuesday night, the lightbulb went off. All the last week, I had been trying to get USF St. Petersburg to let XF500‘s Justin Riney coast up to the waterfront campus and explain his purpose for paddling around the state of Florida. Everyone I spoke with on campus was fascinated by the expedition, but I quickly gathered that a week’s notice was too short to make something official happen. The XF500 team made plans for appearances elsewhere around Tampa Bay, and my friends at USFSP helped spread the word.

Then it dawned on me. Why not try to get Justin on the agenda for an existing event hosted by USFSP’s Student Environmental Awareness Society and the Florida Studies Program? The only problem: even shorter notice. Bill Belleville was scheduled to give remarks after showing a Wes Skyles documentary, “Water’s Journey: The River Returns,” Wednesday evening – about 18 hours away. “Can’t hurt to ask,” I figured.

I emailed XF500 project lead Cynthia Trone and got a very interested reply. She would contact Justin, who was staying with the ranger at Honeymoon Island State Park. If at all possible, I would gather him and his gear and then drive to the event at USFSP.

That night, I was awakened by a brilliant full moon shining silver light through the bedroom window. I gazed at it for a good hour before falling back asleep after 3 a.m. Thriving on the energy of this team’s expedition and efforts to help connect them with the Tampa Bay community, it was yet another night of little sleep. Still, I managed to pack and leave my parents’ Tallahassee residence by 8 a.m.

Driving the backroads (US-19/98) down to Tampa, I took in the sights and smells along the way. Shocks of deep red maple seeds and the bright greens of new growth on cypress and elm trees. Patches of white dogwoods and chickasaw plum, and the purple-pink of red buds. Massive oaks boughs carpeted by resurrection fern. Everything its showy best from a week of heavy rains.

For several miles after I crossed the Fenholloway River (designated an industrial waterway by the State of Florida), acrid stench from the old Buckeye paper mill burned in my nose, throat and lungs. “How can people live around this?” I wondered. The big mill provides economic benefits, but at what costs to human health and environmental quality? A few days earlier, I smelled a similar stink from another paper mill near Panama City. It seems so incongruous with beach-blanket tourism. Perhaps that’s why they get the college kids so drunk on spring break?

Farther down US-19, near the road to Cedar Key, I was sickened by the sight of black bear road-kill. I could distinguish a mother and her cubs in the red, white and black carnage splattered near the shoulder. They almost made it. Almost. Did mama bear turn back and try to defend her cubs from the steel predator closing on them so impossibly fast? I wondered if any of them had radio collars like the ones that helped motivate Carlton Ward, Jr., to embark on last year’s Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Did lights go dark on a wildlife biologist’s computer somewhere? Perhaps I’ll find out at the premier of the FWCE documentary, showing on Sunday, March 3, at the Tampa Bay History Center.

My drive south continued with less offensive scenery and I made it home by lunch. As I polished off my sandwich and resolved to go take a nap, I got the call from Cynthia: Justin was on for attending the film and discussion at USFSP. Since he’d be crashing at my house, I tidied up a little and got in a few winks before hitting the road again. There was no time to fill my bare cupboards.

At Honeymoon Island State Park, we tossed his gear in the back of my Blazer and strapped his 14-foot SUP to the roof, then talked about his mission and motivation while battling traffic on US-19 and I-275. We share a common vision to help translate the “why” and “how” of environmental conservation in simple terms for the general public. I especially like that he speaks the language of business fluently and convincingly, while being well-versed in both science and outdoor adventure. No wonder XF500 has a diverse and growing following on Facebook.

En route to USFSP, I called Catie Wonders from the Student Environmental Awareness Society and asked if we could introduce Justin briefly during the program. “Sure thing!” I gave a heads-up to Chris Meindl, director of the Florida Studies Program, and his graduate assistant (and my classmate) Frank Kurtz. I asked the campus police for the safest place to park with a big SUP hanging over the back. Maybe the garage, “but I can’t make any guarantees.”

At USFSP’s Harbor Hall (former site of the old Salvador Dali museum), we just lugged it inside, instead. Leaned against a wall, it made a great “conversation piece,” as my dad would say. Someone else commented on Facebook later that it looked like art.

The plan was to have Justin give his spiel after the film, but technical difficulties gave an opening at the beginning. The crowd was engaged. Harbor Hall’s sound-system failed to work, so we huddled close and quietly watched Water’s Journey, listening intently to the speakers of a laptop computer. It was clear that Skyles and the rest of the documentary team (including Belleville) did a great job mixing science, adventure, humor and stunning footage to show how the St. Johns River exists in “three dimensions,” including the Floridan aquifer that undergirds a huge swath of Florida.

Meanwhile, Sudsy Tschiderer, who retired after 40 years with USFSP demonstrated why, even now as a volunteer, she is the go-to person on campus for getting things done. When it was time for soft-spoken Bill Belleville to share his bold ideas about the importance of “sense of place” in Florida, a new podium and functional AV system was in place, thanks to Sudsy. The audience clearly heard Belleville emphasize the important observation that “headwaters” aren’t just pristine wetlands. They’re also urban stormwater and agricultural runoff. Repeating a lesson he learned from the late, great Wes Skyles, Belleville continued: We cannot just protect the springs; residents, farmers, and Floridians of all stripes must also do their part to curb pollution that inevitably makes its way into our springsheds, and respect entire watersheds that recharge our drinking water supply make our unique ecosystems possible.

Attendees ranged from students and faculty to members of the local community. (This event, like many involving the Florida Studies Program, was free and open to the public.) They stuck around during breaks and engaged with the speakers and each other.

Afterwards, we grabbed a few picnic tables outside the Tavern at Bayboro and shared more about our mutual affection for this state and its stunning environment, and how to give residents and visitors opportunities to make their own connections so that they, too, will help protect it. Justin worked the crowd there, too, while a band played and glasses clinked on the patio. I ran into more friends, swapped stories (Frank Kurtz got to interview Carl Hiaassen about his character “Skink” for a term paper!) and hearty laughter. It’s good to be back in old St. Pete.

XF500's Justin Riney departing the event at USFSP on February 27

XF500’s Justin Riney departing the event at USFSP on February 27

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4 thoughts on “Expedition Florida 500 and Water’s Journey

  1. Pretty wild return to St Pete! Justin sounds like a very interesting person and smart to speak in language that will resonate with the public. Quite a unique expedition, of course, and certainly has created a buzz. I read a little of his posts surrounding “Day 59” with you, and got an idea of his mission. Also, great writing on your post here. Entertaining. You cranked this out fast, too! …A shame about the black bears. Can’t imagine having that as my first FL black bear sighting. …Will be following XF500.

  2. What a pleasure to meet you, Andy! As I was scanning the water for the rasta canoe yesterday afternoon, with Team XF500 down the road shivering and wondering about the brutal wind and chop, I realized that the sight of you is what this project is all about! We welcome your intelligence, daring, kindness, sense of adventure and love for Florida to our XF500 family! Thanks for all your help…you are not done! Cynthia

  3. Pingback: Good Company Tampa Bay proudly supports Expedition Florida 500 | Good Company Tampa Bay

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