Paddling Georgia’s Barrier Islands

Landing spot
Camping on Ossabaw Island

Paddling down the Bear River into St. Catherines Sound, the ocean and sky extend as far as my eye can see. St. Catherines Island to my right, or south, and Ossabaw Island—my destination—to my left. Georgia’s barrier islands hug the coast like a strand of pearls in the rough, and Ossabaw and St. Catherines are two of the finest of the string stretching from Tybee to Cumberland. Georgia’s barrier islands themselves are part of a larger chain—the Sea Islands—that extend from South Carolina to north Florida. The expanse of sea, sky, and beach give the illusion of wilderness, that my footprints on the beach are the first to land, but I know better. The sea has washed away the footprints of multitudes, including native Americans, enslaved Africans, colonial English, and, finally, the wealthy families who preserved these gems.

Ossabaw Island
Courtesy of Sherpa Guides Georgia

Paddling the Georgia coast is a bucket-list item for many kayakers, but wilderness that beckons makes the trip logistically difficult. Most islands south of Little Tybee either strictly regulate or prohibit camping, so it’s either paddling with a guide or stealth camping (not advised). So, when Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia invite me to join their trip to Ossabaw and St. Catherines, I said yes. Marsha is a certified Ossabaw guide, so our group was permitted to camped on Ossabaw while we learned about this biologically- and historically-rich island.

 

Coastal Georgia
Coastal Georgia (Courtesy of Google Maps)
Kilkenny
Kilkenny Marina
Loading boats
Loading boats on the dock

 

Ossabaw point
Ossabaw’s southern end

Way too early one morning, our group of seven gathered at the Kilkenny Marina in Richmond Hill. After loading our boats with four days of food, gear, and wine, we launched onto Kilkenny Creek for the seven mile paddle to our campsite. Riding the out-going tide, we paddled  down Kilkenny Creek to the Bear River which carried us to St. Catherine’s Sound and the southern tip of Ossabaw Island.

We took a break before the day’s greatest challenge—finding the creek that led to our campsite. We paddled out and around the ocean side of Ossabaw, looking for the creek. Kevin and I had hoped for some surf on the sandbar that protected the island, but the wind was calm, with little swell that day. Finally Ronnie spotted the creek near a large deadfall. Fortunately we had enough tide to reach our campsite, about ten minutes upstream.

Gator slide
Canoe launch by day, gator slide by night
Landing with kayaks
Kayaks at rest
Resident gator
Campsite gator

The ebbing tide revealed our next challenge—climbing up the slick mud bank. I found a clear patch, aka gator slide, and dragged my kayak up onto the grass. Victory—only half my drysuit was covered in mud! While the rest of the group came onshore, a small gator swam back and forth across the creek, staking claim to our launch.

Water tower
Our water supply
Drysuits
Drying the drysuits
Campsite buoy
Campsite buoy

Ossabaw Island Foundation manages two primitive group campsites for visitors, and our campsite was far from the island’s few buildings. We can thank the Torrey family from Michigan for preserving Ossabaw island. The family bought the island in 1924, and their daughter Eleanor Torrey West created the foundation in 1961. In 1978, the families deeded the island to the state of Georgia, creating Georgia’s first Historical Preserve. Several other Georgia barrier islands also followed similar gifting patterns, including Cumberland and St. Catherines. Because these islands passed directly from the families to the state of Georgia, they remain largely undeveloped, and visitors experience the ecosystem of coastal hammocks.

Campsite
Nothing says relaxation like a hammock
Marsh
Marsh panorama from my campsite

The coastal ecosystem is not shy. From the moment I stepped out of my kayak, it swarmed around my head, dive-bombing my drysuit in search of exposed skin. The gators, no-see-ums, and mosquitos made clear that I was merely a link in their food chain. In fact, shortly after my trip, actor Will Smith, filming Gemini Man on the Georgia coast, lamented that “y’all gotta do something about these bugs.”

The marshes and estuaries are biologically rich, fed by the seven-foot tidal flows of the Georgia Bight. The concave curve of the southeast coast funnels the tidal flow into the center, near Savannah and Tybee Island. Fish, clams, oysters, and shrimp thrive in the nutrient-rich mud of estuaries, nourishing birds, mammals, and humans. These islands once supported large populations of native Americans, followed by waves of immigrants from Spain, France, and England. The English, in turn, enslaved Africans for their rice plantations, favoring west Africans who had created novel techniques of tidal irrigation in Gambia and Senegal.

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(Courtesy of Brown’s Guides)

Today, these flows draw kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders for river mouth surf. The ever-changing sandbars St. Catherines Sound and the Back River near Tybee Island, for example, create rough water and waves that are fun for surf and rescue training. Storms and hurricanes frequently rearrange the sandy ocean floor so that surf patterns can change from one week to the next. Even islands disappear and reappear. Just last year, Hurricane Irma created an island now named Little Blackbeard. I had heard that the sandbar near St. Catherines had some of the best surf in the area, so I hoped for some waves when we crossed St. Catherines Sound from Ossabaw to St. Catherines Island. No such luck.

St. CAtherines
Lunch on St. Catherine’s
St Catherines buoy
Ripped free and tossed ashore on St. Catherines

We landed on St. Catherines, like Ossabaw, minimally developed. But sitting on the beach, none of us could have guessed that lemurs roam this coastal forest. As a child, I visited St. Catherine’s as a child and learned about the New York Zoological Society’s (or the Bronx Zoo, as we called it) rehabilitation programs. St. Catherines Island hosts several  animal rehabilitation programs as well as field schools in archaeology and ecology.

Please let there be surf on the way home, I thought. The incoming tide rewarded our patience as waves broke over the sandbar for a short surf session. We didn’t linger long — dark clouds loomed in the western sky.

Deadwood with storm
Dark clouds over an Ossabaw Boneyard
Flag
A little breeze perhaps?

The next morning, we fought a stiff wind back to the marina, reversing our journey. For several years, I’ve looked longingly across Waussau Sound, wanting to continue south towards Sapelo and  Cumberland, to learn about their unique histories and cultures. Seeing Ossabaw has whetted my appetite to see the rest of Georgia’s barrier islands.  To quote Marsha, it’s “Ossabawesome!”

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Courtesy of Georgia Coast Atlas
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Paddling and Plunder in Matanzas Inlet

Heading out

Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.

Matanzas Inlet
Matanzas Inlet in north Florida (Courtesy of Google Maps)

We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.

With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.

Matanzas Inlet
(Courtesy of http://www.skypic.com)

 

We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.

On the beach

Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]

Matanzas Launch
Preparing to launch
Massacre of the French Marker, Matanzas Inlet
Photo credit: George Lansing Taylor, Jr. UNF (https://digitalcommons.unf.edu/historical_architecture_main/3343/) Sponsors: in cooperation with St. Johns County Historical Commission

An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.

Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.

The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.

Map of Matanzas 1742
Map of Matanzas 1742 (Courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.

Matanzas WavesMatanzas NDKs

And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.

The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.

Surfing at Jax 3
Surfing at Jax Beach Photo credit: Joe Crespi

On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.

Paddling

Old Florida and New Plastics in Cortez, FL and Anna Maria Island

Mermaid
A  mermaid’s welcome to Starfish Dockside Restaurant

Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.

Maop of Southwest Florida
Courtesy of Google Maps

The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.

Bimini Bay Sailing sign
Bimini Bay Sailing
Roosting birds
Roosting birds
Bimini Bay Trimarans
Trimarans in Bimini Bay
Sail and sup
Beach launching

On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.

Scott in the bay
In the bay
Kevin in laser
Laser
Setting sail
Launching the sailing kayak

By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.

“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.

Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.

Waterman statue
Statue of Florida waterman
Cortez1
Heritage sign in the center of Cortez

Cortez2

In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.”  They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.

Harvest sign

“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”

As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.

Starfish line
The regulars know the drill at the Starfish
Starfish
Pelicans hoping for a handout
Working boat 1
Fishing boat

That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.

After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.

At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.

Plastic whale
Plastics!
Plastic turtle
Plastic turtle
Plastic jellyfish
Plastic jellyfish

 

I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.

Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?

Kevin
Sailing Kevin

 

 

What Kayaking in Cuba Taught Me

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Lake Hanabanilla

We landed in Santa Clara, in the center of Cuba, our flight approximately half as long as our wait for a Cuban visa in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only would we paddle and snorkel in Cuba’s warm, clear water, but we would visit an island that has been essentially closed to residents of the US for my entire life. Kevin and I had been thinking about Cuba for several years, and Tommy Thompson’s Cuba Adventure Company trip promised a blend of nature and culture. In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration had blocked individual people-to-people tours to Cuba, but group people-to-people tours were still permitted in December. Cuba…only 90 miles from Florida but a world away.

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Courtesy of  World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/cu.htm)
cuba trip.jpg
Courtesy of Bob Bonnen

Tommy cheerfully greeted our group and introduced our Cuban guide, Bernie, who would help us understand life in Cuba. Tommy suggested that we practice patience, flexibility, and understanding when things didn’t go as planned, a prescient warning for our paddle on Lake Hanabanilla. As Tommy and Bernie explained the week’s program, our Chinese-manufactured tour bus carried us south towards our first night’s stop. We arrived at our government-run hotel and were told that all guests had been shifted to a nearby hotel. Our first lesson in flexibility.

Once ensconced in our rooms, we quickly found the hotel bar and its mojitos. We discovered that all Cuban bars serve Havana Club rum, not Bacardi, which is known internationally. (For a detailed explanation on why, check out the book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten, Penguin Group, 2008.) Cuban mojitos tend to be much less sweet than those served in the US.

The next morning we woke up to driving rain and the news that the axle on the kayak trailer had broken. Surely this development was related to the patience and understanding Tommy mentioned.

IMG_0791
Russian massage

After some delay, we loaded ourselves and our gear into our transport: a Russian army truck filled with rows of hard plastic seats. Rolling over the unpaved roads left no mystery about the term “Russian massage.”  In Cuba, I found, almost any transportation is good transportation. Transporting both goods and people is a serious challenge for Cuba because both cars and fuel are in short supply. This leads to food shortages and makes it difficult for people to get to their jobs.

Slightly worse for wear, we arrived at Lake Hanabanilla ready to paddle. The rain had given way to clear skies, and we launched on a glassy lake. However, the dark clouds that glowered over our destination foretold a stormy paddle. Soon, we struggled against wind and waves as a squall passed over us. Wet and weary, we landed at our “glamping” site and settled in for the evening. By far, this day’s paddle and “glamping” was the most challenging part of the trip.

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Let’s glamp!

By noon the next day, we dried out our gear at a hotel overlooking the lake. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of fried fish and tostones at a paladar, a family-run restaurant unlike most of the government-run establishments geared to tourists. Many of Cuba’s tourist establishments were originally built for visiting Soviets back when USSR and Cuba were strong allies. Cuba’s economy drastically changed when the USSR withdrew economic support in the early 1990s. Today, Cuba’s tourism economy is growing, including visits from Russians nostalgic for the Cuba they remember.

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The next morning, we drove to Guama, our launch site for our next paddle. Adjacent to our put-in lay what every paddler wants to see: a crocodile sanctuary, fortunately surrounded by a chain-link fence. For mere pesos, they allowed us to feed the crocodiles by dangling meat on a homemade fishing pole over the fence. (No, this would not happen in the US.) The sound of the snapping jaws resounded over the lake.

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Crocodile petting zoo

We went next door for an obscenely large lunch, including sauteed crocodile. (Tastes like gator.) During our stay, we had numerous large meals in restaurants geared to tourists. Since Cubans receive rations for limited quantities of food, the over-feeding of tourists was unsettling. In general, Cubans live on very little, approximately $30-40 per month, which means that most people must somehow supplement their official salary. It is not unusual for surgeons, for example, to drive a taxi to make ends meet.

After lunch, we paddled through mangrove-lined channels to Hotel Guama. I was especially looking forward to visiting Guama and Laguna del Tesoro (Treasure Lake). Fidel Castro had supervised this recreation of a Taino stilt village, and he appreciated the birds and natural beauty of this location. I wish we had more than one night to explore the creeks and bays of this quiet place.

The next day we headed towards the Bay of Pigs, a place name most of us had encountered in high school history classes. It struck me that, of our entire group, only my mother remembered these events in Cuban and US history. Despite its name, the Bay of Pigs is beautiful, and Playa Largo is known for its snorkeling and diving. We dipped our fins in to see for ourselves.

Bay of Pigs battle map
Bay of Pigs Battle map (Courtesy of Latinamericanstudies.org)
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Billboard near Giron, Bay of Pigs

Signs throughout Cuba remind visitors and residents of the revolution. Prominently placed billboards highlight quotes from Fidel Castro and others, and images of Castro and Che Guevara appear in many locations, urban and rural. The revolution and its heroes dominate the Cuban landscape and historical memory. So, while the Bay of Pigs might seem like ancient history, constant physical reminders bring it into the present.

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Sign in downtown Cienfuegos

We spent the last three days of the nature part of our trip in Guajamico on the southern coast. For those of us who salivate at the idea of snorkeling, this was heaven. Each day’s short paddle brought us to secluded beaches surrounded by colorful limestone cliffs, and from there we could don snorkeling gear and swim out to beautiful reefs.  One day’s schedule even included a ride on horseback from the beach to our lunch spot, with the Escambray Mountains as a backdrop.

And then the kayaks were put away, and it was time for Havana. Our guide Bernie left us, and Meylin joined us. After a week in quiet rural areas, the sights and sounds of Havana were quite a change. We stayed in a historic colonial building, now Hostal Las Maletas, with high ceiling and tall windows.

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In addition to the classic car tour and visiting the historic squares, we visited the Museum of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the museum had its own interpretation of history and US involvement.

And, of course, we had drinks at Hemingway’s daiquiri bar, La Floridita.

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I loved this trip to Cuba, and I feel like I have just scratched the surface. I grew up during the Cold War, and Cuba seemed like such an alien place to me, like the communist USSR and Russia. Yet, I recently discovered that my grandparents honeymooned there, when Americans sought to escape the restrictions of Prohibition. So Cuba is part of my family history as well. This trip fulfilled the spirit of the people-to-people ideal. I’m already planning my return.

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An Oasis of Bees, Chickens, and Gardens in Kansas City, Missouri

For something completely different, visit  City Creatures Blog to read about chickens, bees, and gardens in Kansas City, MO. I visited Cherith Brook Catholic Worker while researching my new book Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence.

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Cherith Brook mural

When I reached Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri, I did not expect to see chickens loose on the driveway. I’m not sure why I was so surprised—other urban Catholic worker communities I visited had backyard chickens. But it was a dreary day in a dreary neighborhood, and I had driven through the east side of Kansas City, with little sign of animal life or greenery. Cherith Brook’s chickens, gardens, and beehives were an oasis of nature on their city block. Read more.

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Backyard chickens

Navigating Uncomfortable Waters: Whitney Sanford Reflects on Place

Originally posted on March 12, 2014 on Religion/Place/Pedagogy. After completing our exhibit—River of Dreams—on the St. Johns River at the Matheson History Museum, it seemed like a good time to repost this blog.

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Nothing makes me happier than a day paddling through the waves in the Fort George Inlet. This estuary, just south of Little Talbot Island State Park, has become one of my favorite places to play in the surf, and this low country ecosystem, full of dolphins, pelicans, and hermit crabs, reminds me of Tybee Island, where I spent most of my childhood summers. I have camped at the Talbot House, a property recently deeded to the North Florida Land Trust. The house–and Big Talbot Island–sits in the Timucuan Preserve which includes both Talbot Islands, the Kingsley Plantation, the Fort Caroline National Monument as well as recently discovered burial native American mounds.

The house’s long dock extends into the marshy area of Mud Creek, a tributary of the Fort George Inlet, and from the dock, looking down the Mud River, I see the Kingsley Plantation on the opposite shore of the Fort George River.

Uncomfortable Histories

"Surfing Fort George," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Joe Crespi, December 15, 2013.

Seeing the Kingsley Plantation in the distance reminds me that I have a privileged history with this ecosystem. I have had the freedom to explore and discover the history, beauty, and wildlife on my own terms. The sixty or so slaves who worked the fields at the Kingsley Plantation did not have the luxury of appreciating the area’s beauty at their leisure. While I cannot even begin to imagine their experiences of the land, I know that our experiences are worlds apart. Perhaps the land—which has received their bodies, sweat, and blood—knows something more. Waves of residents, visitors, and invaders, from the Timucua followed by French and Spanish explorers and subsequent populations of British and Africans, have inhabited this land, drawn by its abundance and fertility as well as its strategic location. The Talbot Islands near Jacksonville, Florida are the southernmost of the Sea Islands and the region known as the Low Country–typically associated with the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The Low Country, so named for its extensive tidal flats and salt marshes, provides rich habitat for birds, fish, and mollusks, and its nutrient-rich mud sustained the human ecologies of rice-growing plantations.

"Kingsley Plantation," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Whitney Sandford, March 3. 2014.

From 1814 to 1837,  Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna, an ex-slave from Senegal, lived in what later became known as the Kingsley Plantation and produced commercial crops such as sea cotton and sugar cane. Also a slave trader, Zephaniah Kingsley participated in the Triangular trade, supplying human flesh to the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Like many, he sought out West Africans due to their agricultural skills, and there he purchased Anna who later became his wife.

Those of us who love Florida for its water and waves can easily forget our state’s uncomfortable histories. In 2013, Florida celebrated the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in what is now St. Augustine, approximately 50 miles south of the Timucuan Preserve. Over time, interactions with the Spanish, French, and later British newcomers decimated the Timucua populations, and only shell middens (trash piles of oyster shells and pottery, for example) and place names such as Timucua or Calusa remind us of their presence. Touring the Kingsley Plantation provides a visceral reminder of Florida’s participation in the slave trade, and the state’s Jim Crow laws maintained segregation and created a range of barriers in the post Civil War-era. In reality, these laws meant that beaches and rivers that I now enjoy were–and in some cases are–not safely accessible to people of color, and their experiences of these places might be radically different than mine.

Becoming Native to Place

When I teach courses such as Religion and Sustainability and Religion and Food at the University of Florida, I hope to make students aware of local places and their histories and ecosystems. Ideally, they will come to appreciate and maybe even love these places such as our estuaries, springs, and wild rivers. Many of my students, from a variety of backgrounds, already care deeply about our rivers, having grown up fishing, surfing, hunting, and swimming, and they are native to their place, to borrow Wes Jackson‘s term. Our students bring with them multiple histories and meanings about these places, and I need to reconcile my privilege–and that of many of my students–with the past and present exclusions experienced by others. Many outdoor areas were segregated by law and/or custom, and some of my students even today might not feel comfortable roaming through parts of rural north Florida.

"View from Alacante," Fort George Inlet, Photography by Whitney Sanford, February 3, 2014.

I have never directly addressed this topic with students, although an artist friend and I have discussed creating a mapping project to explore different experiences of places.  This mapping exercise might have two phases: first, students would learn the historical and ecological dynamics of this place; and, second, as a reflective piece, students would consider their own experiences of the encounter and how their experiences reflect larger social dynamics. I became interested in this idea after the two of us spent hours wandering through Koppers, our local super fund site, and, despite multiple ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nobody questioned us. In this case, the invisibility of white, middle-aged women was a privilege. In 2012, Michael W. Twitty, self-described culinary historian, historic interpreter and Jewish educator, embarked on a Southern Discomfort Tour through the Deep South to learn the stories of southern food ways, enslaved peoples, and cultural memories. During the tour’s visit to the Kingsley Plantation, he discussed the African’s cultural heritage and recreated some of their typical dishes.

Projects and exercise like Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour might provide a way to discuss the rich–and often uncomfortable–histories of places that I love. I hope my students will come to love our north Florida ecosystem and will learn to love whatever ecosystem that they inhabit in the future. I also hope they will acknowledge and appreciate that places also hold uncomfortable histories that continue to shape human and non-human relations in the present.

Pancakes and Water-skiing Elephants: Hidden Histories of DeLeon State Park (St. Johns, Part 3)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

floating on a paddleboard under cloudy skies in DeLeon Springs State Park, Florida
Liz Sparks on DeLeon Spring Run

How was I supposed to focus on history with the deafening shrieks of children ringing in my ears? I had come to learn about the park’s history and perhaps even swim, but I quickly realized that every child from every camp from miles had also come to cool off in the spring. Oh well. I was preparing to teach a class on the culture, history, and ecology of Florida State Parks and was visiting the parks that exemplified kitschy pre-Disney Old Florida. With a water-skiing elephant and a sugar mill do-it-yourself pancake restaurant, DeLeon Springs made the cut. And despite my focus on tourist kitsch, I learned a great deal about the park’s rich history.

To escape the bedlam, I entered the one place guaranteed to be child-free: the park’s small museum. The room had posters, pictures, and artifacts that traced the area’s history, starting with the Mayaca people who inhabited the area for at least 6,000 years. Unfortunately, many burial mounds and artifacts were lost or destroyed when European settlers came to the region.

sign with history of mayaca indigenous people
DeLeon Springs’ First People

DeLeon Springs State Park sits between Deland and Astor, on the east side of the St. Johns River. Water coming from this second magnitude spring flows into Spring Garden Lake, then through Lake Woodruff and Lake Dexter en route to the St. Johns. Fish and game were plentiful for early Florida residents.

Easy access to the St. Johns River drew subsequent populations, starting with the Spanish in the 1500s. In the 1800s, settlers established Spring Garden Plantation to grow cotton and sugar cane. Florida’s history as a slave state is often over-looked, but slavery and plantations sadly thrived along the St. Johns River in the antebellum years.

List of slavesand ages
Spring Garden Slave List, 1829 (The Broadus R. Littlejohn, Jr. Manuscript Collection. Book 304.)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

‘Here I am in Florida . . . which from my childhood I have consecrated in my imagination as the garden of the United States,’ Audubon wrote. But he found a place ‘where all that is not mud, mud, mud is sand, sand, sand, inhabited by alligators, snakes and scorpions.’

Drawing of Common Gallinule, James John Audubon
Common Gallinule (http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/common-gallinule)

Spring Garden Plantation did not fare well in the mid-1800s. The Seminoles burnt it down during the Second Seminole War (1835-42),  then Union troops burnt it again during the Civil War. Later the site was renamed DeLeon Springs, yet another Florida site claiming to  be Ponce De Leon’s fountain of youth.

sign on name change to promote business and tourism in Florida.
Fountain of Youth Placard
tour boat with children swimming
Fountain of Youth Eco/History Tour boat

DeLeon Springs is the epitome of Old Florida tourism, and Queenie, the water skiing elephant, was DeLeon’s Springs crown jewel. In “The Waterskiing Elephants of DeLeon Springs“, Rick Kilby writes about Liz Dane who water-skiied with her pet elephant Queenie in 1958-9. In 2015, Liz Dane returned to DeLeon Springs to speak about Queenie and her experiences at the park.

Queenie the water-skiining elephant
Mural on DeLeon Museum Wall

Finally, enough history — it was time to get on the water. My paddling buddies and I see how far we could go on the spring run. Not far, as it turned out. The fin of my paddleboard caught in the mud on this shallow run. Even more ominous, dark clouds loomed over us. We raced back, not a moment too soon, and the skies broke. The silver lining: the typically long lines for the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant had disbursed. This restaurant is a tourist favorite for good reason. Each table has its own griddle, so guests make their own pancakes at the table.

We came for the kitsch and stayed for the history. Where ever I go in Florida, I am reminded of the deep and rich history of our rivers, springs, and parks. Deleon Springs State Park , though, has one of the most interesting blends of history, ecology, and recreation and is well worth a visit.

ruins of old sugar mill for crushing cane
Sugar Mill Ruins
view across DeLeon Springs of sungar Mill restaurant
Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant
bubbling pancake with blueberries
Cooking pancakes on the griddle

matheson

Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski