The second day Laurie and I went kayaking on the Coldwater Creek, which feeds into the Blackwater River, When it is hot int he Panhandle, jumping in a cold river or creek is the best. It was something I grew up taking for granted. If I I saw a beach, whether it was on a river, the Gulf, or an estuary, I always perceived of the water as inviting. While Laurie and I were kayaking, we moored our kayaks on the sandy embankments several times and dove into the river to cool off, only we recognized that this was a luxury for many–especially in Florida. This is what water should look like.
When waterways are healthier, it is possible to find greater diversity of natural vegetation within the riparian landscape. This particular beach was filled with healthy ground cover and plants.
In a bend in the creek where another tiny rivulet trickled in and the water was stiller, we saw several yellow pond lilies (if that in fact was what they were). Dragonflies were lighting on the blossoms, which provide structure and habitat for wildlife. Without plants on shore and in the water, the food source for fish and birds is drastically reduced.
Grasses are a sign of health in rivers. During the first part of our paddle, we saw many healthy grasses along the banks and underwater. This is becoming an increasingly rare sight in Florida. More typically, natural vegetation is strangled my algae, or in the case of this cleaner river silt.
When I saw this sight along the edge of the creek, it instantly struck me. The plants, in certain sections, were a beautiful rich red, yet in many areas they were so cloaked in silt they were barely recognizable. Laurie thinks the silt is likely caused by climate change, which is creating more intense storms in the Panhandle, with faster waterways that erode the banks and flush silt in the water. The plants resembled brains and when I saw the clouds reflected in the water, the phrase "having ones head in the clouds" came to mind and it seemed a perfect metaphor for how clueless our leaders are being when it comes to environmental and water policies, especially in Florida.
Right before we took our kayaks out of the water,, we came across an even smaller creek, which we later learned ended in a spring. We did not follow the run all the way to the source, , since a big storm was coming. It felt so wild and primitive in there, and I assumed the water would be very fresh.
When we looked closer, we saw signs of both health and impairment. We couldn't stand around looking for too long, because there was an invasion of whirligig beetles.
Water bugs and insect larvae are indicative of the health of creeks and streams. If there are no bugs, then the water is clearly in trouble. There are several categories of tolerance. Fortunately for Whirligig Beetles, they turn out to be fairly tolerant, because Laurie smelled something she believed was a chemical effluent. We did not need to look far to find signs of pollution.
Laurie could tell from the smell and the color that something toxic was leaching in the water here. After I left Pensacola, she went back with her water quality testing kits, though I have not heard the results of her tests yet. This is what Waterkeepers frequently do. They go out and test waterways they visit or ones the public calls in alerts for. Laurie oversees all of the Panhandle up to Apalachicola, so she has a lot of territory to cover.
Before we headed home, we went to the Blackwater River State Park. It is much wider than the creek and there were several families enjoying swimming and kayaking in this river which is considered one of the purest sand bottom rivers in the country, according to State Park literature. It did look quite idyllic. After the people left, we climbed down on the banks and enjoyed the peacefulness of this relatively clean river.
On the walkway back to our car, we passed a butterfly and bee feeding on the same blossom. It was amazing to see them sharing the spot without fighting over limited resources or jockeying for position. There was enough for both of them.
On the other side of the walkway, was a beautiful swamp with cypress trees and other vegetation. I never knew there was such diversity in the Panhandle. They have beaches, blackwater rivers, swamps, pine forests and so much else.
The Blackwater River begins in Alabama and meanders through the Blackwater Forest until it reaches the Gulf via Milton Bay. The plentiful rains allowed the ferns to flourish, carpeting the forest floor.
As we were driving back, I suddenly saw bricks out of the corner of my eye. A few weeks earlier, I had been reading about the Historic Brick Road. This section, along Highway 90, was the most northernmost route in Florida. The bricks were still in amazingly good condition. Apparently they hold up a lot better than modern asphalt. Then again, they didn't have the semi trucks we have today. There are other sections near St Augustine, Flagler, and Palatka among other places.
Highway 90, like the Blackwater River, travels through historic Milton incorporated in 1844 and one of the oldest cities in the state. This bridge, built at the turn of the last century, was very photogenic.
The final part of our route back to Laurie's house took us to the Escambia Water Management Area, where we were met with a much more troubling site. Children should be able to fish safely along rivers, but the Escambia River is the site of the Crist Power Plant managed by Gulf Power. This plant leaches coal ash and many toxic heavy metals into the river. It is not safe to eat fish caught this close to the plant, but people bring their families and fish anyway–some out of ignorance, others out of necessity. The Escambia River, an alluvial river that flows from Alabama to the Escambia River Basin, and is an important nursery for aquatic life in the region, which makes the dumping and leaching of dangerous effluent even more disturbing.
This area should be serene and teaming with life, instead we saw a chemical slick on the surface of the water, which was even more obvious when we climbed down the embankment under the bridge and got closer to the water.