Having recently moved to Florida, and wanting to experience all things wild in this tropical local this this environmental documentary caught my eye..
In a seventy-day expedition, this trio of friends took to the “Forgotten Coast” on a 1000 mile journey to follow what remains of a series of wildlife corridors. It was all in an effort to portray the trek that a long-ranging wild animal such as a black bear or Florida panther–which can travel even hundreds of miles over a lifetime–would be confronted with in an era increasingly rife with declining wild spaces.
And the common theory among this intrepid trio of friends, prompting them to take on such a lofty jaunt? “Thinking this crazy idea would ever work,” says black bear biologist Joe Guthrie. But truly, the friends wanted to share with the wider world what these wild areas of Florida look like from the perspective of a large, wide-ranging animal in a time where the natural world is constantly faced with the ever-growing plague of human development overtaking the rich wilderness of the Florida that once was.
“We’re bound by the common cause and the power of what we are able to do together.” Carlton Ward
By “following in the footsteps” of a black bear, the friends discover many hardships in traversing Florida’s most remote, natural areas of the state, but admit their biggest fear for their wellbeing was when confronted with busy highways that bisect the land, one of the greatest dangers that wild animals face on a daily basis. Bears get hit on the road all the time, says Guthrie. In one field season, he saw a loss of 5-6 bears within a study on Interstate 4.
“So the big question is how wildlife can move between these huge conservation lands on either side” says Guthrie, and to see for themselves the realities of the challenges an animal moving through this wilderness encounters in present day Florida. This was the specific focus of the trio’s expedition. And we know the moral of the story before the trip even gets rolling: “The important thing is to connect up all the existing protected places by protecting the missing links,” says Mallory Dimmit, the expedition’s leader.
Florida has seen tremendous growth, having grown from 2 million to 20 million in the span of only a couple generations. Eighth generation Floridian and wildlife photographer Carlton Ward recollects hearing stories from his uncle “driving cattle for three nights at a time and not even seeing a fence.”
Taking the journey on foot, bicycle and kayak, the three adventurous friends repeatedly share with viewers their awe, wonder and undeniable affection for the lands they seem so thrilled to be roaming through, always showing their grand appreciation for all the beauty they encounter. From cycling slippery sugar sand trails along the Everglades headwaters to hiking vast swamplands while holding camera equipment high (though there was some expensive gear sacrificed to the swamp gods..) to kayaking some of the last most natural remaining tributaries to Lake Okeechobee, which some call the liquid heart of the Everglades.
“The experience in traversing these lands at an individual human scale puts you in tune and realigns your thoughts of how all this fits together.” Ward
Along the way, the trio meet up with individuals that call the forgotten coast home and rely on its abundance and perseverance for their livelihoods. They visit with Richard Gehring in a remote corner of the swamps where he lives off the grid and has watched the environmental changes caused by sea level rise. Dimmit visited the wild getaway when she was young and can even see the changes over the course of her own lifetime. “As sea level rises, even in just tiny increments, in centimeters, it moves way further inland,” she says, “because there’s very low elevation on this whole part of the coast, [this is] a place where you can see it happening.”
They boarded 3rd generation oysterman Kendall Shoelles’ vessel and experienced the interweaving of nature and culture by participating in the historic act of harvesting oysters in the Apalachicola Bay. Shoelles relies on the stability of the fragile balance of fresh and saltwater in the bay which changes in salinity depending on how much freshwater flows into the bay from Georgia’s Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. As communities upriver multiply, more and more of that freshwater is taken out of the system to meet human consumption needs, throwing off the sensitive bay ecosystem. Without freshwater to combat the salinity of the Gulf, oysters suffer and Shoelles sees this firsthand in his declining harvests.
The group also hooks up with some environmental efforts taking place along the trail, connecting with Will Vangelder, burn boss in charge of a controlled burn in Green Swamp. “Fire is really misunderstood,” says Vanelder, [it] is a necessary part of the environment, something that plants and animals have evolved with over the existence of [the state].” Ward takes photos of his team plant-ing flames throughout a section of forest with drip torches. He gets as close to the thick, choking smoke as he can endure before retreating.
“Simultaneous death and rebirth – in just a couple weeks all these bright neon green shoots will come up out of the soot. One step closer to its natural state.”
Harkening back to the time of dinosaurs, they join Fisheries Biologist John Knight in the hunt for the ancient Alligator gar, a creature that’s existence is traced back over a hundred million years to the Early Cretaceous period. Through Knight’s work in monitoring the ancient fish, taking measurements and placing identifiable tags on the gars, his oldest was documented to be a staggering 90 years old. “Here you have this living fossil that relies on the wildlife corridor.”
The group encounters true hardships along their travels, finding trails they’d hoped to hike or cycle under deep water, painfully (and surprisingly) freezing temperatures along the Apalachiacola River on some of the coldest nights of the year, during a time where they are deepest in the wild and most exposed in the entire expedition: “Sand and ice: not a combo you see every day!”
“You can’t help but feel alive when you’re out in the elements like this.”
This flick really brings you into the vividly beating heart of Florida’s richest wild lands. The birds and animals they encounter along the way show that the wilderness isn’t completely lost. By filming their journey, Ward, Dimmitt and Guthrie create a true celebration of Florida’s rich natural heritage and it’s as if we’ve hopped aboard for the ride. To our crew, it’s a reassurance to see from the ground that there’s still a home in these lands for large, far-ranging animals and support for a rich biodiversity of wildlife, “We have this snapshot of what’s here now and so that gives us hope and optimism for the future.” By sharing the hidden beauty of Florida our intrepid trio is helping make sure these places are known, cared for and, hopefully, protected far into the future.
“There’s still a home here for big animals and for crazy people to go walk around in.”
Let’s keep it that way.
To watch the film and get the stunningly visceral experience through brilliant cinematography that makes you feel the squelch of the rich, damp, swampy earth beneath your boots, visit: http://www.pbs.org/program/forgotten-coast/
Learn more about Florida’s wildlife corrdidors here: http://floridawildlifecorridor.org/
All photos by the filmmakers.
Tags: alligator gar, black bears, climate change, endangered species, everglades, expedition, eyes on conservation, florida, gulf coast, gulf of mexico, human development, natural areas, trekking, wildlife, wildlife conservation, wildlife cooridors, wildlife filmmaking, wood stork