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Fisheating Creek Expedition Part I

Fisheating Creek Expedition
A Special Three-Part Series by Maggy Reno Hurchalla

Maggy Reno Hurchalla has been immersed in Florida water and wilderness all her life. She comes from a family notorious for getting stuck in the mud and lost in the swamp, since becoming an environmental hero recognized for her leadership in restoring the Everglades and Indian River Lagoon. Her numerous accolades include Audubon of Florida’s Environmentalist of the Year and the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award. Beyond Florida, she is the first grandmother to descend several class IV rapids and waterfalls in a kayak and at times she has been seen running whitewater on the Potomac with her sister, US Attorney General Janet Reno, while the FBI detail tried to keep up.

Part I – From Headwaters to Cypress Heart

Joe Guthrie navigates flooded cypress forest along Fisheating Creek. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.
Joe Guthrie navigates flooded cypress forest along Fisheating Creek. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

Oh, I have been to Ludlow Fair,
And left my necktie God knows where
And carried halfway home or near,
pints and quarts of Ludlow beer,
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy ‘til I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heighho, the tale was all a lie;
The world it was the old world yet.
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing more remained to do,
But to begin the game anew.

— A.E. Houseman

It was an adventure. We paddled 51 miles. We spent a lot of time crawling through lovely muck in Cowbone Marsh, and, in the end, we all thought we were sterling. The next day we all ached, even the young and the strong.

Our four day trip down Fisheating Creek started at the bridge on S.R. 70 somewhere near the headwaters. We were a wonderful motley crew: two of us in a canoe and four on stand up paddleboards.

Joe- the bear man.

Carlton- the photographer.

Mallory- the water expert.

Maggy and Jim – a swamp enthusiast and an engineer.

Justin Riney – who had just paddled 500 miles around the coast of Florida on his paddleboard.

Joe and Mallory and Carlton lead the Florida Wildlife Corridor initiative. Justin is Expedition 500. The Hurchallas have no excuse.

We bonded because of our shared irrational joy in being where we were, even when were in the mud. It was part awe and wonder at the sheer beauty of the place and part playing in mud puddles. Seldom was heard a discouraging word. Nobody blamed anybody for anything. Nobody whined. We laughed a lot.

The upper headwaters of Fisheating Creek where we put in got channelized into a straight ditch many, many years ago. It was so long ago that the live oaks lining the levees appear to be over 60 years old. They are great gnarled giants hung with Spanish moss. They make friendly sentinels for a nine mile paddle.

We did not see the 14 foot gator Joe had spotted from a helicopter the week before. He probably saw us.

In the middle of the paddle a happily berserk group of mad cows and calves galloped splashed across the river in front of us.

Toward the end of the ditch, nature began to reclaim its own. Oxbows began to appear as the channel swayed back and forth and began to recreate a winding river.

Like Owen Glendower’s answer in Richard the IV when Hotspur threatened to straighten out the River Trent:

“Not wind? It shall, it must; you see it doth.”

Rivers belong where they can ramble and the creek is determined to wind again. It’s encouraging to know that in the furthest headwaters north of S.R. 70 on three cattle ranches owned by Atlantic Blue, Westby and Doyle Carlton III, new USDA conservation easements can help change the existing ditches back to winding creeks.

We camped at Bluehead Ranch on dry ground under big oaks.

It should have been a lovely night. We had a beautiful river, lots of emptiness and endless stars. The coyotes howled and the wind blew free. There was not a mosquito in sight – a rare blessing in wet warm Florida. Carlton and Joe were in hammocks. They looked like Hobbits trussed up by spiders. The rest of us were in tents. The Hurchallas had invested in a brand new queen sized blow up mattress. The battery operated pump worked and the bed blew up and all was right with the world.

The bed waited ‘til we were asleep to go flat. It’s a long time since we slept on hard ground. It’s really hard. We didn’t think we could sleep, but in the morning we found we had.

We missed entirely the howling and the mooing that woke everyone else up when the coyotes got too close to the cows.

We read the directions on the new bed the morning after. Who knew you had to read directions on a blowup bed? It seems that they expand a lot when they are new. They expand so much that the heavy parts of you are lying on cold hard ground. You are supposed to get up in the middle of the night and pump them up again.

After eating breakfast, the responsible members of the party checked on legal places to camp that night and assessed conditions along the route. We decided to cop out and skip the next section through the Venus bridge. This involved shuttling cars down to the Palmdale Campground and shuttling 18 miles back to Ingram’s Crossing to put in. We had lunch at the campground and conferred a lot about what we were doing next. We took off late for Ingram’s Crossing. The water was high and the road was under water. The cheerful shuttle van driver explained that she was not allowed to drive through water. A lot of dragging and pushing of canoes and paddleboards ensued before we got ourselves down to the river. Our well-oiled, well planned expedition took off at 4:45pm.

Joe Guthrie carries a stand-up paddleboard toward the main channel of Fisheating Creek. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.
Joe Guthrie carries a stand-up paddleboard toward the main channel of Fisheating Creek. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

All adventurers know that just because you plan well, doesn’t mean everything will go well. And just because you plan badly, doesn’t mean everything will go wrong. It turns out that 4:45 in the afternoon is the perfect time to push off from Ingram’s Landing for the 10 mile paddle down to Burnt Bridge.

Somewhere after the first few bends in the river we found Mallory composing herself after meeting a large alligator. Mallory is calm and fearless and doesn’t usually mind large alligators. We saw a fair number of them in four days and knew we were probably surrounded by them. She saw the tail through the trees at a sharp oxbow turn and thought “No good will come of this.”  The problem was that the fat 9 foot alligator was frightened when she came around the corner. So he jumped off the beach just as Mallory came even with him. He probably had no taste for paddleboards and was just trying to get away, but when a large toothy monster jumps at you, it’s hard to think such reassuring thoughts. Mallory kept her balance. The gator dived under her board, and she decided she wasn’t going to die after all.

To be continued…Part II coming soon

Related Stories:

Grandmother Runs Class IV Rapids in Mexico – Interview with Maggy Hurchalla

Exploring Fisheating Creek – photos by Carlton Ward Jr