April 21, 2014

Into The Heart of Florida

The Heart of FloridaAs the world becomes increasingly known, the idea of an expedition seems remarkably quaint. Gone are the days when men seeking fame and fortune struck out to uncover the mysteries of uncharted lands.

Yet, expeditions are still necessary. Not to map out the unknown wilds, but to remind people that those wilds are worth protecting. With that idea in mind, photographer Carlton Ward set off from Florida Bay with biologist Joe Guthrie, filmmaker Elan Stoltztus and conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt on a three-month journey from the tip of the state north to Georgia.

The goal: Promote the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an interconnected series of public and private lands that encourages natural mobility among species from wading birds to the endangered Florida panther. The hope is to protect as wide of a swath of land as possible to allow the state’s vast indigenous animal population to thrive amid growth and development.

They blogged, tweeted, did interviews and entertained VIPs, all while covering 1,000 miles of often-arduous terrain, from the swamps of the Everglades through ancient sand dunes to the pine barrens of Ocala National Forest. In doing so, they encountered the best and worst of what Mother Nature offers us—from breathtaking vistas and incredible moments with wildlife to way-too-close encounters with alligators and bloodthirsty mosquitoes.

What follows is a visual representation of that journey through Carlton Ward’s lens.

 

Wild Kingdom: Snowy Egret; American Crocodile
Wild kingdom
The point of Ward’s expedition was to promote a corridor for wildlife movement. Even still, close encounters were magical. Birds, such as the snowy egret, were more commonplace, but early on in the journey a chance meeting with an American crocodile “got our adrenaline going,” Ward says.

 

1,000 miles A crow could fly the length of Florida in about 400 miles, but the journey for Ward and company was about 1,000, due to twists and turns to highlight the various wildlife corridors in the state.
1,000 miles
A crow could fly the length of Florida in about 400 miles, but the journey for Ward and company was about 1,000, due to twists and turns to highlight the various wildlife corridors in the state.

 

Vast Expanse
Vast expanse
“I didn’t do enough to prepare for how physically exhausting the trip was,” Ward, right, with Joe Guthrie, says. But he did manage to plan for nights sleeping in the swamps, such as near Tree Island, below. He pitched his tent on an inflatable mattress to stay above water.

 

Picture perfect
Picture perfect
Normally when he’s shooting, Ward will spend hours waiting for the scene to unfold into the right moment. But on the journey he couldn’t linger as long as he’d like. “I had to be ready to capture the moment while it was happening.” Here, he paddled next to a mangrove thicket at just the perfect instant.

 

Night Ranger
Night ranger
Trying to shoot pictures, upload blogs, do media interviews and entertain VIPs often put the expedition behind, so they needed to travel after dark. This led to a few hairy moments when he ran his kayak over alligators hunting at dusk. “Luckily, they were scared of us … and I never fell out of my kayak,” he says.

Purple majesty: A closeup of a thistle near Tiger Bay around Daytona Beach 
Purple majesty A closeup of a thistle near Tiger Bay around Daytona Beach. The area was ravaged by wild fires in 1998, but its beauty has returned as part of the never-ending cycle of burn and bloom in Florida.

 

Big sky country
Big sky country
Although the wilderness we tend to think of here in Southwest Florida is swampland, the terrain changed along the journey. The farther north the expedition got, “we definitely went through a lot of zone changes,” Ward says. “Florida is an incredibly diverse state. … We went through pine forests and ancient sand dunes.”

 

Circle of Life: Lubber grasshopper; barred owl
Circle of life
The main goal of the group is to preserve large corridors of land in an undeveloped state to promote the roaming of large predatory animals, such as the Florida panther and black bear. But there are thousands of species that benefit from the open land, from the humble Lubber grasshopper to the barred owl.

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