Tampa Bay Times: Written by Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, Carlton Ward Jr. and Joseph Guthrie.
If we were a black bear or a Florida panther, how could we cross Interstate 4? Our three-member expedition team spent a week testing such a path to make sure this imperiled stretch of the Florida Wildlife Corridor can still be saved and to discover the obstacles in the way.
We planned to explore habitat connections from the Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes to the Green Swamp but didn’t know what to expect. Information was hard to come by and scouting reports were limited.
We quickly abandoned stand-up paddle boarding upstream of Lake Russell, where Reedy Creek was dry, so we spent the better part of the week on foot, slogging through the swamp at a turtle’s pace. After five days of grueling hiking, we were disheartened to discover that we had walked 29 miles but had actually gone only 12.
Mostly our serpentine track was a slow slalom around thousands of cypress, sweetgums, tupelos and maples, tangles of grape vines, thorny greenbriars and blackberries plus a labyrinth of poison ivy. We saw two cottonmouths per day, on average.
There were times during our slog when the forest became wildly quiet around us, and the only sounds came from birds or the wind. During one of these moments mid-week, we imagined the forest extending unbroken for miles in every direction. In reality, the closest subdivisions were a mile to our west and two miles to our east. But at three miles across, this was the widest section of the corridor we would traverse. It felt different, and it was.