|Newnan’s Lake, Alachua County, Florida|
So you’re coming to Florida this winter! It has been nearly 500 years since Ponce de León began the Florida tourist rush when he stepped ashore a beach near present-day St. Augustine. Arriving during Easter Week in 1513, the Spanish explorer surveyed the scene, liked what he saw and christened the place La Florida, the Land of Flowers. What a picture that would have been. Change being the only constant here in the Sunshine State, we’ve since added plenty of condos, golf courses and shopping malls to the mix of distractions you’ll pass on the way to where you want to go with your cameras in hand. My Florida, however, is a place steeped in blackwater swamps and rivers, populated by egrets and alligators. There’s a quiet rhythm here, but make no mistake: The beauty of natural Florida is rich and potent if you know where and when to go looking.
Like many OP readers who have photographed alligators at the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park, snowy egrets in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge at Sanibel or manatees at Crystal River, I’ve been there and done that, and I love those places, too. But I believe that if the point of being a photographer is, in part, to claim the world in terms uniquely your own, half the battle is choosing subjects and locations where you’re not tripping over other photographers.
I’m often struck, in my own off-the-beaten-path Florida adventures, with the grateful realization that the masses have gone elsewhere, perhaps to those familiar, crowded places that put Florida on the tourist map even before Walt Disney changed Florida forever. So this article is intended not just to help you see familiar Florida in an unfamiliar way, but also to inspire you to discover your own secret Florida.
One State, Many Worlds
Borne of water, Florida has been a sublime place of liquid landscapes since the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago gave shape to the peninsula we now call home. A place of stunning biological and geological diversity, Florida is one state, but many worlds. North to south, water is the common denominator in shaping and defining the Florida experience. We have 1,200 miles of coastline, 7,700 lakes and 11,000 miles of rivers and streams, plus the Everglades. My advice to those looking to experience the real Florida beyond the tourist facade: Plan on getting wet.
Okay, it’s wintertime, and maybe you’re not up for fully taking the plunge. But as the noted war photographer Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” For nature photographers in Florida, that translates into at least getting your feet wet. And winter really is fine here; bugs and sweat are generally in remission, and just like up north, that low light rakes sweetly across the land all day long.
Travel photographers routinely scour local postcard racks when arriving for visits in unfamiliar locales. Doing location research and scouting is just another example that lends credence to my hunch that the Internet was invented with photographers in mind, in providing a forum to both share and view pictures. Google “Florida nature photography,” and you’ll see what I mean. I love seeing the work other photographers have created in areas I’d like to visit, and I’ve learned a lot online about the places in Florida I haven’t yet checked off my Photographic Bucket List.
Here’s what I suggest for planning a visit to Florida. Start by getting a copy of the DeLorme Florida Atlas & Gazetteer. GPS units are great, but I’m not giving up on this generously oversized and detailed guide to the backroads and meandering streams of Florida. Mark it up! Get out that yellow highlighter and fine-line Sharpie®, and map out an itinerary with contact information, notes and ideas scribbled in the margins. Those notes are a high-value record of your adventures and may serve you well on future visits.
Bring your canoe or kayak. As the poet Loren Eiseley said, “If there is magic to be found on this planet, it is to be found in water.” I can’t say enough how key my canoe is to my work and my personal enjoyment as a Florida nature photographer. I’ve made many of my best pictures literally within sight of my car, but as we all know, sometimes nature photography isn’t about the picture; it’s about the experience of being out there, chasing the light—alive, awake and aware, and far, far away from internal combustion.
Don’t have a canoe or kayak, or you’re flying in? Scores of outfitters are ready to serve with boats and advice. Florida is pulsing with rivers, and they’re not all developed yet. Learn more at www.floridapaddlingtrails.com. You’ll also find information there about the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, which we like to refer to as the saltwater version of the Appalachian Trail.
As for alligators, we have a few. But remember this: Alligators are like investment bankers; they’re looking for maximum return on minimum investment. Generally, alligators are more inclined to expend their energy eating a bite-sized bird or turtle or one of their own offspring rather than taking on an adult with a camera. Don’t push your luck on this point, but seriously, exercise a bit of good judgment. Google “alligator safety tips,” and the odds are promising that you’ll live to return home to your familiar spot atop the food chain.
As an aside, plan on wearing water shoes or sandals while swamp slogging, and bring a dry box or bag for your gear while canoeing or kayaking. Trash bags don’t cut it, laying there on the bottom of your boat. I suggest a Rubbermaid® plastic tote (best for a canoe) or a collapsible dry bag that allows you to quickly get to your gear (generally preferable for a kayak). The point here is that it’s not just about protection, but access. I like the Northwest River Supplies duffel-style, clear-sided dry bags. One model, the Access Duffel, neatly holds my loaded Lowepro Mini Trekker, as well as a body with a 100-400mm zoom lens.
Bring your bike and your hiking shoes. Florida has an impressive network of biking, hiking and equestrian trails managed by an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies. I’ve found that bicycling with my cameras works well in Florida, given our flat or modestly hilly terrain. Slap a rack and a basket on that bike, grab your camera, and hop on. A standard grocery-store milk crate works great as a basket, a perfect fit for my Lowepro camera bag. Zip-tie it to the rack, pad the bottom with foam and use a bungee cord to secure your bag and tripod, and away you go!
Bring your camping gear. You’ll save major dollars by sleeping on the ground, and you can roll out of your sleeping bag to shoot early light before the parks open at 8 a.m. Many Florida state parks, which number 160 and counting, offer developed and backcountry camping.
Where To Go
Florida was recently awarded the Best Trails State Award by American Trails. Excellent online trail directories are found at www.americantrails.org and at the website for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails, www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/index.htm. Both sites feature extensive listings of paved trails, many on converted railbeds through rural and scenic areas, and mountain bike trails, many in state parks. Also check out the Florida Trail Association website, www.floridatrail.org, which builds, maintains, protects and promotes the 1,400-mile Florida Trail, one of only eight National Scenic Trails in America.
Facing intense development pressure, Florida has long been a national leader in environmental land acquisition. Many people visit and enjoy our state parks, but there are plenty of other properties of note should you be seeking solitude.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manages the largest wildlife management area system in the country, with more than five million acres of mostly undeveloped land. FWC also has created the Great Florida Birding Trail program, with recognizable signage to promote birding as a destination activity. Go to http://myfwc.com.
Some of my favorite places in Florida are managed by the five regional Water Management Districts, www.dep.state.fl.us/secretary/watman, which each publish (print and online) detailed recreational guides to district lands. Florida is home to the finest array of freshwater springs on the planet, with most of the big ones in public ownership as state parks or water management district lands in north and central Florida.
The National Park Service manages a dozen Florida properties, including two National Seashores—Canaveral and Gulf Islands. Dade County is the only county in America to host two national parks—Everglades and Biscayne. Florida trails only California in the number of national wildlife refuges. We have 28, but became the first when Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island NWR with a stroke of his presidential pen in 1903. Additionally, Florida has three national forests—the Ocala, Osceola and Apalachicola.
Okay, I’m running out of space here, and there’s so much more I have to share. I feel like the character Elliott in the movie E.T., rushing around his bedroom to show his new extraterrestrial friend all the cool stuff in his world. And I haven’t even had time to mention The Nature Conservancy properties, or Audubon lands, or the clearwater streams of Eglin Air Force Base, or our zoos and aquariums, or all the great county and city parks and nature centers....
Let me end by saying that nature photography in Florida is a decidedly sensual affair. OP readers are children of the earth, nurtured before birth in an amniotic sea. We know that nature photography isn’t science to be practiced in lab coats. It’s art to be practiced in the dirt and in the water.
So come and visit us in Florida. Sure, we have sinkholes and mosquitoes and sharks and the occasional hurricane, but on those warm days of winter here in the Sunshine State, it’s a pretty cool place to be. None of this, by the way, should be construed as an invitation to actually move here. It’s plenty crowded already, with 18 million residents despite losing population last year for the first time in 60 years. But we love having visitors, and we really do need your sales tax revenue. Happy shooting!
A Regional Guide To Some Of John Moran’s Favorite
Places For Nature Photography In Florida
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Blackwater River State Park and State Forest
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Torreya State Park
Wakulla Springs State Park
Apalachicola National Forest
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge