By Betsy Schifanella | Photos by Tom Schifanella
The rivers and streams of Florida are a vital natural resource. Our Native American ancestors considered them to be sacred and key to the circle of life, allowing their culture to thrive and flourish. By transporting sediments and nutrients, they are essential to the survival of our wetland habitats upon which native plants and animals depend. By moderating the salinity of the ocean and gulf, these waterways create brackish environments offering a warm winter refuge for migratory birds and local wildlife, such as the Florida manatee. In October of 2020, we spent a month exploring these rivers and streams using paddleboards (SUPs) to access remote areas that are some of Florida’s wildest places. Through pictures and words, we tried to capture the beauty and incredible diversity of the environments we experienced. From that effort was born a book, Sacred Waters, in both printed and e-book formats. Here are two excerpts from Sacred Waters. Enjoy the journey.
Nestled in the farmland near Grand Ridge (Marianna), Ocheesee Pond rests in quiet isolation. At 2,225 acres, the pond is more of a tannic-colored lake with 90% of its surface area covered in a majestic stand of cypress. From the launch at the southern end there is an expanse of open water lined with cypress. Following the left side north, we skirt the trees to reach the upper pond and the coordinates for the circular paddling trail. We find ourselves in a maze of cypresses towering above us like a sacred cathedral. I am not able to plot the paddling route in ViewRanger, my navigation app, for even on the satellite view, the circular trail through the pond is indistinguishable. We start out, agreeing that if we lose the markings, we will turn back. The trail, loosely marked on the trees with paint, reflectors, and arrows, wanders through a vast cypress swamp. PVC pipes mark shallow stumps, but they are for fishermen, not trail markers.
At times the cypress trees are so thick you can’t see through them. But, with watchful eyes and a little gut instinct, we circumnavigate the upper pond as planned, meeting a world of lily pads and daisy islands amidst the stately cypress. With their lacy branches barely rippling in the breeze, they stand peaceful, silent, and beautiful in their fall foliage. We see a fishing boat or two, silently moving between the distant trees, and I am reminded of the isolation of this place and who or what it may harbor. The wild man of Ocheesee Pond, a sort of Bigfoot or Sasquatch naked and covered in thick hair, was captured here in 1884, after some nearby farm gardens had been raided. Unidentifiable and thought to be insane, he was eventually sent to the state asylum at Chattahoochee. No further record after his initial capture has ever been found. His legend still haunts these mysterious waters. We also read of big gators inhabiting Ocheesee Pond. There are places galore that I expect to see them sunning themselves, a blooming grass island or a downed log, but the only splashes are those of small turtles that sense us before we see them.
We are caught in an afternoon thunderstorm and shelter among the swollen bases of cypress trees waiting for it to ease. Looking up, the cypress trunks appear to spiral upward toward heaven. Kingfishers, woodpeckers, and bass are our only companions today—no alligators or snakes.