In June, Florida's House and Senate unanimously passed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, a measure intended to protect 18 million acres of natural lands throughout the state, and the wildlife that call it home. While the legislation is not without criticism, it is a reminder of the importance of preserving wild Florida for generations to come.
The legislation was largely accomplished by advocacy from the Florida Wildlife Corridor Coalition, an organization working to not only protect these lands but to educate Floridians through films showcasing the specialness and fragility of a wild Florida increasingly threatened by development.
Conservation photographer Jenny Adler led the coalition's new Spring2Shore Expedition, which follows three teenage women across a 50-mile corridor of springs and rivers from Rainbow River to the Gulf. Jenny is the coalition's first female director, and she brings us waterside with her take on documenting this intense journey across wild Florida.
Even before sunrise, the air is heavy, humid. Caffeine makes me shaky, and sleep is almost nonexistent, so I’m running on adrenaline on this third pre-dawn morning. But this is what I love. Holding cameras, we walk out the boardwalk towards Lake Rousseau to the sound of cicadas and sandhill cranes. And, of course, mosquitoes. I could do without the mosquitoes.
My film crew and I are on the Nature Coast in Dunnellon, Florida, to film the Spring2Shore Expedition, a 50-mile trek from the Rainbow River headspring out to the Gulf. A goal of the expedition is to show the connectivity between springs, rivers and the sea and highlight a crucial part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor that needs to be protected.
The nonprofit Florida Wildlife Corridor Coalition has organized similar expeditions in the past, although these earlier treks were led by seasoned photographers, scientists and conservationists. For the Spring2Shore Expedition, the three trekkers were 14-16-year-old young women, Ava, Mallori and Marin. They are the future conservation leaders of our state.
Just as the trek was specifically young women, I was hired as the first female director of a film for the Corridor Coalition, and I was lucky to have an incredible team to help the film come to life. When days start at 4:30 AM and end at 10:30 PM, I always hope they’re filled with amazing people. Thankfully, this was the case working with Director of Photography Ian Segebarth and Sound Designer Ayla Mackinnon, who both also put up with 18+ hour days and 100+ degree temperatures, all with the goal of helping the girls tell a powerful story about their experience.
There isn’t a “typical day” in the life of a conservation filmmaker, but every morning during the expedition, we lugged our gear out of basecamp in the dark and loaded it into kayaks. There aren’t many constants with changing weather, schedules and moods. Daily battles included charging 15+ batteries at night and trying not to get burnt in the Florida summer sun.
On the water, we’d try to snack on granola bars, bananas and PB&Js to keep us going—the heat doesn’t exactly make you feel hungry, and the extreme focus of a filmmaker allows time to pass with little to no thought of food or water. We smelled of bug spray, sunscreen and salt. We fit in perfectly in the land of rivers, springs, swamps and summer storms.
One of the main challenges of filming along 50 miles of rivers was that my underwater camera was the only piece of equipment that’s actually waterproof. Audio recording gear, microphones, other expensive cameras and phones had to be used with caution and spared from oncoming waves, splashing paddles and storms using watertight cases, trash bags and rain jackets. Ayla, I’m sorry your phone is now on the bottom of the Cross Florida Barge Canal near Highway 19.
I’m happy to report that Ayla’s phone was the only casualty—and it happened during the stretch that all of the girls said was the hardest part of the trip. Spirits were high as the girls wound their way down the clear waters of the Rainbow River and into the tannic Withlacoochee. The coffee-colored Withlacoochee bends in serpentine S’s, first through dense forest and later through a sea of wooden docks leading up to homes that crowd the riverbanks. But this stretch of wild, winding riverbends is short-lived.
The Cross Florida Barge Canal is a straight, 150-foot-wide scar that interrupts the wild Withlacoochee. A 90-foot-tall berm separates the downstream section of the river from the upstream, so we had to paddle down the massive canal against a strong headwind. Ava, Mallori and Marin were getting tired, hungry and frustrated. But they never stopped grinning through the grit, leaving us “secret messages” through the microphones that stayed clipped to their shirts.
Throughout the four days of filming, I loved seeing how strong, passionate and determined these three young ladies were. They are all an inspiration—not one of them complained a single time during the entire 50 miles. They laughed, sang, sweated and powered through the rain, heat, biting bugs and double rainbows. At the end, when they reached the Gulf, the joy was pure and unaltered. They splashed, hugged and fell backwards into the now-salty water.
We interviewed the girls every day just before sunset, and I was continually impressed by their observations, inquisitive nature and thoughtful reflections. If we’re counting on them to be our future leaders, I think our state is in very capable hands—we just have to make sure we pass it on with as much of wild Florida left as possible.