It was still cool and brisk outside at the break of dawn, so we started the morning off with a sweater and long-sleeve shirts. As Valerie and I were packing up the truck to head down south, my old friend Tom called to make sure we were up. “Yep, we’re headed your way, I’ll call when we get close” I replied. Thankfully, we were able to make an early start because it is over a three hour drive to our destination just outside of Tampa. On today’s agenda, we are kayaking down the Alafia River in Hillsborough County.
I grew up along the Alafia River, along with my friend Tom, and we have kayaked different legs of it many times over the years. This trip would be purposeful though, not just to observe the effects of recent hurricane Irma, but to also see how the river has changed over the years. This still beautiful, but once pristine river has had a long history.
One particular event that I most remember, was a spill from a mining fertilizer plant in December of 1997 that killed every plant and aquatic animal in its path as well as parts of Tampa’s bay. The NOAA of the U.S. Department of Commerce later released a restoration plan. The plan cited, “On December 7, 1997, approximately 55 million gallons of highly acidic process water was released into the Alafia River (the Spill) from the Mulberry Phosphates, Inc., fertilizer plant in Mulberry, Polk County, Florida.” (http://www.gc.noaa.gov/) This event had a huge impact on the environment and completely changed the attitude of the river to me. Years after, I would still feel like I was in a foreign place when I traversed certain sections of the river. Abundance of wildlife wasn’t present and the sounds from its banks seemed overly quiet. On many trips after, I would likely not even spot an alligator, comparable to trips where I had once counted twenty-five.
As we pulled in to Lithia Springs State Park, I called Tom and he said enthusiastically, “I’m about fifteen minutes away, see you shortly!” I stopped and talked to one of the park rangers as I awaited the arrival of my friend. After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked about the water levels and information on fallen trees since the hurricane. She explained that now that the park was restored, they were planning a trip down river to clear out fallen trees. The ranger assured me that several groups of kayakers have made it down recently without too much difficulty.
Tom finally arrived and after he parked his truck, we loaded his kayak and equipment into the back of mine. We then headed out to Alderman’s Ford, which was a park about 11 miles up-river. At the Ford, all of us finished our coffee and exchanged a few laughs as we all got caught up on current events. After unloading the kayaks and securing our gear, we pushed off from Alderman’s ford to begin our trip down the river.
The first leg is smooth and calm. Unlike some of the traditional “black-water” rivers in Florida, the Alafia River has great visibility as it is fed by various springs and aquifers. As I gazed below at the river’s sandy bed, the first thing I noticed was numerous plecos scattered along the bottom. Tom and I converse for about twenty minutes over conspiracy theories of how these non-native fish seem to thrive in this river, possibly from the nutrients that were spilled from the phosphate mine.
The second leg is by far one of my favorite parts on this section of river. It holds about a dozen sets of “Florida rapids” with swift water moving over limestone formations. The only justifiable paddling needed here is to adjust your course. As an added bonus, we started off the leg with a portage over a partially submerged tree that had recently fallen. After making it through the “sets” of fast moving water, the river slowed down as it began to open up some. We floated lazily down to a meadow where I often stop to stretch my legs and eat lunch.
A few years ago, I participated in a community cleanup which was a planned event to pick up trash and collect debris. At that time, the park rangers set up a picnic table and trash canister at this meadow. They cut a path through the forest so they could complete weekly rounds by four-wheeler and monitor water levels. Now, as I stood eating my lunch and looking around at the new canvas, I noticed the picnic table was completely gone. About six feet up on all the trees I could see water marks and the whole meadow was covered in about a foot of sediment and silt. Tom said that after the hurricane, it was the highest flooding he ever seen the river crest to. Farther down and closer to the basin, he stated many homes were flooded out and left people stranded and unable to return home for weeks.
After eating lunch, we started out on our final leg of the trip. Through this section, a few houses have been built on top of stilts and this is where I started seeing some trash and debris from human interaction. Remnants of a Styrofoam cooler were collected along with a few plastic bottles as we navigated through the calm waters. This section of the Alafia is still very beautiful and as the trees broke out to sunlight, I welcomed the warmth of these well needed rays.
Nearing the last two miles of our trip, the river floated us into Lithia Springs State Park. The Alafia has an exotic jungle feel through here as palm trees growing from the banks loom and bend over the river. We spotted a single lonely alligator here and that is what sparked the debate about claims of restoration. Many of the local news articles and public officials have made claims over the last few years that much of the river has been completely restored. My local newspaper here, the Ledger, gave that same opinion in an article stating, “Much of the river has recovered naturally, as environmental systems eventually do in response to natural or man-made assaults.” (www.theledger.com)
My personal opinion though, is that we are not even to the halfway mark of those claims. A river once full of life, still has a devoid feeling. I remember times with dozens of turtles pushing for prime “sunning” spots on logs, and alligators along the banks with no intentions of being bothered. Past times where different varieties of birds would sort of float down different sections of the river with me, and that time I caught a four pound bass just outside the state park. I feel like we are still far, far away from these type of occurrences returning to this once majestic river, and until the wetlands are fully restored and water quality is returned, I feel like the Alafia can never fully heal.
written by: Scott Stuckey
image by: Global Reactions