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Every Day Counts in the Cycle of Life

David Yon, February 28, 2017

Runners know very well the world is not always a kind place.  In fact, it can be quite cruel.  But it also provides so many opportunities for joy and so often what we experience is based on how we approach things.  For many of us running is a tool to help us navigate through those good and bad times, through the cycle of life. 

February has been national heart month.  And the benefits of exercise in protecting the heart (and the mind) have been described many, many times.   The benefits are real and well worth the effort. Of course, the cycle of life quickly reminds us with some cruel examples that those benefits guaranty very little. 

The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a great place to ponder it all while on a run (or hike).   It is a place where land becomes sea and sea returns to land.  It is a place where rivers of fresh water end one cycle of their existence, pushing their waters (and any trash they carry) into the marshes and bays of the Gulf of Mexico and forming their own bayous and swamps. The water of Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, slowly finds itself losing salinity as it creeps through marshes, tidal flats, pools.  With the transformation, it becomes able to support new types of life. The Refuge was established in 1931, in part at least, to provide winter habitat for migratory birds.  It includes approximately 70,000 acres of land in Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor counties and 43 miles of shore line according to the information brochure published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  On a cool, crisp morning, when the grass is cut on the trails, the Deep Creek and Stony Bayou Trails are magical places to run.

The variety of terrain and wildlife in this area help make it a refuge for the soul.  But it is also the way the cycle of life is on display in a protected area that makes it so special.  Soaring above you might be an eagle or an osprey, perhaps with an unlucky fish in its beak or a tong.   You can run (or walk) on top of one of the impoundments with water teaming with life, plant and animal, on either side of you.  The Refuge’s own literature describes it well: “Marshes, tidal flats, and man-made pools (impoundments) attract thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and other animals. Open marshes and swamps also provide homes for turtles and thousands of American alligators. Hardwood swamps support wood ducks, night herons, black bears and river otters, to name a few. Finally, the extensive pine woodlands offer food and cover for turkeys, white-tailed deer, bluebirds, fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, and many more species. Apalachee Bay is home to bottlenose dolphins, brown pelicans, wintering redhead ducks, sea turtles and a rich diversity of marine life. In addition, the salt marshes that connect the Refuge to Apalachee Bay are a valuable nursery area and food source for birds, marine fish, shrimp, and shellfish, and they provide protection during storms to coastal birds and other animals.” 

And there is the special flight of the whooping cranes each year as they have become a member of the rare or endangered species the Refuge tries to protect by maintain an ecosystem that offers them a chance to survive.   Protecting places like this is critical to maintaining the cycle. 

Of course, the dark side of the cycle is never far.  My last trip down, Mary Jean and I were hiking with friends.  Perhaps it was the fact that we were walking and could see more or maybe it was the warm sun, bathing the top layer of water and the shoreline, but I saw the most alligators than I can ever remember seeing.  Despite the numbers, it was rare to see one move, each having claimed its place in the sun.    Strangely, they never seemed to eat. 

The Refuge is home for a lot of turtles, including the Florida softshell turtle.   In reading about them, I discovered they tend to stay in the water, buried in the sand, feeding on snails and fish, with an occasional duck or heron making a special treat.  They will go to the bank every now and then to bask in the sun.   The Florida softshell turtle has a long neck and an elongated head with a long snorkel-like nose.  Very distinctive looking, they are among the largest of the softshell turtles (females ranging from 11-24 inches). 

As we neared the end of our hike, a commotion coming from my right was disrupting the water which moments before had been calm.  First, I saw the gator.  Then, I saw what appeared to be an elongated head sticking out of the water.  Just moments before a Florida softshell turtle was having a terrific day resting after a good morning of feeding.  For some crazy reason, Softy decided it was a good time to do a little basking in the sun and began swimming toward the surface.  Before Softy had a moment to react, the jaws of the alligator had clamped down on the turtle’s shell and begun dragging the creature back down to the bottom of the pool.  I don’t know how soft the shell of a softshell turtle is, but the gator was unable to immediately crush the turtle, as I would have expected the powerful reptile to do.  The turtle began to swim to the surface with everything she had.  The long neck and an elongated head with a long snorkel-like nose popped up and were clearly visible above the water for a moment and, I thought - maybe the turtle would escape.  But the gator was determined, after all it had to eat too, and the turtle head disappeared again.  Again, however, the turtle fought back, the elongated head rising above the water.  The scene replayed itself a couple of times before the head disappeared for the last time.

Not a great ending to a run if you root for turtles, but yet a very real picture of life.  A reminder not to forget that every day counts, especially in the Wildlife Refuge.