My 40th-Birthday Relay Through the Ichetucknee Trace (Part 1)

by Eric Flagg

I was in my undergraduate program for Environmental Science at UF (1996-1998) when I first met Jim Stevenson. He was speaking to one of my classes and was at the time, I believe, director of the Florida Springs Task Force.

He made a big impression on me as someone I’d like to emulate with my career. Since then the ethos of that grand park system that he was a part of as chief naturalist has changed dramatically. Today, there is not nearly as much room to accomplish what he and other park employees were able to since the 1970s-1980s.

Years went by. I worked as an environmental consultant for about 10 years, then went back to graduate school and earned my master’s in documentary filmmaking.

Fast forward to summer 2013 when my production company partners, Isaac Brown and Ana Habib, held their wedding at a rental home on the Ichetucknee. I had been experimenting with a drone or quadcopter for use as an aerial platform for filmmaking and brought it with me to their wedding. I had always been enamored of cypress domes from my wetland consulting days and enamored of riparian floodplains for their primeval, dense and foreboding qualities.

The house Isaac and Ana rented for the wedding happened to be right next to my dad’s cousin’s property (where we’ve had one faction of my family’s reunions since I was a kid) that had just such a dense cypress floodplain. I decided to test my skills with the copter and fly through this not-often-explored type of setting. It was pretty tough but I was confident that I got some neat footage from the tops of the canopy with the blue-bedazzlement of the river in the background.

A few hours after getting that footage, we were incredibly lucky to see some manatee coming up from the Santa Fe River. The Ichetucknee was rising quickly because of some heavy rains and the manatee seemed to be waiting for the water to get deep enough to come in from the confluence with the Santa Fe River. I was able to get some nice footage of the manatee and a short piece, Ichetucknee Dreams, was born. It was a dreamlike day.

A few months later, after that video made the rounds on the Internet, I got a cold call from Jim Stevenson. I knew who he was but he didn’t know me. I believe John Moran referred me to Jim. I remember that the conversation went like this:

Jim: Eric, this is Jim Stevenson. I don’t know if you know who I am?

Eric: Jim Stevenson! Of course I know who you are, you’re one of my greatest heroes.

Jim: Great, so I want to do a video on the Ichetucknee. I’ve got somebody else interested in doing it, but John Moran said you should do it. Do you want to do it?

Eric: Yes.

From that point, I had the honor of working with Jim on the Following the Ichetucknee video that I directed and he produced with Three Rivers Trust. He took me on his driving tour of the watershed while I captured footage and then spent a couple of days on the river with Wes Lindberg capturing images. We had perfect weather on all three trips. The video came together beautifully and now has more than 20,000 views online plus other live screenings.

While I spent this time with Jim, we talked about other ways to raise awareness of the expansive nature of a watershed. We tend to think about rivers and streams as beginning where you see the water flowing. In the case of the Ichetucknee, we see Jug Hole or Blue Hole and the headspring as the beginning of the river when in reality it’s much more than that, collecting over land, runoff, rain into sinkholes, drainage, creeks and then quite literally several miles of flowing river in the caverns underground starting at Rose Sink.

Jim mentioned that he had tried to get a walk-a-thon together to go from the Columbia County Courthouse to Cannon Sink but it hadn’t happened yet. He also held a relay where a bottle of water was filled at Wakulla Springs and relayed to the capitol building in Tallahassee for a springs/water rally.

Jim got me thinking about a relay covering the approximately 25 miles from Lake City to the Santa Fe River via the Ichetucknee watershed and river.

In 2015 I had my 40th birthday. I had planned to do some kind of strenuous physical challenge/adventure and quite simply that’s how this relay idea was born—from a love of the Ichetucknee, an earnest desire to keep doing media projects around the river, and to do something fun on a decade birthday with the possible intention of working to make this into an annual and sanctioned event down the road.

I spent a few months working out a route that was visible to onlookers (we’d have signs and press in the future). I drove the overland part to check the route for what kind of bike to use. I had been to the Three Rivers Estates portion of the river enough over my life, so I didn’t need to check that part for swimming.

Although this was a seemingly simple trip with only two full-participants (my brother Byron and me) and two half-participants (Doug Nesbit on the paddle and Calvin Martin on the bike/run), it took a LOT of organizing to carry gear (my wife Crystal as well as Jill Lingard and Scott Jantz), find baby-sitters (my parents) and find a place to switch out gear on the river (John Jopling’s house) as well as train for the running/biking part. Even more challenging was finding a date near the holidays when everyone was available, which is why this happened quickly with little notice to those who helped out. I had planned to go later in December or in early January. Because we moved the date up a few weeks, we cut the running down from 10 miles to 7.2 miles.

Here’s the approximate length of the relay legs:

7.2 miles run
12 miles bike
4.5 miles paddle
1.5 miles swim

-To Be Continued-

Note:  Eric Flagg is a new member of the Ichetucknee Alliance’s Board of Directors. Stay tuned for Part 2 of his story, coming in 2017.