INTO THE WILD they marched, explorers of all ages — from adventure-seeking seniors to the young mother with the 18-month-old strapped to her back — hiking across mud through towering cypress forests and lush green gullies of fern.
Occasionally, they swatted away giant grasshoppers, tripped over cypress knees, slipped in sugar sand, and cursed the heat.
An hour later, the relative silence of the woods gave way to the unmistakable roar of rushing water.
After some trepidation, the 25 hikers on the inaugural Lake Worth Waterkeeper outdoor excursion stepped off the land and into the waters of the wild and scenic Loxahatchee River.
Follow a waterkeeper into the South Florida wilderness, chances are you’ll get wet.
And that’s precisely the idea behind the non-profit’s new series of public nature excursions, launched May 8 with the river hike along the off-the-beaten trails north of Riverbend Park in Jupiter.
The monthly guided tours will explore the environmental treasures the waterkeeper is tasked with protecting in the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, a vast watershed from Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean.
Upcoming adventures will involve paddleboarding in the Lake Worth Lagoon, snorkeling a shipwreck reef north of the Boynton Beach Inlet and hiking tucked-away gems like the Loxahatchee River/Cypress Creek Management Area.
“People need to get out there and experience the lagoon and the watershed so they’ll want to protect it,’’ said Reinaldo Diaz, a Palm Beach County environmentalist who founded Lake Worth Waterkeeper in 2017.
“The river hike was about experiencing the kinds of adventures I grew up doing, and it will be the same with the others. Very standard basic Florida activities that everyone should experience to appreciate the nature our area has to offer.”
Details for the June adventure will be announced soon. For updates, submit your email address on the Lake Worth Waterkeeper website.
Tour participants are encouraged to purchase an annual Lake Worth Waterkeeper membership, which starts at $25. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a member application.
The proceeds support the non-profit organization and its clean-water projects such as the popular Lagoonies educational program for children and regular bacteria monitoring throughout the Lake Worth Lagoon.
New members also help give the group legal standing if it ever goes to court on environmental issues, said Diaz, who has a law degree from Nova Southeastern University with a focus on environmental and land-use law.
“We specifically started with a hike on the Loxahatchee River because to me that is a really important example of Florida environmental law and how people came together to make some long-standing protections,’’ he said, referring to the river’s protective designation as wild and scenic.
“That designation was important to help the river in many ways. It’s part of meaningful movement that can effectuate change.’’
A passionate environmentalist, Diaz is always trying to effectuate change in the face of unrelenting threats to Florida’s fragile ecosystem.
And his work isn’t always done outdoors.
Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of action to protect the waterways, he made his first bid for political office last year, seeking the state Senate District 25 seat. (His primary opponent won, but was defeated in the general election by Republican incumbent Gayle Harrell.)
On the day of the inaugural hike, he added his signature to a letter several environmental groups sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking for a state of emergency for communities impacted by a toxic algae outbreak in Lake Okeechobee.
On June 10, Lake Worth Waterkeeper will show the documentary “Toxic Puzzle — Hunt for the Hidden Killer,’‘ an 82-minute film about the main focus of Diaz’s current work —the serious public health risk of cyanobacteria. The movie will be shown at Mathews Brewing Co. in Lake Worth Beach, followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of experts.
But the best way to really understand and appreciate the waterkeeper mission is to get immersed in the ecosystem it protects.
And it helps to have experienced guides like Diaz and two of his most dedicated Waterkeeper members, Melissa Landis and Emily Mauri.
“When I first met him, I was complaining that Florida doesn’t have any real hiking,’’ Landis said with a laugh just before setting off on the river hike.
“Then he brought me to this area. He had me trudge through these paths. I was like, ‘OK, there is definitely some serious hiking in Florida.’’’
When Diaz explores the area’s wilderness, he likes to choose places not crowded with visitors.
“I’ll show you the back door to some of these places,’’ he told the hikers just after 10 a.m. May 8 as he led them down the main entrance path in Riverbend Park.
The park was crowded that day, but the hikers didn’t stick around for too long.
A short while later, the group picked up the Ocean-to-Lake Trail and followed it north out of the park and beneath Indiantown Road.
Before long, the constant whoosh of nearby traffic gave way to the chirping of birds and knocking of woodpeckers in the Loxahatchee River/Cypress Creek Management Area.
Diaz, 37, has hiked all 72 miles of the Ocean-to-Lake Trail, which runs from Hobe Sound Beach on Jupiter Island west to Lake Okeechobee.
To the relief of participants, the river hike covered just four miles of the trail — 2 miles north to the Loxahatchee’s Masten Dam and then back into the park.
On an aerial map, the path of the river hike is invisible, buried in a wedge of green west of the posh Sonoma Isles development. The wedge runs north from Indiantown Road to the spot where Florida’s Turnpike runs next to Interstate 95.
On the ground, it looks like and feels like a secluded jungle — majestic oaks, their twisted branches dripping with Spanish moss; jagged green saw palmetto fronds; and gullies of lush fern.
The only reminders of civilization were the periodic splotches of orange paint on tree bark that served as trail markers.
“Keep an eye out for wildlife,’’ he said. “We may see deer, gopher tortoise, rattlesnake and bobcats.’’
The most exciting wildlife encounters during the three-hour excursion?
Lubber grasshoppers. They seemed to constantly leap at the feet and legs of hikers in an effort to hitch a ride.
At Masten Dam, built in the 1930s by locals and renovated a few years ago by the South Florida Water Management District, rushing water made the loudest sounds on the excursion.
Diaz was first into the river, but some hikers hesitated: “Um, aren’t there alligators in there?’’
He assured them, accurately, that there were no alligators where the hikers swam, shallow water just off a popular boardwalk and deck where a separate gathering of locals drank beer and ran their kayaks and canoes over the dam.
“I’ve seen (alligators) here before, but with this many people, that shallow of water, it’s never an issue,’’ said Diaz, who once escaped a close encounter with a bear in Yellowstone National Park.
He smiled and added, “There’s that joke that you’re not a true Floridian unless you can go swimming in one of our black water rivers with alligators.’’
As he cooled off in chest-deep water, Diaz explained to hikers sloshing near him how the Masten Dam and the nearby Lainhart Dam play important roles for the river’s hydrology.
The dams control upstream flows of the river’s northwest fork, preventing saltwater intrusion into the freshwater swamps.
After a 45-minute cooling off period, the hikers made their way back to Riverbend Park. Marching away from the cooler air in the cypress forest around the river, they were soon sweating in the hot air of the open scrub habitat.
Though tired and eager for air conditioning, participants ended the hike with a renewed appreciation of South Florida’s environment and the waterkeeper mission.
“I’ve wanted to explore the parks and natural areas but I didn’t have anyone to explore with,’’ said Shelley Patterson of Jupiter Farms, who learned about the hike on Facebook.
Patterson said the hike gave her a better understanding of how Florida’s waterways are connected — and how damages in one area, like the Lake Okeechobee toxic algae blooms, can have a detrimental effect in other areas.
Aaron Wormus of West Palm Beach said he and his wife, Stella, are looking forward to the waterkeeper’s next guided tour.
“I loved the Loxahatchee River hike. The fact the river still exists in its quiet preserve, among the development and sprawling subdivisions, is really a testament to everyone who has worked so hard over the last 100 years to preserve it,’’ he said.
“Living in a coastal community, I don’t take the time to expose myself to the natural beauty that is preserved just a couple miles off many of our beaten paths. Unless you see it firsthand, it’s hard to understand how the ecosystem affects our water supply, wildlife and more’’
Originally published on May 13, 2021, on ByJoeCapozzi.com. Reprinted with permission. Unless noted, photos by Joe Capozzi. © 2021 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.