Biology Professor Bill Conner stopped me at TedxWakeForestU a few weeks ago to ask whether I’d heard what one of our graduates was doing in the Florida swamps. With an obvious hint of admiration — Bill has a fair measure of Florida wilderness experience himself as a scholar — he announced that environmental photojournalist Carlton Ward Jr. (’98) was slogging through swamps and into remote areas on the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000-mile trek up the Florida peninsula over 100 days.
The expedition began on Jan. 17 at the tip of Everglades National Park. Ever since, Ward, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, bear biologist Joe Guthrie and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus have been traversing swamps, ranches and the backwoods to demonstrate the need for a corridor that connects Florida’s natural lands, waters, working farms and ranches all the way to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Their goal is for the state to safeguard a functional ecological corridor for the health of people, wildlife and watersheds.
For Ward and his band of explorers, the trek is intermodal and includes miles of kayaking, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding to reach the 1,000-mile mark, not to mention camping under the stars. Stoltzfus’ film about the expedition will air on public television.
By email I caught up with Ward, and he managed to send The Deacon Blog a Q&A dispatch from his journey and give us permission to display some of the gorgeous images from the trip. You can follow the group’s progress here and see more examples of Ward’s photography at his site.
Maria Henson: What are the environmental challenges Florida faces?
Ward: Florida faces many environmental challenges — depletion of the freshwater aquifer, draining of wetlands, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are a few that come to mind.
Henson: How did you become involved in the expedition?
Ward: The expedition was my idea as a tool to raise awareness for the fleeting chance we have to keep Florida’s natural lands and waters connected. It was born out of my work photographing ranch lands in central Florida over the past seven years combined with expedition co-leader Joe Guthrie’s work on black bears and their wide ranging habitat needs (a story which was also my focus for several years).
I organized a steering committee in early 2010 to shape components of the Florida Ecological Greenways Network science by Tom Hoctor and colleagues into a more publicly accessible Florida Wildlife Corridor vision.
Henson: I love the notion that the journey is the destination, but I can’t help but ask what do you hope to achieve through this adventure, and will there be a book or documentary?
Ward: There will be a two-hour film for PBS for release this fall. My photography will be the basis for a traveling exhibit, online geostory and ultimately a book. These products are all part of the journey, tools to raise awareness for the importance of protecting connected habitat. The ultimate goal is for the Florida Wildlife Corridor to be protected.
Henson: What has been your most awe-inspiring moment so far?
Ward: The answer to that question changes every week. Paddling though the Everglades for a full week was definitely a highlight. We used push poles to push our way though the sawgrass for 3 days and nights without encountering another person. The wilderness experience was phenomenal. More recently, our team rode on horseback through ranches and conservation lands in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, all areas proposed for protection through the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.
We were joined and hosted by nearly 20 cattle ranchers, many who I had known for years from my previous work and many from the newly formed Northern Everglades Alliance of which I am a member. It was a powerful and encouraging felling to traverse the piney flat woods with so many heroes who are taking the conservation of their land and heritage into their own hands.
When the ride ended at The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, Rick Dantzler and LeeAnn Adams presented me with a limited-edition print of the Florida Wildlife Corridor map I had commissioned in early 2012 bearing (a) handwritten inscription from President Obama, which read, “Thank you for helping preserve our natural wonders! Barack Obama” Friends at the National Wildlife Refuge Association had arranged for (this from) President Obama at a White House conservation event the week prior.
Henson: What has been your most distressing moment?
Ward: We recently crossed Lake Kissimmee to Brahma Island facing a serious headwind. I had lent my Kayak to a visiting journalist and was making the crossing on a standup paddle board. When we emerged from the maiden cane fringe of the lake, the waves were 3-4 feet tall. Overall paddling was very difficult for all of us, and I realized that our guest was making little forward progress. Meanwhile the sun was dropping quickly and I had little control of how fast the wind was sweeping me and my paddle board away from the kayakers.
Before picking my own line across the waves for a nighttime arrival, I made a precautionary call to a friend with a powerboat. Our guest journalist was happy to accept a ride to shore. I would have considered it myself if I wasn’t so committed to the integrity of our continuous route.
Henson: I heard about your expedition when I saw biology professor Bill Conner at TEDx. It made me wonder how you chose Wake Forest for college? Who were your mentors? What’s your best Wake Forest memory?
Ward: I was attracted to the liberal arts education at Wake. Bill Conner was a mentor, though I didn’t have class with him. He and the bio department gave me a scholarship one summer that allowed me to study wildlife management in East Africa and marine ecology at the Duke Marine Lab.
Ned Woodall in anthropology was another mentor. His intro anthropology course really expanded my perspective about the course (of) humanity on the planet and instilled much of my concern for preservation of cultural and natural heritage. My intro to journalism course helped me earn my post-Wake internship in the photography department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
Henson: How has your liberal arts education helped you in your profession, assuming that it has?
Ward: As a journalist, I need broad understanding of a variety of fields and how they interconnect. The liberal arts base provided by Wake is the foundation for my more specialized ecological knowledge. The LA (liberal arts) education and many essay based tests also helped me develop writing skill essential to my work today. The LA philosophy allowed for my undergraduate education to be a process of discovery.
I came to Wake thinking I might major in physics and go on to grad school in engineering. I also considered majoring in business and going to law or business school. Then I discovered biology and anthropology, which led me down the career path I am following today.
Experience shooting for the Old Gold and Black and (Howler) was also very influential on my development as a photographer.
Henson: Tell me about your growing up.
Ward: I grew up on the Gulf coast in Clearwater, Fla. I was constantly in the water, swimming, fishing, diving, surfing, and still think I have salt water in my blood. I am also an eighth-generation Floridian with deep family roots in interior Florida. I was always connected to that world too and have been reconnecting to my heartland heritage through my work in recent years.
Henson: What were your first camera and first shots that made you proud?
Ward: My first mechanical camera was a Pentax K1000 followed by a Pentax LX. One of my first successful landscape shots was on the Wake campus. I predicted a fiery sunset based on a growing cloud formation I had seen the previous September. I ran into position and created a number of intense sunset photographs of campus and the (chapel), which I ultimately sold to Wake as my first professional photography transaction. I think Wake bought nine photographs from that roll, and they were published regularly in campus and alumni literature.
Henson: You’re a world traveler. What’s on your list for future expeditions or adventures?
Ward: Well, I still have 45 days to go on this expedition! You know, I spent the first decade of my career traveling to the far corners of the globe to find stories of consequence that hadn’t been told in the U.S. media. Right now I am looking at another decade’s work focusing on untold stories of potential influence right here in Florida.
The pressing nature of conservation issues in Florida commands my attention and I am motivated to help foster a truer sense of place for the 18 million people (12 million who were born somewhere else) who call this place home. I still enjoy working abroad and will continue to do so when I have an opportunity and can make a difference. Continued work in Cuba and Latin America would be good fits for me.