Watersheds of south Florida

Behind the song

Behind every great song …

Is the story behind the song.

Bobby Angel discusses his song about the Gunpowder River

In this exclusive interview, singer/songwriter Bobby Angel provides cryptic clues and other nuggets about the making of the song. Topics include why he chose the Gunpowder River over the Mighty Susquehanna River right next door, why the song shares similarities to a parking lot at a trailhead, and why the Gunpowder River is more complicated and has a richer history than at first glance.

Backstory: The song took about a week to write from the start to finish. The opening line came to me while hiking the river trail on the Little Gunpowder with my brother a few days after Christmas. I abandoned an early “simpler” version of the song a day later in favor of a more complicated tale between the “old mill” run of the river and its upstream modern-day reservoir. But it wasn’t until a week later in Florida that I tied the song together with a few tweaks and the final two lines of the last stanza.

But a song is never complete for a “nature folk” troubadour as myself until sit down for the “interview after the song.” I’ll also have to sing it a couple dozen times to really seer it into my memory. And even then, songs have to be played over and over again to really meld the vocals with the guitar and bring the true meaning and feeling of the song out.

Read the lyrics

Listen to the song


Chesapeake Bay Watershed
And how it compares to Lake O

How big is Chesapeake Bay …

Or more importantly, its watershed?

Map of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Chesapeake Bay watershed comprises 64,000 square miles, encompasses six states including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and all of the District of Columbia. The land-to-water ratio of 14:1 is the largest of any coastal water body in the world. But how big is all that in Lake Okeechobee units? Excellent question!

Answer: The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is 88 times the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and the bay itself is six times the size of Lake Okeechobee. I know what you’re thinking: That’s an unfair comparison, i.e. what happens when you throw in Lake Okeechobee’s upstream watershed (including the Kissimmee River Valley, Fisheating Creek, Lake Istokpoga and a few more)? Even then the Chesapeake is a lot bigger — 13 times bigger than Lake O and all its upstream watersheds.

I‘m not saying the Lake isn’t big, all I’m saying is it makes a good measuring cup.

Watersheds of south Florida

Valley in the plateau
The Piedmont Plateau to be exact

The Gunpowder River …

Isn’t a major tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

Little Gunpowder River looking upstream

And on many maps you cannot see it named. That doesn’t make it any less of a vital water way to keeping the bay clean. It’s a bit of an untamed river. Farther north are the Pretty Boy and Loch Raven Reservoirs that supply water to downstream Baltimore. And back in the era when running rivers were a local power source, it had a mill or three along its length. But more or less those water works have washed away. It’s good to see the downstream two-thirds of the river running free.

Watersheds of south Florida

Lesser known sloughs
But just as important as Shark River

The Everglades top flow way?

Answer: Probably Shark River Slough.

The swamp has multiple flow paths

But if you hop the fence (actually it’s a levee) into the Big Cypress Swamp, the sawgrass plain gives way to a labyrinth of cypress strands, open marl prairies and pine island high ground. Major flow ways include Fakahatchee Strand, Mullet Slough, Okaloacoochee Slough, Turner River, Sweetwater Strand, and Gum Slough to name a few. Lostmans Slough is in Big Cypress National Preserve but it’s on the Everglades side of the Pinecrest picket fence. It’s actually not a fence, but discontinuous archipelago of remnant Miami limestone.

The map above isn’t exactly as the ecosystem still flows today, but more a peek back on how it might have worked prior to levees and canals. Did you know Lake Okeechobee use to flow into the modern-day Big Cypress National Preserve. My favorite flow system actually isn’t shown. It’s called Devils Garden, located on the eastern fringe of the Immokalee Rise. Depending on the season, it received flows from the Upper Caloosahatchee to the north, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades to the east and discharge from the Immokalee Rise to the west and discharged south into Cowbell Strand. Sounds more like an Eden to me.

water table

All season spring
Sheet flow and spring flow compared

Florida’s Silver Spring …

Almost looks like it’s boiling.

The swamp’s sheet flow and Ocala’s Silver spring are currently flowing at about the same rate

And during the winter it is quite warm. But only because the air temperature is cold, or cooler than the water below. So yes, it is therapeutic to swim in during the winter at the same time getting out is quite cold. Paradoxically, the same boil of water water turns refreshingly cool each summer. And not because it’s appreciably cooler. Rather, the onset of Florida’s hot and humid season makes a plunge underneath its surface invigoratingly crisp.

The magic behind Florida’s freshwater springs are that they are ground-water fed. That keeps its water at a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit and keeps it at a fairly constant flow rate all year round. Compare that the boom and bust wet and dry season cycle of the swamp’s sheet flow.

Which one flows more? At one spot, I’ll go with the springs. But spread out across the landscape, the swamp wins every time. Caveat: It has to be summer.

Haunted hike (boo!)
Nature gets spooky at night

Some trails are better walked in broad daylight …

And at all costs to be avoided at night.

Strangler fig wrapped around a cypress.

Night: Hand of a giant ghoul squeezing an unsuspecting hiker.

As scary as this tree is in broad daylight I don’t even want to think about what it looks like at night.

Night: See Day.

Spiderwebs inconspicuously placed along the side of the trail.

Night: Giant banana spiders spin webs face high across middle of boardwalk.

Day: Do you see the shadows of giant cypress in the photo? They’re the Ghost Trees of the Fakahatchee Past which, clear cut and logged in the 1940s, reappear at the marsh every Halloween for a swamp reunion. Apparently some get there early thus explaining the shadows.

Night: Unknown, I high tailed it out of there while it was still light!

Watersheds of south Florida

Neither slough nor strand
Mullet Slough is it's own special case

Oftentimes our available terms

Don’t quite fit the natural systems we try to describe.

Flying at 500 feet towards Mullet Slough

Case in point is the false dichotomy of the swamp’s strands and sloughs. Natural flow ways are one or the other, but not both, right? A little background about the video above: We’re flying from West to East. Although we didn’t make it all the way over the Everglades, you can see the mosaic start to gradually morph from a labyrinth of cypress, pinelands, prairie and hammocks to sea of almost all cypress towards the end.

Had we continued flying East it would have slowly and then suddenly turned into the Everglades River of Grass. It’s an area of the Big Cypress National Preserve known as Mullet Slough. Sloughs usually connote a treeless flow way (i.e. as in Shark River Slough) whereas strands (i.e. Roberts Lakes, Deep Lake, Gator Hook to name a few) are canopied waterways. But Mullet Slough is a special case. Not a wall of tall trees, it’s better characterized as stand of dwarf cypress trees regularly interspersed with cypress domes that point in the direction of flow.

Neither slough or strand, Mullet Slough is a watershed all its own.

animation lake canoe

Ideal Lake Stage
Research paper by William J. Sobczak

When it comes to the environment …

Sometimes our children know best.


The reason? It could be that they’re a little more open minded. Or maybe it has something to do with the idealism of youth. Where our adult minds get clouded with economic drivers, political bents and the sociological inertia of the status quo, children have a much less cluttered view of the world. Obviously, nature is good and water should be clean and whatever the cost, it really all boils down to doing the right thing. That would be a youthful view of things, which begs the question: Why doesn’t the same view prevail for adults.

The above paper about Lake Okeechobee — and specifically the discussion of a new regulation schedule called LOSOM — was written by my son for a high should project his senior year. What I admire about it most is its blend of youthful idealism and adult pragmatism, and his surprise choice at the end. I’ll leave it to you to read it to find out. In the process I think you’ll get a very good history lesson of the Lake.

Great job Willy!

Turner River Report
First report I wrote about the swamp

Everyone thinks of me as a blogger …

But I actually cut my teeth on a fairly detailed report.


The assignment: Get to the bottom of the Turner River. The year was 2000. Parts of the river had been recently restored, and it had become navigable as a result, but there was still a thought that more had to be done. I’m not sure what my boss expected at the time, but I dove into the literature and the file cabinets to try to understand what the Turner River was all about. Keep in mind I’d only been in the swamp for a year. So I was still a rookie as they say.

Looking back it was a fun assignment, and I learned a lot.

It might even be time to update the report.