Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

A Lesson in Stewardship

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

A group of kids and their adult leader pick up trash along a shoreline. They are just a handful of the millions of Americans who volunteer each year to clean and protect the outdoors.
© iStock/JF

Pop was a cheapskate—at least that’s what I once thought.

A fishing rock star to me and my childhood friends, Pop wandered streams and lake shores picking up lures, hooks and other tackle snagged on submerged logs or rocks, or tangled in brush. He cleaned them up and reused them.

We would do that, too, but we were kids and didn’t have money for new gear. We had never seen an adult do it before.

But I was wrong about Pop.

I figured that out one day after we bought cold sodas after a hot day of fishing. Before we left, Pop slapped down a wad of money—$100 in all—and bought a money order. He wrote the name of his favorite fishing organization on it, then slipped it into his shirt pocket before we went outside to sit on the porch and enjoy our sodas.

One-hundred dollars back then is equal to nearly $700 today. That’s a lot of money—now or then—especially for an old guy who lived in a tiny cabin on a farm where he worked for room, board and modest wages.

For me, it was a valuable lesson about outdoor stewardship—and not just because of the $100 donation.

I finally realized Pop didn’t scavenge old fishing tackle because he was cheap. It was his way of being a good steward for the outdoors.

Here are some free, easy things you can do to follow Pop’s example:

  • Remove discarded tackle, garbage and fishing line you find along lakes and streams.
  • Pick up used targets, spent brass and other debris after target shooting.
  • Don’t attach targets to live trees (or power poles).
  • Don’t harass wildlife.
  • Only camp at designated sites.
  • Don’t use waterways or shorelines as a toilet.
  • Follow Leave No Trace guidelines, whether backpacking or tailgate camping.
  • Volunteer for cleanup projects.

If you feel the need to put your money where your heart is, go ahead and slap down $700 for your favorite outdoor organization. Pop did.

The Eyes Have It
Deer have an amazing 310-degree field of view. Compare that to humans, who have a 180-degree field of view. Deer also have excellent vision in low-light conditions, such as at dusk and dawn.

Brake for the Rain
Rim brakes on bicycles are susceptible to slipping and even failure in rainy conditions. That’s because water and grime accumulate on the rims and make them slick when wet brake pads come in contact with them. The solution is to feather your brakes, pumping them on and off continuously until they squeegee enough water off the rims for the brakes to start to grip.

Florida Fish Finder
Find out which fish are running and where. The Florida Go Fishing chart lists fish species and the optimal months to fish them. There’s a listing for each region of the state. Check out the chart at

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Dive Deep With Underwater Adventures

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Enjoy a night at an underwater hotel in Key Largo. Guests scuba dive through mangroves to reach the accommodations.
Photo courtesy of Jules Undersea Lodge

Take a dive into the underwater world off the coast of Florida with a couple of unusual attractions.
Jules’ Undersea Lodge is part of Key Largo Undersea Park. It bills itself as the United States’ only underwater hotel.

In addition to overnight stays, Jules’ offers a three-hour pizza lunch in the underwater lodge, plus all levels of scuba certification programs. Begun as an underwater research site, the lodge habitat is filled with reef fish and sea plants.

Guests enter a pressurized pod through the “moon pool” in the main living area. Two private bedrooms have large round windows. The space is air-conditioned, with hot and cold running water, a phone, electricity and other amenities.

Participants must be in good health and scuba-certified or take an introductory scuba course to dive 21 feet through mangroves to the lodge.

Jules’ Underwater Lodge also offers Professional Association of Diving Instructors certifications, snorkeling and diving programs.

Santa Rosa Beach recently opened the Underwater Museum of Art near Grayton Beach State Park. A partnership between the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association, the museum showcases seven sculptures submerged 50 to 60 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. Located 0.7 miles offshore, it is accessible through the state park.

Florida Oddities
South of Marco Island, about 180 feet from the shore in the Gulf of Mexico, is a group of concrete igloo-like structures that was once the vacation home of retired oilman Bob Lee. Built in 1981, the Cape Romano Dome House has weathered hurricanes and nature’s forces, but is now abandoned. Standing in 6 feet of water, it is still visible to boaters who want to visit.

Near the Port of Green Cove Springs in northeast Florida, you can still see an abandoned full-scale model of one of the space shuttle’s external fuel tanks. It was destined to become part of the Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum in Keystone Heights, but logistics and costs prevented its move. It remains in Green Cove Springs.

The Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower now stands in ruins. It was built in the late 1920s by a real estate developer who wanted to outsmart the area’s mosquito population at a proposed fishing resort he intended to build. Bats feed on mosquitos, so at the time the bat tower seemed like a perfect solution to the bug problem.

Check out other oddities at

Celebrate Chocolate
Some of us celebrate chocolate every day, but according to the official National Day Calendar, October 28 is a big deal. It is National Chocolate Day—an excuse to abandon reason and have chocolate at all three meals and for snacks.
Take advantage of offers of discounts or free chocolate from Lindt, Russell Stover or Godiva by joining their online chocolate rewards clubs. Yummy!

Of Clouds and Dreams

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Cloud formations are endlessly fascinating and never the same, filled with animals and armies, chariots and spaceships.
Photo by David LaBelle

I spent many wonder-filled afternoons lying on my back in spring pastures or early summer hayfields watching cotton clouds lumber across blue skies. It was a magical, entertaining, curiosity-filled time, my dreams floating upward, attaching to slow-moving shapes before disappearing to faraway lands.

I often wondered where the clouds went after they left my view. Perhaps they dropped my dreams in the lap of another boy far away.

I imagined riding on a cloud and seeing where it took me. Years later, looking out of jet windows above mushrooming clouds, I still wished I could push past the plexiglass and ride a cloud.
Sometimes, I even imagined the sky was the ocean and clouds were whitecaps.

Straddling worlds of reality and fantasy, my siblings and I spent hours spotting animals and figures in the ever-changing sky.

“There’s a woodpecker; see his pointed head?” Another would holler, “I see a dog or a lion, or a scary monster face.”

Gazing into the heavens or across the plains, we feel a range of emotions—from delight to gratitude to fear—from the different formations: fluffy cumulus; layered stratus meandering across the horizon; thin, feathery cirrus, like streaking white fireflies; tall, billowing, intimidating several-mile-high cumulonimbus formations that climb into the heavens so powerfully.

How could we be bored as long as we have eyes to see or a camera to record a unique cloud-filled tapestry?

Whatever your emotions, never stop being amazed or grow indifferent seeing our creator’s handiwork.

As you try to record the beauty of cloud-filled heavens:

  • Use foreground to create scale and depth. As with photographing most large things, scale helps us understand size. Choosing a contrasting or complimentary foreground is often the difference between a so-so image and a compelling, even breathtaking, one.
  • Notice how time of day changes the direction of light, color and mood. Though I talk a lot about using early morning or late afternoon light and avoiding high noon light, using mid-day sunlight to photograph clouds is often best because the sun bleaches the tops, which creates lovely contrasts to azure blue skies. The bottoms of the clouds, hidden from direct sunlight, are darker and grayer, reflecting light from the earth or ocean.
    Watch how landscapes change as clouds pass before the sun. This creates shadows, which, in turn, create beautiful layers of tones and depth on the land or water.
  • Capitalize on sunrise and sunset. As children, most of us heard the weather forecast: Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. I watch the sky during the day. When I see opaque clouds beginning to gather in the early afternoon, I know a beautiful, colorful sunset is possible. I begin considering what foreground might work best and scout at least an hour before sunset. Sunrises require more planning to be in position before the clouds explode in color before actual sunrise. Sunsets develop gradually. Sunrises happen quickly. Color fades and changes in seconds.
  • Look above and below. The angle from which we view anything can change our perception and our feelings. Get a window seat and put your phone on airplane mode.

I never tire of documenting God’s handiwork. Full of beauty, tension and unending surprises, each cloud-filled sky is a unique, complex masterpiece never to be seen again.

Internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He spent his magical boyhood years taking photos. For more information, visit

Native Spirit

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Photo by David LaBelle

Ben Liggin Sr. showcases Native American culture to honor history of indigenous people

Story by Pam Blair
Photos by David LaBelle

From an early age, culture was important to Ben Liggin Sr.

The son of missionary parents, Ben spent eight formative years along with his two older brothers in Africa—first in Nyasaland, now known as Malawai, when he was about ages 1 to 4, and then in South Africa’s Pretoria and Durban areas from ages 8 to 13.

“I developed a fondness for the African people,” Ben says. “I became fascinated with the culture, and got into the art part of it as a young child.”

Once back in the states, Ben’s interest in indigenous people transferred to local Native American heritage.

A white boy with no Native American lineage—his wife, Carolyn, does trace her roots to the Apache—Ben is nonetheless driven to educate, preserve and restore the culture of those who originally inhabited the St. Andrews Bay area.

“I want to try to reconnect people with their native spirit,” Ben says. “It may not be Native American, but we all have a native spirit. A lot of people really care about the culture.”

A Storefront Showcase
In 2017, Ben opened the Native Spirit Museum & Gallery in historic St. Andrews Bay. He displays authentic artifacts and decor from the Florida Panhandle and surrounding areas, and sells Native American-styled artwork from around the country.

His artistic side is expressed through creation of one-of-a-kind clay figurines that incorporate wood, leather, bone and stone. He calls the series native spirits, which inspired his business name.

“I wanted to open a free museum, but to fund that, I opened a gallery,” Ben says, noting it also is a gift store. “The museum is here for people to learn. I love for kids to come in. This is a hands-on place. I hope to spark an interest in young minds when they see what was found in their backyard.”
Among the items displayed in the museum are Ice Age artifacts such as woolly mammoth and mastodon teeth and sabertooth skulls, along with Native American pieces.

Inspired by the Past
Ben’s interest in history, archaeology, anthropology and Native American culture peaked when he found his first arrowhead in Colorado at around age 24.

“I became hooked,” he says.

The arrowhead is framed and hangs in his gallery, along with other treasures.

“When you pick up your first artifact, you start thinking about where that came from, who made it, how it got there,” Ben says. “When I got home, I wanted to find more, so I started looking around St. Andrews Bay. I found pottery with different designs on broken shards.”

At the time, Ben worked 12-hour days six days a week as manager of Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store.

“Whenever I had a chance to get away, I would go looking for artifacts,” he says. “It was my release. It was a way to get out of town and get stress off of me. I put myself out where Native Americans lived—where it was nice and quiet, away from people.”

Since then, Ben has drawn inspiration from mentor Tom Detrick, who toured powwows and festivals throughout the Southeast. Tom—who once owned a gallery featuring Native American works—was learning to flint knap and rented a space at Alvin’s.

Tom encouraged Ben to create his own artwork, introducing him to modeling clay in the late 1990s. Ben began selling his pieces at a ceramics gallery he and his wife opened in Seaside. By 1998, Ben was making his native spirit line.

When Tom started diving for artifacts in local rivers, Ben joined him. Laws have changed, and it now is illegal to take artifacts from state waters, Ben notes.

“We were drawn together 30 years ago by an interest in anthropology,” Tom says. “Initially it was from a collector’s perspective, but it developed into an appreciation for its cultural importance.

“The indigenous tribes became extinct, largely killed off by disease. They have no spokesman, and the Native American culture was abused. Ben speaks on their behalf.”

The two travel the powwow circuit, selling artwork that reflects authentic Native American culture, Ben says.

Tom also assists Ben as co-curator at Native Spirit Museum & Gallery.

A Cultural Treasure
The historical significance of the St. Andrews Bay area continues to captivate both men.

They have found relics from the Ice Age and various Native American periods.

“This is one of the areas where life was sustained,” Tom says. “We really are right in the heart of everything.”

The first residents arrived in the area more than 14,000 years ago, Tom says.

Traces of 53 mounds built by early Native Americans who inhabited the area centuries ago have been found along St. Andrews Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, the Choctawhatchee River and Holmes Creek, Ben says.

Prominent archaeologist C.B. Moore visited the area in 1905 and documented numerous shell mounds.

“The largest of the mounds was on Shell Point,” Ben says. “The mound was 6 acres at the base and reached a height of 30 feet.”

Shell Point is northwest of Hathaway Bridge connecting Panama City and Panama City Beach along U.S. Route 98.

“When a pass through was cut for Shell Island, engineers decided to take advantage of a 40-foot-deep spring-fed pond,” Ben says. “It was an engineer’s dream and an ecologist’s nightmare.

“What attracted these indigenous people to this area was the freshwater springs along the coastline. The only place along the Gulf Coast where you can find freshwater springs this close to the gulf is between Panama City and Pensacola. Most of the ponds on the north side of Front Beach Road are spring-fed.

“Inland game such as deer, turkeys, rabbits and squirrels drank from the pristine springs, providing a constant supply of fresh meat. The salty bay and gulf shores provided shellfish such as clams, conchs, oysters and scallops. Fish abounded.”

The springs were a draw not only for Native Americans, but for the Spaniards who were searching for the fountain of youth.

Evidence of the Spaniards’ presence was found when a construction crew was setting footers for a nearby Holiday Inn in the 1960s. Workers struck a Spanish galleon that had sunk at the entrance to the bay during a hurricane.

With help from personnel at the Naval Support Activity Base in Panama City Beach, two cannons from the ship were retrieved, and work on the motel continued.

During his work in the region, Moore unearthed two cone-shaped adult skulls. He donated them to the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

A third was unearthed about 50 years ago during a local dig. It was reinterred at the end of the project.

Righting a Wrong
In addition to educating the public about the area’s past through his museum and gallery, Ben is committed to trying to correct—to the extent possible—the desecration of culturally significant remnants of the indigenous people.

As recently as the 1970s, Native American pottery shards were plentiful along the water, but no one paid attention to their importance and now it is gone, Tom says.

“We may not be able to replace all of the shell mounds, but we can replace one,” Ben insists. “Replacing the shell mound on Shell Point is one of two goals I have for the near future.”

He says the land on which Shell Point sits was traded to the county as part of an airport deal. Because it is wetlands, it is not commercially viable for construction.

“Being in a tourist community, we are always concerned with what we can do to attract more visitors,” Ben says. “The county can make a project of restoring a forgotten cultural asset and, in so doing, increase tourism. The oyster shells to make the mound could be collected from local restaurants, getting the entire county involved.”

His second goal is to replace the skulls unearthed by Moore more than 100 years ago to the Navy base area where they were found.

“They are probably locked up in a basement drawer at the Peabody Museum,” Ben says. “I don’t want them on exhibit, or to be photographed. I don’t want them in my gallery. They need to be returned to the earth, to their rightful resting place.”

Reshaping Women’s Lives

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Sherry, second from left, dons a period costume with, from left, graduate Angela Weaver and participants Krista Altenbach and Danielle Anderson in the Amazing Grace Tea House, which helps fund Lydia’s House and supports lessons of servant leadership.

Wauchula-based nonprofit supports women looking to escape a painful past

Nestled in the tranquil town of Wauchula is a place of mental and spiritual respite and rebuilding for women seeking an escape from addiction or to rebuild their lives after a difficult past.

Sherry White had a vision one evening that was so troubling she got out of bed, dropped to her knees and prayed.

“I saw abused, abandoned children,” Sherry says. “The pictures I was seeing were so horrific. I said, ‘Lord, I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world. I’m just one woman and there’s nothing I can do about it.’”

The next day, she had another vision. This time, she saw a late 1800s-style farm.

“I drew it with horses and carriages, vegetable gardens, a petting zoo, farm, general store, RV parking for volunteers and a barn,” Sherry says. “We have that today.”

Sherry White Ministries is more than a ministry. It is a place for religious understanding, as the name suggests, but it also is home to a program that brings women with troubled pasts an opportunity for change.

Lydia’s House in Wauchula is home to those women.

“Lydia’s House Inc. is a refuge for women coming out of destructive lifestyles,” says Sherry, founder of the Lydia’s House program and Sherry White Ministries. “We want women there to know they are loved despite their circumstances. The program takes people who were incarcerated—or should have been incarcerated—and gives them a chance to turn their life around. We don’t charge the women for the one-year program, and I don’t get paid for anything I do in ministry. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them.”

Everything at Lydia’s House is free for residents, who agree to participate in the yearlong, three-part program. Participants live onsite and are provided shelter, food and clothing. During their time with Sherry and other participants, the women learn about personal, spiritual and family recovery and basic life skills. They also receive counseling.

“I’d been doing prison ministries and evangelism for a long time,” Sherry says. “I saw a real need for people to have a program other than being incarcerated, where they were given consequences for their decisions, but are still given life skills to succeed. The program is just one step under jail or prison.”

The program is strict because Sherry wants participants prepared to be on their own, which includes employment after graduation.

“We didn’t want them getting back into a drug environment or an unhealthy environment,” she says. “We want them to have an opportunity to work in the latter stages of the program.”

That is where Amazing Grace Tea House comes into play.

“When they get to this place, they are able to earn money working at the tea house,” Sherry says. “We’re not putting money in their hands when still in the program, but a portion of their tips goes to Lydia’s House for special outings.”

Graduates do earn tips and keep the money. Participants and graduates both learn the benefits of servant leadership, which puts others first.

“We stress and teach servant leadership, and what an excellent opportunity to exercise what they’ve been taught by serving others here at the tea house and truly making it about the other person,” Sherry says.

Danielle Anderson and Krista Altenbach say the program changed their outlooks.

“The root of it is selfishness,” says Danielle, who lost custody of her daughter due to addiction. “You get to a point where you care more about getting high than you do about your family. I didn’t realize how much I was hurting my child because I was too high or drunk to realize it. My breaking point was when the pain was greater than the high or when I was drunk. I was getting high to live. I ended up signing my kid over to my dad and my stepmom. They said I had to go into a program.”

She contacted different programs, but says none seemed to be the right fit. Danielle was then referred to Sherry White Ministries.

“This place shows you how not to be selfish by being a servant and doing what Jesus did,” she says.

“We all learn that true joy comes in serving,” adds Sherry.

As participants work toward recovery, Sherry continues to plan for the future.

The organization has a 25-acre farm with restored cabins for families to use when visiting. It is also where participants can spend up to 21 days in a tent for causing disruptions. She wants to expand to 200 acres so graduates can live onsite and gain independence while still having some accountability.

Krista says she arrived with no respect for authority, but finally got to a place where it hurt to be selfish and hurt others. She says she still has work to do, but the program—including a stint at the farm in a tent that almost forced her to leave—gave her choices.

“If I didn’t have the choice to go out there, I would have gone out and been swallowed up again,” Krista says. “I decided to stay and do something different.”

Lydia’s House welcomes women from throughout the United States. For more information, call
(863) 773-0877 or go to

Venturing Outside the Lines

Monday, August 20th, 2018

A good map is essential when venturing off the beaten path. Above, a father and daughter take a break to check their location on a map of the area. They are using the stream as a linear topographical feature to follow, in lieu of a trail.
© iStock/Kerkez

Remember when you learned to color in school? You were taught to stay within the lines.
Yet there was always that kid who couldn’t resist the temptation to color outside the lines.

For some of us, that tendency is inherent in the way we explore the outdoors. We prefer to get off the beaten path. It’s a great way to avoid crowds, discover new vistas and see more wildlife.

Whatever your favorite means of experiencing the outdoors—backpacking, hiking, mountain biking or canoeing—here are a few tips to help you enjoy your excursions outside the lines.

  • Master basic navigation skills. At a minimum, that includes knowing how to read a map, identify terrain features, orient a map to terrain, track pace count, and take and follow a compass bearing.
  • Don’t go it alone. Traveling with friends is always more enjoyable, not to mention safer.
  • Bring along a good map. Bring a hardcopy or digital map downloaded to your GPS or phone. Better yet, carry both. Don’t rely on maps that require internet access, since cell signals may be weak or nonexistent in remote areas.
  • Avoid fragile vegetation and terrain. Always obey stay-on-the-trail signs. Even in areas not posted, whenever possible, stay on dirt, sand, rocks or other durable surfaces.
  • Let someone know where you are going. Have a plan and share it with friends or family. Give them a copy of the map showing your intended route.

App of the Month:Gaia GPS
A good map app is useful for wilderness travel, and Gaia GPS is well worth consideration. It offers all of the features one expects to find in a first-rate map app, and exceeds expectations.

One feature that sets it apart is the ability to download lots of maps—not just one type, but many different formats. Maps can be viewed singly or in layers.

A free, bare-bones version of Gaia GPS is available, but the best value is the member-level annual subscription. Some people might consider it expensive—$19.95 a year—but it is well worth the price.

Think Like Bait
It’s simple: Locate bait and you will find fish. To do that, you have to know where naturally occurring bait will be found. Obviously, time of year, water temperature and habitat should be assessed. But you also can take your cues from observations. Watch for bait fish skimming the surface or schooling in open water. Birds circling or feeding on the water is also a good indication of bait—and fish.

Special September Days
September 16, Collect Rocks Day.
September 22, National Hunting and Fishing Day.

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Remember to identify people and pets in photos. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Connected to the Earth

Monday, August 20th, 2018

Caitlin McMullen enjoys educating others about the medicinal uses of herbs.

Myakka woman reclaims herbal heritage, combining old and new worlds

The remarks of the tour guide could have been alarming.

“There’s spiderwort and mugwort,” she says, pointing to the ground. “You are stepping on a lion’s mane. Careful around those Spanish needles.”

Myakka herbalist, homesteader and herb gardener Caitlin McMullen had the attention of the participants on an herb walk at Sarasota’s Native Plant Nursery.

Caitlin led an enlightening excursion down a path that rambles around a native garden lush with plants and flowers observers often regard as “just weeds.”

“We can talk all day about plants in books,” Caitlin says, “but there is nothing that equals walking about to see them. Many of the plants growing around us—be they natives, invasives, landscaping plants or naturalized non-natives—hold amazing medicinal and nutritional benefits.”

Caitlin’s passionate work revolves around reclaiming our herbal heritage, marrying ancient traditions within the scientific context of our modern world and practicing methods integral for living a healthy, natural lifestyle.

“By getting to know our local plants, we can become less reliant on food and medicine from faraway places, while deepening our connection with our local bioregion,” she says.

Caitlin says the challenge is to show people how simple and easy it is to connect with plants and nature in a meaningful way without spending much money or time.

“I really want to meet people where they are and without being critical of them for making choices I don’t agree with,” Caitlin says. “I try to hold a lot of compassion and humility when I talk about patterns of imbalance and illness in our society.

“I focus on medicinal herbalism: educating and sharing. Nothing I do exists in a vacuum. I want to bring people’s attention to, and get them in touch with, the plants that grow around here.

“Lots of plants right here are overlooked. You can’t expect populations to protect things they don’t love. It requires being aware of environmental degradation and our interdependence.”

Caitlin establishes this connection through classes, tutoring and apprenticeships. She leads educational herb walks, gives talks and offers a line of products at markets and conventions.
Unreservedly, she calls herself a tree hugger—in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

“I’ve always felt at home in the woods,” Caitlin says. “Trees were my first loves in the plant world. Only as an adult did I really dive deeply into learning about and appreciating smaller herbaceous plants and flowers.”

A Florida native, Caitlin was born in Tallahassee and raised on a mostly plant-based diet of home-cooked meals.

“My mother followed a homeopathic style of life,” Caitlin explains. “She used herbal and homeopathic remedies to care for us. This upbringing laid the foundation for me to call upon herbs as medicine and allies in keeping myself healthy.”

Caitlin graduated from New College, using a Bright Futures scholarship, and earned a self-created degree in interdisciplinary performance.

“In one of my college classes, we watched a video on traditional Chinese medicine that examined how health and illness is a continuum, not a static condition, but rather a constant ebb and flow,” she says. “New stressors and information require us to continually work to support our health. Maintaining health needs to be a constant practice.

“Other students in the class experienced this as a new and enlightening perspective, while for me, it was very much in line with the philosophy I’d been raised with.”

Her first year, Caitlin cooked all her food in her dorm. By her second year, she bought bulk herbs and made teas.

“I liked to blend,” she says, “but at that point I was just learning from books.”

For a time following her graduation, Caitlin performed in contemporary dance, mingled with experimental vocal music and improvisational-based performance structures.

But always an herbalist at heart, she also began studies at the Florida School of Holistic Living, keeping focused on connecting with the earth.

Today, Caitlin grows her own herbs and vegetables, sharing a holistic homesteading life with her partner and their two children on 5 acres in northeast Sarasota County.

Focusing on homegrown and respectfully wildcrafted bioregional herbs, she manages Magnolia and Pine apothecary.

“This is a cornerstone of my medicine-making practice,” Caitlin says. “Medicine made slowly, seasonally, in reverence for the day and with love.

“I finally made time today to get my hands in the dirt. Ahhhhhh, sweet relief for an herbalist’s soul!” n

A Formula to Grow Your Photo-Storytelling Skills

Monday, August 20th, 2018

One of the cool things about barbershops is the abundance of mirrors and details. In the image, Walden’s Barbershop in Hartville, Ohio, Ray Walsh, 68, in the chair at left, gets a haircut and beard trim from Theresa Walden while her husband, Tony, prepares to work on college student Matthias Miles. Photos by David LaBelle

Each year, I give dozens of assignments designed to help students grow their narrative storytelling skills. I have found one exercise that best challenges and strengthens the skills of beginner documentary photographers: documenting a local barbershop.

Like finding a physical workout to strengthen muscles, this photo assignment helps strengthen observational, listening, interpersonal, organizational, artistic, interpretive and technical skills while building the beginner’s confidence—a key ingredient for successful storytellers.

Success builds success, so it is important for beginners to tackle something they can achieve. Initially, I thought a hair salon would also work, but they have never produced the same results.

Here is why this works:

  • It is a contained spot. A lot of sports photographers are lousy documentary storytellers. They are great at covering a planned event in a self-contained location, but often fail when they have to “find” stories on their own. Researching, talking to strangers, and coming up with a storyline or point of view is not their strength. Like a sporting venue, the barbershop allows the action and interactions to be witnessed and experienced in a pre-determined, self-contained environment.
  • It forces shy, introverted people to work and interact in close spaces. For many of my students with solid technical skills, approaching strangers or speaking in a public forum is a difficult challenge. Those who know me find it hard to believe I was once a terribly shy, insecure young man terrified to speak publicly. But I felt I had important things to say, so I kept facing my fears and stumbling until public speaking became comfortable. Working in close spaces with people you do not know stretches your comfort zone, forcing you to interact with fellow human beings. This requires you to make initial contact to ask permission. Maybe get your hair cut first?
  • It is a place to observe, listen and learn. Sitting quietly, preferably with a notepad, will teach you to observe and listen. This must be done without the destructive distraction of a cellphone or laptop screen. I remember stepping off a plane onto Alaska’s North Slope and feeling I had been dropped on the moon. I was there to photograph wildlife, but saw nothing but spongy, frozen emptiness. As I sat staring and listening, the tundra began to move, and I heard a variety of animals. Many are so blinded by their devices they fail to see the subtle beauty around them. Sitting quietly in a barbershop, you will see important, relevant, storytelling details you have never noticed. Listen. Pay attention to colorful quotes, the cantor or speech, names. First, observe without the camera at your face or eye. Watch, gather and experience the smells and the sounds.

Visit several times, until you and they feel comfortable. The more you show up, the quicker people will quit performing and see you as part of the furniture—and you will feel more comfortable, which will make shooting pictures easier.

Show appreciation to the people who have given you access to them, and their precious time and trust, by offering to give them pictures.

Don’t risk forgetting to follow up or losing business cards or scraps of paper containing their names. Instead, give them your email and put the onus on them to contact you. It is easy to ask for pictures, but many won’t make the effort to follow up. If they do, be sure to deliver. People will judge others and the profession by your actions.

Internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. For more information, visit

An Underwater Miracle Worker

Monday, August 20th, 2018

Edd spends nearly 300 days a year in the water, most near his shop in Marianna.

Edd Sorenson helps improve the odds of cave-diving rescues

It was 2012. Four cave divers had gone into the water at Merritt’s Mill Pond in the Blue Springs Recreation Area near Marianna in northwest Florida. Only three came out.

That prompted a call to Edd Sorenson.

“We were at the park and in the water in less than 15 minutes,” says Edd, who operates a dive shop nearby. “While my assistant grabs my gear, I jump in the truck. He says, ‘Go, go, go,’ and as I’m driving 100 miles an hour, I look in the mirror and he’s laying in the back of the truck with my gear. He’s back there, literally screwing regulators in. That’s how dedicated he is.”

After entering the water and reaching the cave where the diver was last seen, Edd searched through murky waters, looking and listening for signs of life.

“When I first saw him, I thought he was dead already,” Edd says. “I saw his legs dangling. But he had his face in this air pocket. It was only about 2 feet across and 8 inches high.”

Edd got a regulator to the lethargic diver and prepared him for their exit.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to get you out.’” Edd says.

He kept that promise.

“I have a pretty good reputation in the cave-diving community,” he notes.

A legend among cave divers, Edd holds an amazing record of saves.

Rescues of lost cave divers are rare. Unfortunately, Edd says, 99 percent of searches turn into recovery efforts. There are only a handful of successes.

Edd has made five successful rescues—more than anyone else in the world. He became a local hero in 2012 after making four rescues, saving five divers.

For his efforts, Edd was presented with the Diver’s Alert Network Hero Award, Heroic Merit Awards and was named Instructor Trainer of the Year from the Professional Scuba Association International.

His assistant, Frank Gonzalez, also received a Heroic Merit Award for his efforts in that 2012 rescue near Marianna.

Minutes can mean the difference between life and death for a diver in distress. The time saved by Frank’s quick actions in the back of the truck were key, Edd says.

“The air in that pocket would have only lasted a few minutes,” Edd explains. “Those minutes he saved were crucial. My guys are just amazing. It really is those guys who make me look good.”

Media outlets sought Edd’s expertise repeatedly this summer when he responded to call after call to discuss the intricacies of the effort to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand. CBS, Live Science, the British Broadcasting Corp., the China Global Television Network, Agence France-Presse and others interviewed Edd.

While the event in Thailand was not technically a cave dive rescue, Edd says it had its own set of daunting challenges.

For any rescue to be successful, a thousand things must go just right in a situation where a million things can go wrong, he notes.

Edd credits his success in part to the proximity of his shop, Cave Adventurers, to Blue Springs Recreation Area—a well-known cave-diving area.

“Our shop is right on the water, and I always have my gear ready to go,” he says.

His preparedness and comfort level in zero-visibility water also are keys to his successful rescues, but “most of it is just good luck,” he adds.

Soon after moving to Marianna from Oregon in 2002, Edd began supporting not only the dive community, but the larger community.

“I had planned on moving to the Bahamas,” Edd says, “but I picked Florida. I was coming to Florida about three times a year, but it wasn’t until 2002 that a friend brought me here. It was great.”

Edd loved Florida’s caves, which he terms “fairly technical,” and was ready to explore them more often.

“When I bought the house, I was just going to move here and go cave diving,” he says. “But when I looked around, the closest place to get my tanks filled was 50 miles away.”

The impetus for setting up his shop was meeting his own diving needs, but he soon found he filled an important niche for others in the diving community.

“People just started showing up,” Edd says.

They are still showing up.

Since 2002, Edd has introduced divers from 26 countries and all 50 states to the network of pristine dive sites below Merritt’s Mill Pond. He is sought after as an instructor and a guide.

In addition to being a source of equipment, Cave Adventurers offers a variety of training courses through a network of affiliated instructors.

“I’m probably in the water 275 to 300 days a year,” Edd says. “If I don’t go diving every day or two, I get grouchy.”

On dry land, Edd is known and respected as an ambassador for the area, promoting tourism and resource protection. Soon after relocating to Florida, he was instrumental in organizing river cleanups, hazardous waste amnesty days and other programs to protect and improve the waterways.

“I did a lot of volunteer work and within a short time was asked to serve on the chamber board and the tourism development council.”

He has been reappointed to those boards.

But most of Edd’s time is devoted to preaching safety in the water. He laughs when recalling one diver’s comment about keeping safety gear at hand.

“He said, ‘I always carry a safety reel because an Edd Sorenson won’t fit in my pocket,’” Edd says.

Edd is happy to have been close enough to play the role he has in rescues many have called miracles.

While defying the odds has earned him a reputation as a hero, he says he is just as happy when he is teaching safety techniques to students, introducing divers to new underwater adventures or touting the beautiful natural assets of his adopted home state of Florida.

“Maybe I was just put on this earth to help people,” Edd says. “I’m OK with that. That’s the way my dad taught me. You do what you can.”


In Good Hands

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Jessica Levy, program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation, hangs new coral fragments on a Coral Tree in the CRF nursery.
Photo by Zach Ransom/Coral Restoration Foundation

Coral Restoration Foundation program manager leads the effort to bring Florida’s reef back from the brink of extinction

For many people, the health of coral reefs is an out of sight, out of mind problem.

“Unless you live by the coast and have regular access to visit a coral reef, people can develop a misconception that it doesn’t affect them and why worry about it,” says Jessica Levy, reef restoration program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Since 2012, Jessica has worked with the foundation, bringing new life to the Florida Reef Tract. She is driven by a passion to ensure survival of the critically endangered coral reef.

“The reality is that reefs provide so many benefits to us,” Jessica says. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about their status and how we can be better reef stewards.”

A Love of the Water
Whether at work or play, Jessica is drawn to water.

She credits the fond memories she made visiting the North Carolina coast with her family for her love of the ocean and her career path.

“We spent time playing in the sand and along the shore, hopping over waves as they broke—typical kid stuff,” Jessica says. “I grew to love all aspects of the ocean and to respect all that it can provide. Being near an ocean and feeling connected to it quickly became my happy place.

“My parents could have taken us camping and I’d probably have a totally different pathway in life.”

When Jessica joined the Coral Restoration Foundation, her work was heavily water-focused. Today, she estimates 75 percent of her time is spent on land managing staff, nursery operations, outplanting, dive facilities and funding.

Outside of work, Jessica enjoys traveling, noting most of her destinations include a dive element.

From early in life, Jessica, 30, says she knew she wanted to work around water.

“I fell in love with diving instantly,” she says. “It was a way to do more and see more than just floating at the surface and being limited by a single breath of air.

“Diving is weird at first because humans aren’t meant to breathe underwater, so it feels odd. Your reflexes are telling you this is weird, but then you trust your instructor, your gear and yourself, and then the weirdness goes away.”

Jessica spent her 21st birthday on a night dive off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is known for its wreck dives and sharks.

“I was swimming along and all of a sudden started rising slowly,” she says. “Unbeknownst to me, my weight belt had slipped off. I managed to come up under a lovely sand tiger shark and headbutted her in the belly before the dive guide grabbed me and put the belt back on.”

During her undergraduate studies in marine science/conservation, Jessica spent a semester studying in Australia and then Curacao. The summer after earning her degree, she worked with the Marine Conservation Institute in California.

“When I moved to Australia for graduate school, I got to dive the Great Barrier Reef and that was it,” Jessica says. “I knew I wanted to work with corals and focus on their preservation and protection.”

Striving for Survival
The modern order of corals has been around more than 300 million years and has survived three mass extinctions.

“Coral reefs are vital to life on this planet,” Jessica says. “Coral reefs are the oceans’ most diverse and productive ecosystem. It is estimated more than 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean—a result of the delicate balance of the interconnected web of life in our seas. Coral reefs are an important component of this balance.”

Coral reefs are estimated to provide goods and services worth $375 billion each year—“an amazing figure for an environment that covers less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface,” Jessica says.

In an age of increasingly extreme weather, coastal barriers provided by reefs cause waves to break farther offshore, dissipating the water’s energy before it reaches the coastline. As reefs degrade, waves reach the coastline with far greater energy, causing destructive erosion, property damage and loss of life.

“We need people to understand how interconnected the systems of our world are,” Jessica says. “If we lose all of our world’s shallow water coral reefs, this will be the first time that humanity has faced the loss of an entire ecosystem, so we don’t fully understand what the repercussions would ultimately be.”

Education is a vital component of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s work.

“People need to become more ocean conscious, encourage better practices and promote better actions in their everyday life,” Jessica says. “Every choice we make matters. Think about this: Every single piece of plastic you have ever used still exists. Every straw, every plastic bottle, every plastic bag. When we think we are throwing things away, there is no ‘away.’ A lot of this plastic ends up making its way into our oceans.”

Recreational divers have opportunities to help the foundation with active reef restoration. Through Skype, staff “visit” classrooms around the world to talk about coral reefs. Teachers get resources to integrate coral reef information into lesson plans.

“We take part in shows and events, where our team answers questions and gives people insight into coral reefs, the threats they face and the ways everyone can help protect life in our oceans,” Jessica says.

Giving Nature a Boost
During the past decade, the Coral Restoration Foundation has developed a science-driven method for farming and outplanting colonies of staghorn and elkhorn coral, hanging finger-sized fragments on Coral Trees—a structure of PVC pipes—suspended in a nutrient- and sunlight-rich water column.

Colonies are large enough to be planted onto the reef in six to nine months. With around 500 Coral Trees across seven large underwater nurseries, the foundation has now planted almost 70,000 corals onto the Florida Reef Tract.

Outplanted coral thickets now spawn naturally—evidence the work is paying off.

The goal is to bring reefs to a condition where their natural recovery processes can take over, and they can return themselves to a healthy state.

The Tavernier nursery—the largest of seven in the Keys—spans around an acre-and-a-half of seafloor. That is roughly the size of a football field.

“At a personal level, I’m always blown away by the sheer scale of the nursery and its operations,” Jessica says. “At a professional level, I’m intimidated by it, which is why I’m grateful for the staff we have that do this daily, and the interns and volunteers that are so dedicated.”

She says the first thing you notice in the Tavernier nursery is the amount of coral and nursery structures.

“It is one after another,” Jessica says. “Then you start to swim and you see the details—the many different types of corals, the other fish and invertebrates that have made the nursery their home, and all the little polyps with outreached tentacles.

“We are operating at an unprecedented scale, which is amazing in itself, but also is a big responsibility. A lot of times, my mind is on the work we’re trying to accomplish. But then occasionally you get a fun dive or something really cool swims through, like a hammerhead shark or a pod of dolphins, and it’s magical.

“You never know what you’re going to see. One regular working day in the nursery, a school of 100-plus spotted eagle rays just swam by.”

Lessons for Down Under
When Jessica dove the Great Barrier Reef in 2008, 2011 and 2012, she was captivated by its magnitude and beauty.

“It had lots of life, both macro and mega fauna, lots of color and lots of coral diversity—which is starkly different from reefs in Florida, which have been declining since the mid-1970s,” Jessica says.

She suspects it is different today because of coral bleaching, caused primarily by prolonged exposure to high sea temperatures. Due to elevated temperatures, corals expel the algae that lives in their tissues and provides them with food and their color. Without the algae, the corals slowly starve, leaving a stark white skeleton.

“The silver lining is restoration efforts in the Caribbean and Florida have come a long way over the decades,” Jessica says. “As Australia looks toward a newfound need for coral restoration efforts, we can open an avenue of information sharing and helping.”

A major side interest of Jessica’s—almost a second job, she says—is related to her day-to-day work. As a member of the Coral Restoration Consortium, she works with other practitioners, researchers, academics and managers to collaborate on restoration.

“Only by working together can we get this field to the scale it needs to be,” she says.

Although the restoration work is incredibly tough and can be frustrating, Jessica says it has been a rewarding career.
“I enjoy the feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile,” she says. “Showing up to work means something. I have a sense of purpose.”