About Expedition Headwaters

Florida is a state defined by water, with oceans on three sides, more than 7,700 lakes, 8,500 miles of coastline and 50,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways that run north to south, east to west and every direction in between. One of those thousands is Shingle Creek, a tiny, unique, modest stream in central Florida, situated amongst exciting theme parks and beautiful hotels. This relatively unknown little stream has a big job – it is the headwaters of America’s Everglades.

Hidden beneath lush greenery, the water that begins in Shingle Creek makes it’s way through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, down the Kissimmee River, rolling on to the great Lake Okeechobee, flowing through the Everglades and into the Florida Bay. This past March, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and partners sought to increase awareness of the hydrological and ecological connection of the Orlando metropolitan area with the Everglades ecosystem. And so with that goal in mind, a team of hikers and kayakers decided to follow that precious water’s route from Shingle Creek to Lake Okeechobee and Expedition Headwaters, An Everglades Journey to Remember, began.

A team of seven, embarking from the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando, owned by environmental-minded hotelier Harris Rosen, traversed 140 miles over 12 days following and exploring the natural corridor that connects Orlando with Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

At the March 23, 2007 launch event, DEP Secretary Michael W. Sole said, “It is important to remember America’s Everglades begin in central Florida, flowing through the Kissimmee River, down to Lake Okeechobee and the River of Grass. We all have a responsibility to take care of our natural resources; working together we can return the Everglades to the great natural treasure it once was.”

The traveling party included representatives from the DEP's Office of Greenways and Trails, Osceola County Parks and Recreation, The Trust for Public Land, the Florida Trail Association and a retiree from the Department of Defense. On a mission to document the state’s extensive environmental restoration efforts and explore the area’s recreational activities, the team also evaluated the Kissimmee River’s potential as a public paddling trail as part of the Florida National Scenic Trail.

“I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a section of trail so much. Not just because of all of the wildlife sightings, but because the location of the trail was superb,” said team member Beth Kelso of the Florida Trail Association. “We rambled from scrub brush, under the weeping care of the old oaks and finally to views out into the open tundra.”

Team members also recorded their first-of-its-kind journey through an online journal and photo blog. Based on observations by team members, the joint state and federal sponsored restoration initiative is bringing the floodplain back to life and the wildlife back home.

“The last couple of days have been some of the best wildlife viewing I have ever experienced in North America,” said team member Bob Mindick of Osceola Parks and Recreation. “What is most wonderful about that fact is that it is right here in our own backyard. I have seen more types of listed species of animals in one small connected chain of lakes along the Kissimmee Valley than in most countries I have visited around the world.”

The Kissimmee River historically flowed for 103 miles, providing habitat for more 300 species, including bald eagle, snail kite and wood stork. Between 1962 and 1971, a flood control project transformed the once meandering river into a 56 mile long, 30 feet deep, 300 feet wide canal. Flooding was controlled, but river redesign led to unintended consequences. By the early 1970s, floodplain use by wintering waterfowl declined by 92 percent.

In 1992, the U.S. Congress authorized the Kissimmee River Restoration Project to restore an estimated 40 square miles of river/floodplain ecosystem, including 26,500 acres of wetlands and 43 continuous miles of river. The project is a joint effort between the state of Florida and the federal government. The state’s main task was acquiring the 102,061 acres needed to complete the project – a major goal that was accomplished in April 2006. With the first two  phases restoration completed, nearly 20 miles of river channel have been restored and almost 6,000 acres of floodplain wetlands have been reclaimed. It is estimated that all restoration-related construction will be completed by 2013 and evaluation of restoration success will continue through 2018.

“As part of the Expedition Headwaters team, I enjoyed being one of the first kayakers to paddle the Kissimmee’s newly restored river channel,” said team member Doug Alderson, of the DEP's Office of Greenways and Trails. “Our group witnessed first-hand the recovering bird populations, and spotted otters, turtles, alligators and other wildlife.”

The journey ended on April 3 at the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area on Lake Okeechobee. As the team was welcomed back by colleagues and friends, they shared the memories of their 12 day voyage. All commented that hopefully, one day soon, more people will be able to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Everglades headwaters as they did.

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A foggy Kissimmee River view

Last reviewed: February 12, 2009