Archive for June, 2012

Photo: Rowing at Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota

The Florida World Aquatic Center opens in March 2013 at the current site of Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.

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Photo: Nathan Benderson Park, future site of Florida World Aquatic Center, Sarasota

The 2,000-meter rowing course at the future site of the Florida World Aquatic Center in Sarasota will offer the only tournament FISA venue in North America.

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Photo: Future site of Florida World Aquatic Center, Sarasota

The multimillion-dollar Florida World Aquatic Center being built at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota is expected to become one of the world’s top sites for water sports.

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Sarasota Builds a Mecca for Rowers and Triathletes

Sarasota – Aquatic athletes from around Florida, the nation and the world will make a bigger splash in Sarasota starting next year.

The multimillion-dollar Florida World Aquatic Center being built at Nathan Benderson Park is expected to become one of the world’s top sites for such sports as rowing, triathlon, canoe and kayak racing, paddleboarding – and the ever-colorful dragon boat regattas, officials say.

Under construction now, the center will be finished in March 2013, said Paul Blackketter, the SunCoast Nature Aquatic Association’s chief operating officer. The association will oversee the race courses and the lake at Nathan Benderson.
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"We will be one of the top five venues in the world," said Blackketter, noting that the 2,000-meter rowing course will offer the only tournament FISA venue in North America. FISA is rowing’s international governing body.

Blackketter also is executive director for planning at Benderson Development Corp., whose founder, Nathan Benderson, is the man for whom the park is named.

The new center’s finishing date in March coincides with its first international event: a triathlon. USA Triathlon is contemplating holding its collegiate national championship at the center in 2015 and 2016.

Other impressive contests lay ahead. The U.S. national masters rowing championships and an international dragon boat regatta are coming in 2014.

"Our goal is to host the world rowing championships in 2017," Blackketter said. "It’s like bringing Olympic-level rowing to Florida, with 80 to 90 countries participating.

"We haven’t been selected yet, but we’re working on it."

Dragon boats will doubtless prove to be crowd-pleasers. They boast an ancient heritage, originating in China, but national and international competition began emerging in the 1970s. Florida has several dragon boat clubs and festivals including those in Miami, Tampa, the Florida Keys, Punta Gorda and Tavares, for example.

Last year, Tampa was host to the World Dragon Boat Championships, which drew about 2,000 athletes from 17 countries chasing the sport’s most prestigious title.

The boats typically carry a crew of 22, are about 40 feet long and are usually decorated with a dragon’s head and tail. A drummer pounds out the rhythm for paddlers.

The World Aquatic Center will include a 30-acre island with a boathouse and grandstand – and the venue will not be solely for "name" events.

"Our objective is to have a major amateur event every weekend of the year," Blackketter said. "Even paddleboard races."

Now, heavy equipment rumbles near the lake, which is near the Sarasota-Manatee County line just a few hard strokes from Interstate 75. Floating course markers are visible on the water. Several rowing competitions have been held on the lake since 2009, including scholastic meets and the annual Sarasota Invitational, which earlier this year attracted more than 1,500 rowers from a dozen states.

"It’s been growing exponentially," Blackketter said. He said he has become "totally engulfed" in the sport of rowing. "I just love it. I love everything it represents."

Among the elements it represents is tourist dollars. Economic studies suggest about $209 million will be generated for the local economy annually, based on a projected 750,000 new tourists every year.

The Legislature earmarked $5 million this year for the center, and Gov. Rick Scott approved the expenditure. In addition, Sarasota County is kicking in $20 million in tourist tax money, Manatee County is adding another $1.5 million and Benderson Development Corp. another $2 million.
  
"It is definitely going to be an attractor for us in the realm of sports tourism," said Jason Puckett, sports director for the Sarasota County Sports Commission.

"Anyone with flat land can build a baseball or soccer field. Not everyone has a 400-acre lake that can host these kinds of water sports. I think it sets us apart from those other destinations," Puckett said.

Continue reading Sarasota Builds a Mecca for Rowers and Triathletes »

Photo: Rowing competition, Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota

Several rowing competitions have been held in Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park, including scholastic meets and the annual Sarasota Invitational.

Continue reading Photo: Rowing competition, Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota »

Registration Opens for the Wild Sebastian 100 Ultrarun on July 2

Yep, I've giving you plenty of notice on this one, folks. The Wild Sebastian 100 Ultrarun happens in the fall on November 10-11, but the registration opens on July 2. That's enough time to think about the challenge, and then prepare for it. 

The race takes place at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park in Fellsmere – that's Indian River County. Not up to running 100 miles? Don't worry, mere mortals can choose from 75, 50, or 25 mile versions, which is still pretty hardcore if you ask me. 

You'll really get the lay of the land at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park during the race. This is a popular park for wildlife watching – keep a look out for turkeys, deer, and Bald eagles while you are there. The course passes through different ecosystems such as pine flatwoods and cypress swamps, adding some variation to the run. For more information, head over to www.wildsebastian100.com. Happy running!

Continue reading Registration Opens for the Wild Sebastian 100 Ultrarun on July 2 »

Photo and Video: The Withlacoochee Returns

A few weeks ago, you could have mistaken the Withlacoochee River in Central Florida for a forest road. Until the recent rains from Tropical Storm Debby, the majestic rivers and streams in the area were reduced to small pools of water, broken apart from one another by long stretches of dry riverbed. For anyone who loves and cares about these waterways, it was an awful thing to see.

I visit several spots on the Withlacoochee River on a fairly regular basis, and these spots are a good indicator as to how the whole river is doing. If there are a lot of exposed rocks at Iron Bridge Recreation Area and no water at Hog Island, you can bet there are a lot of places on the river where it would be almost impossible to get through. 

Here's a picture and a short video showing how things look at Hog Island near Nobleton. I even saw a boat going through right before I waded in to get the photo. That's a good thing! If you are thinking about paddling the Withlacoochee River (South) Paddling Trail, now is the time.

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Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves

In the years before the Civil War, American slaves fleeing bondage in the South didn’t always head northward. Sometimes, the closest path to freedom led them deeper into the South and into Spanish Florida.
         
Today, visitors to Florida can explore some of the notable stops on that journey, from a militia post where freed slaves helped defend St. Augustine against the advancing British, to points in South Florida where groups of runaway slaves escaped American soil for freedom on Caribbean islands.

This southern leg of the Underground Railroad isn’t commonly explored in history books, which commonly chart former slaves’ flight to freedom with help from benevolent northerners on their way. The Florida story is different, say historians, because it focuses on how former slaves won freedom for themselves.
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“It’s important to bring to light and elevate that the Underground Railroad wasn’t just simply people escaping to Canada,” says Carol Miller, national program manager for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program. “People also sought to determine their own futures by escaping into frontier borderland areas, and Florida during that time was such a place.”
         
The Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service brought the National Underground Railroad Conference to the South for the first time in 2012. Organizers chose St. Augustine, rich in history of the New World as well as for black Americans, as the site.
         
For Derek Hankerson, who helped organize the event as executive director of St. Augustine’s Freedom Road, the conference provided an opportunity to reshape the traditional underground railroad story.
         
“I want Americans to realize what it is to pursue happiness, what it is to seek out your life and liberty,” Hankerson says.
         
Several Florida locales help tell this story for visitors. Together, they help make up Florida’s Black Heritage Trail and the National Park Service’s National Underground Network to Freedom:

Fort Mose

The allure of freedom in Florida sprang from the pledge of the king of Spain, who decreed in 1693 that African-born slaves who reached St. Augustine and converted to Catholicism would be granted freedom.
         
That promise led to the founding of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, commonly known as Fort Mose, the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States. The community was established in 1739, 120 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
         
The militia outpost was manned by freed blacks who helped protect St. Augustine from British invaders. The people who lived there developed a community of soldiers, craftsmen and artisans, and the settlement saw bloodshed in 1740, when it protected the fort against the advancing British in a skirmish known as the “Battle of Bloody Mose.”
         
Today, nothing remains of the original fort or wooden structures that made up the Fort Mose community. But the 23-acre Fort Mose Historic State Park includes a visitor center and museum that tells the settlement’s story, plus a boardwalk visitors can use to explore the grounds.

Cape Florida

Eighty years after Fort Mose was founded, Florida became a U.S. territory, popular among runaway slaves not because of its favorable laws but because of its access to other ports of freedom.
         
Today, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne is a beachgoers’ paradise, where visitors sunbathe and swim on the one-mile stretch of oceanfront sand. But in the 1820s, it was an important rendezvous point for people seeking freedom.
         
Even the famous lighthouse on the beach — the oldest remaining structure in Miami-Dade County, it was built in 1825 and rebuilt in 1846 — isn’t as old as the earliest stories of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves who set sail from here to reach the Bahamas.
         
Even today, the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas, founded by Florida runaways, still exists. And though the lighthouse remains one of the biggest tourist attractions on Key Biscayne, the building and usage of it “kind of ended that as a place where people could go and surreptitiously escape,” says Miller, of the National Park Service.

Dry Tortugas

The Fort Jefferson National Monument, part of picturesque Dry Tortugas National Park in Key West, honors one of the largest coastal forts ever constructed — and the site of a failed slave escape.
         
The fort was built largely with the help of enslaved blacks. And in 1847, seven slaves plotted an intricate escape that involved stealing all four of the fort’s seafaring vessels, including a tiny boat owned by the lighthouse keeper. The men were captured two days later, 120 miles from the Dry Tortugas, likely on their way to the Bahamas.
         
Visitors from around the world seek out this national park for its ample snorkeling, fishing, birdwatching and beaches, and visitors can explore the historic 19th century fort.
         
Two other Florida sites on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom include the Southeast Archaeological Center in Tallahassee and the Family Heritage House Museum in Bradenton.
         
At the Family Heritage House Museum, visitors can explore African-American history and achievements, including a research center devoted to the underground railroad. The Southeast Archaeological Center contains extensive collections of artifacts and research relevant to the underground railroad.

Continue reading Along Florida's Underground Railroad, Slaves Won Freedom for Themselves »

Feast of Flowers: Florida's Botanic Gardens

Florida is always in bloom, and its array of flora is showcased in tranquil parks and sprawling gardens across the state.

Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales

Dutch immigrant Edward Bok created this idyllic garden sanctuary, topping it off with a 205-foot bell tower made of Georgia marble and Florida coquina rock. Stroll along the garden paths, lie upon the lawn, feel the breeze and take in the beauty of azaleas, camellias, magnolias, ferns, palms, oaks and pines, while listening to the 60-bell Singing Tower during afternoon carillon concerts.

Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando

Near downtown, this 50-acre oasis is accented with oak-shaded walkways and delightful gardens adorned with azaleas, camellias, roses and palms, as well as beautyberries, bottle brushes, bromeliads, firecracker plants, flame vines, plumbago, primrose, snapdragon, tabebuia
and violas. Soothing and serene, it’s an ideal retreat anytime, but especially during musical moonlight strolls in April and October.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Gainesville

A 1.5-mile walkway through Kanapaha’s 62 acres leads to 24 major collections that include Florida’s largest public display of bamboo, the Southeast’s largest herb garden, a hummingbird garden, rose garden, Asian garden, water lily garden and a rock garden dotted with colorful cacti. A popular setting for weddings, Kanapaha’s Summer House is ideally suited for receptions and events.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, Tallahassee

Alfred B. Maclay had such a soft spot for camellias that he sent men to scour the Southeast for them. When he died, his wife continued his dream. Today, Maclay’s home is surrounded by this outstanding collection of camellias and azaleas. Of the park’s 1,200 acres, 28 are tended gardens that also include dogwoods, oriental magnolias, tulips, irises, banana shrubs, honeysuckle, silverbell trees and pansies, all nestled beside placid Lake Hall.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables

In South Florida, tropical and subtropical plants grow year round, making this 83-acre haven a hot spot for horticulturalists. Explore the Vine Pergola, where flowering vines, including the Jade Vine, bloom year round, or seek shelter among the rainforest's soothing waterfalls and shady trees. Stop for a photo in the Bailey Palm Glade, Palm Allée or the Overlook, where sun-dappled passages open up to magnificent lake and lowland views. Time it right to enjoy festivals celebrating chocolate, orchids and mangos.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

Alluring walkways wind through this 14-acre bayfront garden. Among its enchantments are orchids, hibiscus, a bonsai display, bromeliad garden and the world’s most outstanding collection of epiphytes (air plants). The grounds also feature a banyan grove, waterfall, koi pond, fernery, palm grove, bamboo garden and butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Events include the Lights in Bloom Holiday and Tropical Fourth of July celebrations.

Florida Botanical Gardens, Largo

This park covers 182 acres, nearly half of it a permanently protected preservation area. Here, you'll find topiaries, waterfalls, herbs, tropical fruits and native plants, plus more than 300 varieties of bromeliads. The park also features demonstrations on the natural process of composting, a cottage accented by an Old World garden and programs on cultivating your own Florida-friendly garden.

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Photo: Waterfall at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

A waterfall feeds the koi pond at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.

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