Katara Simmons/News-Sun Cypress trees need both wet and dry conditions to thrive. Here their grandeur is reflected in the Cypress Swamp of Highlands Hammock State Park.
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published: Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Highlands Hammock a key part of Ridge's water system
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Central Florida may seem flat and boring, what with its wide open spaces stretching out to the horizon, broken only by an occasional oak, pine or cabbage palm.
But Lake Wales Ridge runs north to south through Highlands County. Its relative elevation forms undulating hills, connects lakes and creates stunning landscapes, as well as two major catchment basins -- the Kissimmee River watershed to its east and the Peace River watershed to the west.
To the east, water drains through Lake Istokpoga and Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades.
To the west, water drains to the Gulf Coast and enters the Charlotte Harbor Estuary.
Highlands Hammock State Park occupies an essential niche in this complicated water environment. In turn, the park itself is unique. A mix of old-forest hardwood and swamp with areas of blue jay scrub and sandy soil, the Hammock supports the entire range of Florida habitats. Standing under the soaring cypress trees is like being inside a cathedral.
Park Manager Steven Dale explained how water makes this beautiful place possible.
"There are three drainageways that bring surface water through the park besides rain," he said. "The greatest volume of water moves through Little Charlie Bow Legs Creek and its associated drainage basin on the western border of the park at its lowest elevation. The two other drainageways are small creeks, Haw Branch and Tiger Branch."
Haw Branch is seasonal, Dale said. It originates in the Seven Lakes Property and runs east to west along the park's northern border. Tiger Branch originates inside the park's northeast border and flows through the park's wetlands. Both branches eventually join Little Charlie Bow Legs Creek, which flows into the Peace River, which in turn flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
The key to the water's movement, Dale said, is the difference in elevation between the Ridge and the western portions of the park. The eastern border, on the west of the Ridge, is 135 feet above sea level. The western border is only 80 feet above sea level. Gravity makes the water run downhill off the Ridge, Dale said -- in other words from the west side of U.S. 27 toward the Country Club of Sebring. This water creates a flood plain swamp for part of the year.
Water, however, is not a constant in the park. The wet and dry seasons have a significant affect.
Average rainfall, in the wet season (roughly June to September) is 31.1 inches, Dale said. The dry season (October to May) generally sees 20.79 inches.
This makes the park wet and dry in cycles. Scientists refer to the habitat as a xeric/ hydric (dry/wet) hammock. "It's a symbiotic relationship. They both have a purpose," Dale said. For example, while cypress trees are swamp plants, they also need dry soil in order to propagate.
The long period of drought in Central Florida has affected the park as well as surrounding lakes. Recent rains have been a bit higher than average, Dale said. "The Southwest Florida Water Management District data show that although the average rainfall in June and July can be 8.26 and 7.99 inches respectively, this year we actually got 11.81 inches in June and 11.36 inches in July.
"But at the end of the dry season in May, our area and the Lake Wales region was 3.85 feet below normal, and even with all this rain, by the end of July we were still 1.9 feet below normal."
Water levels did rise quickly this summer, Dale said, at one point coming to the top of the catwalk in Cypress Swamp, closing the trail for a short time. The water, however, has been receding ever since. On Friday, the catwalk was an easy, dry walk.
In fact, drier conditions have been in place for so long, Dale said, we don't recognize we've only come halfway back to a healthy aquifer.
"The rain is only abnormal for recent times," he said.
Highlands Hammock (by: Pat, NC - 9/5/2013)
Love this Park...my husband was a ranger there in the early 70's we lived in the residence area in the rear of the Park...it was great! It is truly a place of beauty and a wonderful Park to visit.
HIGHLANDS HAMMOCK (by: ROBERT J COOK - 9/4/2013)
This is a beautiful description of Highlands Hammock. It should be incorporated into a larger book on the history and description of Highlands County. I was raised in Avon Park, and first camped in Highlands Hammock with the Boy Scouts in 1947. Robert E. Maysack, one of the pioneer leaders in the Boy Scouts of America, was our Scoutmaster. I am proud that this beautiful creation of nature is still being preserved and cared for.
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