Harbor Style — April 2016
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For The Love Of Nature
Nancy Sermon

Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center abounds in opportunities to enjoy and learn about nature.

Where can one see mammals, birds, amphibians, snakes and reptiles in the wild on acres of pristine land that has been relatively untouched since the Calusa and other tribes inhabited southwest Florida? Where does one take a visitor to show off what the “real” Florida once looked like, with native plants that have not given way to modern-day landscaping? If you think that you would have to drive many miles inland, think again. For right here in our own backyard, so to speak, are nature preserves and trails whose good steward – the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, also known as CHEC – wants you to get to know and appreciate our natural environment.

If you have not yet discovered this jewel in the crown of enjoying “old Florida” and its nature, up close and personal, perhaps it’s time for you to learn about our area’s amazing untouched lands that are far removed from city and neighborhood life, but not by distance. HARBOR STYLE recently visited CHEC’s Alligator Creek site, located off Burnt Store Road in Punta Gorda, where we met with its CEO, Thomas S. Hecker, and the Center’s staff naturalists, Chris Salmonsen and Martha Clemente. Although we had visited CHEC before, a lot had changed since our last visit.

New things are about to happen at the Center, under Hecker’s leadership. With hard work and support from staff members and volunteers, CHEC is moving through the 21st century with innovative ideas, some of which will no doubt come to fruition soon. Hecker hinted that someday CHEC might become one of southwest Florida’s top tourist destinations, which would in turn draw visitors to other attractions in and around Charlotte County.

CHEC, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, oversees the management and educational programs at the county-owned 115-acre Cedar Point Environmental Park in Englewood and at the Alligator Creek Preserve, adjacent to the 30,000-acre Charlotte Harbor State Park Preserve in Punta Gorda.

CHEC provides more than 20 educational programs, manages eight environmentally sensitive lands and provides more than eight miles of hiking trails and other recreational opportunities. You can enjoy nature while learning about our estuary system and the preserved lands that harbor so many species of living organisms, on land and in our waters.

CHEC began leasing 28 acres from the state park preserve some 27 years ago. Its mission from the start has been to “raise public awareness of the value of our natural and cultural resources by providing environmental education, recreation, research and management of conservation lands” for Charlotte Harbor and Lemon Bay residents. That mission hasn’t changed since 1983, when retiree Charles E. Caniff envisioned a nature center in Charlotte County where children and adults could experience the “real” Florida. His vision was to have a place where the public could enjoy some of our last great open spaces.

When walking the trails at Alligator Creek, one sees the same environment Native Americans saw hundreds of years ago when they inhabited the land. Naturalists Clemente, Salmonsen and Hecker sat down with HARBOR STYLE in late January to talk about CHEC’s past and present, and where it is headed.

“Every day is different; that’s why I love this job,” Hecker exclaimed after being asked what a typical day would be like for him. Since he is the CEO, his duties are numerous. He must meet with a variety of people from all walks of life, in addition to finding grants and seeking donations to keep the organization solvent and able to maintain current programs plus introduce new ones. Although it seems that Hecker would prefer to be outside enjoying nature and interacting with visitors, the need for funding is a harsh reality. But Hecker has come up with creative ways of bringing in extra income for CHEC. His goal is to generate enough income that the majority of monies needed to sustain programs would come from CHEC itself. And one of these income sources can be found in the Center’s gift shop.

Hecker came up with the idea of selling different varieties of local honey that comes from area hives. He designed the labels for the product, called “Honey for the Harbor.” The word “harbor” has become associated with CHEC’s brand. Jars of honey sell from $5 to $20. Hecker gave us a bottle of orange blossom honey, which bees had made from the pollen of orange blossoms. Also in the gift shop are books about local flora and fauna, and even cookbooks. Beautifully carved walking sticks are good gift ideas for those who like to walk the trails and hike. And more items will be coming to the shop, he promises.

CHEC also holds and sponsors fundraising events and trips that help to support the Center. Its biggest fundraiser is Harvest for the Harbor. The next one will be held on Nov. 13; check the Center’s website (www.Checflorida.org) or Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce’s November calendar (www.puntagordachamber.com) for more information.

Hecker is a self-proclaimed “people person” who enjoys meeting people from “all walks of life.” He is a keynote speaker at events, and he leads groups on nature walks and hikes. When we visited, Hecker walked the grounds with us, pointing out where new additions might spring up if all goes well with fundraising. It had been raining heavily for a couple of days and the trails were muddy and flooded, so we stayed on the large boardwalk that wrapped around the site’s buildings. This was a bit disappointing, because on past walks I have seen a variety of amazing wildlife, including an adult feral pig leading her young across the trail. On the same walk I saw the giant alligator that is usually in the big pond towards the entrance, an American bald eagle and its nest, many wading birds, hawks, frogs and toads, but thankfully no snakes! (I’ll be returning on a drier day to get closer to the plants and animal life again.)

Along our walk, we encountered a family of four heading towards the Visitor’s Center. Hecker stopped to talk with them and tell them about some things that they might have missed. Passing by a patch of shrubs, Hecker pointed out caterpillars that had been feasting on the leaves. Most of the leaves were gone, but there were a lot of caterpillars on the plants and on the side of an adjacent building, where they had begun to spin cocoons and would later emerge as butterflies.

Hecker’s enthusiasm was catching as he talked about future plans for CHEC. He said that the Center’s property has ample acreage to accompany more projects and structures. Among his ideas is a butterfly house in which visitors could enter an enclosed area and stand beneath hundreds of native butterflies. Formerly, Hecker raised money and oversaw construction of the butterfly enclosure at the Naples Botanical Garden, and he hopes to have a similar one at CHEC.

In the course of his career, Hecker has been involved in botanic gardens that have separate children’s gardens, and since educating students is such a big part of CHEC, he plans on bringing a children’s garden to the Alligator Creek site where youths could have a handson experience in gardening, he said.

When Clyde Butcher’s photography exhibit at CHEC ended late last year, there remained a lot of non-utilized space inside the Visitor’s Center. Hecker wants to put in live exhibits containing frogs, lizards and snakes (naturally not in the same tank). He’d also like to have an insectarium, knowing how much children are fascinated by bugs.

This brought to mind Audubon’s Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans. Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that CHEC’s founder Charles Caniff was the president of the Peace River Audubon Society and that the local Audubon chapter is one of CHEC’s founding members.

Besides being a tropical plant expert with years of horticultural experience under his belt, Hecker has served as director of the Magic Wings Butterfly House and Aventis Insectarium in the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. Although on a much smaller scale than those in bigger cities, the living exhibits at CHEC would allow students to see and learn about the wildlife that surrounds them here in southwest Florida.

Sharing the Love of Nature

A self-proclaimed “natural history buff,” Hecker grew up one of seven children born to a couple who loved nature. “My dad hunted and fished, mainly in Canada,” he said. The family lived in a farming community in Ohio before moving to Tampa where, as a sixth-grader, Hecker was able to attend what he called “Nature’s Classroom” – a five-day program for students that exposed them to nature in the great outdoors. “This was a pivotal thing in my life,” he said, adding that he got to go on hikes with naturalists. His own family members were “green” in an era when many were just beginning to realize what that meant.

Hecker received an associate degree in horticulture from Hillsborough Community College, Florida, and he earned his bachelor’s in environmental studies from Prescott College in Arizona. While there he met his wife, Jennifer, who is now the director of policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. In brief, she is a lobbyist who travels to Tallahassee two to three times a year on behalf of the Conversancy, he said. Needless to say, they speak the same language.

Their two children, now 19 and 23, “were raised in nature, without video games,” he said. Since his own children were raised to understand the beauty and value of their environment, Hecker wants to impart this to others, especially to children who might not have access to a place like CHEC. While Charlotte County is 17th out of 67 in ratings of the state’s richest counties, surrounding areas fall below our economic demographics; there are a good number of students in surrounding counties who might never have the experiences that Charlotte County students can have at CHEC. Hecker said that an important goal for him is to make CHEC more inclusive. “I want to bring in as many people as I can.” Children are the future stewards of our environment, so it’s natural that CHEC aims to capture their interest at a young age.

Hecker’s sight is set on opening CHEC programs to disadvantaged children in DeSoto County. The Center has some fishing kayaks, and he would like to expand CHEC’s fishing clinics for grades six through eight, so that students would be able to get “hooked” on fishing “before they are teenagers,” he said. He hopes the kayaks and fishing clinics, already located at Alligator Creek, would also be available north on the Peace River outside of Arcadia. CHEC also has life preservers and tackle – “and enough money [for the program] for a year,” he said.

The array of programs and events at CHEC are numerous. Hecker, who is a world-renowned tropical plant and butterfly expert, was about to lead a guided Fakahatchee Swamp Walk the day after we interviewed him. Other field trips slated include one to the Ringling Museum and a Selby Gardens luncheon on April 4, and a Fossil Dig led by the Southwest Florida Fossil Club president, Chuck Ferrera, on May 2. While these events require a fee, CHEC offers a multitude of free activities for children and adults, including fishing clinics, kayaking, guided nature walks, wading trips and Wild Wednesdays – where a nature film is shown followed by a lively discussion led by volunteer naturalists. There is a children’s program called Little Explorers, introducing pre-kindergartners to the world of nature in the Visitors Center’s Caniff Kid’s Corner. This is held the fourth Friday of each month at 10 a.m. All are held at the Alligator Creek site.

Lectures, book signings, films about flora and fauna, a trip to an archaeological site, cruises and more are all offered at CHEC.

Hands-On Learning

In cooperation with teachers from Charlotte County Public Schools, naturalists Martha Clemente and Chris Salmonsen have designed activity guides that coincide with the students’ earth science curriculum. The students spend one or two days at CHEC, where they learn about nature firsthand. Clemente and Salmonsen take them on trail walks to see wildlife and native flowers, and Salmonsen leads about 16 students on a pontoon boat tour of the area in the Center’s 30-foot tri-pontoon. The boat is kept at the Punta Gorda Marina, which is one of CHEC’s sponsors. Salmonsen said the marina’s owners will often waive the cost of repair and maintenance work. A similar arrangement has been made with another sponsor, Cape Haze Marina, which maintains and repairs CHEC’s boat for Cedar Point.

Since the tours are in the wild where nature dominates, one never knows what will be encountered. “We saw walking catfish, a peregrine falcon, and the white screech owl,” Salmonsen said. The now famous owl, named “Luna,” now has a home at the Peace River Wildlife Center. Also spotted at Alligator Creek were “two bobcats playing with a pine cone, and a black bear was also seen,” he added.

Other documented sightings at CHEC include a variety of falcons, hawks, storks, eagles, plovers, quail, cuckoos, owls, Florida sandhill cranes, woodpeckers and a variety of wading birds. There are numerous frogs, toads and newts, lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises. Mammals that have been seen include white-tailed deer, feral pigs, gray and red foxes, a bobcat, panther, North American river otter, and nine-banded armadillo. Salmonsen said there are three active American bald eagles’ nests on CHEC property, and the eagles along with Florida alligators seem to attract the most tourist interest.

Clemente, Salmonsen and Hecker have lifetimes of understanding the biodiversity of Florida and our world at large, and each has their own area of expertise. Clemente’s is plants, Hecker’s is ecology, and Salmonsen’s is fishing.

Meet the Naturalists

Salmonsen, whose family moved to Punta Gorda in 1978, went to Charlotte High School. From there he earned his degrees and went on to become a marine biologist and work in that field in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana. He came to CHEC in 2004. He said he’s taken “tons of wading trips” with second graders. Bobbi Rodgers also leads second graders on wading trips at the Cedar Point Preserve.

Clemente, who along with Salmonsen is a full-time naturalist, came to the Center in 1998 following a career as a school nurse with the Charlotte County Public Schools. She also taught biology and physical science at Charlotte High School. Leaving the classroom and heading outdoors was a refreshing change for her, she admitted: “I enjoy working in the outdoors.”

She said that she and Salmonsen “visit classrooms before the students come.” And if you think that the students merely walk the trails in an attempt to identify plants and insects, think again. Not only is their Activity Guide rather extensive, it challenges them. Students have to record their findings from the field trip, identify species, take quizzes and record their results after taking water samples from the Peace River, which is a large part of the Charlotte Harbor estuary system.

Clemente stressed that she and Salmonsen share a goal to “make children aware that the Peace River and other water bodies are the source of fresh drinking water, and we have to be good stewards of that.” She added, “We are intra-dependent.” She emphasized that if we spoil our water sources for ourselves, we also spoil it for other living things.

One note about our estuary: Hecker said that a recent “estuary report card” rated the Charlotte Harbor estuary system a “B,” while Naples Bay received an “F.” He added that CHEC’s educational programs stress the importance of keeping our estuary and banks clean.

Students, armed with a “Southwest Florida Land and Water” guidebook coordinated by their school system and CHEC, learn the difference between red, black and white mangroves. They also learn how to identify different herons and cranes. They record sightings of wildlife and answer quizzes – true and false, multiple choice and essay. More than 50 pages, the student guides seem to be smaller versions of earth science textbooks.

None of what Salmonsen and Clemente do and teach would be possible without early founders and leaders, Salmonsen said, such as CHEC’s first Chief Operating Officer, Al Cheatham, who would go out to meet the school buses as they arrived at the Center. Back then, there were scarce amenities – a picnic table and a porta potty.

Like all good things, it did indeed take a village to preserve lands that would be opened to the public. In addition to Caniff and Cheatham, the Charlotte County government, the City of Punta Gorda, the school district and the Peace River Audubon Society were all instrumental in the Center’s founding.

Remember that Hecker said he hoped to make CHEC a primary tourist destination for our area? In order for that to happen, the Center would need a sign along the highway. Hecker is engaged in talks with the Florida Department of Transportation whose representatives told him CHEC would have to have 100,000 visitors before a stateissued sign would go up. Due in part to the beautiful black-and-white Butcher photography exhibit from August 15, 2015, to Jan. 15 of this year, some 42,000 visitors came through CHEC’s gates. Hecker had a counter installed so that each vehicle would be recorded. Once it hits the 100,000 mark, look for signage that will direct drivers to CHEC!

In the meantime, word-of-mouth and CHEC’s participation in the community have helped spread the word about the Center and all it offers. Whether it’s a nature ride up the Peace River on a King Fisher Fleet boat while a CHEC naturalist points out various wildlife, or events such as Hands Across the Harbor, A Taste of Punta Gorda, or Harvest for the Harbor, as well as fundraising trips to such locales as Cuba ( June 2015), more and more people are discovering the wonders at our local preserves, thanks to the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center. Hecker hinted that because CHEC is an ecotourism site, in the future its name could become Charlotte Harbor Eco-Center. When asked what we thought, we unanimously said, “yes.”

If you go: Do consider the weather. The trails are made of dirt and during heavy rains there is a lot of mud, so consider your footwear on a rainy day. Bring your camera and insect repellent if you think that you’ll need it. Dress accordingly, and please, do not feed the alligators!


Alligator Creek site: 10941 Burnt Store Road, Punta Gorda, FL 33955, (941) 575-5435.

Directions: approximately one mile southwest of the intersection of Highway 41 and Burnt Store Road. The park entrance is on the right-hand side of Burnt Store.

Cedar Point Park site: 2300 Placida Road, Englewood, FL 34224, (941) 475-0769.

Directions: from 776, turn onto Placida Road and proceed one mile. Cedar Point is on the right-hand side of Placida Road, just past Lemon Bay High School (on the left).

Hours of operation at both sites: Office – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; closed holidays. The parks are open from sunrise to sunset, and there is no charge for entrance.

Dogs are welcome at Alligator Creek if properly leashed and if owners pick up after them. Dogs are not allowed at Cedar Point Park.

How You Can Help

CHEC totally survives on sponsorship and donations from those who think that preserving the last of our green open spaces is important. You can help by becoming a member or sponsor, or by simply participating in programs, fundraisers or low-cost, eco-adventure outings. Go to www.Checflorida.org or call (941) 575-5435.