KEY LARGO -- Between now and November naturalist John Davis expects to bike, kayak, canoe, hike and ski some 4,500 miles in what his promoters at the Wildlands Network are calling an "epic journey for conservation."
But he'll begin his trek Thursday morning, Feb. 3, with one simple paddle stroke at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. Build-up to the launch, which is open to the public, will begin at 9 a.m.
"We thought it would be good to start this journey in a place that has rich aquatic wildlife and rich terrestrial wildlife," said Davis, 47, during a phone conversation from a Tampa hotel last week. "The protection of the coral reefs at John Pennekamp is a great tribute to the state of Florida."
Over the next 10 months Davis will cover portions of 13 eastern U.S. states and Canadian provinces in an effort to highlight the fragmented nature of the area's wildlife corridors, and to raise awareness about the value of connecting them.
His endeavor will take him from the Everglades to the longleaf pine forests of Georgia and Alabama. Then he'll head east to the lowlands of South Carolina, northwest through the Great Smoky Mountains and Kentucky's bluegrass country, and eventually northeast through the Appalachians and his home region of the Adirondacks in New York. He'll finish his journey in the dwindling days and increasing cold of autumn as he passes through the Maine woods and then on to the Gaspe Peninsula on the Canadian coast.
The nonprofit Wildlands Network was founded by biologist Michael Soule in 1991 with the goal of creating connected wildlife corridors -- or wildways -- large enough to facilitate the movements and migrations of species ranging from birds to large mammals like bears, wolves and big cats.
The organization envisions four primary North American wild corridors: one stretching along the west coast from the Baja Peninsula north to the Arctic; a second running east to west across the northern forests of Canada and Alaska; a third up the Rockies from Mexico to Alaska; and a fourth along the eastern United States and Canada, where Davis will be traveling.
In the east, where development has left the habitat the most fragmented, Davis acknowledges that any expansive wildway is unlikely to be pristine. But it can still be pieced together through a network of parks, easements, sustainable agricultural and even small towns and environmentally friendly roads. Highways like the ones here in South Florida, which feature wildlife underpasses, are an example of such roads, he said.
Global warming, Davis said, has only made the need for wildways more acute.
"One reason why connected habitats are important is because some species may be forced to move north as climates change," he said.
After starting his trek at Pennekamp, Davis will head northwest, paddling the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway that runs between Flamingo and Everglades City in Everglades National Park.
He said he expects most of the trek to be by bicycle, but it will be punctuated by more paddle trips and hikes. Along the way he'll meet with wildlife officials, scientists and members of the media. He'll camp along the trail, but also sometimes stay in homes with friends and in motels during promotional interludes in cities and towns, where he'll give lectures and do outreach.
In the Adirondacks, Davis plans to give up his bicycle. As the snows begin to settle across the Gaspe, he'll finish the journey on foot and cross-country skis.
"It's a physical adventure," said Davis. "But the physical adventure is not the most important part of it. The journey is more about raising awareness for the sake of wildlife and wild places."