Under the dense canopy of live oaks and tropical vegetation, we walked a well-worn path. Hapahatchee, the “Happy Place by the River,” had more than its usual share of visitors on Saturday, people from creative and environmental walks of life throughout Florida gathering in celebration and memorial of a life well lived, a Floridian who truly made a difference for Florida, Ellen Peterson.
I first met Ellen during the annual Muck About at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery, where she was always an honored guest. I’d slip out of the swamp leading another string of gleeful and wet newbie hikers, and Ellen would be sitting in a chair by the fire ring, serene, surveying all. She was soft-spoken, but firm. Few people in Florida have tangled it up against the powers-that-be like Ellen did.
Founder of Florida’s Sierra Club chapter in the 1970s, Ellen had a rich and colorful background, something she shared one evening at length with a bunch of us gals camping together for a kayak-and-hiking trip. It was my fault – I wanted to interview her for a project I was working on. The interview never aired, but the stories are priceless. An adventurer at a time when it still wasn’t “proper for a woman to do that,” she’d wander around Florida swamps after she was done with her day teaching school. One story she told us was about running into Tom Gaskins cutting cypress knees at Kissingen Springs, a spring near the Peace River that once flowed 20 million gallons of water a day. By the 1950s, this spring was no longer flowing. Ellen took note. She didn’t take kindly to the destruction of her Florida, our Florida.
Ellen is perhaps best known for her successful battle to keep Fisheating Creek open and clear for public use, a long and drawn out process over decades for which we reap the benefits today – even though the battle of natural flow into Lake Okeechobee still isn’t over, more kayakers are enjoying South Florida’s most pristine waterway than ever.
Niki and I joined several hundred other guests at Happahatchee, Ellen’s Happy Place, to celebrate her life. Original folk music, memorials from friends, the release of white doves into the blue Florida sky, the people of her many circles – from students to journalists, conservationists to New Age leaders – gathered in honor. An uplifting, beautiful tribute. But the best surprise was yet to come.
Brenda led us into the Happahatchee Center. “You have to see the memorial wall! They used your picture!” Niki and I looked at each other. We’re not sure which one of us took it. It was my last day spent with Ellen, although I didn’t know that would be the case at the time, and I’d guided our little group on a hike at Lyonia Preserve. The photo was of Ellen beaming at having a scrub-jay perched on her head.
We miss you, friend. Florida is greater for your life’s work.