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Expedition retraces a legendary explorer’s travels through the once-pristine Everglades

Changes in water quality will be an important facet of the expedition

In 1897, the explorer and amateur scientist Hugh de Laussat Willoughby climbed into a canoe and embarked on a coast-to-coast expedition of the Florida Everglades, a wilderness then nearly as vast as the peninsula itself and as unknown, he wrote, as the “heart of Africa.”

Willoughby and his guide were the first non-Native Americans to traverse the Everglades from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, and Willoughby’s meticulous notes, charts and water samples would form the basis of scientists’ historical understanding of the legendary “river of grass.”

Now a new expedition has retraced his trek, with the goal of measuring the impact of modern humanity on a watershed that today is among the most altered on Earth and responsible for the drinking water of some 12 million Floridians.

The expedition also commemorates the 75th anniversary of Everglades National Park, which was dedicated on Dec. 6, 1947.

“We think we will see the full spectrum, from one of the most remote parts of the continental United States to one of the most urbanized parts of the United States – all in one watershed, all in one trip,” said Harvey Oyer, co-leader of the four-member expedition and the author of a series of children’s books about the historical Florida frontier. “That, I think more than anything else, will illustrate humanity’s impact from the time of Willoughby to today.”

Willoughby’s thorough work provides a tantalizing opportunity to compare conditions in the Everglades then and now. Traveling the region’s rivers and canals over six days and some 130 miles, Oyer and the team drew water samples from the same spots as Willoughby, according to coordinates he documented, sometimes from some of the most remote and hard-to-reach parts of the subtropical region.

The water samples are being analyzed at the University of Florida for the same constituents that Willoughby examined, such as magnesium and sulfates, along with nutrients now known to affect the Everglades like phosphorus and nitrogen.

The samples are also being tested for modern pollutants like microplastics, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), pesticides and pharmaceuticals. It will be a few months before the analysis is complete. The team wrapped u