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HUSTLE AND FLOW 


Damn the national consensus that Florida is a freak state – we're just special. And one of the things that make us so special is the flow of natural waters through our unique geography of underground caverns. There's nothing like it in the world, and the sooner that conservation measures are taken to protect this deteriorating wonder, the better. That's the message adventurer/filmmaker Wes Skiles delivers in The River Returns, a follow-up documentary to 2004's award-winning Water's Journey.

Skiles is the president of the Ocala-based Karst Productions Inc., which uses high-definition, multicamera projects "to share the experience of exploration while expanding the understanding of our planet." That mission is accomplished in Returns, an exploration of the mighty St. Johns River. We learn that the St. Johns flows like the Nile, from south to north, and that while the river's mouth is in Jacksonville, it's sourced by waters as far away as Miami. In this film, Skiles and his team of scientists travel that 370-mile distance and document never-discovered data about the relationship between the river and the overdevelopment that's polluting the ecosystem.

The River Returns is much faster paced than Water's Journey, which dramatically followed several divers through the interrelated maze that lies beneath the river, in such popular spots as Wekiva Springs. Returns has some repeat cave-diving action, but presents so much extra information that it's difficult to take it all in. (Want more? Visit www.karstproductions.com.)

That's the only criticism possible of Returns, which boasts unforgettable moments and a mass of revelations. We learn that the mouth of the St. Johns was discovered by European settlers almost 60 years before Plymouth Rock, and was called Fort Carolina. We see Skiles zoom off the river and into the sky on an FIB (flying inflatable boat). Loaded up with camera equipment, the boat is slow to launch. The FIB is towed, much like a waterskier, by another boat until it reaches a speed that engages the windsail-like wings. The footage of Florida's native environment, juxtaposed against real-estate developments seen from Skiles' vantage point, is breathtaking and beautiful. And the award for pure chutzpah goes to diver/explorer Jill Heinerth (also the film's producer and writer) for her fearless excursions into dangerous, uncharted waters in the depths of Florida's underground. Watching her is a claustrophobe's nightmare, but her efforts contribute to the discovery of saltwater intrusion deep in the freshwater caverns. Samples of the saltwater have been dated at 13,000 years old and are thought to come from ocean water buried deep as a result of earth's ancient cataclysmic changes.

Let's hope that this film helps to preserve our disappearing storehouse of water – and that Pepsi doesn't buy the rights to that ancient saltwater.

The River Returns
Airs 9 pm Tuesday
WMFE-TV arts@orlandoweekly.com

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