As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barrier islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.
It started with a Jimmy Buffett concert, but it became much more than that. Our Plan A: paddleboard and sail our way from Big Lagoon State Park to Jimmy Buffett’s performance in Orange Beach, Alabama, exploring the bays and lagoons around Perdido Bay. Results: Plan A slid to Plan B, then to C, D, and E. We made it to the concert, but Plans B to E brought us to people and places along the Flora-Bama borderlands that we never envisioned. And, in the end, our trip was richer for it.
Gainesville, FL: Saturday, 6 am. Big Lagoon State Park boat ramp, 5 pm. Storms rolling across the panhandle had already delayed our departure: Plan A -> Plan B. Kind strangers at the Bruce Cafe helped us repair a blown bearing buddy on our trailer. Plan B -> Plan C. Finally, Big Lagoon State Park.
Early the next morning, we launched KneeDeep ll, our 22′ O’Day, and motored west through the narrow ICW to Perdido Bay. We hoisted our sails in Perdido Bay, crossing back and forth from Florida into Alabama and back again, in the light afternoon breeze.
So many firsts. We navigated the shoals protecting Palmetto Cove and dropped anchor…seamlessly. A happy surprise since we hadn’t practiced anchoring with this boat. I inflated my paddleboard and paddled off to explore nearby creeks. Inflatable SUPs make perfect dinghies for small sailboats.
Another first: paddling and sailing independently, navigating to a designated location. The following morning, Kevin raised the sails and single-handed the boat, and I paddled up Soldier Creek, where we met two hours later. We each carried a VHF radio and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), and I carried my new Garmin Inreach in my PFD. All good practice for my upcoming kayak trip to Alaska’s Inside Passage and next year’s WaterTribe Challenge.
The bays and lagoons around Perdido Bay are perfect for paddleboards, as described by the Orange Beach Canoe Trail. The smaller bays and lagoons, in particular, offer some protection from wind and have less tidal variation. On the other hand, as I followed the twists and turns of one creek, it sure looked like alligator territory to me.
That night, we discovered a local favorite—Ingram Bayou. Surrounded on three sides by Alabama’s forests, no buildings in sight, we slept in splendid isolation.
Jimmy Buffett Concert Day. I paddled from Ingram Bayou to Wolf Bay where we loaded my board and motored towards Jimmy Buffett. Our splendid isolation soon gave way to ICW traffic and the circus-like atmosphere of the Wharf Marina.
By mid-afternoon, land sharks, coconut bras, and hula skirts had taken over. After I accepted a “shot” of a Bahama Mama from a shark, I knew it was time to up our game. We donned our leis and joined a jovial crowd at a pre-concert where we all sang the expected renditions of Buffett covers as well as “Sweet Home Alabama” and heard cheers of “Roll Tide”. I’ve never had a better Cheeseburger in Paradise, and, as always, the show was great.
Back to Palmetto Cove. By boat and board, we returned to our Palmetto Cove anchorage, but conditions had changed. Clouds covered the skies, and small white caps made balancing on my inflatable board difficult. That day tested both our endurance and communication devices much more than the easier days. The NOAA weather report confirmed our suspicions that we needed to find shelter for the following night. Fortunately, the Bear Point Harbor had space for us, and the next day, we secured our boat in an inside slip. Plan C -> Plan D.
Immediately, we knew that Bear Point Harbor was our kind of marina. After an excellent (and not dehydrated) lunch in Flipper’s Restaurant, we met some of the live-aboards. In conversation, we discovered that our new friends—Captain Tinsley and Salty Scotty—docked their sailboat Salty Abandon in Bear Point Harbor. We had met our fellow parrothead sailors in the Wharf Marina and learned about their sailing adventures and the Salty Abandon YouTube channel. Small world indeed.
Thank God the tiki bar is open. By late afternoon, the storm rolled in, and it was time to take shelter in the Bent Oar Tiki Bar. The evening began with their world famous Bushwacker, a milkshake with an unspecified number of rums, and only got better. Alabama Lightning rocked the house, and we danced for hours. People introduced themselves and told us about the band and life in Orange Beach.
The winds remained high the next day, and once again we revised our plan. Plan D -> Plan E: the Flora-Bama Mullet Toss, where fish fly across the state line. As luck would have it, our stay coincided with the annual mullet toss across the state line hosted by the Flora-Bama Bar, the Bama Breeze for Buffett fans.
Back to Big Lagoon and home. We dropped anchor just east of Spanish Point in Big Lagoon for our final night. Both shores of the lagoon offer paddling opportunities. The Big Lagoon Kayak Trail on the north side weaves through marshes and is mostly protected.
We came to hear Jimmy Buffett and fell in love with the Flora-Bama region. The paddling and sailing was great, but the people we met made the trip. We’ll be back.
I loaded my board and drove to the Youth Camp at Wekiva Springs State Park. It felt like a reunion—Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia, Ashley Brown and Jeff Atkins of Wave Paddler, and Christa Foisy of Paddle NC and more. My kayak buddies had switched from boats to boards.
We learned stuff on the water, and we learned stuff on land. David Hernandez and Will Niemann from St. Augustine Paddle Sports spoke about fishing SUPs, a quickly growiong market segment. These SUPS are large and stable, with hatches, attachment points for coolers, and even a bar to stand up. Not a bad way to spend a day on the water.
Plenty of options each day, ranging from an L1-2 IDW/ICE to coastal paddling to ‘Meet and Greet’ paddles on the Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run.
Chaz Corallo of, ironically, Flatwater Paddle Co. of New Jersey showed us the gear necessary to do battle with rocks, including body armor, helmet and breakaway leash. Not just anyone can style Nantahala Falls on a SUP.
Inflatable boards bounce, not break, on rocks. I can’t say the same about bodies. Body armor seems like a good idea.
One day, we paddled down Wekiva River and up Rock Springs Run which has 3 primitive campsites, perfect for a SUP camping trip. Despite the proximity to Disney and Orlando, this landscape feels primeval and wild.
Road trip to Wekiva Island for fish tacos and beer! Noone left hungry.
New friends, new skills, and a new board for Watertribe. I’m looking forward to Paddle 2 the People, part deux.
Tomoka, Bulow, and North Peninsula—it would be easy to fly over these gems cruising down I-95. But you shouldn’t. Nestled in the coastal waters between Ormond Beach and Flagler Beach, these parks showcase all that Florida’s coastal areas have been and can be.
Your approach to the parks begins on the Old Kings Road. Driving through this canopy of trees made me realize that this might not be the Florida I thought I knew. Old Kings Road was one of Florida’s first major roads, designed over 200 years ago for north-south transit. As any Floridian knows, overland travel through Florida’s dense scrub landscape was—and is—dangerous and difficult. Creating a road was no easy feat. According to history buff Jim Massfeller, after Florida moved from Spanish to British rule in 1763, the road was commissioned to reach from Pellicer Creek to the Indian River. Today the road forms part of what some call the Daytona Loop and is used by bicyclists, motorcyclists, and paddlers eager to paddle through history.
I had been eager to paddle Tomoka and Bulow State Parks for a while now. Both combined coastal estuary paddling with an area rich in history. Jill wanted to visit these parks for FPTA‘s annual reunion for those who have completed Florida’s Saltwater Circumnavigational Trail which will be held in Tomoka State Park. Those paddlers might have rushed through these parks on their expeditions, but now they will have the luxury of touring the area slowly.
Jill and I found a shady campsite at Tomoka State Park. Mid-week on a January, the park’s campground was relatively available and quiet. We camped on of the loops in the main campground. The group campsite is larger and has water access from a small dock.
After we set up our tents, we set out to learn about the park’s paddling opportunities. The park ranger directed us to the Tomoka Outpost, the camp store that also rents boats and other gear. They are also the local source for Tomoka IPA and Cajun boiled peanuts, perfect post-paddle snacks.
The Outpost sits directly on the Tomoka River and offers access for kayaks, boards, and motorboats. We had time that afternoon for a short paddle up and down the Tomoka River. That short paddle gave us an idea of the area and lets us explore some side creeks as well. On that day, the river was glassy, but a windy day might make things a bit more exciting.
After our paddle, we returned to the store to explore options for longer paddles. The store manager was extremely helpful about places to paddle as well as tides. The kiosk outside the store has a map of paddling trails inside the park. She also had a map of a longer-more tidal influenced paddle that extends beyond the park. The Tomoka River Paddling Guide has mileage and locations as well.
These trail maps give multiple options for paddling, ranging from 1-2 hour out and back to a day long loop trail. Make sure to check the tides—especially for the longer paddles. The manager told us to look at the Halifax River spot on Tides4fishing.com and to add 45 minutes. The paddling here is coastal estuary paddling at its best. The nutrient-rich marshland supports a a host of birds, fish, and marine mammals.
In addition to paddling, Tomoka State Park also has walking and hiking trails. One trail leads to a statue of Chief Tomokie. The Timucuan Native Americans lived on this site prior to Spanish and British colonization. Native Americans had lived in the St. Johns River region for over 10,000 years, and archaeologists are still studying their remains, including pottery and villages.
Several miles from Tomoka State Park, Bulow State Park showcases a later piece of Florida history—the Bulow family’s sugar plantation. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, British and Spanish immigrants established rice, indigo, and sugar plantations in what was then called East Florida. The extended Seminole Wars destroyed the Bulow Plantation and others like it, but the ruins tell an important part of Florida’s early history.
The long skinny Bulow State Park has multiple entrances, and it would be easy to end up at the wrong one. (And how do I know this?) The northernmost entrance holds the ruins as well as the kayak launch, and this paddling trail takes you from the historic plantation to an estuary paddle. From this launch, you can paddle upstream about 3.5 miles before the Bulow Creek become impassible. Others enjoy a downriver paddle to either the Waller Boardman Bridge or the High Bridge. Note that parking at the Waller Boardman Bridge is extremely limited. The park also has extensive hiking trails for those who need some walking time.
If you are ready for some surf or maybe some beach time, North Peninsula State Park is just up the road, one of Florida’s many beach front state parks. Paddling, hiking, or just chillaxing, you can’t go wrong with any of these parks.
Can I paddle 300 miles in 7 days on a paddleboard? Do I want to attempt this feat? The WaterTribe Everglades Challenge is “an unsupported, expedition style adventure race for kayaks, canoes, and small boats” from Tampa to Key Largo, approximately 300 miles. The shorter Ultramarathan—the sprint version—extends the 67 miles from Tampa to Placida. The Watertribe blend of endurance, navigation, and expedition has tempted me ever since I first learned of this event. In January 2019, I attended the WaterTribe Boot Camp in Fort De Soto Park to see if I had the right stuff to enter the race in 2020.
The Boot Camp format consisted of a talk by Chief followed by a paddle and camping trip on Shell Island. Chief’s talk covered a range of topics critical for both starting and completing the challenge safely. A paddle or sail down Florida’s coast through the Everglades and Florida Bay is a serious undertaking. I already own and carry much of the safety gear based on my kayak training, but he reinforced the idea that critical gear should be carried on our bodies or PFDs. In my 5* BCU class, Gordon Brown emphasized the same point as we practiced on-water boat repairs. Chief’s mantra regarding GPS devices stuck with me: Two is one, and one is none, an accurate reflection of my experience with marine devices. Salt water and GPS’ do not play well together.
Chief also posed a question that each of us can only answer for ourselves. What are your goals in this challenge—to win your division or to finish? To me, finishing would be a victory. As Chief spoke, I did the math in my head. The event is almost 300 miles, and you have 8—really 7—days to get to Key Largo. The final party is in Key Largo on the 7th day, and I am not one to miss a party. That means approximately 45-50 miles per day. Can I handle the mileage and pace for 7 days straight? I have a year to figure that out.
My first challenge was finding a trail name. All long distance paddlers and hikers need a trail name. Through hikers on the AT and PCT have creative names, and I wanted a name that would also work for my upcoming AT hike. So I became Flamingo, and Janice chose HighTea in homage to her British heritage.
After Chief’s talk, the group headed to the beach where an array of boats and boards lined the shore. I was relieved to see another paddleboard there, but I was surprised to see so many sailing Hobies. I had assumed there would be more kayakers or canoers. One kayakers was incredulous when I revealed that I had a kayak at home. Why a paddleboard, he asked? I don’t think I can answer that, other than that I love the freedom of standing on a SUP.
We launched from the boat ramp for the short paddle to Shell Key. Chief had sent us coordinates and waypoints for the campsite on Shell Key and for several paddling options. The Challenge itself leaves from a beach facing the Tampa Bay shipping channel, and crossing a shipping channel is always nerve-wracking. For the Boot Camp, the weather was sunny and warm, and the water glassy, but conditions are rarely that benign for the Challenge.
Plan A involved paddling through a mangrove tunnel, then through Bunce’s Pass to the outside of Shell Key. We paddled around a small island searching for the promised mangrove channel. We made it about 50 feet then realized it was a dead end. Since it was too narrow to turn around, we paddled backwards—fin first which might turn out to be a useful skill. On to Plan B, we crossed the shallow flats, passed the motorboats lining Bunce’s Pass, then headed north to find out campsite.
Our group camped midway up the beach. It’s hard to believe this level of wilderness camping exists so close to St. Pete and Tampa. I set up my 1-person tent that I bought for the Appalachian Trail. Packing like a backpacker is crucial to SUP expeditions. The weight must be balanced and centered. The Hobie Mirages might carry 80 pounds of gear, but I can only carry approximately 30 pounds, including water, on my board. One new tip: pool noodles. From now on, I’ll stow them in my gear bags to increase flotation in case of capsize. One of the best parts of the Boot Camp was picking up tips about gear and packing. The other part: the people.
The WaterTribe draws kindred spirits. After all, only so many people want to paddle from Tampa to Key Largo in any vessel, much less a paddleboard. After the sun set, we gathered around the campfire and traded stories. Though people came from all walks of life, it was a congenial and helpful group. I now understand why people come back year after year.
The next morning, I drank coffee as the sun rose, a luxury I might not have during the Challenge. To make miles, I assume that I’ll be on the water before dawn. Most people savored the slow morning and moved on to their own adventures by 10 am. Janice and I paddled around Mullet Key to see the launch site. As we headed back, the wind came up, a premonition of future conditions.
I have no doubt the Everglades Challenge will be difficult, probably one of the hardest things I will ever do. Between now and Challenge 2020, I’ll hike the Maine section of the AT and kayak Alaska’s Inside Passage which will prepare me. I’ll also train on the paddleboard and consider what size and length board will work best for me. I already know that my 12′ Fanatic is too slow. But I look forward to the next year of training, planning routes, and figuring out gear. Do I have the right stuff? I’ll never know unless I try.
It’s that time of year. The best time of year–Matanzas! Only four more days.
Every February Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA gathers his band of paddlers for a week of rough water training in Matanzas Inlet. Shaped like a ‘C’, the Matanzas River flows from St. Augustine Inlet southward to Matanzas Inlet so tidal flows and currents affect both north and south inlets. St. Augustine was the first permanent European settlement in what would later become the United States, and this historically-rich region reveals much about our past, missions, battles, pirates and plunder. But who can focus on history in the surf? As I bounce around in the chop, surf, and shoot through standing waves, enjoying the coastal chaos that river mouths offer, my world shrinks to body, boat, and blade.
We’re paddling sea kayaks, many of us in 16′ NDK Pilgrims and Romanys, designed by Nigel Dennis from Anglesey Island in Wales. Nigel designed these boats to handle the lumpy waters, or ‘jobbledy bits’, off the coastal UK. We’ve discovered that these kayaks make terrific surf boats, and we have plenty of surf in the southeast.
With the right conditions—swell, wind, and current, Matanzas Inlet offers near perfect waves for surfing our 16′ kayaks. Long boat surfing occupies a tiny niche in the kayak world, but the few of us who surf are addicted. Dale chose Matanzas Inlet because its shifting sandbars provide both excellent surf and a range of conditions to accommodate different skills levels. Not surprisingly, these conditions result in numerous opportunities for self- and assisted rescues.
We gather from many points in the US. The Texans, Louisianians, and Floridians among us don drysuits against Florida’s February chill, while some of the braver folks from Michigan and New England wear shorts. For them, Florida’s February might as well be summer.
Some of us are training for the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Advanced Coastal Kayaking Instructor Award, which requires a combinations of factors including 3-5 foot seas, 15-25 knots wind, 3-4 surf break, and 5 knots current. This means not only surviving these conditions but teaching, playing and rescuing in them. Each morning and evening, we meet on the porch of our shared house for Dale’s “academics”, where we discuss surf and rescue techniques and topics such as navigation and marine weather. By the time we reach our launch site, the day has warmed to a temperature even I can tolerate.]
An historical marker describing the 1565 ‘Massacre of the French’ marks our path through the dunes. We refer to ‘Matanzas’ so casually—”Are you coming to Matanzas this year?” Even though Fort Matanzas National Monument sits just upstream, it’s difficult to imagine that this tranquil inlet hosted such bloodshed and cruelty. The Spanish massacred over 300 stranded French mariners in this place. I’d reflected on this before, the incongruity that places of great beauty and tranquility mask bloody histories. Just north, for example, Fort George Inlet near Jacksonville was the southernmost point of the Low country slave trade.
Our schools teach a myth of origin that revolves around New England, pilgrims, and religious rebellion, but Spanish rule of Florida began in 1513, prior to any British settlements. The First Coast endured waves of French, Spanish, and British newcomers who eradicated indigenous populations, and, often, each other. In 1742, the Spanish built Fort Matanzas to guard against British incursions, and they ruled Florida until 1763. The British gained control from 1763-1783, ceded Florida back to the Spanish in 1783, and regained the territory in 1821.
The sandbars that guard the entrance to the river mouth shaped Florida history. The shallow waters of Matanzas Inlet protected Fort Matanzas and St. Augustine from British invaders, but they also led to plunder and piracy. Pirates chased ships aground onto sandbars along the Florida Coast and plundered the cargo. Wreckers, as described in Tim Robinson’s Tales from Old Florida later replaced pirates and salvaged materials from ruined boats, establishing settlements in the process. River mouths were treacherous to anything other than small, nimble boats.
This 1742 map shows how the Matanzas Inlet shoreline has changed, which is what happens with sandy coasts. Unlike the rocky coasts of the northeast and Britain, our river mouth hydrology changes with every hurricane and every major storm. NOAA charts illustrate permanent land masses and static navigational features, but sandbars come and go, so that we re-learn our coasts after every storm.
And this is why we train here. To learn how to navigate through the changing hydrology of sandbars and river mouths. Some paddlers were exploring these features for the first time, learning to brace and roll in the waves. Others, like myself, were learning to lead other paddlers, to bring groups safely through a surf zone with breaking waves up to four feet. This means not only leading groups out through waves, but bringing them back through the waves. Like climbing, it’s easier to go up or out than down or in.
The strong tidal currents of the Matanzas River, combined with strong winds, made rescues and group cohesion difficult. An out-going tide could sweep boat, victim, and rescuers out to sea. We had some unusual challenges, one afternoon, a bank of fog descended on us, rare for Florida. This is why we practice in this venue, to be prepared when the rescues, capsizes, and out-of-boats experience are real.
On our first morning, the conditions were big, maybe too big, but the waves were clean. Dale gave us free time to play and surf as a warm up for our subsequent training. At one point, I realized that we had company—two dolphins were also playing and surfing in the waves. As they leapt over the waves, they exposed their full bodies—nose to tail, something I rarely see. It’s a gift and a privilege to play with dolphins. So, forgetting the pressures of training and the ravages of history, I surfed under the bright February sun.
Can William Bartram—Quaker, adventurer, and naturalist—help us save the St. Johns River? In the late 1700s, William Bartram (1739-1832) sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and recorded north Florida’s cultural and natural history in his Travels of William Bartram. Bartram’s words have drawn adventurers, naturalists, and historians to the river and cultivated in them a deep appreciation for local history, flora, and fauna. I came to love the St. Johns River after paddling in William Bartram’s Wake on a Paddle Florida trip on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County. Most recently, Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created the Bartram Adventure Tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and others can trace Bartram’s route on foot, bike, and boat. On this trip, I realized that William Bartram also forged paths to conservation.
I was excited when Linda invited me to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. I knew that several days with fellow Bartram enthusiasts would help me better understand why William Bartram’s words remain powerful. In 2016, I met Sam Carr and Dean Campbell on a Bartram-inspired Paddle Florida trip on the St. Johns River. While paddling downstream in a blustery December wind, I learned that Sam, Dean and others designed Bartram Trail in Putnam County so that people could visit sites that Bartram described. The printed guide, trailside QR codes, and website provide locations, journal entries and commentaries so that visitors can follow Bartram’s footsteps and see (or imagine seeing) what he saw. The Bartram Adventure Tour combines guided cycling, paddling, and hiking tours on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County with a stay in the Bartram Inn.
The pre-dawn light woke me early on my first morning of the trip. I could see the St Johns from my room on the second floor of the Inn, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked outside to watch the sunrise. Mist shrouded the anchored boats and blurred my view of Memorial Bridge that divides east and west Palatka. It struck me that I had never spent the night in Palatka. I had driven over the bridge innumerable times on my way to Crescent Beach, but rarely stopped in Palatka except for gas or snacks. I recalled Linda’s observation from the previous evening, that only when people stop, get out of their cars, and get on the water do they begin to care for the river. Perhaps here was a clue to Bartram’s power, the power of place—his words guide us to magical places on the St. Johns where we can see, touch, and sometimes feel the river’s beauty.
We had two short hikes that day. First, we walked along the Puc Puggy Trail at the Palataka Waterworks Environmental Education Center. Then, we hiked down a newly cut trail in the Welaka State Forest that brought us to Orange Point and John’s Landing. The trail between these points followed the river and provided the best views of the river. Our trip included a number of ‘Bartram moments.’ Sam read from Bartram’s Travels and explained the significance of a particular place. Hearing Bartram’s description helped me imagine the landscape he encountered so many years ago.
On our final stop before lunch, we climbed Mount Royal, a site now confined within the gated Mount Royal Airpark Community. From atop this (excavated) Indian mound, Sam read aloud the ‘Bartram Prayer’ which offers insight into Bartram’s—and his own—feeling of stewardship towards the river and the surrounding land. The prayer resonates with him because it shows that preserving creation reflects the will of God and adds purpose to living on the St. Johns.
Sam claims that Bartram was the “original hippie”—embracing peace, love, and care for all beings, including other people. In Bartram’s description of nearby Six Mile Run (a.k.a. Salt Springs Run), he writes
At the same instant innumerable fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colors . . . all in intercourse performing their evolutions: there are no signs of enmity, no attempt to devour each other; the different bands seem peaceably and complaisantly to move a little aside, as it were to make room for the others to pass by.
Shouldn’t humans emulate the peaceable bands of fish, Bartram seems to say, where all coexist peacefully? Bartram’s care extended to the many Native Americans he met whom, unlike his contemporaries, he viewed as equals. His egalitarian approach to people and nature reflected a Quaker sensibility that would motivate others centuries later.
On our final day, we met another Putnam County resident who has taken William Bartram to heart. Biologist Mike Adams has been restoring the region’s native plants, including longleaf pine, for over 20 years. He and his family bought and preserved a tract of land on the St. Johns River.
A passing cold front thwarted our plans to pedal the 13 miles from Palatka to Saturiwa, so we grabbed our raincoats and piled into our cars. Under the eaves of his broad porch, Mike explained how he had come to love Florida’s diverse landscape and William Bartram.
In his William Bartram persona, Adams outlined his conservation program and described the design and construction of his house and surrounding buildings. As he pointed out the details of the house, including this inlaid compass, I thought of yet another Bartram lesson: the mix of science and beauty. The sciences, arts, and humanities were not always considered as separate endeavors.
I recalled a discussion with University of Florida historian Steve Noll during the Center for Humanities in the Public Sphere summer program for high school students. William Bartram, Noll pointed out, embraced both the humanities and the sciences, and he communicated his scientific findings in artful, if not flowery, language. The blend of science and story, along with ethics, history, and beauty, can help us save our Florida waters. Artist Margaret Tolbert’s Aquiferious is one example, using a holistic approach to showcase and, hopefully, save our springs.
William Bartram’s writings have motivated these Putnam County residents to conserve land, create the Bartram Trail, and follow Bartram’s path on land and sea. We only protect what we know and love. Getting people on the water and into Putnam County helps the river and the people who live there. William Bartram has become an environmental ambassador for the St. Johns River in Putnam County. He still has much to teach us.
Rivers were once America’s highways, carrying people from place to place. But rivers also let us journey through time, revealing the stories and histories of those who have gone before. Looking out over a glassy St. Johns River, I wonder what stories the river holds. People have lived and worked on the St. Johns River for millennia, including Paleo-Indians, European colonists, and Cracker homesteaders. The St. Johns reveals their stories to archaeologists and historians through artifacts and written records. What can we learn about these layers of history, from the recent past to pre-historic times, by being on the river?
I came to Palatka to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. In the late 1700s, William Bartram, Quaker, naturalist, and adventuer, sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and described the people, flora, and fauna he encountered. Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created this tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and adventurers could visit sites that naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) described in his Travels of William Bartram. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County guides adventurers to these sites on foot, bike, and boat. Reading Bartram’s words is one thing, but seeing these sites from the seat of a kayak brings these stories to life.
On the water, I can almost imagine a time when the river was Florida’s main highway. Today, the Memorial Bridge in Palatka spans the St. Johns, and Highways 17 and 19 parallel the eastern and western banks. But this network of roads and bridges did not exist for Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Bartram, or the Native American populations who preceded them.
St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.
The key phrase is “the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.” Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land travel difficult and dangerous. Imagine the snakes, gators, and spiders under foot. Until industrialist Henry Flagler (1830-1913) developed the Florida East Coast Railway in the early years of the twentieth century, the St. Johns River remained Florida’s “grand water-highway” for good reason.
On an overcast day, Bartram enthusiast Dean Campbell met us in Welaka for a six-mile paddle. We visited several springs, including Welaka Springs and Satsuma Springs. Today we cool off in these springs, but once they were sources of life.
Just beyond Welaka, we paddled past the remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant which figured in Dean’s own family history. After church, his family used to eat Sunday dinner there followed by an afternoon cruising the river on their boat. The restaurant is now in disrepair, like many fish camps along the St. Johns.
Boats, docks, and homes in varying stages of disrepair hint at the recent past, but the river itself holds evidence of the distant past. The day prior, diver and archaeologist Mike Stallings displayed some of his finds, including a mastodon tooth. Mike and others have found pottery from the St. Johns culture, a native American culture along the river dating from 500 BCE until the arrival of Europeans. The St. Johns River near Palatka is fossil-rich because the river level has varied over thousands of years, from 400 feet above sea level to 40 feet below.
This was not a wilderness paddle—homes, fish camps, and marinas lined the shores, illustrating that even today, many people rely on the St. Johns River for their sustenance and livelihood. The day before, Sam Carr had commented that Bartram didn’t forge any new trails. In fact, William Bartram traveled along a river that was home to multiple populations, including settlers, plantation owners, and Native Americans. Bartram wrote extensively of his encounters with the different native populations he met. The west side of the St. Johns River, known as the “Indian shore,” was less populated than the east side, where British colonists and plantation owners had settled. Bartram, however, rarely wrote about the plantations lining the shore, and he certainly encountered European settlers. He mentions Stokes Landing (Spaulding Lower Store) and Rollestown (Site 7), but his Travels portray a landscape unsettled by Europeans.
In Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers advice for northerners heading south for the winter, but her words betray a concern about the sheer numbers of snowbirds arriving in Florida. Dean thought that William Bartram held similar concerns. Painting the landscape as harsh and unforgiving slowed the migration of newcomers. Remember that only the relatively recent development of air conditioning made Florida’s climate bearable to all but the toughest. As Florida’s population surpasses 21 million, the sea level continues to rise, and development runs unchecked, Stowe and Bartram’s concerns are prescient.
Paddling the St. Johns River is an opportunity to be immersed in history—literally, if you capsize, which I do not recommend. The St. Johns River holds the stories of generations of people who have lived before us. Following Bartram’s trail helps us imagine their lives in Florida’s many pasts.