Imagining William Bartram’s Salt Springs

Salt Springs Run cloudscape

Salt Springs Run hints of old Florida, before Disney and development transformed the land. The scrub landscape bordering the run offers a glimpse of the Florida William Bartram encountered centuries ago. Paddling this river lets me escape the twenty-first century for a little while.

I launch at Salt Springs Marina and slide my paddleboard onto the calm water just below the head-spring. The water is cloudier than the last time I visited a year ago, which saddens me.  Heavy rains and over-pumping from the aquifer have degraded many area springs. But even so, Salt Springs rarely disappoints.

The Salt Springs Marina sits at one end of a large pool. To the left lies the headspring itself and just downstream a pack of motor boats have anchored for an afternoon of swimming and sun. I turn my right, downstream, away from boats and people. It only takes one river bend to step back in time and imagine how William Bartram felt when he floated down what he called Six Mile Springs. On my first trip to Salt Springs, I paddled In William Bartram’s Wake on Paddle Florida’s 2015 Bartram History Paddle.  Dean Campbell and Sam Carr, designers of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County, regaled us with Bartram lore as we paddle down Salt Springs Run and up the St. Johns River to Palatka.

In 1766, Quaker naturalist and explorer William Bartram and his father John Bartram encountered Salt Spring Run while exploring the shore of Lake George, a wide spot in the St. Johns River. They rowed upstream against the slow-moving current until they reached the head-spring which they called Johnson Spring. Their journal entry, dated January 24, 1766, describes the oak hammocks, cypress knees, and pines that still characterize this run. Today, adventurers can paddle, hike, and bike sections of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County using maps and QR code that identify sites mentioned in Bartram’s travel journals. Site 28 marks the entrance to Salt Springs Run on the western shore of Lake George. Both University of North Florida’s Florida History Online and Bartram Trail in Putnam County provide ecological, historical, and literary commentary on the specific sites Bartram visited.

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Site 28-Rocky Point
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Paddle Florida’s Bartram History Paddle 2015

Today, Salt Springs Run is part of the Salt Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest, easily reached by Highway 19. In the time of Bartram’s Travels and even well into the early twentieth century, most people travelled by boat. The dense and swampy Florida landscape made overland journeys difficult and dangerous. To reach Salt Springs, the Bartrams rowed up the north-flowing St. Johns River and up what we call Salt Springs Run.

Ocala National Forest Sign
Sign at Salt Springs Marina
Salt Springs Area Map
Courtesy of Google Maps

William Bartram returned to Salt Springs in 1774 and again floated the spring run. But his observations and “romantic imagery” after this second descent reveal so much more about Bartram and his enchantment by the spring.

“But there are yet remaining scenes inexpressibly admirable and pleasing. Behold, for instance, a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether; the margin of the bason ornamented with a grat variety of fruitful and floriferous trees, shrubs, and plants, the pendant golden Orange dancing on the surface of the plellucid waters, the balmy air vibrating with the melody of the merry birds, tenants of the encircling aromatic grove.” (Travels)

William Bartram’s ornate language captures the magic of Florida’s springs. I see the magic on my friends’ faces when they plunge into a spring’s clear waters.  Bartram’s flowery descriptions likely influenced writers and poets far beyond Florida. Scholars have traced Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan to Bartram’s description of Salt Springs.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Salt Springs, like all Florida springs, flows from an ancient sea, deep under the Floridan Aquifer, passing through limestone and karst caverns. Coleridge’s sacred Alph could very well be our own Salt Springs Run. Who isn’t captivated by our springs?

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Even though the water was more tannic than my last visit to Salt Springs, in my mind’s eye, I envision the crystal blue flow that William Bartram must have seen–the water that is “absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether.” I’ve seen this clarity on the Ichetucknee, Naked Springs at Gilchrist Blue, and Cannon springs during the Ocklawaha drawdown, so I know what is possible.

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Cannon Springs
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Naked Springs
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Gilchrist Blue springs

My father recently passed away at Oak Hammock in Gainesville, FL, after struggling with dementia for several years. After he died, so many residents and staff at Oak Hammock spoke fondly of my father, whose Charlie Brown smile lit up the room. My mother and I worried that nobody knew my father as we knew him, in the past. But they loved him as they knew him, as he was in the last years of his life.

I’ve only known and loved the springs in their current state. My husband Kevin tells me how much cleaner they were when he first came to Florida over twenty years ago. Still others reminisce about their clarity before air conditioning made Florida newly habitable and brought millions of new residents, including myself. I love them as they are.

Salt Springs Run is an out and back paddle, and fortunately paddling back upstream to the marina is not difficult. I paddled past the marina towards the headspring where motor boats congregated just beyond the ropes marking the Salt Springs swimming area. After the solitude of the spring run, the competing stereos emanating from the boats was jarring, but we all have our ways of loving Salt Springs.

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Boats anchored outside Salt Springs Marina

William Bartram’s words illustrate how some visitors responded to a landscape alien to them. I’m interested in landscapes and the people who inhabit them, past and present. Paddling on the waters that Bartram described helps me imagine the springs in a former, more glorious state. Even though I love the springs as they are, I know we can do better. Perhaps if we can expand our ecological imagination, we can find the will to restore and repair our springs.

 

 

 

 

 

Paddleboards in the Panhandle

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The Choctawhatchee River

Springs, a midnight swim, rope swings, and a water slide — Florida’s Panhandle catapulted me back to my childhood. Who knew that I could laugh so much in three days?

Four paddleboards, one Pilgrim Expedition, snorkeling gear, and loads of food. We pointed the Paddle Florida van west towards Lake Lucas in Chipley, Florida, our base while we explored this area between Panama Beach and the Alabama border. This inland region is dotted with rivers, lakes, and springs, ideal for paddleboarding and swimming, and the Gulf of Mexico is nearby for those wanting a saltwater fix.

Lake Lucas
View from our porch

We settled into our A-frame cabin, perched on the shore of Lake Lucas. Later that night, we paddled across the placid lake and lay on our boards, gazing up at the almost full moon. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

I woke up early the next morning–we had crossed into Central time. The moon lingered in the western sky while the dawn’s light was barely visible in the east. Coffee in hand, I sat on the dock and watched the celestial performance until the sun was high.

We planned a full day on Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, and Cypress Springs and drove to the Holmes Canoe Livery and Water Park for a shuttle. While we waited for our shuttle, we enjoyed their water slide and rope swing. I’m not sure any of us have laughed so much in years, as we climbed up the tower and slid down into the water again and again. I could have happily spent the day there.

Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek
Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek

We launched at Culpepper Landing and paddled about a mile upstream to Cypress Springs, a local swimming hole. Many other swimmers and paddlers clearly had the same idea. We were not alone, but it never seemed overcrowded–amazing for a sunny summer day. We tied up our boards, donned mask, fins, and snorkel, and swam around the blue hole, diving deep against the rising current and watching the sky through the water’s distortion.

 

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Cypress Springs
The tannin line
The tannin line
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Fins up in Cypress Springs

After swimming and eating lunch, we headed downstream to our takeout at Fanning Branch Boat Ramp. The spring was cold and I was ready to warm up.

As we paddled downstream, the river changed moods several times. Shallow and twisty-turny, like a creek, then wide and straight. Clear, like a spring run, and, in other places, opaque. Never predictable.

Katie on Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Reflections

 

Placid waters on Holmes Creek
A hidden spring?
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Cooling off in Holmes Creek

After several miles, we passed the Holmes Creek Canoe Livery and Waterpark, where many people completed their trip. After a short break, we continued downstream for the last four miles of our trip. Once again the river changed moods, and our paddling became more challenging. The Livery warned us that we would be ducking under trees, and they were right. Once we lay flat on our boards, using our arms to weave through a tangle of branches. Several times, we crawled to the front of our board to free the fins  caught on submerged branches, a hazard unique to paddleboards. Several times, I heard the splash of someone going in. Through it all, we laughed and laughed, mostly because it felt good to be in the water. We endured a long paddle that day, about 9 miles, and I was both sad and relieved when we reached Fanning Branch.

On our third and final day, we planned  a five-mile paddle on the Choctawhatchee River, from the New Cedar Log Landing boat ramp to Morrison Springs.  The river was high, possibly at flood stage, and moving fast. Rain had recently soaked the Panhandle, and the high river flow had drowned out Morrison Springs. Nonetheless, Morrison Springs was our take-out, and we hoped that we would find the entrance to the spring, not obvious even under ideal circumstances.

 

We pushed our boards into the swiftly moving current and sped downstream. The Choctawhatchee is wide with few obstacles, unlike Holmes Creek. A fisherman told us the spring entrance was marked by a giant leaning cypress, and hence the quest for the cypress began.

Flooded Choctawhatchee River

Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Floating camp on the Choctawhatchee
One of many river camps
Choctwhatchee bench
Park bench on the river bank

We scoured the river banks for the elusive leaning cypress. Instead we saw floating river camps, a park bench with a view, and sandy bluffs eroded by years of floods. “Is that it?” we asked again and again, each time we floated by anything remotely resembling a leaning cypress. We paddled on, recalculating how far we had paddled.

Finally we came to a boat launch and discovered that Morrison Springs was three miles upstream. No way were we paddling against that current, and a storm was rolling in. A  fisherman, kind enough not to laugh at our predicament, us to our cars. It would have been a long walk to the road.

Coming in for a landing
Coming in for a landing

Boat ramp

Hitching a ride
Hitching a ride

On our way home, we stopped at Ponce de Leon State Park for a final swim. As we dove and snorkeled in this fountain of youth, it seemed fitting to end our adventure here as we had spent the last three days laughing and playing like kids. Being on a paddleboard, so close to the water, jumping off and climbing back on, brought out the kid in all of us.

This short trip offered a taste of paddling in the Panhandle, and it was also a preview of Paddle Florida’s new Choctawhatchee Challenge scheduled for March 2018. I can’t wait to paddle more of this wonderful part of Florida.

Ponce de leon Springs
Revived by Ponce de Leon State Park

 

 

 

Pancakes and Water-skiing Elephants: Hidden Histories of DeLeon State Park (St. Johns, Part 3)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

floating on a paddleboard under cloudy skies in DeLeon Springs State Park, Florida
Liz Sparks on DeLeon Spring Run

How was I supposed to focus on history with the deafening shrieks of children ringing in my ears? I had come to learn about the park’s history and perhaps even swim, but I quickly realized that every child from every camp from miles had also come to cool off in the spring. Oh well. I was preparing to teach a class on the culture, history, and ecology of Florida State Parks and was visiting the parks that exemplified kitschy pre-Disney Old Florida. With a water-skiing elephant and a sugar mill do-it-yourself pancake restaurant, DeLeon Springs made the cut. And despite my focus on tourist kitsch, I learned a great deal about the park’s rich history.

To escape the bedlam, I entered the one place guaranteed to be child-free: the park’s small museum. The room had posters, pictures, and artifacts that traced the area’s history, starting with the Mayaca people who inhabited the area for at least 6,000 years. Unfortunately, many burial mounds and artifacts were lost or destroyed when European settlers came to the region.

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DeLeon Springs’ First People

DeLeon Springs State Park sits between Deland and Astor, on the east side of the St. Johns River. Water coming from this second magnitude spring flows into Spring Garden Lake, then through Lake Woodruff and Lake Dexter en route to the St. Johns. Fish and game were plentiful for early Florida residents.

Easy access to the St. Johns River drew subsequent populations, starting with the Spanish in the 1500s. In the 1800s, settlers established Spring Garden Plantation to grow cotton and sugar cane. Florida’s history as a slave state is often over-looked, but slavery and plantations sadly thrived along the St. Johns River in the antebellum years.

List of slavesand ages
Spring Garden Slave List, 1829 (The Broadus R. Littlejohn, Jr. Manuscript Collection. Book 304.)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

‘Here I am in Florida . . . which from my childhood I have consecrated in my imagination as the garden of the United States,’ Audubon wrote. But he found a place ‘where all that is not mud, mud, mud is sand, sand, sand, inhabited by alligators, snakes and scorpions.’

Drawing of Common Gallinule, James John Audubon
Common Gallinule (http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/common-gallinule)

Spring Garden Plantation did not fare well in the mid-1800s. The Seminoles burnt it down during the Second Seminole War (1835-42),  then Union troops burnt it again during the Civil War. Later the site was renamed DeLeon Springs, yet another Florida site claiming to  be Ponce De Leon’s fountain of youth.

sign on name change to promote business and tourism in Florida.
Fountain of Youth Placard
tour boat with children swimming
Fountain of Youth Eco/History Tour boat

DeLeon Springs is the epitome of Old Florida tourism, and Queenie, the water skiing elephant, was DeLeon’s Springs crown jewel. In “The Waterskiing Elephants of DeLeon Springs“, Rick Kilby writes about Liz Dane who water-skiied with her pet elephant Queenie in 1958-9. In 2015, Liz Dane returned to DeLeon Springs to speak about Queenie and her experiences at the park.

Queenie the water-skiining elephant
Mural on DeLeon Museum Wall

Finally, enough history — it was time to get on the water. My paddling buddies and I see how far we could go on the spring run. Not far, as it turned out. The fin of my paddleboard caught in the mud on this shallow run. Even more ominous, dark clouds loomed over us. We raced back, not a moment too soon, and the skies broke. The silver lining: the typically long lines for the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant had disbursed. This restaurant is a tourist favorite for good reason. Each table has its own griddle, so guests make their own pancakes at the table.

We came for the kitsch and stayed for the history. Where ever I go in Florida, I am reminded of the deep and rich history of our rivers, springs, and parks. Deleon Springs State Park , though, has one of the most interesting blends of history, ecology, and recreation and is well worth a visit.

ruins of old sugar mill for crushing cane
Sugar Mill Ruins
view across DeLeon Springs of sungar Mill restaurant
Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant
bubbling pancake with blueberries
Cooking pancakes on the griddle

matheson

Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

Paddleboard Camping on Rock Springs Run

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Rock Springs Run

Paddling upstream in the dark on Rock Springs Run with loaded paddleboards—an auspicious start to our SUP camping trip? Jill, Janice, and I had set out for three nights of camping in the Wekiwa River Basin, just north of Orlando. Our destination, Otter Primitive Campsite, was several miles upstream. The calm, clear waters of the Wekiwa River and Rock Springs Run seemed like an ideal site to try out a multi-day SUP trip, and fortunately Jill and Janice quickly agree to almost any adventure.

 

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Wekiwa Springs State Park Map

We arrived at Wekiwa Spring State Park around 4:30, later than we’d intended. Within an hour, we had ferried our boards, firewood, and gear down the hill to the boat launch. Although the three of us are experienced kayak campers, loading paddleboards with gear presents a different challenge than loading kayaks. We packed efficiently like backpackers and were pleasantly surprised at how well the gear fit on the boards. I bought my 12′ Fanatic Ray because its thick rails and quasi-displacement hull make it suitable for touring with gear. I loaded a mesh bag full of camping gear and smaller dry bags under the bungee cords on the bow and placed the food on the stern, behind my feet. Janice and Jill both packed their gear into larger drybags. We each carried a 10 liter MRS dromedary water bag on our boards—much more than we actually needed.

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12′ loaded Fanatic Ray
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Packing up at the Wekiwa River launch

To reach Otter Camp, the first of the three campsites on Rock Springs Run (heading upstream) meant paddling a short distance down the Wekiwa River until we reached Rock Springs Run, then 2-3 miles upstream. None of us had paddled loaded boards before, and we were all surprised at their stability. Finally we launched, trying to make the most of our final hour of sunlight.

The downstream section of the Wekiwa River went fast as the current moved us along. The sun’s light illuminated submerged logs that could snag a fin—a paddleboard hazard that kayakers do not face. We reached the confluence of the rivers quickly, but once we turned upstream we realized that our journey would take much longer than we anticipated. Low water conditions made the current swift, and we eddy-hopped back and forth across the river to avoid the swiftest parts.  Rock Springs Run was shallower and twistier than the Wekiwa, and the clear water made it difficult to determine depth. At a slower pace, we continued upstream, appreciating the river’s beauty in the fading light.

 

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Reflections on the Rock springs Run

Eventually the last of the sunlight disappeared, and we could see the moon’s rays through the trees. We put on our headlamps. [Note to self: either leave earlier or pack the headlamps on top.] Paddling upstream in the dark added an entirely new dimension to our trip, but it was strangely calming, especially after weeks of election-related noise. The only thing breaking the calm were occasional peals of hysterical laughter when one of us got snagged. We all knew that alligators lurked in the area, but none of us dared to actually mention this fact. We aimed our lights at the shore, hoping for signs of our campsite. After two  hours of paddling, we arrived at Otter Camp.

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Entrance to Otter Camp
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Riverside view

Our home for the next three nights, Otter Camp has room for up to 10 tents, two benches, a large locking bear box to store food in, and a campfire ring. The site overlooks the river, and it is hard to believe that we were in the outskirts of Orlando. Over the next two days, we paddled up and down the Rock Springs Run, and friends came to join us. Exploring it during daylight, the stream seemed like three different rivers. Slow and wide towards the top, twisty and fast in the middle, and wide and open towards the bottom. We saw egrets, limpkins, herons, kingfishers, and ibis—and one hawk. Lots of turtles and no gator sightings until we paddled Juniper Spring Run on Sunday.

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A narrow stretch of the Rock Springs Run
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Ducking under trees and branches
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Great Blue Heron
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Ibis on a branch

On Sunday morning, we packed up and reversed our route. With lighter loads and downstream current, the trip took one hour. Overall, I was happy with my gear selections and my paddleboard. I cover less distance on my paddleboard than I do in my kayak (NDK Pilgrim Expedition), so I’ll need to account for that on future trips. Using a basecamp worked for our shake-down trip, but the Wekiva/Rock Springs Run/St Johns area several options for moving camps daily. Sections of the Florida Circumnavigation Trail are also appropriate for a paddleboard. Even though our trip did not have the most auspicious start, our ability to adapt to—and laugh at— our circumstances set the tone for the trip. I think we got as much of a workout from laughter as from paddling. The only question is where to next?

 

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Coming home

Becoming Enchanted by the Springs

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Ichetucknee paddling gang

I find it difficult to explain the magic of our springs. You just have to see them or, better yet, swim in their crystal clear waters. Sometimes I tell people that it feels like flying, floating with nothing supporting me from above or below. And I tell them about spring-hopping down the Santa Fe and the Suwannee rivers and paddling down spring runs like the Ichetucknee.  They nod politely and ask if Gainesville is close to the beach. (No, it isn’t.)

Finally, someone bit. I just spent five glorious days introducing two friends to our own spring-shed in north central Florida and witnessed the springs work their enchantment on my friends, as they have on so many visitors before them. And this is important as those of who care about the springs know–people won’t protect what they don’t know about and love.

After a long winter in Michigan, Carol and Kiran arrived, ready to paddle and ready for spring. We had been emailing back and forth about options—I sent pictures and links about the Rainbow, the Ichetucknee, and the Ocklawaha, among others. An embarrassment of riches. “Everything”, they said, “we want to do it all.”CE2A224B-FFE9-44CF-B9B7-3A23A1AFE43C

We started with the Santa Fe. With two kayaks, one paddle board, and a car full of gear and snacks, we arrived at Rum 138 in Fort White, just 45 minutes or so north of Gainesville. While I pumped up my board, Carol and Kiran learned about the springs and features that we would see on our trip. We launched boats and board at Rum Springs and immediately paddled upstream to circumnavigate the appropriately named Rum Island. Rum Island lies between two county jurisdictions and, according to rumor, was home to moonshine and boot-leg operations.P1000916

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Paddling over Blue springs

Soon after, on the left side, we spotted the clear outflow that marked the entrance to Gilchrist Blue Springs. Leaving the tannic waters of the Santa Fe behind, we paddled upstream to the headwaters where we donned our masks and swam over the vent that releases the spring flow. The flow is strong so you need to hold on to get a good look.

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Blue spring vent
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Swimming in Blue

Diving down and looking back up toward the water’s surface gives a funhouse mirror-like distortion of the trees and clouds above.

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Springs impressions

We had some company — others were jumping off the platform into the spring below, probably students blowing off tension from final exam preparations.

Next we swam our boats to the entrance of Naked Springs and walked up to the headspring.

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Naked spring run

If Blue Spring had not enchanted my friends, Naked Spring worked its magic. The spring run was empty of people, and woods in-between silenced the noise, yelps, and music of Blue Springs . We swam around the two vents of Naked Springs, watching fish who also seemed curious about us. Swimming through the clear water transports me to another world — the quiet disorients me, and when I pop my head up out of the water, it takes a moment to resituate myself in time and place.

We floated down to Devil’s Ear, Ginnie, and Dogwood Springs, but after such a long time in Blue and Naked Springs, we were too cold to swim. Our perpetually cool springs even chilled my visitors from the cold north, and we made a note to pack neoprene for the next day. As we floated towards the Highway 47 bridge, the sky grew darker, and we quickened our pace, partly to keep warm and partly to avoid the rain that was sure to come. We heard one rumble of thunder just as the bridge came into sight—perfect timing.

Just one day in the springs, and my friends were hooked and ready for more. The next day Mary Jane and Janice joined us on the Ichetucknee, one of our premiere spring runs. We launched at the south entrance, which had been closed for renovation, and headed upstream, against the spring’s flow. The lower portion of the river gives a swampy feel — the river twists and turns under a tree canopy. Although the road is nearby, the trees and vegetation make the river feel far more remote than it is. We waved to the tubers and paddlers floating downstream, with the flow, and some wondered why we bothered paddling upstream.

 

Lone manatee

When we passed the mid-point entrance, we looked for the lone manatee that I had seen several days before. The river opens up at this point, and I have often seen manatees chomping away at the vegetation. No manatees, but the turtles and egrets put on their own show as we made our way towards the headspring.

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Row of sunning turtles

Heading downstream, we immersed ourselves in an underwater theater. Donning mask, snorkel, and fins, we swam, pulling boats and board behind us. We met mullet, gar, and turtles face to face. For the hour or so of the swim to the take-out, each of us was immersed in our own thoughts and our own world, completely unplugged. A rare opportunity to just be and let my thoughts drift.Nonetheless, while I love this freedom, by the end of this swim, my thoughts have usually drifted towards the possibility of alligators as I reach the warmer waters where the Ichetucknee feeds into the Santa Fe. The take-out is a welcome site.

img_3072Swimming and paddling in our springs feels like a gift, but seeing them through the eyes of new visitors makes me fall in love all over again. My friend Flo Turcotte, UF archivist for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ papers, detailed how Rawlings became enchanted by north central Florida’s primeval landscape in her article “For This is an Enchanted Land“. I saw the process of enchantment begin anew, and I know that my friends will come back for more.

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Devil’s Eye

When Vacation Becomes an Adventure

Blue skies on the Suwannee River.jpgOn Saturday morning, April 2, 90+ kayakers and one paddle boarder (me) launched from Spirit of the Suwannee to paddle 20 miles downstream back to our campsite at the Suwannee River State Park. We were all part of Paddle Florida’s annual Suwannee River Paddling Festival, scheduled each year for the first weekend in April. Paddle Florida‘s motto is “Inspiring. Meaningful. Adventure.”And while our performers and the river itself fulfilled the first two promises, Mother Nature served us a full plate of adventure with Friday night’s storms and flooded rivers.

Participants arrived Friday afternoon, under foreboding skies, and we all knew that storms would roll through Live Oak at some point that night. We set up our tents on the bluff overlooking the river, staking out lines with care to make them as rain-proof as possible.


The rain held off for our evening entertainment– Thomas Hawkins from Florida Defenders of the Environment, told about work to restore the Ocklawaha River, and Matt Keene’s River Be Damned documentary narrated the Ocklawaha’s contested history and portrayed river’s beauty in its free-flowing state. Many in the group had paddled on the Ocklawaha River during the recent drawdown and seen springs like Cannon that are visible only when the Rodman Reservoir is lowered. Currently, there is much dialogue and debate among those who wish to restore the Ocklawaha River to its natural flow and those who have grown attached to the lake-like ecosystem of the Rodman Reservoir. I recently wrote “Requiem for a River” about those of us grieving the loss of these springs. Thomas Hawkins brought up the point that many supporters of the Rodman Reservoir have already mourned the loss of the free-flowing Ocklawaha and cannot bear the loss of this new ecosystem they have come to love. Most everyone agrees that we never should have damned the river in the first place, but now, whatever we do will make someone unhappy.

We stayed dry for another hour while Scott Jantz led his ghost tour around the ruins of Drew Mansion and Ellaville across the river. By the time the group returned from their ghostly walk, around 10 pm, the raindrops started, and thunder grew louder. Time to hunker down in our tents. Over the next eight hours, storms rolled through the Panhandle, along the I-10 corridor, pelting us with rain and lighting up the sky. When we emerged from our tents for breakfast, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. Some tents had fared better than others, and few campers had slept well. My tent and tarp combo–described as looking like a child’s sheet fort–kept me dry, but others spent a very wet night. Everyone, it seemed, was grateful for coffee that morning.

2015-16 is an El Niño year, and Paddle Florida trips has felt the impact of that this season, from the Nor’easter on the Bartram trip in December to another overnight soaker on the Great Calusa Blueway trip in February. Someone commented that “extreme weather conditions transform a vacation into an adventure,” and rising to meet these challenges is satisfying and also gives us much better stories. I wonder how our weather apps change our experience? I camped for years without access to weather warnings, but now my iPhone alerts me when I am in the red tornado watch zone. Do I really want that information when there is little I can do about it?

The skies were gray but clear when we launched at the Spirit of the Suwannee beach Saturday morning. We floated past the limestone bluffs that line the river until we reached our lunch spot at 12 miles, Gibson Park boat ramp. The paddling was difficult- we paddled against a headwind, and while we assumed that the rains would make the flow faster, we were wrong. Many people were grateful for Paddle Florida’s signature PBJ lunch spread and perhaps even more grateful for the opportunity to take the shuttle back to the campsite. The paddle both before and after lunch was beautiful and serene, especially as the skies cleared just as most of us arrived in camp. The sunny afternoon skies allowed tired paddlers to nap, dry their tents, and, for the slightly more energetic, place bids at the silent auction. The auction which raised money for the Florida Defenders of the Environment was followed by a sunset serenade by singers Frank Lindamood and Lon and Lis Williamson.

Saturday night’s clear skies and cool temperatures let us all get a good night’s sleep for Sunday’s paddle down the Withlacoochee River. The rains in western Florida had been filling the Withlacoochee over the past week, and we heard that the river would be fast. Madison Blue Spring, our launch point, was totally flooded out, and the river moved swiftly past the spring. One by one, we walked our boats down the flooded wooden ramp, launched, and quickly entered the river’s flow. Unlike last year, we did not stop and swim in springs in either the Suwannee or the Withlacoochee. As predicted, the day’s 12 mile paddle was fast as we floated down the river, steering through the swirls and boils caused by the high water levels. In only a couple hours, we reached the confluence with the Suwannee, just downstream of our campsite. After a short paddle upstream, we were home again.Spanish moss and trees lining the Withlacoochee.jpg

The scent of our BBQ lunch wafted over the campsite as we took down our tents and packed up. It was time to say goodbye to new and old friends. Laughing around the campfire. Scott’s ghost tour. Desperately waiting for early morning coffee. Floating down two beautiful rivers. And not to forget the crazy weather. These things bring us together and make us eager to get back on the water.

Requiem for a River

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I went to the Kenwood boat ramp last week to see it for myself — how much had the Ocklawaha River risen since the end of the drawdown, and would I still be able to see the tree stumps that reveal the drowned forest below?  I paddled the river during the drawdown, when the Ocklawaha was briefly restored to its natural flow, revealing bubbling springs and sandy banks. Now I felt compelled to witness the reverse, to see how the rising waters covered the treasures below. I was surprised to see that the river level had not yet risen significantly, so I inflated my paddle board and began to paddle upstream. Dark, low clouds filled the sky—which seemed fitting, and I estimated I had about 1 1/2 hours to wind my way through this apocalyptic riverscape.

The Rodman Reservoir had been lowered for the past several months, and, like many others, I took the opportunity to see rarely uncovered springs like Cannon Springs and Tobacco Road. I joined the Florida Defenders of the Environment at Kenwood where Lars Anderson pointed out springs and historical features, and later Captain Karen Chadwick, North Star Charters, gave me a tour on her skiff. I paddled from Eureka West to the boat ramp across from near Payne’s Landing and saw fishers lining the newly uncovered banks.

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On this day, though, I came by myself, to  be in silence on the water. The overcast day was still, the quiet only broken by the occasional motorboat. The fishermen waved as they went by, and the silence was restored. Several friends told me that they did not want to see the rising water, that it would be too sad. I understood their feelings, especially those of friends who have loved the Ocklawaha for a long time. I am a relative newcomer to Florida and have become enchanted by its springs and rivers and Old Florida, but people who grew up on the Ocklawaha have entirely different stories to tell.

In “How do we Grieve the Death of a River’,  activist Winona LaDuke asks “How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.” Mining tailings have destroyed the Waatuh River, or “Grandfather”, in southeast Brazil, a river central to the lives of  indigenous people .

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Ocklawaha at dusk
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Ocklawaha near Eureka West

Many years ago longtime residents grieved as they lost access to their land and homes when the Ocklawaha was first flooded, and they grieve again as the waters rise again, drowning the the sandy banks that provided sanctuary for alligators and birds. The “Restore the Ocklawaha River” Facebook page shows sadness—some  discovered the Ocklawaha’s springs for the first time this year and now mourn the loss. Others wonder why some voices count more than others—why do the voices of the bass fisherman count more than the poor fisherman who cannot afford a boat and have lost access to much of the river? But there is hope as well. The Save the St. Johns Tour brought scores of newcomers to the Ocklawaha River and made many of us realize that we can regain what was lost.

As I paddled among the stumps, I recalled the river bends upstream near Eureka West and the times I swam in Cannon springs. The sky was darkening, and the wind was becoming stronger, so I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. I paddled through the dead trees — the water was slightly higher than when I paddled this area previously. I had to take care that hidden roots would not catch the fin on my board and pitch me forward. I wished I had seen the forests before 1968, when the Ocklawaha was first flooded.

I paddled hard against the wind and reached the boat ramp. As I deflated the board and packed up, I watched the fishermen pull up to the ramp, also trying to beat the storm. Just as I reached the main road, the storm broke, and lightning filled the sky. I was surprised that I had become so attached to the river in such a short time. I am sorry that the state of Florida insists on drowning the Ocklawaha River, but I am glad that I came to bear witness.

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