Losing Cannon Springs

River withclopuds2.jpgTwice last week, I swam in the blue waters of Cannon Springs. I brought my mask and snorkel so I could see the vent and the fish that swam in the hole. Even from the shore, I could see fish in the spring—the water was that clear. The entire Okhlawaha River is beautiful, but its hidden springs are gems that are worth working for. I had paddled south from the Payne’s Landing entrance and north from Eureka West to see the different moods of the river – the twisty s-turns closer to Eureka straighten out as the river widens on its northward course.

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I wanted Liz, my fellow adventurer, to see the Okhlawaha River in its lowered—or natural—state, and especially I wanted to show her Cannon and Tobacco Springs while we had the opportunity. I had told her about swimming in Cannon and tromping up to see Tobacco Springs and knew she would want to do the same. After our shuttle, we pulled her kayak and my paddleboard to our launch—which had significantly more water than it did several days ago. I had heard that the water was up, that they were releasing was from the Moss Bluff dam, and from the shore, the flow did seem faster. We shrugged and pointed downstream, loaded with masks, snorkels, and snacks.

As we floated, I tried to point out the features that Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, had mentioned on my previous trip. We had seen wooden remnants of a steamboat launch, one of the 96 landings on the 135 miles along the trip from Palatka to Silver Springs.Okhlawaha.png

When steamboats traveled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests.

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File photo, Ocala Star Banner

I love looking at maps and charts, and considering rivers as highways ‘flips’ my perspective on maps. When I want to get from one place to another, I search for roads or maybe trails if I am hiking or biking. Before roads penetrated the swamps, though, land travel was difficult, if not impossible. Most people traveled by boat, so the waterlines on the map—not so much land features—are critical. So, the borders, the intersections where land meets water, those draw my eye because those spaces allowed the interaction of people and place.Screenshot 2016-02-07 20.02.27.png

As we floated downstream towards Cannon, I kept wondering if we had missed the spring. The river seemed slightly different, more swollen, and disorienting. Even the gators seemed larger, and we saw several who did not seem afraid of us. In fact, one swam along with us which was not reassuring on an inflatable paddleboard.

 

 

When we reached the entrance to Cannon Springs, I realized how much the water had risen. Only three days before, the spring run was clear, but now it was tannin-colored, and water flooded over areas that had been dry land. We paddled upstream towards the spring and met Karen, Margaret Tolbert and Javed coming back down, their kayaks loaded on Karen’s skiff. Margaret and Javed had been drawing and painting along the river that day. They shook their heads as we passed by. Cannon springs was now brown, its brilliant blue drowned out by the incoming water. I was sorry that Liz did not get a chance to see Cannon in its blue state.

On March 1, the river will start to rise again to flood stage as the Rodman drawdown comes to an end. The Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam will again create the Rodman Reservoir or Lake, and the banks along the Okhlawaha where I saw fisherman, birds, and gators will be submerged for another three to four years.lotsofegrets.jpg

The Rodman Dam was initially built as part of the larger Cross Florida Barge Canal project. The Cross Florida Barge project was stopped in 1971, in large part by efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr, and Cross Barge area has become the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. The Rodman Dam, though, has remained in place, a point of controversy between groups who want to restore the river’s natural flow and those that want to maintain the reservoir.

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Even if the Okhlawaha River were restored to its natural flow, the land needs time to heal. In constructing the aborted Cross Florida Barge Canal, giant crushers rolled along the banks, uprooting trees and shredding the landscape. Landowners along the river lost their property and never regained access to their land, even after the project ended. Today you can see the ruins of the Strange house, now on Greenway land, and imagine the wonderful view of the river they must have had.Lizinhouse.jpg

Slightly downstream of the Strange House lies Payne’s Landing, yet another reminder of loss and heartbreak. In 1832, the representatives of the Seminole and the US Government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in which the Seminole would leave their cattle, relocate to Oklahoma, and received compensation after resettlement. By all accounts, many of the chiefs were bullied or tricked into signing the treaty and refused to leave Florida, a chain of events that led to the Second Seminole War.

We took out at Payne’s Landing and reversed our shuttle. Despite the flooding of Cannon Springs, the day was spectacular, a sunny winter day in Florida, and we were happy to be on the water. Most people are happy at the take-out, and they should be. Whether fishing  or paddling, a day on the water is usually a good day. Nonetheless, there are somber undertones — Payne’s Landing, the crushers, and the incipient re-drowning of this landscape makes me think about the river’s history and the people who have called this home.

Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs

riverand clouds3 copy.jpgI had started to wonder if Cannon Springs and the Okhlawaha River was going to be my holy grail. Starting in September and lasting until March 2016, the Rodman reservoir on the Okhlawaha River is drawn down, the river-lake levels lowered substantially. This draw down occurs every few years—to prevent fish kills and reduce the vegetation that obstructs the water—and exposes the natural flow of the river.  The lowered levels on the Okhlawaha River offer us a glimpse of the past and a future that could be—without the Rodman Dam. I was especially interested in seeing those springs like Cannon that reveal themselves only during these periodic drawdowns.cspring4 copy

My first attempts to get on the river resulted in a series of major errors—locking the keys in the car at the remote Kenwood boat ramp, battery-less GPS and camera, and less than complete information about boat ramps. (I am now my own case study in fieldwork errors for my Religion and Fieldwork class.) As more and more spectacular pictures adorned my facebook feed, I was even more determined to see—and swim in—Cannon springs.

Finally, I made it—twice in one week. Armed with the GPS coordinates, my husband Kevin and I found the elusive put-in across from Payne’s Landing. We turned down a sandy road, lined with ‘NO ATV’ signs, and bumped our way through the small Hog Valley community towards the river. We launched and pointed our boats upstream. The entrance to the Cannon Springs Run was approximately one mile south of Payne’s Landing, and the entrance had been described as ‘unmistakable’, a tree-lined clear passage. I was also hoping to find Tobacco Springs situated between Payne’s Landing and Cannon Springs.

The river at Payne’s Landing is broad with an expansive vista. Several fisherman sat on the east side of the river, where the draw down has exposed the beach. The day was overcast, but warm, a seemingly auspicious start to our journey.  Some parts of the shore had healthy trees that have survived the flooding, while other patches revealed the desolation of a dying landscape.

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Heading south, we heard shots which continued for about 15 minutes—target practice, we assumed, so we paddled on, but a bit unnerved. Soon after, the batteries in both the GPS and the camera failed. Three inauspicious signs, but we kept going. We settled into a rhythm against the slight downstream flow and saw woodstorks, ibis, egrets, and a variety of herons—and of, course, gators.

We paddled mostly in the center of the river, avoiding the vegetation near the banks where gators like to hide. Kevin paddled into the vegetation once and heard the unmistakable splash of a startled gator. After about half a mile, the wide river narrowed into a series of s-curves, and dark lines on the trees along the bank told us what has become the new normal for water levels— the flood stage caused by Rodman/Kirpatrick dam. lines copy.jpgFinally, we spotted what had to be the entrance to Cannon Springs. Everyone said that the entrance to the Cannon Spring Run is unmistakable—a tree-lined corridor, and they were right.

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The water cleared quickly as we paddled up the short spring run. First we saw several vents that are part of the larger Cannon Spring system, then the blue spring itself.  The spring is relatively shallow so the vent is visible. I pulled out my mask and snorkel and dove into the clear water to see the vent. (Swimming in January is a major benefit of living in Florida.)

 

Seeing Cannon Springs once was not enough, so when I saw the Aquaholics trip down the Okhlawaha River scheduled for the following Saturday, I immediately signed up. I met the group at 9 am at Eureka West boat ramp, and after shuttling cars to Payne’s Landing, we floated downstream. Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, joined us in her kayak for the float and offered both historical and environmental perspectives on the river and its ecoheritage. She is also Vice President of the Putnam County Environmental Council and member of Florida Defenders of the Environment has been working to restore the Okhlawaha River to its free-flowing state, carrying on Marjorie Harris Carr’s environmental legacy. As we floated downstream, Karen pointed out historical features that I would have otherwise missed and also led us to the elusive Tobacco Springs.

We saw a number of milled logs, remnants of the days of logging the surrounding forests. She also pointed out the wooden remnants of a steamboat launch area. When steamboats travelled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests. Just a few wooden remnants are visible now. steamboatlaunch2.jpg

Then, finally, Tobacco Springs! Kevin and I had looked for it, but never found it. Not surprising – the spring run was clogged with water lettuce. Our group of intrepid kayakers (and my paddle-board) pushed our way through the vegetation until fallen trees blocked our path. We dragged our boats onto the bank and walked a several hundred feet through fairly dry muck. The spring was worth it – deep and not as clear as Cannon Springs, but full of fish. We peered down into the spring from the ruins of an old dock. None of us dared swim here, given the possibility of alligators in the cave below.

 

Just beyond Tobacco spring, we explored the ruins of the Strange house on land that is now part of the Florida Greenway. Dr. Strange built a house on the Okhlawaha River, complete with pool, patio, and river-front view. The family lost access to the land during construction of the never-completed Cross-Florida Barge canal. Tragically, Dr. Strange and his grandson were killed when their truck rolled into the river.strangedoor copy.jpg

 

I found my grail – Cannon Springs and Tobacco Springs, gifts from the current drawdown. I hope to get back out again soon. Karen said that the river has already risen, and starting on March 1, 2016, the reservoir will continue to fill, rendering these springs almost imperceptible. The exposed beaches will be submerged again, drowning nesting areas for birds and turtles. I’d like to paddle this section of the Okhlawaha River again, just to see what it is like when the water floods again, but I have a feeling that I will be disappointed. River withclopuds2.jpg

Ninja Spring Hunting

Subject line: “Looking for partners in crazy kayak adventure.” When I saw this email from Liz, I said yes, no questions asked. Liz had heard of a small spring in a salt marsh in the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail between Dallus Creek and Steinhatchee. The area managers said the area was dangerous and inaccessible which was all the encouragement we needed.  We chose January 24, the only day free of bike rides, paddling trips, or hikes, and a winter date would minimize encounters with bugs, snakes, and gators. Several weeks out, who knew it would be the second coldest day of the year – and what good luck for us.

To Cold

Three of us—Liz, Steve, and I—met at the Good Times Marina and Bar in Steinhatchee at 10 to caravan to our trailhead. The Who Dat bar had been closed the day before due to the cold weather. Liz led us through Steinhatchee, around the beach road, and through the rutted forest road until we reached the locked gate where we would begin our journey.

 

 

Our plan was a combo hike/drag/paddle which Liz admitted could be ‘ridiculously easy or a serious challenge’. I had my inflatable SUP which is easy to carry, and Liz and Steve both had kayaks. Although we had all looked at the terrain on google earth, we had no what conditions we would face. So each of us had various combinations of hiking and water clothes. From our virtual scouting, we assumed we had about a ½ mile hike, dragging boats and SUP, then another ½ mile drag/paddle/slog until we reached the spring. We thought the terrain might be like this:Scrub nr Dallus Creek.jpg

We parked our cars at the locked gate and discussed our options—do we hike in and scout first, or start dragging boats? We considered our options over the still-warm brownies Liz had baked that morning and decided to scout the area first. The area was remote, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, although one man came by and told us he was undercover for the FWSA—a non-existent agency. I think we seemed as sketchy to him as we probably looked to him.

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The morning was still very cold, and we knew that we would be hiking through streams and swamp, possibly falling in. The three of us had fairly different ideas of what constituted appropriate gear for swamp hiking – Steve had hip waders; Liz had drypants; and I had neoprene. We debated bringing our PFDs in case someone fell into a hole. After all, this is a karst landscape.

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As soon as we walked around the locked gate, we realized that dragging boats would be impossible. The road was chewed up and muddy. We slogged along for about ½ mile until we came to a small canal. At this canal, we knew that we had to cross a small stream and head cross-country (or cross-swamp) for another 1/2 mile southwest. From the google terrain, it looked like we would go along a tree line, across several hammocks, and across a marsh to reach the spring. We also all knew that there was a good possibility we would not be able to find the spring.

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We crossed the stream and went into the grass on the other side. Once we left the line of trees, the landscape opened up to a vista of sawgrass punctuated by hammocks with palm tress and pine trees. We also saw areas of needlegrass where the terrain was likelier to be lower and wetter. The day was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky—it was a great day for a walk in the swamp. At first, we headed into the needlegrass, but it was mucky and difficult for footing. We corrected our course, aiming for a series of hammocks. Skirting the hammocks would put us on higher ground, better footing and easier to see the terrain. The sawgrass and needlegrass was almost as tall as we were, so finding this spring would not be easy or obvious.

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We bushwacked through saw grass and needle grass, and across several hammocks, taking care not to follow any gator trail deeper into the swamp. The sawgrass was sharp, and my hands stung from the cuts when I took a shower back at home. We mostly walked through water except for when we climbed onto the hammocks—a little bit of hog heaven— which got our feet out of the water. We had seen a road sign Hog Root Rd and hoped we didn’t surprise any feral pigs. We continued through the grass, consulting the GPS, necessary because we had so little visibility. The GPS said we were only ¼ mile away, so after a brief water brief, we continued.

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With .17 to go, we plunged into the needlegrass where we thought we might find the spring. The area was lower, wetter, and likely to be muckier. We debated the risks and should we continue and finally decided to turn back. All of us admitted that twenty years ago, we probably would have continued on, but I suppose we are all wiser now. We followed our tracks back through the grass back to the muddy car and back to the road. Even though we did not find the spring, perhaps an airboat is the only way to get there, we had a fun hike through stunningly beautiful terrain. And, at least for now, the spring remains a hidden gem.Palm in marsh.jpg

Learning to Love a Landscape

When I moved to Florida 9 years ago, Like many new Floridians, I was all about the beach and the surf.  I moved to Florida as a whitewater paddler. So, I raced out to the beach whenever I could and surfed my whitewater kayak in the waves at Crescent Beach. I loved Florida’s tidal waters and estuaries, and what could be better than playing in the surf in December and January—especially after many long winters in the north. It took a while to fall in love with Florida’s rivers and springs, but when I did, I fell hard.

My friends and my now-husband raved about the springs and the rivers of north central Florida, and I wondered what the fuss was all about. I had floated down plenty of rivers in Iowa, where I had lived before. I wanted to surf!2014-03-15 17.33.46.jpg

On our first date, Kevin and I paddled on Juniper Springs, along with biologist Stephen Kellert and a group of biology graduate students. Soon, we paddled up and floated down the Ichetucknee spring run, which I loved. Looking down from my boat, I saw fish and manatees swimming below me.Manatees on the Ichetucknee.jpg

I began to learn the rich history of Florida’s waters and explored the sheer variety Florida offers. We paddled and camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, visited rivers and springs, and continued to surf in the Atlantic. But now, the springs have stolen my heart——seeing the tannin line where spring meets river, paddling under the trees on the Suwannee Rivers, and swimming in the springs along there Santa Fe River.Suwannee

I didn’t realize how much I had come to love the springs until a recent visit to Oregon, a place we had wanted to visit for years. Kevin and I sat by the river in the spectacular Columbia Gorge, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the sunset. But I was homesick. I had spent my summer paddling on different springs, and I wanted come home. And as soon as I came home, I took my paddle board to the Ichetucknee and felt at home.

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Christmas Eve in the Springs

Sunrise on the Homosassa River.  A hawk’s cry pierced the early morning stillness, interrupting my reading. I had been reading a particularly dense book on religious experience and the body, preparing for an upcoming

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class. I tried to return to the abstract world of ideas but the hawk’s cries anchored me in this placid morning. This is a perpetual dilemma for me—wanting both experience nature and writing about it at the same time.

The day before we paddled upstream from the Last Resort, just a short distance to the Homosassa headsprings. We paddled downstream to the to the confluence of the Homosassa and Halls Rivers, then upstream in search of the headsprings. The paddling was not difficult, although we realized later that we were against the tide in both directions. The weather was unseasonably warm, even for Florida, and we caught some of the winds from the large weather system moving through north of us.

The Halls River is a hidden gem, and we had never heard of it. The Halls River has few public access point, so perhaps that is why we had not yet heard about it. The Homosassa and Halls are close, separated by a line of trees, but seem like entirely different ecosystems. The Halls River meanders, bounded by grasses of the tidal flats. The Homosassa reminded me of the rivers and springs of the Ocala Forest, with trees, hammocks, and scrub.Halls River

We paddled upstream for several miles against its weak flow until we came to a large pool, thinking this might be where we would find the headsprings. Then we found clear water streaming into the pool and continued upstream, though several pools and narrow streams. The river was ours except for one fisherman in a small kayak. Kevin in grassFinally, we saw signs with green arrows, pointing to the two headsprings, marking narrow, overgrown passages navigable only by kayak or paddle board. We found one spring easily, a small vent filled with fish, but could not get through the grass to find the second one.

We had taken our time, swimming and exploring, relaxed and calm on this beautiful day. At the Halls’ headspring, we realized that sunset was in two hours, and both of us picked up our pace.  As I paddled downstream, I wondered how I maintain this state of peace and absorption into my surroundings—being in my body, focusing on water, manatees, and rivers. Even writing about water is a distraction, and I hope to find a balance between reflection and writing. At this moment, though, The tranquility of the Halls River, however, drew me in, as if I had melted into this landscape.

The sun broke out for our final day of paddling on the Chassahowitzka River, putting in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground.Chaz cave

We swam around—but not through—the caves at the headspring, up Baird’s Creek to the “crack”, then around the arms of Salt Creek. The arms of Salt Creek feel primeval and remote from any peopled landscape. I had paddled far up one narrow arm and saw a small head in the water swimming quickly straight at me. An otter fortunately, but a clear reminder of my place in the food chain in the swamp.

I had been wanting to paddle the Chaz, as the river is called, for a while, and this exquisite river lived up to its reputation. We swam and paddled all day, seeing manatees, a wood stork, kingfishers, and my friend, the otter.

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Days like this make me glad that Florida is my home and remind me that those of us who live here are entrusted to care for this fragile landscape. I know that many others feel that way—I saw two men in a small houseboat insuring that paddlers did not touch the manatees that swam near their kayaks.

Trees from the Chaz

It was Christmas Eve and time to get back home. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and new classes are coming, but I know that, amidst the hubbub, I can draw upon the peace and stillness of sunrise over the Homosassa.