Traveling through Time on the St. Johns River

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The glassy St. Johns hold its secrets

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?

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Bartram Inn Postcard

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.

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A kayaker’s view

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.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)
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Palmetto Leaves

In her 1872 work Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes

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.

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A Bartram moment on the St. Johns

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.

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Welaka Spring with QR code
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Satsuma Spring Run
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Satsuma Spring vent

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.

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Remembering times from the recent past
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Remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant

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.

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Treasures from the St. Johns

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.

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Bartram mural in Palatka

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.

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Tourists on a steamer

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.

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Palatka is the city of murals

 

Bartram Adventure Tour postcard
To learn about the Bartram Adventure Tour, watch the video.

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Fountain of Youth Placard
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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.

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Sugar Mill Ruins
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Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant
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Cooking pancakes on the griddle

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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

Cruisin’ Down Florida’s Grand Highway (St. Johns, Part 2)

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Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

In the late 1800s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) followed a seasonal migration pattern now familiar to all Floridians—snowbirds landing in Florida to bask in our balmy winters. Today people cruise down I-95 and I-75 in RVs. In Stowe’s time, they cruised down the St. Johns in steamships.

Stowe wintered in Mandarin, Florida in a house overlooking the St. Johns River, a river she came to love. Her book Palmetto Leaves describes her life and community in Florida and offers advice for other northerners heading south. In particular, she reminisces about sailing and boating on the St. Johns River. In the St. Johns lower basin, near Mandarin, the river is slow and wide, almost a mile wide at some points. Preparing for a day of boating, she describes her view as

…five good miles of molten silver in the shape of the St. Johns River, outspread this morning in all its quivering sheen, glancing, dimpling and sparkling, dotted with sailboats, and occasionally ploughed by steamboats gliding like white swans back and forth across the distance.

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View from Black Knight Boat ramp

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The St. Johns River was Florida’s “grand river highway,” and travel by steamship was more comfortable and safer than travel overland. Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land-based travel extremely difficult, so boats and rivers were a lifeline to Florida settlers, traders, and tourists.

Steamships helped open the market for Florida tourism. In Palmetto Leaves, Stowe wrote that the

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.

Passengers from the north could enjoy Florida’s warm winters and reach locations such as Sanford, Silver Springs, and Palatka by ship.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)

By the mid-1800s, steamships plied the route between Jacksonville and Sanford, carrying goods, people, and agricultural products.  Boats that took passengers on the Ocklawaha and the Silver River required the smaller, more maneuverable sternwheeler, as in the Okahumkee below. Passengers heading northward transferred to larger ocean-going side-wheel paddleboats in Jacksonville.

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City of Jacksonville Sidewheeler (Photo credit: St. Johns River Ship Co.)

Stowe describes her overnight cruise upriver—south—to Enterprise. This grand round, or tour, up the St. Johns River to Enterprise, across to St. Augustine, and back, she wrote, marks the “accomplished Floridian sight-seer.

Turning our boat homeward, we sailed in clear morning light back through the charming scenery which we had slept through the night before. It is the most wild, dream-like, enchanting sail conceivable. The river sometimes narrows so that the boat brushes under overhanging branches, and then widens into beautiful lakes dotted with wooded islands. [Palmetto Leaves]

Only the “constant and pertinacious firing kept up by that class of men who think that the chief end of man is to shoot something” detracted from her trip.

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Log of the Okahumkee

The city of Enterprise on Lake Monroe was the southern terminus of the navigable section of the St. Johns River. Even today, most navigational charts stop at Sanford. In Stowe’s day, visitors to Sanford could stay in the elegant Hotel Sanford, built in 1886.

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Hotel Sanford (Florida Memory)

Henry Shelton Sanford (1823-1891) established the city of Sanford in the 1870s. He imported thousands of citrus trees to develop the citrus industry and established Sanford as a commercial and tourism hub of central Florida.

Today, most visitors arrive in Florida by car, plane, and occasionally, train, and the big rat dominates the tourism scene. Beecher’s slow trip up and down the St. Johns might not offer the excitement of Disney’s Splash Mountain, but traveling Florida’s waterways gives us a glimpse into the past, when rivers were our highways. Today, the Barbara-Lee, a stern wheel paddleboat, takes visitors for a slow cruise along the river, revealing birds and other wildlife. Others enjoy the St. Johns on pontoon boats, kayaks, and sailboats, seeing aspects of Florida only visible from water. These trips remind us that we have—and still do—rely on our rivers for commerce, transportation, and recreation. The St. Johns River is still the River of Life.

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

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Under Darkening Skies: Meeting the Challenge, Ocklawaha Odyssey, Part 2

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The skies darken Photo credit: Jill Lingard

Our final challenge: Orange Springs to the Rodman Dam campsite. Although we only had six miles to paddle, dark skies loomed overhead and paddlers hunched over cell phones assessing the possibility of rain. The Paddle Florida truck was loaded with gear, wet from the night’s rain, and we waited, some more patiently than others, for permission to launch.

Today’s paddle would take us across Lake Ocklawaha, or the Rodman Reservoir, over the barely submerged stumps of drowned trees. Karen Chadwick warned us to follow the channel markers and avoid taking the shortcuts that looked so tempting. Hitting a submerged log could lead to a dangerous capsize. I paddled through this tree graveyard last spring after the drawdown and was struck by its eerie beauty (Requiem for a River).

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Floodscape
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“Hold my beer”
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Danger lurks below
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Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

At 8:45, Bill cleared us to launch and we retraced our path from Orange Springs to the main channel of the Ocklawaha River. During our paddle from Eureka to Orange Springs, the character of the river changed: it widened and became choked by vegetation. Without a little push from the river current, this final paddle across Lake Ocklawaha was destined to be a slog under any circumstances. We embarked, all hoping to cross the lake before the impending storm.

The route was obvious in the beginning—a clear line of channel markers led the way. After we passed the Kenwood boat ramp on the left, our goal—Rodman Dam campground—lay exactly due east across the lake. Easier said than done, however. As most of the group entered the widest part of the lake, the skies darkened and a squall passed overhead. The winds picked up and it was difficult to see more than several boats lengths ahead. I followed my compass heading to the east, trusting my heading was correct.

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Clouds gather Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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The deluge begins Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Rescue at sea Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

The wind, waves, and rain challenged everyone. As I waited by a channel marker trying to guide paddlers in, I struggled to hold position against gusts that threatened to capsize my boat. The storm passed, everyone arrived safely to the campground, and skies brightened for a final group meal, catered by Backwoods Smokehouse and Grill. The sunshine and abundant food left everyone in good cheer as we returned to our cars and said our final goodbyes to new and old friends.

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After the storm Photo credit: Fred Haaser

The storm challenged everyone, including rescue boaters, and several people asked how they might improve their skills. How can strokes and edging help you control your boat in the wind? Where can you learn rough water skills to prepare for the open waters of large lakes or coastal waters? There are many pathways to improve paddling and safety skills. Learning self-rescue techniques, including the roll, provides the capability and confidence to tackle bigger challenges.

Classes and certifications:

ACA (American Canoe Association) and Paddlesports North America (the American version of BCU, British Canoe Union) offer certifications and sequential instruction in kayaking and other paddle sports. Their webpages show the skills required for the different certifications and list instructors and programs that teach these skills. The sites mentioned below offer ACA and PNA/BCU programs in the southeast.

Symposia and instruction in the southeast:

The East Coast Paddlesports Symposium, held annually each April in Charleston, SC, offers a range of on and off-water classes and the opportunity to demo equipment. Many retailers bring boats, paddles, and other gear, and this is one of the best places to see a wide range of equipment. Classes are held on the lake and on the more challenging waters near Folly Beach.

Sea Kayak Georgia located on Tybee Island, and Savannah Canoe and Kayak offer private kayak and paddle board instruction and expeditions. The waters around Tybee Island provide a good instruction to rough water. Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA , also on Tybee, offers more advanced instruction.

Each October, Ronnie Kemp and Marsha Henson of Sea Kayak Georgia bring in world-class instructors such as Dale Williams, Nigel Dennis (Sea Kayaking UK) and Eila Wilkinson (Tidal Waters) for their symposium. Sea Kayak Georgia’s symposium offers instruction and assessment for PNA/BCU three and four star levels.

Russell Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, FL provides instruction in and around Weedon Island. Their annual symposium in March brings in world-class instructors, offering classes from rolling to Greenland-style paddling.

For those who have caught the kayak surf bug, Cross Currents Sea Kayaking offers the Kiptopeke Symposium in the rougher waters in coastal Virginia.

This list is not exhaustive. Opportunities for instruction abound in the southeast and beyond. Playing and surfing in rough coastal waters is safe and fun once you have mastered some basic skills. So get out there and have fun!

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Fun in the surf

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An Ocklawaha Odyssey with Paddle Florida

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Ocklawaha River

On December 3, over sixty intrepid kayakers gathered in Silver Springs State Park for a four-day adventure down the Silver and Ocklawaha Rivers. Our journey began in the crystal clear headwaters of the Silver River and ended in the murky waters of manmade Lake Ocklawaha near the Rodman Dam. Our float down these rivers helped us better understand the lives of those who once made the Ocklawaha home and contemporary controversies over the fate of the Ocklawaha River.

On our first morning, we paddled six miles down the Silver River. Some paddlers saw monkeys and a couple rare manatees that make it past the dam. Herons, ibis, and anhingas sunned themselves on this warm December day. After lunch at Ray Wayside Park, we continued down, or up geographically, the north-flowing Ocklawaha. The river was surprisingly clear—perhaps an effect of the drought.

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Herding cats for a photo Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Manatee on the Silver River Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Monkey on the Silver River Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Sunning bird Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

 

Sixteen and one-half miles down river from our start, we set up camp at Gore’s Landing. That night, Peggy MacDonald, Executive Director of the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, Florida, and I spoke about the Ocklawaha River and its springs, in anticipation of our forthcoming exhibit at the Matheson: “The St. Johns River and Its Springs.” In her book Marjorie Harris Carr: Defender of Florida’s Environment, Peggy describes Carr’s efforts to stop the Cross Florida Barge canal. The canal was never completed, but the Rodman Dam on the once free-flowing Ocklawaha River remains, creating an artificial reservoir called Lake Ocklawaha. The high waters have dramatically altered the river’s ecosystem, drowning trees and disturbing habitat of fish and fowl. Captain Karen Chadwick and filmmaker Matt Keene (River Be Dammed) were also present to discuss contemporary efforts to free the Ocklawaha.

Sunday’s paddle from Gore’s Landing to Eureka was a quick 9 miles, and we reached camp by lunchtime. The Ocklawaha was still remarkably clear, but we all knew that would change as we reached Lake Ocklawaha.

That night, University of Florida archivist Flo Turcotte spoke about acclaimed author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moonshine, and life on the Ocklawaha River. Rawling’s novel South Moon Under depicts the lives of the Jacklin family who lived in the scrub along the Ocklawaha and relied on their moonshine income as farming and trapping became less economically viable. Paddling through the dense scrub made me realize how tough their lives must have been. After the talk, Flo passed out samples of moonshine, which would help power us up for Monday’s 13-mile paddle to Orange Springs.

On Monday, most people made the short detour to see the Cannon Spring, one of the lost springs drowned by the flooded Ocklawaha. Karen said that this spring captured the imagination of the public and was one of the most valuable tools in the initial efforts to restore the Ocklawaha. Later, during the 2015-6 drawdown, images of Cannon spring on social media introduced many to this once-hidden gem, and scores of people visited Cannon during its short window of visibility (Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs. After the drawdown when the waters rose, many would mourn the re-drowning of this treasure (Losing Cannon Springs).

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Entrance to Cannon springs Photo Credit: Henry Dorfman
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Cannon springs freed

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Flooded Cannon Spring–2016

After our side trip to Cannon Springs, we searched for our lunch stop, just past the sign for Payne’s Landing. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 commemorates some of the worst episodes of our nation’s history. The treaty forced Seminoles to relocate to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Further, escaped slaves would lose the protection they had gained by joining with the Seminoles.

After this point, the river became slower, wider, and clogged with vegetation. The Ocklawaha River is lowered every three to four years to eliminate the vegetation that makes the river impassable. Although the drawdown ended less than a year prior, the main channel was already blocked. Fortunately, Paddle Florida Executive Director Bill Richards had arranged for help from Mickey Thomason with the Office of Greenways and Trails.  Possibly for the first time in history, kayakers cheered the sound of an airboat.Florida’s version of a snowplow, an airboat with a rake attached to the front, cleared a route through the thick vegetation, and we paddled single file through the narrow path that remained open only briefly.

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Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Airboat to the rescue Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
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Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

Paddling through the weeds was difficult, but a tailwind pushed us towards our camp at Orange Springs. The day was sunny, but winds signaled that the weather would be changing. Fortunately, the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy a concert under the stars by Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters. Hearing him sing “The Poor Old Ocklawaha” reminded us that this still beautiful river—and all the wildlife that lives in and around it—will suffer as long as the dam remains.

Before going to bed that night, everyone checked their tents and tightened stakes and lines. We had all heard reports of rain and storms, and we wondered about the next day’s paddling conditions. To be continued in Ocklawaha Odyssey, Part 2.

 

 

 

 

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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