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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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