St. Johns Headwaters: Finding Wildness in an Engineered Waterscape

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Dawn on Blue Cypress Lake

Anne and I rose early to catch the early morning light on Blue Cypress Lake.  A late afternoon storm had skunked us on paddling the night before, and we were determined to get on the water. After a quick cup of coffee, we lowered boat and board into the water and paddled through the glassy waters, silently, heading towards the trees that give Blue Cypress Lake its name. (The  cypress trees did indeed look blue in the early morning light.) The day was so calm and quiet, I felt like I had melted into the scenery. Other than the one large splash that made both of us jump, the lake was dead calm.

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Deck at Middleton’s Fish Camp
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Moss hanging form the trees
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Another storm rolling in
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Glassy calm on a windless morning

We had spent the night at Middleton’s Fish Camp, right on Blue Cypress Lake, in a cabin that backed onto a canal. Although Blue Cypress Lake is not far from Vero Beach and the more developed coastal area, the lake felt isolated and remote. We had come to take pictures for our River of Dreams exhibit at the Matheson History Museum (Winter 2017). Most people, however, come to Middleton’s Fish Camp to catch large-mouth bass, catfish, and speckled perch (crappie), among other things. Jeanne Middleton, who writes the fishing report, the armored catfish, relatively unknown in Florida, draws fishers from Suriname where the fish is considered a delicacy.

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“Nature held in trust”

Anne and I had come to Blue Cypress Lake and Middleton’s Fish Camp to explore the headwaters region of the St. Johns River. Officially the headwaters is somewhere in the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, a swampy area that lies just south of Blue Cypress Lake. I had hoped to paddle from the actual start of the St. Johns River, but I learned that noone can really pinpoint the exact start of the river. Vince Lamb, a nature photographer and environmental activist, noted that “somewhere two drops of rain fall, and one heads to Lake Okeechobee and the other heads north into the St Johns.” Many people consider Blue Cypress Lake itself to be the headwaters which, in terms of paddling and navigation, it is. 2016-10-03 11.09.55.jpg

The road north from Blue Cypress Lake towards Fellesmere parallels the river as it moved through a series of canals. On Sunday afternoon, boat trailers lined the canal, but the stormy weather and a Monday morning had driven off the fisherman. In Fellesmere, we stopped for some ‘Old Florida Cuisine’ at the Marsh Landing Restaurant.

Fueled by swamp cabbage soup and Cajun-spiced catfish (noone had heard of the armored catfish), we aimed for Stick Marsh/Farm 13, a reclaimed area known for its bass fishing. Created in 1987, Stick Marsh/Farm 13 is one of many Florida messes, like the Everglades, where our tax dollars fund both destruction and restoration at the same time. Writing about the St. Johns River Restoration Project and Stick Marsh, bass fishing guide Jim Porter describes the project as “Saving a Friend.”At one point, Stick Marsh was heavily stocked with bass and crappie, and now the area “is synonymous with trophy bass and other fishing.”

This entire area near the headwaters struck me as a confusing mix of wilderness and engineered landscape. Blue Cypress Lake itself has few access points and felt remote—even Middleton’s Fish Camp felt removed from the nearby more developed coastal areas. But the roads and the canals—obviously engineered—also felt remote and wild as well. The day before, sitting at Camp Holly near Melbourne, Vince had told us that the upper—or southern—part of the St. Johns River is much wilder than the lower, that there is more development along the river as you go further north. It is much easier to do a wilderness paddling trip along the upper St. Johns.

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Canal near Stick Marsh

Engineered or not, the headwaters region of the St. Johns River is a beautiful and wild marshy waterscape, and Blue Cypress Lake took my breath away. Each section of the St. Johns River has its own beauty, and the river and the people who live, play, and fish on the river tell me their stories. I look forward to learning more of these stories as I explore the St. Johns and its tributaries and springs for our “River of Dreams” exhibit.

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Spiders, Scrub, and Sweat: Hiking the Rice Creek Headwaters

Grasses in Rice Creek Conservation Areas
Rice Creek Conservation Area

After a summer on the water, I was ready to brave Florida’s August heat for a hike through the Rice Creek Conservation Area. Just west of Palatka, this conservation area’s trails wander through cypress swamps and the headwaters of Rice Creek. Rice Creek flows into the St. Johns River and is listed on Putnam County’s Bartram Trail map. William Bartram, an 18th century Quaker explorer and botanist, traveled through Florida and wrote of his visit in his Travels. 

The Bartram map includes biking, hiking, and paddling trails that incorporate these historic sites, perfect for a mix of history and outdoor adventure and most sites are marked with a QR code, linking viewers to relevant information. Last fall, I joined Paddle Florida‘s St. Johns History Paddle where we explored Bartram sites by water, and I wrote about this trip in In William Bartram’s Wake. Over the past year, I have been scouting sites around the St. Johns River for a Spring 2017 exhibit at the Matheson History Museum, “River of Dreams: The St. Johns River and Its Springs.”

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Rice Creek Conservation Area.jpg
Credit: St. Johns Water Management District

The QR code at the parking lot marked this site as the terminus of Bartram’s trip up Rice Creek. The kiosk explained that this area was established as a rice and indigo plantation in the 1780s, hence the name Rice Creek. After a short walk along an exposed gravel road, we entered the shaded woods. The trail is narrow and crowded with palmettos, cypress trees, and other greenery, typical of the Florida scrub. Spiders had woven massive webs across the trail, and I ducked under these webs.

Walking through this landscape reminds how difficult land travel once was, especially Florida’s swampy landscape. Rivers like the St. Johns and smaller creeks were America’s roads and highways, and people and goods moved by river and sea.

Scrub landscape
Scrub landscape
Spider across the trail
Spider webs across the trail
Bridge to cypress tree
Bridge to view the large cypress tree
Big Cypress Tree
{Enormous cypress tree

We followed the white blazes which soon merged with the Florida Trail.This section of the Florida Trail is raised on a dike and reveals the remnants of the file and drainage system of the rice and indigo plantation. Here, we walked alongside small creeks and swampy areas that comprised the headwaters of Rice Creek. The water was low, but the muddy terrain and cypress knees hint at much higher water levels.

Rice Creek headwaters
Rice Creek Headwaters
Rice Creek Hilton
Rice Creek Hilton
Rice Creek
Rice Creek
Cypress knees
Cypress knees

We walked just over a two-mile section of the area north of SR100, mostly around the headwaters. Rice Creek crosses under SR 100 and flows for approximately 7 miles to the St. Johns River. On January 30, 1766, William and John Bartram landed at the mouth of Rice Creek, then called Gray’s Creek, and rowed upstream.

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Credit: Putnam county Bartram Trail

“According to John Bartram’s journal, they found the creek to be about 60 feet across and 15 feet deep and meandering in a west by south direction.  After progressing about seven miles, though the water was still 7 feet deep and more than sufficient for their shallow draft vessel, and more than 30 feet wide, they found the creek blocked with trees and snags and turned about to retrace their route back to the St. Johns. ” (http://bartram.putnam-fl.com/index.php/trail-history/sites-1-thru-10/site-3-nbsp-grays-creek-final)

The Bartram Trail Map depicts a route for paddlers, and I have yet to visit this section of river. Apparently, the paddle is wild and beautiful, but this chilling description in the Florida Times-Union gives me pause:

“As we entered the creek, the 50 people on board immediately became silent. There was no sound anywhere, no wildlife except for vultures in the trees along the banks. A deathly pall hung over the area. Even the trees looked sickly and stressed.

The poisons being released into the creek had turned it to a place of death. We learned the tragedy went deep below us to many organisms which, if they survived, would be unable to reproduce.” (http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2011-07-01/story/georgia-pacific-pollution-easily-observed-rice-creek#)

Rice Creek lies downstream of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Palatka, and the mill has been discharging waste into Rice Creek since 1947.Fortunately groups such as the St. Johns Riverkeeper have been working to mitigate damage to Rice Creek and the St Johns.

William Bartram encountered relatively clean, although inhabited, landscapes and waterscapes and wrote of their beauty. Following in his wake and imagining what he saw helps me see these places with fresh eyes and reminds me these land and waterscapes are my home and worth protecting.

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In William Bartram’s Wake

On December 4, 2015, 42 people set out in canoes and kayaks to commemorate the 250th anniversary of William Bartram’s travels through Florida. Bartram first explored Florida in 1765 and returned in 1774, enchanted with its peoples, plants, and animals. He recorded his journey in his book Travels which has become a guide for adventurers, poets, and scientists. Bartram fell in love with Florida over two centuries ago, and Paddle Florida designed the Bartram History Paddle to help us see Florida through Bartram’s eyes. The Paddle Florida route: Screenshot 2015-12-15 16.13.05

The night before we left, we camped at Salt Springs, one of the few sites that Bartram visited twice. Sam Carr and Dean Campbell, our Bartram liaisons, explained what we would see on our journey and the hazards. The wind had been blowing from the northeast for several days, and the wind and waves would make our journey north across Lake George rougher than expected. I was paddling a 17’ NDK Pilgrim Explorer but many others had shorter boats, less suited for rough water.  By that evening, we decided that only a few of us would make the journey across Lake George and that most would paddle down and back Salt Springs run, known by Bartram as Six Mile Run, and meet us at the following night’s camp.

The zip-zip of tents coming down awoke me at 5:30 am, way too early for any hope of coffee. By 8:30, the group had eaten and was eager to head down the Salt Run. As we neared Lake George, the spring’s clarity gave way to the darker river water of the St. John’s River, the lake being just a wide spot in the river. The wind picked up somewhat as we left the sheltered spring run and neared Rocky Point, another Bartram site. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County committee, led by Sam and Dean, had created Bartram maps and posted Bartram QR coded signs that we would see along the way. Rocky Point would be our last chance to turn back. None of us wanted to turn back though.Rocky point

At Rocky Point, we crossed Lake George to the west—or lee—side of Drayton Island. Bartram had camped on the east side of the island. Drayton Island has houses on it and a twice weekly ferry serves the island’s residents. The wind was strong, and the paddling difficult, although all of us who crossed had seaworthy boats. Bartram traveled with a boat that he described as essentially a canoe with a sail, and I wondered how such a boat would handle in these conditions. Bartram wrote about storms developing while he was on open water, and our summer squalls can be fearsome. I lamented the loss of our lunch stop on Drayton Island, especially later after hearing that Dean’s sister had baked cookies for the group.  We continued north, seeing few people or boats, until we reached our destination, newly-built fish camp Renegades on the River. After the day’s isolation, I was not Santa expecting on a jet ski, but the fire pit and the tiki hut were more than welcome.

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On Sunday morning, only a short paddle from Renegades, we visited Mt. Royal, where Sam read an excerpt from Travels. We climbed on top of the mound and Sam described Bartram’s lament that the area had been degraded by settlement in the 15 years between his visits. William Bartram was a Quaker from Philadelphia and, unlike many of his peers, was concerned about the destruction of the environment and of native cultures. Perhaps this explains why William Bartram and his Travels draws so many followers.

We continued north on the St. Johns River, hugging the eastern shore hoping to find the springs detailed on our maps. For most of our journey, the western shore appeared remote and wild, and the eastern shore was dotted with houses, fish camps, and towns. In Bartram’s time, the St. Johns River divided the British side from the “Indian” shore, and the British encouraged settlement in their territory. Paddling north, we saw Welaka Springs, Johnson Springs, and Satsuma Springs, all on the eastern side.

Satsuma Springs lies on private property, and the owner kindly allowed us to visit this spring. From our conversations, it is clear that she is a true caretaker, or steward, of this spring, as Naked Ed protects for Lily Spring, and they are models for the rest of us. Satsuma is a sulphur spring, and I quickly took the opportunity to soak my tired muscles. The spring seemed warm in comparison to the air temperature, and getting out was much harder than getting in.

The sun came out, and the wind died down for our last two days of paddling. We made our way along Murphy’s and Dunns Creeks, past several Bartram sites including Spaulding Lower Store and the Seven Sisters Islands. Several paddlers remarked on the size of our creeks, that they would be called rivers anywhere else. Still, the twists and turns of the creeks were a pleasant distraction from the wider and straighter St. Johns River. Both days we stopped for lunch at the Georgia Boys Fish Camp which has existed for over 60 years. Visiting places like this fish camp remind me that Old Florida holds so much rich history—you just need to get off the main roads.

We ended in Palatka, under a cloudless sky, nothing like our first two days of paddling. We were treated to a fish fry at the St. Johns River Center, which features exhibits about local history and environment, a fitting end for our journey. These past four days of immersion into Bartram’s travels on the St. Johns River have whetted my appetite for more. I’ll be back.

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barrier islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.