A Early Start to Everglades Challenge 2023 Training

Inspection Day Photo credit: Kevin Veach

At 7 am, Chief gave the signal: the Everglades Challenge had begun. To my left and to my right, kayaks, sailboats, and one paddleboard launched into Tampa Bay, beginning the 300 mile journey to Key Largo. Despite my excitement and preparation, I stood on the beach, intimidated by the wind. The wind rose, and Chief offered me a Plan B start, meaning that I could start further south. I wasn’t sure how far I could go or even if I was still in the race, but after months of practice and training, I was grateful to be on the course.

I launched mid-afternoon onto Charlotte Harbor from Burnt Store Marina, a place I knew from a previous Sup and Sail trip with my husband Kevin. I hugged the shore as best I could, but any exposure gave me a taste of the larger conditions I had avoided.

Prepping for night paddling

I passed Matlacha at sunset and continued south as darkness fell, heading for Cape Coral and points beyond. Even though navigation was straightforward at this point, the darkness played tricks on me—at one point, I wondered if I was actually heading north. I never realized that Pine Island was so long!

Crossing the Caloosahatchee River

Finally I reached the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and a decision point. Given the easterly winds, I wasn’t sure I could hold my course, and the bay seemed like an awfully big place at night. What I knew rationally was the bridge to Sanibel seemed lit up like a casino, and the twinkling lights marking the different channels disoriented me (and confirmed that I need new glasses.) Even though I had only paddled 21 miles, I decided to make camp and navigate the crossing in the daytime.

Burnt Harbor to Cape Coral
Just above the high tide line

As I lay awake at 3 am, listening to the tide lap inches from my bivy, I reflected on what went right and what went wrong. What went right? In the weeks before Watertribe, I winnowed my gear, lightening my load, and repacked it more efficiently, for example, my night paddling kit in a separate bag attached to my duffel. I had tested some of these systems on a trip to Panther Key where I met up with members of both Watertribe and West Coast Trailer Sailors and received some very welcome advice.

Winnowing mercilessly
Testing the bivy and tarp system

What went wrong, or better put, lessons learned? More wind practice. I felt strong enough to push on, but a windy crossing in the dark concerned me. I knew that this was the western end of the Okeechobee Waterway, where boats cross Florida from the Atlantic to the Gulf, and images of barges and freighters filled my head.

Calm at dawn

When I launched the next morning, small fishing boats rather than the massive cargo ships of my imagination dotted the becalmed seascape, and I crossed without incident to Bowditch Park in Fort Myers Beach.

When I still had a fin

My Sunday morning dreamscape shattered on the ICW in Fort Myers, which gave life to the term wind tunnel. I fought my way under the bridge and used the hulking steel boats as wind shelter. It pained me to pass Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford Rum Bar and Grill, and but I knew that Doc Ford would just keep paddling. So I did.

Fort Myers

In Estero Bay, a parade of pontoon and other boats streamed by, and I bobbed along in their wake. My board felt especially unstable, leading to several unplanned exits, and I didn’t confirm until that night that my fin had disappeared somewhere in Estero Bay. I sat down and paddled, and that led to another lesson learned: sitting works too. Once I was no longer a human sail, my speed increased, and paddling seated should help me handle bigger winds. But as my friend Kathryn helpfully noted, “Some people call that a kayak.” Point well taken.

Day 2

Later I passed several fisherman who asked where I was going. I replied Wiggins Pass, the first thing that popped into my head. One said “That’s far, it’s windy” and asked if I needed a ride. No thanks, I’m good. And it was. One thing I love about the Everglades Challenge is the self-reliance it demands. I was alone, on a board, on a rocking and rolling Estero Bay. Whatever came up, I just needed to figure it out.

Floating tiki bar, Key Largo

I continued towards Wiggins Pass, wending my way through a series of small channels. A tiki bar loaded with revelers motored by, and another sat anchored in the mangroves. If there ever were an epic illegal camping spot, that would be it. And I paddled on. I reached Wiggins Pass just as Flipper and Foco arrived, happy to share the spot with other tribers. Again, my skill rather than fitness prompted a stop. Once I left the pass, I would be in open water, and there were few, if any, camping options until Gordon Pass. Looking back, since the wind tended to drop at night, I would take advantage of that.

Wiggins Pass camp

The next morning, I attached my spare fin and aimed for Naples. Rolling waves pushed me for the first several hours, until the winds rose up again. I entered Gordon Pass and fought my way through Dollar Bay towards Marco Island. There I made my final mistake.

My Final Day

At Panther Key, Andy said that if you have an out, you’ll take it. As I paddled towards the Marco Island, Kevin appeared in a kayak. It was just too easy. And that led to yet another lesson. I spent too much time on Windfinder, obsessing about predicted winds. My mistake: looking too far ahead. With some rest, I could have continued and taken advantage of diminished winds. Focus on the present.

Awards Ceremony, Key Largo

2022 was my first attempt at the Everglades Challenge, or perhaps, a head start for Everglades Challenge 2023. (If only it counted for next years derby.) It was a terrific experience, and now I know better where to focus my training. In retrospect, I could have crossed Tampa Bay, and I have paddled successfully in bigger conditions, but I need to do it more of it. Even though some said we faced especially difficult headwinds this year, it seems like it just isn’t an Everglades Challenge without them—unless you’re going the wrong way. So, my prescription for myself: wind, waves, and open water crossings. And see you on the beach next March.

Headwinds! Photo credit: Kevin Veach

Scouting the Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay

No better way to spend a balmy November week in Florida than paddling the Ten Thousand Islands. Post hurricane season and before waves of northern fronts and tourists. Janice, Director of Paddle Florida, and I both needed to scout for different reasons. Janice for an upcoming Paddle Florida trip, and me for the Everglades Challenge in March. We had done multiple trips to the south, and it was time for a new adventure.

Ready to launch

We launched from the Ranger Station in Everglades City and headed northwest towards the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Janice in her NDK Pilgrim Expedition, and I on my SIC RS 14′ x 26. The first day of paddling was familiar from previous trips—Indian Key Pass, Picnic and Tiger Keys, and Camp Lulu Key, where we crossed out of the Everglades National Park.

While Janice and I took note of the various agency boundaries, the birds flying overhead and the sharks swimming below did not. The flora and fauna of the Everglades, Ten Thousand Islands and Rookery Bay are breathtaking. Well, maybe not the raccoons.

Camp Lulu Key

After a brazen raccoon cut our lunch break short, we continued past Panther Key to our first campsite: White Horse Key. Despite rumors to the contrary, there are plenty of raccoons in the Ten Thousand islands and Everglades. I’ve met many of them.

Day 1: Everglades City to White Horse Key 13.05 miles
Morning coffee

The next morning, we continued northwest. As soon as we rounded the corner of Gullivan Key, the hulking buildings of Marco Island appeared. They stalked us for the next 5 days..

Stalked by condos
Day 2: White Horse to Sea Oat 18.59 miles

The tide carried us up Coon Key Pass towards Goodland and the Big Marco River. After the chaotic boat traffic in Goodland, the Marco River was surprisingly pleasant. We paddled up a ditch and under a bridge to reach Isle of Capri’s Paddle Park, a nice launch site and lunch stop. At this point, we had entered into the Rookery Bay Preserve, whose website has plenty of information about launches, routes, and camping. These waters are ideal for paddlers, plenty of birds and wildlife, calmer inland waters, and much less boat traffic.

Ditch to Isle of Capri Paddle Park
Isle of Capri Paddle Park
Mangrove short cut: once we found it
A potentially strategic culvert

From the Paddle Park, we wove our way through a mangrove tunnel and, after a few false starts, emerged near Johnson Bay and the Isle of Capri. We paddled towards the gulf and our night’s campsite on Sea Oat Island. Unlike the Everglades, the water was clear. No wonder people love this area.

Scenic Marco Island condos
Hanging gear art
Tent life

On day 3, we continued scouting different sites, but none more important than the Snook Inn, the halfway point on the Everglades Challenge. After an epic fail with one of my (usually good) homemade dinners which I tossed into the fire, I wanted real food. But, as work comes before play, we had some scouting to do. From Sea Oat, we paddled past Keewaydin Island and explored Rookery Bay until we reached the Shell Island launch.

Children’s time capsule
glassy waters
Docked at the Snook Inn

Stuffed with coconut shrimp and the Snook Inn’s famous grouper sandwich, the chop and traffic of Big Marco Pass awaited us. It was a relief to round the corner and paddle parallel to the beaches of Marco Island. We crossed Caxambas Pass and made camp on Dickman Island.

Day 3: Sea Oat to Dickman 17.79 miles
There’s always a walk
Setting up just in time
A rare site not facing Marco Island

On to Cape Romano, a highlight only second to the Snook Inn, via Goodland. We meandered through the mangrove channels towards Goodland which both gave us more training miles and laid out less exposed routes for Paddle Florida. We stopped for lunch at Goodland, and I remembered one of Kevin’s and my first SUP and Sail trips. We’ve come so far.

Mangroves near Goodland
Goodland Boat Park where we met Sharknado, a kindred spirit
A moment of calm

Fueled by a power lunch of diet coke and Cheeto Puffs, we paddled towards Cape Romano. We passed Helen Key and followed the Morgan River to Morgan Bay, where our charts dubiously noted a passage between bay and gulf. We didn’t really believe that the passage was where we said it was, but we did want to explore the bay. The tide was falling, and birds walked where we recently paddled. The beach between bay and gulf beckoned. The dome houses could wait until tomorrow.

Day 4: Dickman to Cape Romano 13.91 miles
Between bay and gulf
Our beach
Lower and lower
How low can it go?

The next morning, we carried boat, board, and gear across the sand to the gulf, and we paddled to the dome houses just around the corner. I had first seen the dome houses of Cape Romano over 10 years ago while on a kayak camping trip with my husband Kevin. At the time, the buildings were on the beach, but erosion has washed away the sand, and now the domes are in the water.

Cape Romano beach
Dome houses

After Cape Romano, we paddled towards Coon Key and towards yet another Shell Key that the Paddler Florida folks would visit. The weather was changing, and a front was coming. Our timing was good. We set up camp on Panther Key, which set us up for our final paddle into Everglades City.

Day 5: Cape Romano to Panther 13.27 miles
Pool noodles to protect the board from shells
Ibis waiting for lunch
Coon Key break
White pelicans
Pelicans in flight
Flying pelicans
Panther Key: home of bugs and raccoons

The tides had rarely been in our favor, and our paddle back to Everglades City was no exception. We needed to reach Everglades City in time for breakfast at Nely’s Corner in Everglades City. To do that, we needed to leave well before low tide at 7 am. Alarm at 4, launch at 5. 7.22 miles to go. One cup of coffee in camp, more at Nely’s Corner. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we paddled east, skirting the extensive shoals around Lulu Key, where we saw headlamps moving as campers began their morning routines. The sun rose over Indian Key as we began to fight the outgoing tide.

The sun returns

We hugged the shore and discovered side channels to avoid the tide. By 10 am, we had unloaded gear and rinsed off at the ranger station. By 11 am, we sat at Nely’s, sated with coffee, a breakfast sandwich, and a to go box of Key Lime pie for Kevin.

This trip was exploratory, long morning coffees and plenty of time to absorb the beauty. My next trip, probably the Everglades Challenge in March, won’t be so leisurely. I’ll be racing through, maybe at night, trying to make the checkpoints in time. Two radically different trip styles, but each bringing its own joys, challenges, and lessons. I’m grateful that I can experience this area in so many ways.

Meeting of the birds

The Suwannee 230 Race: From the Swamp to the Gulf by SUP

Foggy morning paddle

7:30 am, Griffis Fish Camp, Fargo, Georgia. At Rod Price’s signal, 11 racers launch into the trees of the Upper Suwannee River, paddling towards Bill’s Fish Camp in Suwannee, Florida, 230 miles downstream. Four SUPs and seven kayaks entered the 2021 Suwannee230. Some aimed to beat a previous record, others liked myself just wanted to finish within the 100 hour deadline. The river was at approximately 54 feet, meaning that we would have good flow.

Ready to launch Photo credit: Kevin Veach
Courtesy of Georgia Rivers

Griffis Fish Camp sits 14 miles upstream of Fargo and just downstream of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where the Suwannee River drains from the Okefenokee Swamp. The current was barely discernable as we paddled through the maze of trees in the early morning light. Within the first ten minutes—when I still had company, my fin snagged on a root, and I fell in. I was surprised, knowing what lies below the surface. Someone, water triber Derek, I believe, commented, “Well, you got that out of the way.” A perfect response—I climbed back on the board and continued. At the start, I had others to follow as I picked my way around the trees. But not for long.

Suwannee River Map
Suwannee River Visitors Center, Fargo, GA

I paddled silently and alone towards Fargo where I passed one other paddleboarder with his support crew at the Suwannee River Visitors Center. It was the last time I saw another paddler. (One paddleboarder started an hour late, and I never saw her on the water.) At mile 36, I passed the Rte 6 bridge, our first checkpoint. I recalled a previous trip with friends where this distance was the mileage for a multiday trip. Perspective.

Big Shoals Rapid

Day 1 goal: Big Shoals, approximately 60 miles in. Big Shoals Rapid, a rare Florida class lll, loomed large in my imagination. I had run it years before in a whitewater boat, but knew that its limestone shoals would destroy my paddleboard. I camped on a sandbar about a mile above Big Shoals State Park because I didn’t want to brave the portage trail at night. Early the next morning, I paddled to the portage trail on river left. I needed three trips to carry my gear and board but the portage was easier than I thought. Being self-supported meant I carried more weight, but it also gave me flexibility in camping. A good trade-off, in my view.

Completing this portage was a huge psychological boost. That and the rapid’s fast flow propelled me towards my second’s day’s goal: Dowling River Camp, Paddle Florida, and food. I had only completed about 56 miles the first day, and I wanted to reach the halfway point by the second night. I quickly passed Checkpoint 2, White Springs, 66 miles, and headed for Checkpoint 3, 104 miles, Suwannee River State Park.

I paddled on, playing mind games with myself. I could eat after 5 miles; I wouldn’t look at my Garmin watch until I rounded the next bend. I needed to paddle at least 65 miles that day. From my Watertribe training, I learned to count in increments of 10 or 15 miles, so I could divide my day into large chunks. I passed the Spirit of the Suwannee , and I passed wide sandbars that invited camping. I spotted plenty of gators and even a bobcat perched on a branch overhanging the water. Just before dark, I passed Suwannee River State Park and got my lights ready for night paddling. Just 15 more miles until Dowling River Camp. Janice Hindson, Director of Paddle Florida, promised me a beach campsite and a plate of stew. That was all the motivation I needed.

A yard sale, campsite, and beef stew

The almost full moon lit the way until the blazing lights of the Advent Christian Retirement Village blinded me after hours of relative darkness. Just around the corner, Janice’s lantern welcomed me to a sandy campsite and stew. She offered to warm the stew, but but no need for that. I was ready to eat and be off my feet.

The moment I realized I forgot my breakfast cookies Photo credit: Janice Hindson

After a good night’s sleep, coffee, and plenty of snacks, I headed back downstream for my last full day of paddling. I hoped to camp within 50 miles of the finish that night, somewhere between Branford and Fanning Springs. That meant I needed to paddle at least 60 miles that day.

My view
Flooded ramp for Adams Tract River Camp

That day, I passed familiar names—Royal Springs, Troy State Park, Convict Springs, and eventually Branford, checkpoint 5, with 76 miles to go. The twisting upper reaches of the Suwannee had given way to wide long stretches as it neared the Gulf of Mexico. I still hadn’t seen any other paddlers, although I heard that one was within an hour of me. In the end, it was a race against myself—could I complete the course?

Old railroad bridge
Glass

As darkness fell, I thought about campsites. Sandy bluffs had given way to a swampy coastal environment with few campsites other than landings and county parks. I passed Gornto Springs State Park and shortly thereafter found a landing ideal for a short “rest”. Shortly before 5 am, as I was making my coffee, a white SUV pulled in. The police? Was I being rousted? I doused by stove and light and began packing my bivy and gear. Fortunately, it was not the police, just some guy idling the engine at the boat ramp, a familiar sight. He left, and so did I.

Sunrise and almost done

Maybe not surprisingly, my shortest day felt like the longest. In the darkness, I chased down the one piece of gear that was not tied down, and my feet began to ache.

The river became even wider and more coastal as I passed Fanning Springs, Checkpoint 6, mile 197, and Manatee Springs, just 25 miles from the gulf.

Working lunch

At 4:20 I reached the finish line, at 80 hours, 50 minutes, a winning time in the Women’s SUP division and well under the 100-hour deadline! As I paddled into the canal towards Bill’s Fish Camp, two men rounded the corner in a canoe. I must have been tired—I didn’t recognize my husband.

Photo credit: Kevin Veach

Photo credit: Suwannee230 FB page

I enjoyed the solitude of the Suwannee230. It rarely felt like a race because I was alone. I knew that Scott and the kayakers were way ahead, and I had no idea about the other two paddleboarders. I appreciated being immersed in the river’s ecosystem as it journeyed from swamp to sea. And what a way to kick off my training for the The Everglades Challenge in March: Flamingo paddles on!

Everything But the Apalachicola

Cash Creek

Boards, boat, and gear loaded for Apalachicola Rivertrek 2021, a 106-mile paddle down the Apalachicola River to benefit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Mother Nature had other plans and dumped inches of rain on the southeast, flooding the river and our campsites. Our trip was postponed until November 10, but Janice and I were ready for an adventure and headed west to Florida’s Panhandle. The delay allowed us to explore multiple ecosystems around Apalachicola Bay that we might never have discovered otherwise. Yay Plan B!

Ride the bore tide.
Miss anything?

As the storms raged, we brainstormed, poring over paddling options described on the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Florida Paddling Trails Association, and Florida Circumnavigation Saltwater Paddling Trail websites. So many choices.

After two days hiding out at the Carrabelle Beach RV Resort, which I highly recommend, we joined our group at the Hickory Landing Campground near Sumatra, Florida. This Apalachicola National Forest campground provided easy access to Owl Creek and other creeks near the Apalachicola River.

The following morning, Doug Alderson led us a short distance down Owl Creek to Devon Creek, accessible only during high water. Owl and Devon Creeks, like other nearby creeks, are black water, filled with the tannins of decayed vegetation. We meandered through the trees until we reached a swamp and could go no further.

Less than a mile downstream from Devon Creek, the Apalachicola River flowed on. I poked my nose out into the current—it was swift.

Later, Janice and I paddled upstream on the slow-moving Owl Creek and further upstream on Black Creek. Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper were terrific resources on local paddling. Additionally, the Riverkeeper website, as well as the FWC and Forest Service‘s websites also provide maps and paddling guides to the forest and the bay.

On our final day, we drove south towards the bay to the tidal Cash Creek and High Bluff Creeks. The open marsh landscape contrasted well with the forested landscape around Owl Creek and the Hickory Landing Campground.

Cash Creek Courtesy of FWC

From the Cash Creek launch, we paddled about a mile to a Y-intersection where High Bluff Creek split off from Cash Creek. We followed the twists and turns of High Bluff until it split into fingers in the marsh. As it narrowed the flow picked up, testing our boat and board control skills as we avoided logs and deadfall.

At the Y, we paddled up Cash Creek which took my breath away. My height on the SUP put me at eye-level with the flowers.

I felt like we were paddling through a painting, our own version of the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit, surrounded by fields of yellow flowers. And we had a touch of fall, fall for Florida, that is.

Although we were initially disappointed that Rivertrek was postponed, this trip gave us a chance to paddle different rivers and to meet members of the Rivertrek team. At a moment’s notice, Doug and Georgia assembled Rivertrekkers and volunteers for a fun weekend, complete with banjo music! I’m more excited than ever about Rivertrek and the Apalachicola River and Bay. And next time, I’m finding oysters.

And, one more month.

If you would like to contribute to the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, you can do so on the Rivertrek team page (just scroll down to my name): http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/rivertrek/. Or please mail a check to the riverkeeper, noting my name: Apalachicola Riverkeeper, P. O. Box 8, Apalachicola, Florida 32329

Rivertrek 2021: Let’s Save the Apalachicola River

Apalachicola Riverbank

On October 6, I will join the 2021 Rivertrek team to paddle the 106 miles of the Apalachicola River, from the Georgia-Florida border to the Gulf of Mexico. This five-day trek raises funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper to help them protect the river and bay. Last fall, I spent two days on the Apalachicola River and was immediately hooked (https://floridawaterscapes.com/2020/11/29/apalachicola-sup-2020-style/). I knew then that I wanted to join this team. 

 Every fall, a team of paddlers embarks on this journey.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper advocates for the health of the Apalachicola River and Bay through a variety of efforts, including water quality monitoring, fighting oil and gas drilling in the region, and public outreach, among other things. Everyone benefits from a healthy riverine system, and who doesn’t love Apalachicola Bay oysters? Contributions support the outreach, education, and advocacy efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

 If you would like to contribute to the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, you can do so on the Rivertrek team page (just scroll down to my name): http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/rivertrek/. Or please mail a check to the Riverkeeper, noting my name:

Apalachicola Riverkeeper, P. O. Box 8, Apalachicola, Florida 32329

 Thank you for your support.

Reposted from November 2020:

Apalachicola SUP: 2020 Style

Morning on the sandbar

What can alleviate the insanity of 2020 better than sandbar camping, good friends, and no wifi? By 9am, November 4—the day after the election, Jill, Liz, Jennifer, and I paddled away from the noise and into the solitude of the Apalachicola River. Over the next two days, our team of four—three kayaks and one paddleboard—would cover the 45-ish miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to the Estiffanulga Boat Ramp.

Maps and points on the Apalachicola Blueway (courtesy of Apalachicola Riverkeeper)
Door to door service from om Harry Smith, Harry Smith Outdoors

Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Load and launch at Clyde Hopkins Park, Chattahoochee, FL
Jennifer prepares to launch

Why the Apalachicola River? Jill needed to complete the first two days of the Apalachicola Rivertrek, and the rest of us stepped in as good friends to “help”. Every October, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organizes Rivertrek, a 5-day, 106-mile paddle from Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, headed by Executive Director Georgia Ackerman, monitors the health of the river and bay, and Rivertrek raises funds support this mission.

However, in keeping with the spirit of 2020, Hurricane Sally broke the trip in half and pushed the second half of the trip into November. So, Liz and I were happy to “help” Jill and Jennifer paddle from Clyde Hopkins Park to Estiffanulga Boat Ramp where they would join the rest of their team. And Liz and I would return home.

One of many anchored houseboats along our route

Shortly after we launched, we passed under the I-10 bridge and left “civilization” behind. The Apalachicola River is wide and flows swiftly. At times, we saw evidence of the barge traffic that once plied the river, but mostly, and surprisingly, we had the river to ourselves.

For most of its length, the Apalachicola River forms the boundary between Eastern and Central time zones, and my watch alerted me to the change when I veered towards one side or another. However, just before the river joins the bay, the boundary between zones veers sharply—and inexplicably—westward away from the river. Why? Florida lore (and historical research) credits developer and financier Ed Ball (1888-1981) for this anomaly. Ball wanted his Wakulla Springs hunting lodge and his Port St. Joe paper mill (30+miles west) in the same time zone, and, in true Florida style, Ed Ball got what Ed Ball wanted.

Who drew that line? (Courtesy of ESRI.com.)

The high water propelled us downstream, averaging 4-6 MPH with little effort. Some sections featured scraggly trees still recovering from Category 5 Hurricane Michael that shredded the panhandle in 2018. In other sections, willows highlighted the coordinated efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, EPA, and the University of Florida, among others, to reduce sandbar erosion.

Recovering trees

By 3pm, we found home for the night, a sandbar with ample space for socially-distanced tents. Plenty of time to swim, relax, and set up camp.

Time to chill
Liz vs the Sawyer squeeze
Home for the night

We paddled about 20 miles our first day, leaving about 20 more for the second day. Given the river’s flow, we relished a relaxed morning, drinking coffee and drying dew-soaked gear. That’s how it started anyway.

A slow morning
Manatee pajama envy
Run!

I was barely into my first cup of coffee when Jennifer pointed to her Pocket Rocket stove, now engulfed in flames. “Run,” Liz yelled, and we sprinted to the far side of the sandbar. Seconds later, a large boom echoed across the river valley, perhaps causing some to wonder if hunting season had started early. A gas leak? A bad O-ring? We’ll never know. And we never found the piece that blew off.

Alum Bluff
Topography in Florida!

Just downstream from our campsite, we passed Alum Bluff, a 135′ high sandbar that towers over the river. The heights of Alum Bluff and Torreya State Park were the biggest surprises of the trip for me–actual topography in our flat state.

We stopped for a quick break at the boat ramp in the town of Bristol. Shortly after, we reached Sutton Creek and Bayou on the river’s west side and took a side trip up this sleepy creek. Stands of tupelo trees arched over still water, providing a feeling of stillness and gravity.

Sutton Creek
Sutton Bayou

Despite our leisurely morning, the day had passed quickly. Time to find a campsite. Our goal—a sandbar two miles upstream of our take-out at Estiffanulga Boat Ramp. Estiffanulga Boat Ramp was mile 63, and the sandbar 65. We pulled over around mile 70 and coordinated charts, watches, and mileage.

Checking charts and a little break

The miles ticked by. Around mile 65, what looked suspiciously like our sandbar barely peeped out from under the water. That wasn’t going to work. We paddled on, looking for possibilities.

Where’s my sandbar?

It was not to be, and Estiffanulga County Park would be our home for the night. We rounded the final bend and saw the boat ramp—and two tents being set up. Two other members of Rivertrek had arrived for the next morning’s rendezvous.

Our evening view
The four Musketeers
Apalachicola Riverkeeper boat

The rest of the Rivertrek crew arrived the next morning, along with Georgia Ackerman and the Riverkeeper boat. Liz and I waved goodbye as they resumed their journey towards Apalachicola Bay. 2020 was not yet done with Rivertrek though. As Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta pinballed around the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivertrekkers changed their plans once again. But, as all paddlers know—all plans are contingent, and nature bats last. Nonetheless, I envied them as they headed south, and maybe 2021 is my year for Rivertrek.

And they’re off

Apalachicola SUP: 2020 Style

Morning on the sandbar

What can alleviate the insanity of 2020 better than sandbar camping, good friends, and no wifi? By 9am, November 4—the day after the election, Jill, Liz, Jennifer, and I paddled away from the noise and into the solitude of the Apalachicola River. Over the next two days, our team of four—three kayaks and one paddleboard—would cover the 45-ish miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to the Estiffanulga Boat Ramp.

Maps and points on the Apalachicola Blueway (courtesy of Apalachicola Riverkeeper)
Door to door service from om Harry Smith, Harry Smith Outdoors

Our journey began in the town of Chattahoochee, just south of the Florida-Georgia line, where Georgia’s Chattahoochee River becomes Florida’s Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee River starts in north Georgia, flows through metro Atlanta, and continues south as the Georgia-Alabama border until it reaches Lake Seminole and the Jim Woodruff Dam. Once in Florida, the Apalachicola River streams into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Load and launch at Clyde Hopkins Park, Chattahoochee, FL
Jennifer prepares to launch

Why the Apalachicola River? Jill needed to complete the first two days of the Apalachicola Rivertrek, and the rest of us stepped in as good friends to “help”. Every October, the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organizes Rivertrek, a 5-day, 106-mile paddle from Chattahoochee to Apalachicola Bay. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, headed by Executive Director Georgia Ackerman, monitors the health of the river and bay, and Rivertrek raises funds support this mission.

However, in keeping with the spirit of 2020, Hurricane Sally broke the trip in half and pushed the second half of the trip into November. So, Liz and I were happy to “help” Jill and Jennifer paddle from Clyde Hopkins Park to Estiffanulga Boat Ramp where they would join the rest of their team. And Liz and I would return home.

One of many anchored houseboats along our route

Shortly after we launched, we passed under the I-10 bridge and left “civilization” behind. The Apalachicola River is wide and flows swiftly. At times, we saw evidence of the barge traffic that once plied the river, but mostly, and surprisingly, we had the river to ourselves.

For most of its length, the Apalachicola River forms the boundary between Eastern and Central time zones, and my watch alerted me to the change when I veered towards one side or another. However, just before the river joins the bay, the boundary between zones veers sharply—and inexplicably—westward away from the river. Why? Florida lore (and historical research) credits developer and financier Ed Ball (1888-1981) for this anomaly. Ball wanted his Wakulla Springs hunting lodge and his Port St. Joe paper mill (30+miles west) in the same time zone, and, in true Florida style, Ed Ball got what Ed Ball wanted.

Who drew that line? (Courtesy of ESRI.com.)

The high water propelled us downstream, averaging 4-6 MPH with little effort. Some sections featured scraggly trees still recovering from Category 5 Hurricane Michael that shredded the panhandle in 2018. In other sections, willows highlighted the coordinated efforts of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, EPA, and the University of Florida, among others, to reduce sandbar erosion.

Recovering trees

By 3pm, we found home for the night, a sandbar with ample space for socially-distanced tents. Plenty of time to swim, relax, and set up camp.

Time to chill
Liz vs the Sawyer squeeze
Home for the night

We paddled about 20 miles our first day, leaving about 20 more for the second day. Given the river’s flow, we relished a relaxed morning, drinking coffee and drying dew-soaked gear. That’s how it started anyway.

A slow morning
Manatee pajama envy
Run!

I was barely into my first cup of coffee when Jennifer pointed to her Pocket Rocket stove, now engulfed in flames. “Run,” Liz yelled, and we sprinted to the far side of the sandbar. Seconds later, a large boom echoed across the river valley, perhaps causing some to wonder if hunting season had started early. A gas leak? A bad O-ring? We’ll never know. And we never found the piece that blew off.

Alum Bluff
Topography in Florida!

Just downstream from our campsite, we passed Alum Bluff, a 135′ high sandbar that towers over the river. The heights of Alum Bluff and Torreya State Park were the biggest surprises of the trip for me–actual topography in our flat state.

We stopped for a quick break at the boat ramp in the town of Bristol. Shortly after, we reached Sutton Creek and Bayou on the river’s west side and took a side trip up this sleepy creek. Stands of tupelo trees arched over still water, providing a feeling of stillness and gravity.

Sutton Creek
Sutton Bayou

Despite our leisurely morning, the day had passed quickly. Time to find a campsite. Our goal—a sandbar two miles upstream of our take-out at Estiffanulga Boat Ramp. Estiffanulga Boat Ramp was mile 63, and the sandbar 65. We pulled over around mile 70 and coordinated charts, watches, and mileage.

Checking charts and a little break

The miles ticked by. Around mile 65, what looked suspiciously like our sandbar barely peeped out from under the water. That wasn’t going to work. We paddled on, looking for possibilities.

Where’s my sandbar?

It was not to be, and Estiffanulga County Park would be our home for the night. We rounded the final bend and saw the boat ramp—and two tents being set up. Two other members of Rivertrek had arrived for the next morning’s rendezvous.

Our evening view
The four Musketeers
Apalachicola Riverkeeper boat

The rest of the Rivertrek crew arrived the next morning, along with Georgia Ackerman and the Riverkeeper boat. Liz and I waved goodbye as they resumed their journey towards Apalachicola Bay. 2020 was not yet done with Rivertrek though. As Tropical Storm/Hurricane Eta pinballed around the Gulf of Mexico, the Rivertrekkers changed their plans once again. But, as all paddlers know—all plans are contingent, and nature bats last. Nonetheless, I envied them as they headed south, and maybe 2021 is my year for Rivertrek.

And they’re off

Can William Bartram Help Us Save the St. Johns River?

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Misty morning on the St. Johns River

Can William Bartram—Quaker, adventurer, and naturalist—help us save the St. Johns River? In the late 1700s, William Bartram (1739-1832) sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and recorded north Florida’s cultural and natural history in his Travels of William Bartram. Bartram’s words have drawn adventurers, naturalists, and historians to the river and cultivated in them a deep appreciation for local history, flora, and fauna. I  came to love the St. Johns River after paddling in William Bartram’s Wake on a Paddle Florida trip on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County. Most recently, Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created the Bartram Adventure Tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and others can trace Bartram’s route on foot, bike, and boat. On this trip, I realized that William Bartram also forged paths to conservation.

The Bartram Inn, Palatka, FL
The Bartram Inn, Palatka, FL

I was excited when Linda invited me to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. I knew that several days with fellow Bartram enthusiasts would help me better understand why William Bartram’s words remain powerful. In 2016, I met Sam Carr and Dean Campbell on a Bartram-inspired Paddle Florida trip on the St. Johns River. While paddling downstream in a blustery December wind, I learned that Sam, Dean and others designed Bartram Trail in Putnam County  so that people could visit sites that Bartram described. The printed guide, trailside QR codes, and website provide locations, journal entries and commentaries so that visitors can follow Bartram’s footsteps and see (or imagine seeing) what he saw. The Bartram Adventure Tour combines guided cycling, paddling, and hiking tours on the Bartram Trail in Putnam County with a stay in the Bartram Inn.

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St. Johns River map

Sunrise over the St. Johns
Sunrise over the St. Johns

The pre-dawn light woke me early on my first morning of the trip.  I could see the St Johns from my room on the second floor of the Inn, so I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked outside to watch the sunrise. Mist shrouded the anchored boats and blurred my view of Memorial Bridge that divides east and west Palatka. It struck me that I had never spent the night in Palatka. I had driven over the bridge innumerable times on my way to Crescent Beach, but rarely stopped in Palatka except for gas or snacks. I recalled Linda’s observation from the previous evening, that only when people stop, get out of their cars, and get on the water do they begin to care for the river. Perhaps here was a clue to Bartram’s power, the power of place—his words guide us to magical places on the St. Johns where we can see, touch, and sometimes feel the river’s beauty.

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View from Orange Point in Welaka Forest

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Bartram Trail kiosk

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Hike to Orange Point through Welaka Forest

We had two short hikes that day. First, we walked along the Puc Puggy Trail at the Palataka Waterworks Environmental Education Center. Then, we hiked down a newly cut trail in the Welaka State Forest that brought us to Orange Point and John’s Landing. The trail between these points followed the river and provided the best views of the river. Our trip included a number of ‘Bartram moments.’ Sam read from Bartram’s Travels and explained the significance of a particular place. Hearing Bartram’s  description helped me imagine the landscape he encountered so many years ago.

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Sam reads the Bartram Prayer

On our final stop before lunch, we climbed Mount Royal, a site now confined within the gated Mount Royal Airpark Community. From atop this (excavated) Indian mound, Sam read aloud the ‘Bartram Prayer’ which offers insight into Bartram’s—and his own—feeling of stewardship towards the river and the surrounding land. The prayer resonates with him because it shows that preserving creation reflects the will of God and adds purpose to living on the St. Johns.

Bartram Prayer
Bartram Prayer

Sam claims that Bartram was the “original hippie”—embracing peace, love, and care for all beings, including other people. In Bartram’s description of nearby Six Mile Run (a.k.a. Salt Springs Run), he writes

At the same instant innumerable fish are seen, some clothed in the most brilliant colors . . . all in intercourse performing their evolutions: there are no signs of enmity, no attempt to devour each other; the different bands seem peaceably and complaisantly to move a little aside, as it were to make room for the others to pass by.

Shouldn’t humans emulate the peaceable bands of fish, Bartram seems to say, where all coexist peacefully? Bartram’s care extended to the many Native Americans he met whom, unlike his contemporaries, he viewed as equals. His egalitarian approach to people and nature reflected a Quaker sensibility that would motivate others centuries later.

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Puc Puggy (‘Flower gatherer’) Nature Trail (Site 6)

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The team at Puc Puggy Nature Trail

On our final day, we met another Putnam County resident who has taken William Bartram to heart. Biologist Mike Adams has been restoring the region’s native plants, including longleaf pine, for over 20 years. He and his family bought and preserved a tract of land on the St. Johns River.

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Saturiwa, named for a Timucuan chief

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Downstream from Palatka on the St. Johns River

A passing cold front thwarted our plans to pedal the 13 miles from Palatka to Saturiwa, so we grabbed our raincoats and piled into our cars. Under the eaves of his broad porch, Mike explained how he had come to love Florida’s diverse landscape and William Bartram.

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Mike Adams dressed as William Bartram

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The Carniverous Pitcher plant (Sarricenia)

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Native fern

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A slippery walk down the boardwalk

In his William Bartram persona, Adams outlined his conservation program and described the design and construction of his house and surrounding buildings. As he pointed out the details of the house, including this inlaid compass, I thought of yet another Bartram lesson: the mix of science and beauty. The sciences, arts, and humanities were not always considered as separate endeavors.

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Compass showing the orientation of the house

I recalled a discussion with University of Florida historian Steve Noll during the Center for Humanities in the Public Sphere summer program for high school students. William Bartram, Noll pointed out, embraced both the humanities and the sciences, and he communicated his scientific findings in artful, if not flowery, language. The blend of science and story, along with ethics, history, and beauty, can help us save our Florida waters. Artist Margaret Tolbert’s Aquiferious is one example, using a holistic approach to showcase and, hopefully, save our springs.

William Bartram’s writings have motivated these Putnam County residents to conserve land, create the Bartram Trail, and follow Bartram’s path on land and sea. We only protect what we know and love. Getting people on the water and into Putnam County helps the river and the people who live there. William Bartram has become an environmental ambassador for the St. Johns River in Putnam County. He still has much to teach us.

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

 

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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.

Rocky point
Site 28-Rocky Point

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Paddle Florida’s Bartram History Paddle 2015

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

Ocala National Forest Sign
Sign at Salt Springs Marina

Salt Springs Area Map
Courtesy of Google Maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cannon Springs

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Naked Springs

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Gilchrist Blue springs

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

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

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

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Boats anchored outside Salt Springs Marina

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

 

 

 

 

 

Old Florida and New Plastics in Cortez, FL and Anna Maria Island

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A  mermaid’s welcome to Starfish Dockside Restaurant

Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.

Maop of Southwest Florida
Courtesy of Google Maps

The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.

Bimini Bay Sailing sign
Bimini Bay Sailing

Roosting birds
Roosting birds

Bimini Bay Trimarans
Trimarans in Bimini Bay

Sail and sup
Beach launching

On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.

Scott in the bay
In the bay

Kevin in laser
Laser

Setting sail
Launching the sailing kayak

By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.

“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.

Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.

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Statue of Florida waterman

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Heritage sign in the center of Cortez

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In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.”  They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.

Harvest sign

“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”

As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.

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The regulars know the drill at the Starfish

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Pelicans hoping for a handout

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Fishing boat

That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.

After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.

At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.

Plastic whale
Plastics!

Plastic turtle
Plastic turtle

Plastic jellyfish
Plastic jellyfish

 

I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.

Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?

Kevin
Sailing Kevin

 

 

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