We’re back at the Jolly Gator fish camp again, stuffed reptiles and all. We left off here last week, and need to finish up scouting this river leg since –like the rest of the upper St. Johns–it is undredged and unmarked.
This time we’re on our own with a nautical map and–we hope–a sense of dead reckoning that will allow us to muddle through to our destination. The end game today is Lake Monroe, but there’s one giant lake and a lot of squiggly lines on the map in between–some of them puddling up into dead-end sloughs, others leading us into the ever-shifting natural channel.
Bobby Boswell launches his flats boat at the ramp here. Bobby, a cardiologist, was on call this morning, and had made a quick change at the boat ramp, shucking his shirt and tie for more casual on-water gear.
Bob Giguere and I climb aboard, and we are off. Like most flats boats, this one’s light and draws only a few inches of water. The river is still low due to a prolonged drought, and we are hoping Bobbyâ€™s bantamweight Kevlar-hulled craft will deliver us from the shallows.
Three large airboats had just roared away from the Jolly Gator, carrying sightseeing tourists upstream, and for now, we have this portion of the river to ourselves. Bob activates the hand-held GPS, nails a satelitte, and we begin to plot our own detailed electronic map that will help when we return for our filming in October.
We follow a clear channel north from the ramp, passing banks of rich black marsh, bladderpod and needle rush clustered atop it. A dense sabal palm hammock emerges on the left. Lake Harney opens before us as an enormous vat of light that seems to illuminate the entire horizon. We stop so Bob can take a GPS reading before we enter it. The later summer noon sun is relentless, and my t-shirt is already soaked with sweat. I dip a paddle into the water for a sounding and see the bottom is barely two feet. Harney is flat, calm. Ahead, mullet leap, creating the only water movement. A bald eagle, soars in from a snag to the east, grabs a fish and returns to its perch.
Although it is Saturday, there is not another soul on the entire nine square mile lake. I tell Bobby there is so much connate salt water seeping up from the sandy bottom that it actually influences salinty. White fingered Mud crabs and other salt marsh animals and plants (like spartina) thrive in little pockets of brackish water. From the middle of the lake we see a dip in the distant tree line, and figuring it is the north channel out of Harney, we head for it. As we enter the channel, we see stands of bald cypress, and then, tall pines. The river now flows almost due west instead of north. On one shore, high bluffs begin to appear with some frequency, scruffy but cozy homes atop them. The other shore is still low and marshy, much of it protected as conservation lands.
We pass a ramshackle home on stilts, a cow and his companion cattle egret grazing in the front yard. The river, still shallow, begins to braid and we slow, more cautious now. Soon Lemon Bluff appears, distinguished as the highest shore on the upper river so far. Homes here are fancier, a few McMansions intermingled with river funk. We see the water bird known as the anhinga, flocks of white ibis, a great white heron. More mullet flop. Rawlings once camped atop a high mound, likely somewhere in this area, and wrote of it as a place of time and beauty she would hold in her heart forever.
The sun retreats and rain falls, lightly at first and then harder, pinging off my forehead like tiny wet pellets. We stop to put on rain parkas and continue.
A dilapidated bulkhead announces the Lemon Bluff Marina and Restaurant, but both are long gone, only the crumbling bulkhead to remind us it was there at all. Further downstream, we pass another defunct marina, JJ’s Marine Isle, closed for only a year now but its docks already collapsing and its walls overgrown with foliage. A few fishermen are at the edge of a decaying wooden pier and they wave to us. The American Shad surge through here by January, headed upstream to spawn in the same place where they themselves were once born, opalescent oceanic blue sheen flashing in the sun when they jump from the water.
I once gathered some wild river iris (purple flag) from this area during a shad hunt, and today, I still have descendents of that plant in a backyard pond, a reminder of the river at my doorstep.
Onward we go, more tangled river maze that we take slowly. Michelle Thatcher is meeting us at Lake Monroe to join us for the return trip, but we are behind schedule, having run aground a few times and been pelted by the heavy rains.
Finally, we see a road bridge on the horizon and I know that to be Osteen, where we can get more gas and grab a bite at Gator’s Landing right on the river’s edge. I call Michelle and ask her to meet us at Osteen instead, driving down Celery Avenue a few miles east of Sanford. As we approach, I see her on a dock at the Landing, red pull-over and a mane of wild blonde hair a giveaway, even at this distance. We nudge up under a wooden pier just in time to beat a driving rain, one we had seen moving across the marsh as a white sheet of water. We settle into a table next to the open dock railing, and order fish sandwiches and ice tea, study the river map some more. Bob’s GPS shows we traveled 12 miles to get here.
Bob leaves us, and Michelle climbs aboad. Bobby pulls the plugs to let the few inches of rainwater drain, and we are off, retracing our route back upstream. Within minutes we are lost, zooming entirely out of the channel, passing cattle fences in the water, and grounding on a broad sandy flat. Bobby and I climb out into ankle deep water and drag the boat off. There are no gators today, likely discouraged by the heavy rains, so the notion of wading the river seems saner than it did when we were on Puzzle Lake, where the reptiles were big and edgy.
At the channel above Harney, I drive the boat and Bobby takes a needed break. I lose a lens from my sunglasses, and with my eye-patch look, start talking like a pirate, arggging my way through much of Lake Harney, cooler now with the earlier rains. In my green parka, I must look ridiculous. We all laugh, no big deal. There are few experiences I find as satisfying as being on the water with friends who are fully comitted to being in the moment, buzzed by the natural whimsy of it all.
We cover the return trip within two hours, help Bobby load his boat back on his trailer and then say goodbye. Michelle and I stroll over to the Jolly Gator, order some soft shell crab sandwiches, fried squash, and more tea, sitting again at the edge of the water.
In one surreal moment, a woman with big Tammy Faye Bakker hair piloting a pink airboat soars away from the shore. A guy with a cowboy hat and tatoos sets up instruments for a band, but the day’s experience has been satisfying enough for us. The sun settles low and the sky turns scarlet. It was another good day on a good river with good friends–sunshine, rain, pink airboats, bald eagles, uncertain channels.
Or, as Rawlings once wrote: “It was very simple, but like all natural facts it was ncessary to discover it for one’s self.”
– posted by Bill Belleville