Equinox Documentaries Blog

documentary films which inspire a sense of "place" through stories and images

Stoptime River Images: How is it so?

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 7:51 pm on Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A river is more than a single channel of water flowing from a beginning to an end. It is all those places that touch the river–everything upstream and uphill from it.

These parts make up the basin or watershed or valley. Or so I am told.

It is into this valley we go on a warm Saturday afternoon, sky overhead as blue as a robin’s egg, fat white clouds gently pushing and pulling their way through it. We are here today looking for the art of the details, the little pieces that bind the larger ecological system together. Bob Giguere and I begin our trek at the edge of bustling SR 46 where amped-up motorists try to outdo each other to see how fast and aggressively they can drive on this once-quiet country road.

The aim to today is to walk through the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve to hunt for these details, to find new ways to see the St. Johns River system. Bob and I load ourselves with a HDV camera and filters, a carbon-fiber tripod, a digital camera, and lots of water. We walk past the trailhead kiosk for a short longleaf pine loop, and veer off for a firebreak road that will lead us as far as we want to go on this 20,000 acres of wild land. Soon, the nervousness of the road fades.

We are here to capture images on video, a portion of our “B-roll” of footage that–we hope–will help us tell a larger story of nature, people, art and place. Bob suggests we hike in first, and then, as the sun lowers in the Florida sky, take the shots on the way back out. That sounds reasonable, and so in we go, beyond the long leafs, past gopher tortoise burrows, down a canopied corridor that takes us finally over a gentle slope and out onto the open flatwoods.

Vista of pine flatwoods, which have a beauty all their own
Pine, mostly slash now, and gullberry and saw palmetto spread out before us, an endless sea on a land so flat no ball would ever roll up or down it. Bob always looks more official than me, upright and mindful, trogging onward, wearing his black Equinox Film Crew t-shirt and Equinox hat. I am in old hiking shorts with a bleached-stained t-shirt my son-in-law gave me once and my dog has chewed on since.

We duck back into a thick hammock of oaks and follow a rain-carved ditch to a duckweed-covered slough of the Wekiva River. Snail shells left from Native American campers stud the sandy earth. We make our way down the banks of the slough to a small sandbar. I stop, look around. We haven’t talked much coming in about anything but technology because that is the subject Bob is explaining. He has explained in detail the advantages and comparative uses of our new video gear. And then he has done it again, in a different way.

But, the simple act of stopping and looking quietly on this spit of sand works miracles for us both. As Emerson has written: “Nature and books belong to those who can see.” A sabal palm frond with a shaft of sunlight behind it becomes a work of art, perfect lines radiating out from a center as it is a painting of a sunrise. Taller and older palms frame the blue sky, capturing a white cloud as it floats across. Calmer now and in place, Bob points his camera at a muscadine grape vine, and I ask him to capture the moving shadow of it in the floating green duckweed below.

He does and then, after a while, something pops the water from under the carpet of duckweed. We watch, listen. Green eyes of a frog appear, and then another. They watch us, carefully, like a gator might if he is trying to observe and to hide at the same time. Bob nails the frog eyes with his HDV. We pack up, remount the banks, and cross over another sandbar to a bluff that hides the Wekiva, jumping now over the last three feet of slough. I think of me using the word “nail” as a verb–another human conceit.

The bluff gives us perspective, showing the Wekiva below. Usually clear from springs, the recent rains have now tinted it into a diluted tea.

Bob nails some nature on the Wekiva River
We go to its edge, set up the tripod, nail more footage of moss and river. A motor boat with an archer standing in its bow hunting for large gar putters by. Later, three more boats and a lone kayaker pass. Of all the river traffic, it is only the kayaker who sees us. The rest are too intent on eyeballing the channel, senses focused on the path ahead. The kayaker, more time to reflect, thinks peripherally. All that he passes is his domain because he fully sees it. The rest are chattering or silent. He is singing.

We pack up and haul back out, retracing our path through the flatwoods, crossing snow white sugar sand. Redneck Rivera, I say, in reference to the white sand of the Panhandle resort towns. Paw prints are scattered on the sand, deer and then several from small black bears. A hole likely dug by a raccoon shows the leather-like skin shards of turtle eggs. The hole is fresh but the skins old and I am hoping they hatched before they were eaten.

Wildflower (False Foxglove) ath the edge of the trail
Wildflowers are full around us, and we stop to nail them, too. Then the ephemeral pond reveals itself behind the palmettos. We go to it, hike across it. It is as dry as the swamp has been, and its grasses are knee high. Summer should have made it into a pond again, but our drought has left it bereft of water.

A pair of sandhill cranes I usually see here are nowhere to be found. A small stand of giant grasses anchor the middle and we walk to them. The plumes are massive, thick with new seeds, as grandiose as the adornments on the helmets of Roman soldiers.

Bob crouches with camera, and I wander the perimeter, see where animals have pushed the grasses down with their own movement. I look back, see Bob’s white Equinox hat in the middle of the field of grasses. I tell Bob later that if we were smart, we would come here with a pair of camp chairs and sit until sundown, when the mammals and birds arrive.

Bill takes a break along the trail
But we are humans, with all of our human expectations well intact. We figure, since we are supreme, animals will be here when we want them, wildflowers will bloom when we say they should.

We are saved by the river system, by its watershed. We return with great images of butterflies and palmetto fronds, fence lizards and the tiny green bodied insect that sucks the nectar of the purple Blazing Star. We are saved not because we are right. But because the world around us is rich, layered with plants, animals, with great open spaces and tightly woven hammocks and a river that flows deeply enough to touch the soul.

We are saved because of what it is.

It is only coincidental that this wild nature happens to be what we want. It has become so only because we have slowed to its pace.

– posted by Bill Belleville

Paddling In & Out of Myth

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 10:18 am on Wednesday, September 13, 2006

We hopscotched around the watershed of the St. Johns this week, figuring to visit some of the sites closer to the Rawlings homestead of Cross Creek.

The roadtrip took us up to Silver River, which is the massive run (or creek) that channels the water that wells up from Silver Springs and sends it meandering down through seven or so miles of wonderfully retro Old Florida terrain.

Michelle and I made the 1.5 hour journey by car to the place where the Silver River meets the Ocklawaha at the SR 40 bridge just east of Ocala, Florida. We drove up through the Ocala National Forest where Rawlings had spent a great deal of time researching some of her fiction, including the novels South Moon Under and The Yearling, as well as some of her short stories. Ocala is the “Big Scrub” hereabouts because it is, well, scrubby, skinny slash pines lining the country roads and behind them, rolling hills with more pines and great sweeping stands of saw palmetto. Every once in a while, we passed a dirt road leading back into the woods, sometimes deadending into one of the characteristic sandy-bottomed lakes that dot the Forest.

At the bridge over the Ocklawaha, we pulled into a park built around a boat launch ramp and with our friend Bobby Boswell, launched our kayaks and Bobby’s small canoe. Although rain was forecasted for later in the day, we paddled up the Silver River under a fierce late summer sun, cooled by the constant 72 degree spring water under us.

I am not sure of Rawlings’ connection with Silver, but it is not terribly far from Salt Springs–where she often visited and sometimes gigged blue crabs. And it is close to what is now being called “The Yearling Trail” that leads hikers back to the sinkhole where Jody Baxter, The Yearling‘s young protagonist, once sought solace. Since it is also linked to the Ocklawaha, it will float you–if you are intrepid enough–all the way to Orange Creek, Orange Lake and then Cross Creek itself.

By 10:30 a.m., we are padding the river, winding through a wild jungle-like hammock that splays out from the shore. Ever since our launch, I have been struck by the singular beauty of Silver. Its swamp is virtually dry, and so this upper river functions like a gigantic spring run. We paddle beyond shallow pools of turquoise water, some underlain by white sand with circular beds of spawning bream, others pools that fall away into deep vats of cobalt. I have been on many of Florida’s spring runs, but none are as large and clear as Silver.
Kayaking among the cypress

There are a few other kayaks on the river today, and a disturbing number of boats with kickers–some that are so large they appear ridiculously out of scale for this creek. A no-wake zone for the entire run requires them to stay at idle speed, but most belch great plumes of white smoke from their exhaust, and some push the idle speed thing more than they should.

Boats with motors on rivers like this confound me–they are going too fast to enjoy the wild shore, the engines scare most wildlife, and surely, the quality of the sensory experience is narrowed down to a visual one where the world passes by in a fast-forward mechanical growl. I feel sorry for those boat riders for they lose so much of what the experience has to offer in exchange for good old-fashioned American expediency and comfort.

Peninsula Cooter
Michelle spots some Peninsula Cooters on a log, legs extended to balance themselves like stout yellow-bellied ballerinas on the half shell. We pass immature Great Blue Herons (which are snow white), several adults, a Tricolor or two, a gaggle of Gallinules with their distinctive red bills, and at one point, a Double Breasted Cormorant. The Cormorant, often seen on river snags drying its wings, is a superb diver, descending many yards underwater to snatch unsuspecting fish with its strong beak. This guy stays put, so attenuated to humans that we are able to float right next to him and snap photos without using a telephoto.

We spot a Rhesus monkey in a cypress, one of the descendants from when an old Tarzan movie was filmed at Silver Springs in the 1920’s, and the monkeys were simply left behind. The attraction fell on hard times a few years ago; thankfully, the state bought it, and leased it to a concessionaire. There are rules in Florida against feeding exotic animals, but the selfishness of some humans is beyond logic and today a beer-bellied yahoo in a pontoon boat is tossing bananas to the monkey to get him to perform.

We are pushing against a current fed by well over a dozen springs at the headwaters, some 500 million gallons of water a day rising up out of the Floridan aquifer in the limestone below. The uplands in the countryside around Silver feed its caverns with rain, mixing it with centuries-old water stored deep in the limerock. The strong current is a couple of knots and I am looking forward to the turn-around, when we can skim it back downstream like waterbugs. I remind Michelle that the poet Sidney Lanier once rode a small steamboat up the Ocklawaha, and from there to Silver itself in the late 19th century. Lanier was here to write a guidebook to the rivers and the result was a wondrous filigree of poetic prose and gilded how-to advice for the steamboating Florida tourist.

We pull over to the shore for lunch, sitting among the cypress knees and on fallen trees, inside the edge of the canopy shade. Other boats and kayaks pass by, seeming to float on the clear blue air that is water. We paddle some more, Bobby stopping to take photos, enjoying himself with the experience.The paddle takes longer than planned and he has to leave for an obligation back home. Michelle and I paddle another two hours up into the actual park itself, where we are surrounded by glass bottomed boats with names like Charlie Osceola and Peregrine.

Glass bottom boats
People inside the boats lean over the center glass floor in a sort of haunch, showing us only their backsides, plumber-butt waiting to happen. Boat drivers spit out commentary so perfect that it sounds like a recording. A little boy with his mother stand at the spring edge next to an old twisted sabal palm, and finally he works up the nerve to wave and say hi to us. I smile and wave and say hi back.

I was eight when I first made my visit to this magical place with my own family, and everything around me seemed like a giant stage set–the monkeys, the fish, the glassbottom boats. I wonder if that little boy thinks likewise of me, and if so, wonder if I have become part of the mythology of Silver Springs, a memory shard captured on a sunny September day once, and then locked forever in a dimension where nothing ever changes, grows old, or vanishes, into a place where nature shapes the imagination, and time itself no longer has meaning. I want this moment never to end, and maybe, in some place, in some way, it never will.

And then we turn and paddle back downstream into the late golden afternoon where everything–alligators and cypress knees and ibises–glow warmly as if lit by candle light. We paddle far, until we are finally out of myth, finally near the ramp, finally back on the forest road, finally returning again to home.

– posted by Bill Belleville

September 6th, 2006:

Filed under: IMW: Intern's Journal — Jason at 6:54 pm on Wednesday, September 6, 2006

A lot was accomplished this week. I pulled out all of Bob and Bill’s camping equipment, and did a full inventory on all of the equipment that we can use on our trip. I also logged some tapes which had interviews of Dessie Smith, Marjorie’s friend who convinced her to travel on the St. Johns. It was very interesting to hear all of the Dessie’s stories, and it filled me with excitement for our 7 day production trip down the St. Johns coming up in October.

We will all be traveling on the St. Johns in a 53′ house boat. The trip is from Highway 50 boat ramp all the way up to the Oklawaha River. Ah! I get excited just thinking about it! The main production crew will be staying on the boat, while Jenn and Leslie will be camping or staying in hotels. My job is to shoot stills and write for this blog, and also shoot video for behind-the-scenes footage that could possibly be used on the website or for other promotional material. And I will also be providing as a production assistant.

The fun part is that I get to pitch a tent and sleep out on the roof of the house boat. Hopefully the weather will be nice and I won’t be carried away by mosquitoes. Nevertheless, It’s going to be an extremely fun trip.