Equinox Documentaries Blog

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

Downstream: It’s a Southern Thang

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 2:05 pm on Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bulkhead for Lemon Bluf
Dawn arrives quietly when you sleep in a boat on the river. To paraphrase the poet Ezra Pound, it slips in like a field mouse, not shaking the grass. There are no human-made alarms, just the subtle awareness that the sky outside my open port window is becoming a bit less black.

And black it was last night out here near the southeastern shore of Lake Harney, not far from Raulerson Cove, framed by the river channel to the South and Gopher Slough just to the North. It was dark enough to deliver us the great star spillway of the Milky Way overhead, a sight diluted by light in most of heavily-settled central Florida. It is a reminder of the wildness of the river landscape.

I slept soundly on my loft bed in the stern while Leslie and Jennifer huddled up in their tents back under the sabal palm hammock just inside the mouth of the Econlockhatchee, thirty minutes south of here by boat.

I munch on oranges and coffee for breakfast and then we all climb about the hull boat that Duff Swan and Pete Henn have brought to us for the morning’s shooting. Later in the day, author and judge Fred Hitt will drive his pontoon boat in from downstream, and we will use that for our shooting platform for the rest of the day.

Tom filming Jen starting campfire at Brickyard Slough
Soon, we are all on the hull boat, headed upstream to meet the women at their campsite, maybe explore a bit deeper into the mouth of the Econ. Off we go, new crisp morning air rushing over the bow, chilling us. I search the sky for the elegant swallow tailed kites, but they are gone now, headed back to Brazil for the winter.

I look around the huge lake; only one other boat is out here, two sport fishermen way off in the distance. Otherwise we are alone. We are nearly 190 miles from the sea down here, but the river/lake under us is deceptively brackish. I remember reading scientific abstracts when researching River of Lakes and finding that prehistoric seawater still leaks up through the sandy lake bottom from deep connate reservoirs in the limestone. Entire habitats are transformed, luring in Atlantic needlefish, white-fingered mud and blue crabs. All of it is hidden under the mask of tannic-stained blackwater below.

We follow the tricky meander of a channel south of Harney, zip under the SR 46 road bridge, and then to the west, aiming for the campsite. The hammock of palms in the distance look like giant ferns atop spindly sticks, all etched across the red horizon.

Campsite at Brickyard Slough
The girls are breaking down their tents as we arrive. Duff nudges the bow into the soft bank nearby and we jump out to set up the filming, Bob, Mark, Jason, and board member Bill Randolph, who is a gifted photographer. (Bill joined Duff back at the SR 46 ramp). Those of us not actively shooting simply look around. I spot a bright green tree frog on a palm trunk. Duff, Leslie and I talk of what has been lost on the river–a disturbing idea, especially when its true value may never been realized before it went away.

With camp scenes complete, Leslie, Jennifer, shooter Tom Postel and myself board Leslie’s center console and head up the Econ, the B-roll boat following at a distance.

Upstream on the Econ River
Like the rest of this untamed upper river, the Econ mouth is a broad flat marsh, punctuated with palms. At we go deeper, the banks rise ever so slightly and the palms are joined by oaks–many with huge pineapple-like bromeliads–and then on higher banks, pines. I look for green fly orchids, to no avail. As we navigate a sharp bend, we see an open prairie shore thick with the yellow burrmarigolds, like we saw yesterday at Bear Midden. We have the Econ to ourselves, leaving the shooter’s boat several oxbow turns behind. We see wild turkeys at the edge of the shore, and black-headed buzzards. In the water, lumpy primeval heads of alligators appear and just as suddenly disappear. A dead cow lays on its side, legs forever pointed sideways.

Leslie navigates carefully under the hanging oak limbs which now reach out over the river. But when we start thumping over submerged logs we decide it better to turn back than to risk losing the prop

Tom films women on Puzzle Lake
We alert the B-roll boat by radio and then turn east, following the Econ out to the St. Johns, beyond the pancake flat marsh and grazing cattle, and head downstream and into Lake Harney. The channel is not dredged here, so we are cautious during the crossing, The map shows Harney to be from two to six feet deep, but with our drought, it is less. We stop at the anchored houseboat, where Fred meets us and we transfer our gear to his pontoon boat and say goodbye to Duff and Pete.

Tom and I join the women and travel beyond Stone Island to the east and then Underhill Slough–river banks a thick forest of palms with a sliver of sandy beach–before spotting a tall white pipe that marks the northern channel entrance. Jennifer gives it a go at the helm, and her first inclination is to pull the throttle back as far as it will go—which is her style. We almost clip a PVC pole, and Jennifer is unfazed. “Precision is my middle name,” she says, as if she tried to do that, and I have to smile.

As soon as we enter the river proper, the banks to the left begin a slow rise and houses–mostly on stilts– appear atop them. To the right are low wetlands, marsh and hardwood swamp. The St. Johns is transforming now, leaving the intimations of its own genesis behind. Mullet jump from the water around us.

Soon, we pass Lemon Bluff to the left and then the crumbling bulkhead of the defunct Lemon Bluff Marina and restaurant, its old boat slips falling into the water. I notice “Restarant” is misspelled, but think: Too late now.

Leslie wonders if this is the “high bluff” where Rawlings once reported camping. It is moot, anyway, as the old camp is plastered with No Trespassing signs, warnings that are now far more evident on the river shores than they surely were 75 years ago. Unlike the soggy upper river where we saw only cattle, the higher land in the middle river is increasingly the domain of humans. I think of the Rawlings observation: “It seems to me the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used but not owned…we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters.”

We travel for several hours, following another meander near SR 46 near the decaying J.J.’s Marina Isle, near the truncated mouth of Lake Jesup. The fish camp land has been bought so the berms here may be removed and the historic connection between the river and the polluted lake reestablished. That is of course a good thing, but the threatened fish camp culture has been lost as a by-product of restoration.

Jen sets up the tent
Finally, we swerve out of the main channel and behind an island to reach our campsite for the evening. It is on SJRWMD conservation land adjacent to Brickyard Slough. Oaks with low mossy branches dominate the shore, a thick wall of saw palmettos behind them. There is a primitive campsite with a fire ring and a picnic table.

The table has been commandeered by three camo-wearing hunters, their airboat parked not far away on the shore itself. My first response is: Man, these guys are going to be a problem. Then I realize they are far more a part of the true river story than we are. I walk over to their table, introduce myself and tell them what we are doing. They are friendly, if stoic.

Flaps of Tracy's airboat
It turns out they are friends who hunt together and are now out for deer during the archery season. Their names are Tracy, Peewee and Jose. Tracy, a big chunky man with a thick southern accent, owns the airboat. I notice the aluminum flaps that allow it direction are painted with two giant pit bull-type dogs chewing the hell out of a petite wild hog. The slogan under it is “It’s a Southern Thang.” The other two hunters are quiet, but Tracy is expressive, polite, a Southern gentlemen, rough around the edges surely, but straightforward—not a small thing in our modern world where little weasely men often dart about in suits and ties, lying to pretend they are something they are not. It is hard not to think of Rawlings and her own Cross Creek neighbors, and the respect she felt for their backwoods ethics.

Even though Tracy lives north not far from Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, he comes here to harvest deer and hog because it is not overhunted and local animal populations are healthy and large. He eats the venison or gives it to friends who need food or who can’t hunt. The crew and the girls wander over and we do introductions. Suddenly, Peewee and Jose get up and leave and Tracy takes Jennifer to the airboat for an impromptu ride that lasts much longer than I thought it would.

Tracy being filmed by crew
Just as I am about to give up on Jennifer returning intact, we hear the aircraft motor of Tracy’s boat and then see them, the airboat sledding up on land with the energy of its massive prop. Jennifer gets off smiling, shakes her head. She looks at me briefly. “It’s a Southern thang,” she says, doing a nice accent with it all.

We set up tents, the men roar off, promising to come back later that evening to show us their kill. And to our surprise, they return around 9 p.m, a pair of dead yearling deer on the deck of the airboat. They are proud of their harvest and proud to show it to us.

The hunters are men who have promised to do something and then kept their word. I think in modern Florida that is as rare as a swallow tailed kite–and just as illusive.

– Posted by Bill Belleville

Let the Filming Begin! Little Boat, Big River

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 9:13 pm on Monday, November 6, 2006

Midway Fish Camp is a phantom, wood and screen and tin and old fishing memories at the side of a busy road. The road is HW 50 east of Orlando, the same one from which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her neighbor Dessie Smith kick-started the river voyage that would allow them to rediscover the St. Johns almost 75 years ago.

This morning, we are launching our own boat in these same waters near the Midway, not far from where the pair first begin their journey. There are vast differences to be sure: Rawlings and Smith had a large wooden jon boat with two motors, a .22 rifle to shoot ducks and a pistol, just in case. With no L.L. Bean to outfit them, they carried along their own housewares in the boat—a dutch oven to cook, bedding and pillows to sleep on, and an insatiable curiosity for discoveries the river could bring.

We scouted the toughest part of this route over the last several weeks, but this morning, we will experience it with our two-woman crew. Most importantly, we hope to record those experiences in a way that will be part reality television, part intended drama, and another part that expresses our hope this trip will reveal something that otherwise might not be revealed—about the shaping of art and literature and river images and the passing of time.

So far, time is at a standstill and the only thing that passes is the morning rush hour traffic a few yards away on US 50. Filming a documentary on a river with a widely disparate crew all coming from different places on the map is like, well, herding cats. Finally, we begin to converge: Jennifer Chase in her blonde dreads and her sporty red car, driving down from Jacksonville. Leslie Poole with her husband Michael in their SUV with the center-console ProLine boat in tow. Bob and the rest of the crew from the houseboat anchored back downsteam in Lake Harney (where they spent the night), and me, dropped off by my friend Michelle, riding the asphalt highway of I-95 down from Sanford.

The soggy humidity broke just yesterday and the new autumn morning is mild, crisp. The early light has tinted the both the river landscape us a soft beige. The ProLine won’t start. Michael tinkers with it, then calls a mechanic who talks the motor back to life. Michael explains the problem, an electrical short of some kind. The trim devices that lift the motor up and down can no longer be operated from the console, but will be maneuvered by hand on the motor itself. No problem.

I understand now why Rawlings brought two motors. Michael wishes us good luck and leaves, as does Michelle. We are alone here with our shooters’ platform boat–a sort of pontoon-style hull craft–and our center console, now sitting at the edge of the shore in the flat tannic water of the St. Johns River. Overhead, a bald eagle soars and white ibis fly in a ragged formation. We are at a public ramp and a few wayward souls stop to gape, trying to figure who these crazy people are running around with cameras and boats.

We are off now, Jennifer and Leslie in their boat, moving away from the shore at idle speed, headed around and under the low US 50 bridge into a cut that will take them into a channel of the St. Johns. Nothing in any movie is every done on first take, even a documentary, and so we try this launch scenario several times. The sun rises higher in the sky. I am anxious to be on the water. Finally, all is right and we all finally launch for real, Duff Swan of the water management district at the helm of the district’s platform boat, and the gals in their craft with shooter Tom Postel and myself.

As in our earlier scouting trip, the thick Australia water weeds with the plumed tops hug the edge of the shore, crowding out the native plants. The canal and the natural meander it turns into are deep, but only for now: As we get closer to the giant expanse of water and mud and land that is Puzzle Lake, the river begins to shift under us, splaying out so that there is more than one furrow etched by the flowing current. Each potential channel carries its own unspoken warning with it–“I am shallow, watch out” or “I am safe, but just for now.” Gators, thick as thieves during the earlier scouting, are now spread out more into the wet marsh behind the reeds. With the recent rain, the water is up a couple of feet, and we hope it will keep us afloat.

Leslie is cautious, but rightfully sure of herself as a captain; Jennifer watches, asks questions. None of us are truly sure what will happen until it does, so we leave the agenda open: The two woman crew consults the map, plots the course, comments on the wide generous marsh of this upper St. Johns. Tom and I hang back, waiting for the moment to reveal itself. I did not know Tom before this job; and Leslie and Jennifer had only met once, in a brief paddle on the Wekiva River, a tributary downstream. We all have faith in the ability of the shared intimacy of the moment to transcend challenges, and we will stick with that faith. Gut feelings are vital to me, and I you know, I feel good about everyone aboard this shoot.

We move along slowly under the new Florida autumn day, and the sky again grows before us, cumulus rising from the vast wetness as it does over the glades. I think this film may be the best idea in the whole world, and just as I do, we run aground on a tight corner.

We push off the bank, head back to the channel. The platform boat comes alongside, filming the women in action. Tom and I hit the deck so as not to be part of the shot. I am in the stern and for the next ten minutes, I suck engine fumes, and remind myself the next time I go down it will be in the bow.

Our narrow route opens into a fresh water lagoon mapped as Cone Lake; we take it gingerly, watching the bottom rise up closer on the depth finder, just two feet now. Jen bends down to trim the motor by hand. Leslie is great at the helm, and we zig zag our way back into a deeper creek. More running and we reach Bear Midden, the high Native American mound of several acres used by airboaters to party and barbecue dead meat on the weekend. We pull the boats ashore, walk around.

Jennifer samples wild persimmions from the trees, nibbles at the tiny black berries of a sugar hackberry (the first is nasty; the second like a crispy nut). Leslie considers, thinks eating toxic fruit may not always be a good idea. Odd, because otherwise she is bold, and I count her among the few courageous women I have known.

Burrmarigolds blooming
We explore an old shed (painted over the door: “Built by the Public for the Public”), and poke about behind it where the mound slopes low into the marsh. We follow it and find it is thick now with yellow blossoms, four and five feet high, like giant wild sunflowers, but with smaller hea. Duff Swan, who knows his botany, says they are Burrmarigolds (Bidens laevis), which are indeed in the Sunflower family.

On the ground, we see pottery shards, bleached-white fresh water snail shells, bullet casings. I put some on a stump, laid out like an exhibit, and when the gals are on film, Jennifer says, as if discovering them for the first time: “O look,” but with a wonderful mixture that blends real surprise with knowingness. That is what this movie is about, really, a mix of the real and the make-believe, with the former “ideally” guiding the latter. It’s all a dance, skirting the thin line between pretend and illusion.

Boat runs aground on Puzzle Lake
Back on the boat, we muddle through Puzzle Lake just as Rawlings once did. It is still a maze, a wide and shallow and stunningly heartbreaking beautiful maze. Jennifer and Leslie ground their boat four or five times, once so soundly the entire crew is enlisted to push them off. Finally, we are out of Puzzle and near the edge of the Econlockhatchee River. We point our bow up it and the primitive sabal palm hammocks around us become magical in the golden afternoon light.

Sabal palms as seen from the campsite
Leslie and Jennifer will camp here near a point and the crew will head back to the houseboat downstream on Harney to sack out. First, we help them set up tents and shoot some more video.
Setting up the tent for camping overnight

Cattle graze in the distance, and a cow skeleton picked clean by vultures lays nearby. I pick up a single vertebrae. It looks like an ancient flying machine, a tiny glider of white bone. More eagles appear and one lands on the high ground of a hammock on the other side of a slough. Sandhill cranes glide gracefully upward, disappearing like a mirage into the heavens.

We leave the women alone and film them as we go, sun setting behind their tents, landscape as raw and primitive as it has ever been. They are drier here than Rawlings had been on her first night–when she camped on a mud spit–and they have the comfort of lightweight, rainproof tents and fiberglass boats and propane stoves. But when the crew and I leave and the women are by themselves in the primal darkness and a boat silently moves downstream on the nearby Econ and men’s voices call out to them, then the illusion of safety and comfort quickly vanish.

Once more the St. Johns and its shadows and the potential it holds to stoke images inside and outside of the imagination prevails, just as it has for thousands of years. And at last, the haunting cries of the owls sweep over the wet-dry prairie, and the river night no longer belongs to us, at all.

And, I think to myself: It probably never did.

– Posted by Bill Belleville