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.
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.
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.
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 shooterâ€™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
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.
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.
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.
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