Equinox Documentaries Blog

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

A Blue Spring, a ZZ Top & a Jungle Den

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 7:06 pm on Saturday, December 23, 2006

Owl totem at Hontoon Island, the model for Fred Hitt's own totem
We are underway not long after dawn, waving goodbye to Fred and Linda Hitt at their dock. The totem Linda once had carved for Fred remains inside, crack down its center, ancient magic splintered just for now. Fred named it “Marehootie.” Later, we will pass the full sized replica of the same owl icon at Hontoon Island, intimation of native spirituality left to silently watch over its river.

It is humid, morning sky saturated with vapor. River traffic is light and we make it easily downstream, Leslie maneuvering her boat with practiced skill. The hardwood swamp narrows around us, and we zoom beyond it, headed for Blue Spring where we will meet Jim Draper, an artist from Jacksonville who cares deeply for nature.

Logging canal that links the river mainstem with Hontoon Dead Island
Old logging canals cut ragged slits into the forest to the west, linking the mainstem up to the Hontoon Dead River, which parallels it. Finally, Blue Spring State Park appears just ahead off the starboard and we beach the boat on a little spit of sand, letting Capt. Mike go ahead towards Holly Bluff Marina with the houseboat. Naturalist and artist Bartram sat on the banks of this spring almost 250 years ago, writing of the diaphanous magic of the ether-clear water.

Sentinel photographer Dennis Wall took this photo at Blue Spring of Jim and Jennifer and the crew
I climb off the boat, look for Draper. He’s a big guy, looks more like an old college football player than an artist, but that’s what he is, an excellent painter of nature and place. We find him and head to an observation deck where we can chat. The deck juts out over the spring run, and when the manatees migrate in during the colder winter months it’s is crowded with tourists anxious to see these unlikely beasts, parts seemingly grafted together from four or five different animals.

We mike Jen and Jim and they walk some, and then lean against the wooden railing and talk, spring flowing behind them. I want to know more about how nature shapes art, and the two elaborate on that dynamic, Jen as a musician and Jim as an artist. Draper tells of a painting he did with a rooster at the Cross Creek home of Rawlings. The rooster “leads you down the path… inviting you to go on an adventure.”
A chicken at Cross Creek by Jim Draper, entitled "Cross Creek"

Jen suddely spots a six foot gator behind them in the spring run. “You conjured him up with that story,” she says, only half joking. “He wants to be in a painting, too.” “Well,” says Jim, “as artists we always take what we can get.”

Gator at edge of bank, wanting to become art
“And you know,” he says, turning to me, “It’s their party,” meaning the gators. “We’re in their house… and it’s getting smaller all the time.”

The spring flows, nearly 100 million gallons a day, but green now from all the nutrients that have seeped into the rock holding the aquifer. While still powerful, it is far less than when Bartram first saw it, a testament to how Florida’s nature is more finite than ever imagined. I wonder outloud about nature inspiring art–and wonder what happens when we then have the capacity ourselves to shape nature? As gods go, we’re flimsy and unfledged, prehensile tales of mythology still tucked inside, trying to learn a few tricks so we don’t wreck the playing field for good.

A photographer from the Orlando Sentinel snaps some photos for a story about our film. We wrap up the interview and head back onto the water. Jim rides with us, beyond Hontoon Island to Holly Bluff Marina, just around the bend from Lake Beresford, the St. Johns nicking off an edge of the broad, shallow lake. At the marina, we fuel up and chat with the folks there. Jim leaves, headed by road back to Jacksonville and we return to our own aquatic highway, running fast now to make it to Astor before dark.

Manatees in the run of Blue Spring
We do a pass-by or two but mostly we are determined to make some time. We slow for manatee zones through the 50,000 acre Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, a place still so wild that a family in a small boat got lost for three days here not long ago. Migratory birds overwinter or fly through, ranging from Lake Dexter easterly to Woodruff and then Spring Garden Lake where the vent now renamed as “Ponce DeLeon Spring” still flows. When bird painter John James Audubon was here, it was “Spring Garden Spring”. But the over-reaching of modern Florida promotion later interceded and the illusion of celebrity prevailed. Nonetheless, the green herons and warblers and robins still come to feast on the great bounty of the river.
Rare pine bromeliad in the Lake Woodruff Wildlife Refuge

A view from the shore of the St. Johns river
The wooded swamp shore is now replaced by clearings, some occupied by trailers and little marinas and boat ramps. This is Astor, which seems mostly dedicated to the fine art of casual sport angling. It is hot now, almost dead calm and the sun is high in the sky. Two eagles circle above, chirping to each other in their special eagle language. On shore, a guy with an massive white beard sits on a folding chair, not moving, looking for all the world like one of the original ZZ Tops. “She’s got legs, knows how to use them,” I say, in remembrance of one of their cuts. Leslie smiles: “Is that what happens to old rock and roll singers? They end up on a folding chair at the edge of the water in Astor?”

Blair’s Jungle Den emerges ahead on the right, and we pull next to the nearly-deserted dock. We have booked a few rooms here for the night, an act that allows us free dockage. For a ramshackle, laid-back fish camp-marina-motel, Blair’s has an extraordinary amount of rules. We had actually rushed here to make it by 4 pm, because the office shuts exactly at that time. A sign reads: No Bait in Rental Units; Violation will result in eviction.

There are concrete vats of minnows and of crickets, both with screens over the tops to dissuade the wading birds from a free lunch. Inside, the little crickets are happily chirping away without a clue as to what tomorrow will bring, more insect camraderie or the sucking gulp of a largemouth bass. I fiddle with a coin-operated metal basket called the Super Scaler, wishing I had a fish to put in so I could watch it spin around and spit out scales like so much silver confetti. A white great egret stalks the edge of a nearby boat slip on long black legs, attenuated to my every move. I imagine other humans tossing her live bait, generating a little excitement during an otherwise slow evening here at the Den.

The sun sits low atop the cypress nearby. Unlike the original Rawlings team during their 1933 river run, we don’t have to rely on what we shoot or catch to eat. Jennifer moves into action on the houseboat stove, cooking “Yassa Poule,” a Senegalese dish having to do with onions and spices and chicken. Soon the entire houseboat cabin is full of the succulent scent of the dish, and we sit around a large table near the stern to enjoy the feast. Jennifer says something in French about the recipe and we nod, not having a clue, as happy as chirping crickets in a large concrete vat.

The moon rises higher in the night, and much later, the stars turn on until all of the sky is lit like a magician’s parade. And the river flows, north to Lake George and Drayton Island, guiding the way with its gentle dark current, brimming with promises.

– posted by Bill Belleville

Lake Monroe North: The Reanimation of Time

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 12:30 pm on Monday, December 4, 2006

Wekiva River
Morning at Brickyard Slough is announced by the thumping of feet above my head. It is shooter Tom Postel setting his camera on a “stick” (tripod) up on the houseboat roof to capture the coming sunrise.

The sun is still tucked away but its light is already pulsing across the horizon, illuminating sky, palms and water in every color of red imaginable. Most of the crew is already bustling about to do what is needed to get the most out of this day on the river.

Sunrises here in the upper basin are spectacular theater, perhaps because the broad marsh allows the light spectrum more room to express itself. Walls of hardwoods with swamp behind them will appear on the shores by the end of today. But for now, we are on the eco-cusp between feral marshland and wooded shore.

Hammock of sabal palms by the late afternoon
Jennifer and Leslie, who camped not too far away, break down their tents and join us on the boat deck for breakfast, which captain Mike McGinty whips up. Bob and I have spent time on the river on other projects, taking turns driving whatever houseboat we had. But this massive boat is a brute, easily grounded in shallow water and difficult to maneuver. Mike is perfect for the job, having run large cats between Key West and the Dry Tortugas for tourists. When not navigating the houseboat, he also cooks. Mike is a go-to sort of guy, someone you always want to have along on trips like this. It doesn’t hurt that he’s good natured and also cares about what we are doing here.

The sun finally nudges its way above the horizon and we all shoove off, headed back into the channel, downstream towards Sanford, Leslie and Jen in their center console with Tom and I, most of the crew on the pontoon B-roll boat, and Mike in the houseboat.

Old postcard of the St. Johns
Sanford is the first and last large town we will visit on this trip. It’s old–by Florida standards–and like much of Florida has a wonderfully twisted history. Sanford was the “Gateway to South Florida,” a grandiose notion since South Florida in 1880 was one giant wetland, less than 300 people in all of Dade (Miami) county. But Florida and its promoters have been nothing if not grand in their vision–Henry Sanford, Henry Flagler, Henry Plant and all the rest. Sanford lost his shirt trying to create a colony here in the interior of Florida, but his little namesake city endured.

In an odd way, Sanford was saved from itself: Banks collapsed here in the bust of the late 1920’s, and the man who was both mayor and bank president went to jail for embezzlement. Locals who believed in progress lost a lot of money, and afterwards, pulled in to themselves. The utility of the river as a trade route was co-opted by new highways and railroads. By the early 1940’s, the steamships stopped running. When Disney sent the rest of Central Florida into a feeding frenzy of growth in the early 1970’s, Sanfordites remembered and stayed clear of the fray. It’s this retro quality that has kept Sanford unhomogenized today–its little downtown like an HO train set, its streets still lined with old homes and large oak trees, its people unpretentious, open.

Carolina aster in bloom at riverside
Leslie navigates us through a backwater maze, and into the river’s mainstem, passing a marina and the Gator Landing restaurant to our port. We enter what our map shows to be a beeline-straight channel–surely, an old Army Corps of Engineers cut for faster river travel. It spits us out at the southeastern corner of Lake Monroe. Just to the north is the large marshy island mapped as “Mothers Arms,” and north of that, Stone Island, where Billy Bartram once camped during his upstream expedition so long ago.

Leslie steers the boat carefully into Monroe Harbor Marina, where we gas up and moor and get ready to poke about the old river town.

Marjorie and Dessie stopped here on one of the most memorable–and humorous–accounts of their own river story. They spotted a huge yacht moored here, and Dessie–armed with knife and pistol–asked the blazer-wearing owner if it were safe to go into town. The pre-yuppie prototype offered them his limo to take their tin in for gas, and then his pinkish over-wrought wife interfered, commanding the car so she could go to church.

Odd, but the weak transect between religion and nature and generosity in our country has always befuddled me. Arrogant and affluent and brash people who have nothing to do with Christianity still practice such behaviors, and then rationalize it away. But I guess that is life.

Jen Chase paddling on the Wekiva
We are looking a bit raggedly by now, but since we have showers and other comforts on the houseboat, it is a raggedness far from what Rawlings and Smith must have experienced.

At the nearby ramp, we meet Sanford Herald reporter Steve Paradis and photographer Tommy Vincent, who are doing a story on our project. They interview the girls, and when they are done, we turn the tables and interview Vincent, who is from an old Sanford family. Tommy is a Grizzly Adams of a guy, big and bearded, with a deep Florida accent and a congenial manner. Tommy reminisces about the waterfront and where the steamboats used to land and an old steamer captain who would regal townspeople with his own stories.

We walk the couple blocks to downtown, one crew with Leslie, another with Jen. We drop by Maya Books & Music, look for titles from the Rawlings era. Next door at the Willow Tree Cafe, we eat lunch on the patio. Jen burrows herself into the library, trying to get online for some distant-learning course work with the University of New Orleans.

Old postcard of the PICO hotel
We finish lunch, stroll around some, passing historic structures like the PICO Building (1887), first built by railroad and steamboat tycoon Henry Plant to service incoming passengers as a hotel. Plant, stuck by the subtropical feel of Sanford, had his PICO Hotel built in a Moorish style, onion dome and arches and ornate brickwork and balconies, similiar to other larger structures he built as hotels in Tampa. The PICO is nostalgia squared, for little of it has changed, except for the loss of its giant onion dome during a storm. Ospreys nest atop the unused chimneys now, making their high-pitched alert calls if anyone disturbs them.

Back in the boat, we head across Lake Monroe, which marks the beginning of the navigational markers, signifying the dredged channel. Out of that trough, the depth finder shows we only have three to four feet of water, which is startling considering the breadth of the lake. On the north shore, we search for the pilings near Enterprise to mark the site of the old Brock House, once considered the “Palm Beach of the interior.” Later abandoned, and then burned, the once-opulent Brock House exists now only in old paintings. We find no pilings, the water becomes more shallow and I suggest we head back into the channel.

The St. Johns River where it flows out of Lake Monroe north under I-4 and US 17-92 bridges
The river dilation that is Lake Monroe ends and we are again in a narrow river, except now it is deeper and surrounded by trees, cypress and sweetgum and swamp tupelo. We reach the mouth of the springfed tributary known as the Wekiva, and Jen and Leslie paddle up it in single kayaks, Tom and I following in a tandem at a distance, filming and watching.

We do a couple of segments here, talking about the Wekiva and its biological diversity and its preservation. The light is again golden and we are all basted in it. Soon, we return to the crew, passing a small houseboat at the mouth of the river, a couple here fishing. We smile and wave.

Fred Hitt, the judge and writer and fisherman and friend, lives nearby on a high bluff and we head there for the night. Fred and his wife Linda, a wildlife artist, are exceedingly generous folks and they have invited us all to hang out for the evening, feeding us wonderful crab cake dinners, offering cold drink and solace.

Fred, who still does “some judging” as he puts it, has been inspired by the presence of the pre-Columbians on the St. Johns, and with a great deal of research, has written a novel, Wekiva Winter, about them.

In Fred’s novel, he pays homage to the spirit of the now-vanquished native people, creating a compelling story that again returns them to life, if only for a little while. Characters like Marehootie, a wise old Acueran, become flesh and blood again, reminding us how complete and informed the river societies once had been.

Out on the dark waters, the Wekiva itself continues to flow into the St. Johns, as it has for thousands of years. Somewhere in the distance, a limpkin cries loudly. By morning, we will see a small black bear rustling in the tall bulrush on the distant shore. Marehootie could still be paddling his dugout inside the thick mist, and no one would ever know.

Co producer & writer Bill Belleville on river
Some things have changed on this river landscape, and some have thankfully remained the same.
– Posted by Bill Belleville