We are squarely inside the St. Johns this early Sunday morning, surrounded on all sides by it. Although I once dived not far from here into an inundated river spring called “Croaker Hole,” we do not have tanks on our backs nor are we breathing from regulators. Instead, we are traveling on Leslie’s boat, inside a moist fog so thick we can barely see more than a few feet. With the river below and the white mist above, the experience is vaguely akin to being immersed in water.
We putter along a tick above idle speed, looking for a dock here in Welaka that might sell us some fuel for the motor since we are close to being empty. Around us, shrimp migrating upriver pop as they flip their tails at the surface, loud enough to be heard over the soft hum of our outboard. The impenetrable whiteness isolates us, muting everything so completely that I can almost believe the world begins and ends at the edge of our gunnels.
Finally, the sun breaks through from behind a stand of cypress on a bluff, and the mist dissolves just enough. We see weather-worn wooden docks, boat houses and cabins that seem to have been transported through the whiteness from another century. It seems evanescent, on the verge of dissolving at any moment, returning to its time. The illusion is so complete that I think it might even take us with it when it goes.
We cautiously pull up to a dock with a “gasoline for sale” sign and tie off. Bob goes ashore and returns with the proprietor, who despite our early Sunday arrival, is congenial. He pumps gas for us, and we talk some about fish and shrimp because that is what people do on the river in the fog in the morning, and then we are off.
We find our way back to the rest of the crew on the river, and then, reasonably sure of a strategy, begin our slow craw up into the tributary of the Ocklawaha River. I have paddled a kayak on this river before, usually skimming up the adjacent Bear Creek since it is narrow and canopied, less suited to motorized traffic. But it is us who are motorized today, so we take the mainstem. Jennifer and Tom are now aboard, Leslie at the wheel, Bob and the rest of the crew back on the pontoon boat.
Near its mouth, the Ocklawaha is as black as the larger St. Johns, and the forest of hardwoods around us is gloriously thick and unbroken. The Ocala National Forest spreads out beyond us to the port and, to the starboard, the land is protected by the regional water management district. For me, this is the best of what any public agency can do to care for and restore vital terrain in the watershed, swamp, marsh, even the uplands where springs are born. Doing so sustains the liquid pulse of the river itself.
Rawlings once wrote: “the hammocks were the same then as now, and will be the same forever if men can be induced to leave them alone.” Ironically, we can’t simply leave the landscape alone anymore in Florida. Certainly, there are landowners who are good stewards of nature and have been for generations. But real estate development has changed land to gold now. Politics have entered the picture, and land seldom remains protected simply because we “leave it alone.”
As we go, I think of those here before us, a hundred and more years ago, think how poet Sidney Lanier fell into a swoon with this river, traveling here on the deck of a small steamboat by night, an iron pot of sap-rich pine knots burning on the bow to light the way. The shadows of golden fire light dancing in the gridlock of cypress and moss and vines must have been almost mystical. No wonder he called the Ocklawaha the “sweetest waterlane in the world.”
At that time, a steamboat ride from Jacksonville up the Ocklawaha was one of the great tourist attractions in Florida. (It cost $1.25 with a cabin). If the ship veered off and navigated nine miles upstream on the Silver River all the way to the springs there, its passengers were rewarded with the experience of floating on air for the last leg of their journey. If they continued on the Ocklawaha, they could go all the way upstream to Leesburg via Lake Griffin. This river was, inarguably, the original “Jungle Cruise.”
For the Creeks who were here after the Timucua were vanquished, this river was the Ak-lowahe (sometimes spelled Okli-Waha) and it was said to mean: Crooked River, Swamp, Muddy, or Great. Perhaps it meant all of those things, because it is.
But right now, we are in prolonged drought and the tannic water that would ordinarily leak in from the swamps is mostly gone. Instead, the springs upstream are driving the Ocklawaha today, and it is as clear as I’ve ever seen it. The water is transparent, just a tint of yellow-green to it.
Most of these springs are on the other side of the Rodman Dam, just a few miles ahead where a gigantic reservoir has covered over 20 of them and flooded 9,000 acres of what was once thickly-wooded floodplain forest and canopied river. Some of the steamship landings Rawlings wrote about in South Moon Under are drowned as well.
In his effort to turn a bucolic, wild river into an efficient transportation waterway, the so-called “Cross Florida Barge Canal” man has blundered on a heroic scale. Although it was deauthorized long ago, the politics of denial keep the reservoir alive. Even the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dam in 1968, now says restoration of the river will be ecologically wise, far better for sport fishing, and certainly much cheaper than continuing to maintain the artificial dam and lock system.
We pass a great blue heron, a peninsula cooter on a log, a belted kingfisher on a swamp tupelo branch. Jennifer snaps some photos from her little camera. “Just like a Jungle Ride at Disney,” she says, making some animal sounds for effect. We pull over to the side to take a break and tie up to a sabal palm leaning over the water. Jennifer takes out her guitar, strums some, and then sings. The song is “Welaka,” a composition she wrote for our film. It is about the river, but like most poetry, it is also about love and loss and life and the indomitable will to endure. She sings in her bluesy style, and her voice resonates inside the soft walls of green foliage:
“Floating upstream, heading south
Cutting off my nose to spite my face
St. John’s absolution’s eternal and proud
Might be my only saving grace
Is it here it ends or begins?”
It is a great moment on a great river, one of those quintessential time portals where you wish everyone who ever cared for the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns could be here with you today, kicking back and listening to the river songs, watching the spring water flow and the wading birds hunt and the cerulean sky move in great bursts of cumuli overhead.
We pack up and move on, and then suddenly, something mechanical goes wrong with Leslie’s boat. We study it, but no one knows how to fix it and so we decide to continue the rest of the way to the Rodman on the pontoon boat.
Leslie knows Ocklawaha history as well as anyone; a portion of her master thesis dealt with the inanity of the canal and how it once helped galvanize the nascent conservation movement in Florida. The limestone aquifer is near the surface here and cutting deep slots into the terrain would have breached it, drying wells and springs for miles around. And the dam itself simply split the river in two, forever ending any upstream migration for shad and striped bass, even manatees. Soil surveys show the Ocklawaha is a very old river, perhaps 17,000 years and more, and it was likely flowing before the larger St. Johns itself. There are many secrets here inside the folds of such an ancient river, but the alteration of it has inundated them just as it inundated the springs.
Leslie understands all of that, but she says what makes her really mad is that the dam forever severed the historic route that Marjorie and Dessie once made upriver from the St. Johns in 1933 to Eureka Landing. Leslie has an innate sense of fairness about her. She seems steady and calm when moral stasis is achieved, but outraged when someone tries to put their finger on the scale to tip it out of balance. Destroying a natural river and building odd structures on it amount to tipping the scales in the favor of people who had way more power and money than sense.
As the Rodman dam looms ahead, spillway sloshing water, we realize we have gone as far as we can by river on our trip. We could launch on the other side of the dam, where hundreds of dead tree snags poke from the vast open reservoir, a reminder of the hardwood forest that once was here. But it would be a painful, exhaustive, teeth-gnashing experience.
Instead, we pull our pontoon boat ashore, film a bit of the dam structure and reservoir, and then, we call the aquatic portion of our film journey a wrap. The rest of our trip back “home” to Cross Creek will be by road.
- posted by Bill Belleville