Plans are well underway for a paddle trip of the St. Johns River in Florida. In fact, after working on it for a month or so, I believe I have it about wrapped up. Unlike many rivers, there’s surprisingly little information that’s readily available. Navigation charts don’t go as far as the headwaters, and maps of the headwater area aren’t useful for navigation. There’s even disagreement or confusion as to where the headwaters of the St. Johns are. Most will agree that it at least starts with Blue Cypress Lake, west of Vero Beach, and flows north from there past Jacksonville and to the Atlantic. So, I wrote to the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), and they helped direct me toward some resources, including two books that had been written on the river, so my thanks to Steven R. Miller, Director of Land Management.
To say the river is interesting would be a gross understatement. It is one of only a hand full of rivers that flow north. It is the only designated American Heritage River in the Southeastern United States. The most direct route downstream is 310 miles long, but there are several enticing rivers that flow into it---the Ocklawaha, Wekiva, Econlockhatchie, many creeks, and so many lakes that the Indian name for the river, the Welaka, meant ‘river of lakes’. Some of the routes are so confusingly convoluted that they bear names like Puzzle Lake and Lake Hell-N-Blazes, as in, “Where the Hell-N-Blazes am I?” Or, “How the Hell-N-Blazes do I get out of here?” Some more prudish cartographers have tried to sanitize the name to Helen Blazes, but those who have been there indicate the original name is what is actually on your mind while trying to find your way through the area. One of the unique features of the river system is how much fresh water is supplied from the underground springs. To name just one of many as an example, Silver Springs pumps 540 million gallons of crystal clear fresh water into the river every day.
The first book, River of Lakes, A Journey on Florida’s St. Johns River, by Bill Belleville (University of Georgia Press) is really not what I would call a river guide, but it does leave the reader with a great appreciation for the river’s importance and history, as well as the people that have lived along its waters and cultures that evolved. Both Mr. Belleville and Kevin M. McCarthy, author of the next book, awaken the reader to the true importance of the swamps of the headwater areas as an ecosystem that sustains one of the country’s most diverse populations of wildlife, marine life, and birds, some of which are indigenous, being found nowhere else on earth. They further explain its importance as a filtering system to purify water entering and leaving the region’s aquifer, the source of the state’s drinking water, and the damage done by land speculators, developers, and rapists, for lack of any better word. Some of the damage done by get-rich-quick or get-the-money-and-run schemes, or just the misguided or uninformed, are irreparable, but SJRWMD, the Federal Government and conservation groups have come a good way in correcting the mistakes and abuses.