Wednesday, December 1, 2010

St. Johns River Guide

The second book, St. Johns River Guidebook, by Kevin M. McCarthy, (Pineapple Press, Sarasota, FL) is more of a guide, and goes into greater detail on the tributaries. He includes two guides, one if by land, two if by sea, plus locations of marinas, camps, and places to eat, sleep and visit. One of the two writers made the point that people travel great distances, at great expense, to reach the Amazon River basin in search of wild, natural diversity when the closest thing to it is as close as the hidden reaches of Florida. Of equal diversity are the people that have lived along and been touched by the St. Johns. The Native Americans go back 12,000 years, the Timucuan, the Creek, the Seminole, and other entire populations have thrived and then disappeared. The names from the river region are a who’s who of American history: Jean Ribault, John and William Bartram, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John Jacob Astor, J.C. Penny, Henry Flagler, and many others. As we make the trip down the river, I hope to write more about the unique nature and history of the regions we paddle through. I’d recommend both books for anyone making a trip to the river. For the armchair traveler, the River of Lakes would probably be the single best for giving you an appreciation for the river and area.
So far, I’ve found one thing that works in our favor. The marsh and islands that make Puzzle Lake and Hell-N-Blazes so difficult to navigate have settled and become attached to the bottom. They’re stationary, in other words. They used to be floating islands. After her trip down the river, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote, “When we looked over our shoulders, the marsh had closed in over the channel by which we had come. We were in a labyrinth. The stretch of open water was merely the fluid heart of a maze.” To help with the lack of other navigational aids, I’m making prints of Google Earth satellite photographs. In most of the area, these would cover just critical areas like junctions and bifurcations where a wrong turn is possible, even likely. In areas that more closely duplicate the problems of Puzzle Lake or Hell-N-Blazes, we’ll do a continuous stream of photos to help navigate the area. I’ve found these to be a great aid also in researching other rivers by being able to see the exact locations and severity of dams, wing-dams, shoals, and rapids. Of course nature is not static, so there’s always anticipation of a surprise.

Some things are static---bridges, for example.   It occurred to me looking at all of the bridges north of Palatka and across the entrance to all the creeks and rivers, I no longer have to wait for bridge openings. And, unless I’m going through a drainage culvert, I no longer have to worry about bridge clearance. Yeeha! It’s a small thing. It’s a little silver lining gained only by sacrificing all the amenities of a cruising boat, like four-inch cushions, privacy, gimbaled oil lamps and water on tap, and an enclosed head, but it’s worth celebrating.

The plan is done. It’s been organized in a 3-ring binder. The maps and charts have been assembled so they’re ready to go. All we need now is water. When I mentioned the things that made the trip time critical, I failed to include the most important one---water. When I called Steve Miller initially, I told him I was planning on doing the trip between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He said that was a bad idea, on two counts, and that I should wait until January or February. My initial timeframe was in the heart of the hunting season, and there was so little water, the headwater regions were being run by ATV. He said the water levels were the lowest he had ever seen, and unless a minor hurricane or tropical storm came through to dump a lot of rain, he didn’t see it improving real soon. Naturally, this was one of the rare years when Florida didn’t see serious weather, and rainfall is mostly absent. We’ll have to see how it develops, but there may be no headwaters to speak of this year, which includes everything down to the weir at Lake Washington.

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