Thursday, September 20, 2012

St. Johns River Revisited

Manatee swimming in Blue Spring.
Photo credit: wikipedia
I have a couple other trips I’m looking at, but probably none require as much forethought as the St. Johns River. Part of it is because it’s so far away for me, and because conditions there change so quickly. I first planned to do the St. Johns during the latter part of 2010. If you’re interested in such a trip, I did reviews of the best two books on the subject in November and December of 2010---River of Lakes and the St. Johns River Guidebook. Both are interesting reads even if you do most of your paddling from an armchair. The St. Johns River Water Management District offered two pieces of advice that shaped my planning. The first was to do the trip between New Years and mid-March. Before this is hunting season when most of the camping sites are reserved, and after is when the bug population comes back to life and bull alligators get horny, mean, and fearless. However, it was a later bit of news that put the trip on hold. There had been so little rain in the upper river that it had dried out, and people were doing the river on ATV’s.

With a tropical storm and several heavy rain storms the last month or so, the upper river level is back up, and most of the conversation in the area has turned to fishing rather than drought, so I’ve dusted off the planning notebook. It’s actually quite a bit more involved than dusting off a file. I’ve had to pretty much go over everything. The entire trip has been run three times so far on paper to double check GPS positions, maps and charts, making changes to add new information and remove dated material. Then I ran the whole trip again to measure all distances between points. For planning purposes on the water, this helps improve decision-making near the end of the day to meet existing conditions. If it’s been a tough day, we may decide an earlier than planned stop is in order, or if we have a following wind and are feeling good, perhaps we may decide to pack in a few more miles. Knowing the distance to each potential stopping place is invaluable at that point. Getting caught out after dark on some reaches of the river is not an option.

The entire river from Blue Cypress Lake to the ocean inlet at Jacksonville Beach is 310 miles along the channel. However, I’d like to add a couple interesting side trips that are recommended as highlights of the experience, such as the Wekiva and Econlockhatchie Rivers, Jessup and Crescent Lakes, and Haw Creek at the bottom of Crescent Lake, which together total roughly 415 miles if we end the trip at Palatka. Continuing to the ocean would add another 80-90 miles.

The river is loaded with history. For example, Haw Creek is where the Confederates scuttled a couple ships to keep them from falling into the hands of Northern troops during the Civil War. They were raised after the war and put back in service, but seeing where such history took place is exciting. Also exciting is the opportunity to see areas that have changed little since Native American tribes lived along the river thousands of years ago. One author said that the St. Johns River is North America’s Amazon, and just as interesting.

All of this anticipation and excitement now has to remain on hold to see if there’s still water in the river in January.

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