Christmas Eve in the Springs

Sunrise on the Homosassa River.  A hawk’s cry pierced the early morning stillness, interrupting my reading. I had been reading a particularly dense book on religious experience and the body, preparing for an upcoming

Homosassa sunrise

class. I tried to return to the abstract world of ideas but the hawk’s cries anchored me in this placid morning. This is a perpetual dilemma for me—wanting both experience nature and writing about it at the same time.

The day before we paddled upstream from the Last Resort, just a short distance to the Homosassa headsprings. We paddled downstream to the to the confluence of the Homosassa and Halls Rivers, then upstream in search of the headsprings. The paddling was not difficult, although we realized later that we were against the tide in both directions. The weather was unseasonably warm, even for Florida, and we caught some of the winds from the large weather system moving through north of us.

The Halls River is a hidden gem, and we had never heard of it. The Halls River has few public access point, so perhaps that is why we had not yet heard about it. The Homosassa and Halls are close, separated by a line of trees, but seem like entirely different ecosystems. The Halls River meanders, bounded by grasses of the tidal flats. The Homosassa reminded me of the rivers and springs of the Ocala Forest, with trees, hammocks, and scrub.Halls River

We paddled upstream for several miles against its weak flow until we came to a large pool, thinking this might be where we would find the headsprings. Then we found clear water streaming into the pool and continued upstream, though several pools and narrow streams. The river was ours except for one fisherman in a small kayak. Kevin in grassFinally, we saw signs with green arrows, pointing to the two headsprings, marking narrow, overgrown passages navigable only by kayak or paddle board. We found one spring easily, a small vent filled with fish, but could not get through the grass to find the second one.

We had taken our time, swimming and exploring, relaxed and calm on this beautiful day. At the Halls’ headspring, we realized that sunset was in two hours, and both of us picked up our pace.  As I paddled downstream, I wondered how I maintain this state of peace and absorption into my surroundings—being in my body, focusing on water, manatees, and rivers. Even writing about water is a distraction, and I hope to find a balance between reflection and writing. At this moment, though, The tranquility of the Halls River, however, drew me in, as if I had melted into this landscape.

The sun broke out for our final day of paddling on the Chassahowitzka River, putting in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground.Chaz cave

We swam around—but not through—the caves at the headspring, up Baird’s Creek to the “crack”, then around the arms of Salt Creek. The arms of Salt Creek feel primeval and remote from any peopled landscape. I had paddled far up one narrow arm and saw a small head in the water swimming quickly straight at me. An otter fortunately, but a clear reminder of my place in the food chain in the swamp.

I had been wanting to paddle the Chaz, as the river is called, for a while, and this exquisite river lived up to its reputation. We swam and paddled all day, seeing manatees, a wood stork, kingfishers, and my friend, the otter.

Chaz woodstork

Days like this make me glad that Florida is my home and remind me that those of us who live here are entrusted to care for this fragile landscape. I know that many others feel that way—I saw two men in a small houseboat insuring that paddlers did not touch the manatees that swam near their kayaks.

Trees from the Chaz

It was Christmas Eve and time to get back home. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and new classes are coming, but I know that, amidst the hubbub, I can draw upon the peace and stillness of sunrise over the Homosassa.

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In William Bartram’s Wake

On December 4, 2015, 42 people set out in canoes and kayaks to commemorate the 250th anniversary of William Bartram’s travels through Florida. Bartram first explored Florida in 1765 and returned in 1774, enchanted with its peoples, plants, and animals. He recorded his journey in his book Travels which has become a guide for adventurers, poets, and scientists. Bartram fell in love with Florida over two centuries ago, and Paddle Florida designed the Bartram History Paddle to help us see Florida through Bartram’s eyes. The Paddle Florida route: Screenshot 2015-12-15 16.13.05

The night before we left, we camped at Salt Springs, one of the few sites that Bartram visited twice. Sam Carr and Dean Campbell, our Bartram liaisons, explained what we would see on our journey and the hazards. The wind had been blowing from the northeast for several days, and the wind and waves would make our journey north across Lake George rougher than expected. I was paddling a 17’ NDK Pilgrim Explorer but many others had shorter boats, less suited for rough water.  By that evening, we decided that only a few of us would make the journey across Lake George and that most would paddle down and back Salt Springs run, known by Bartram as Six Mile Run, and meet us at the following night’s camp.

The zip-zip of tents coming down awoke me at 5:30 am, way too early for any hope of coffee. By 8:30, the group had eaten and was eager to head down the Salt Run. As we neared Lake George, the spring’s clarity gave way to the darker river water of the St. John’s River, the lake being just a wide spot in the river. The wind picked up somewhat as we left the sheltered spring run and neared Rocky Point, another Bartram site. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County committee, led by Sam and Dean, had created Bartram maps and posted Bartram QR coded signs that we would see along the way. Rocky Point would be our last chance to turn back. None of us wanted to turn back though.Rocky point

At Rocky Point, we crossed Lake George to the west—or lee—side of Drayton Island. Bartram had camped on the east side of the island. Drayton Island has houses on it and a twice weekly ferry serves the island’s residents. The wind was strong, and the paddling difficult, although all of us who crossed had seaworthy boats. Bartram traveled with a boat that he described as essentially a canoe with a sail, and I wondered how such a boat would handle in these conditions. Bartram wrote about storms developing while he was on open water, and our summer squalls can be fearsome. I lamented the loss of our lunch stop on Drayton Island, especially later after hearing that Dean’s sister had baked cookies for the group.  We continued north, seeing few people or boats, until we reached our destination, newly-built fish camp Renegades on the River. After the day’s isolation, I was not Santa expecting on a jet ski, but the fire pit and the tiki hut were more than welcome.

Screenshot 2015-12-15 17.08.35

 

On Sunday morning, only a short paddle from Renegades, we visited Mt. Royal, where Sam read an excerpt from Travels. We climbed on top of the mound and Sam described Bartram’s lament that the area had been degraded by settlement in the 15 years between his visits. William Bartram was a Quaker from Philadelphia and, unlike many of his peers, was concerned about the destruction of the environment and of native cultures. Perhaps this explains why William Bartram and his Travels draws so many followers.

We continued north on the St. Johns River, hugging the eastern shore hoping to find the springs detailed on our maps. For most of our journey, the western shore appeared remote and wild, and the eastern shore was dotted with houses, fish camps, and towns. In Bartram’s time, the St. Johns River divided the British side from the “Indian” shore, and the British encouraged settlement in their territory. Paddling north, we saw Welaka Springs, Johnson Springs, and Satsuma Springs, all on the eastern side.

Satsuma Springs lies on private property, and the owner kindly allowed us to visit this spring. From our conversations, it is clear that she is a true caretaker, or steward, of this spring, as Naked Ed protects for Lily Spring, and they are models for the rest of us. Satsuma is a sulphur spring, and I quickly took the opportunity to soak my tired muscles. The spring seemed warm in comparison to the air temperature, and getting out was much harder than getting in.

The sun came out, and the wind died down for our last two days of paddling. We made our way along Murphy’s and Dunns Creeks, past several Bartram sites including Spaulding Lower Store and the Seven Sisters Islands. Several paddlers remarked on the size of our creeks, that they would be called rivers anywhere else. Still, the twists and turns of the creeks were a pleasant distraction from the wider and straighter St. Johns River. Both days we stopped for lunch at the Georgia Boys Fish Camp which has existed for over 60 years. Visiting places like this fish camp remind me that Old Florida holds so much rich history—you just need to get off the main roads.

We ended in Palatka, under a cloudless sky, nothing like our first two days of paddling. We were treated to a fish fry at the St. Johns River Center, which features exhibits about local history and environment, a fitting end for our journey. These past four days of immersion into Bartram’s travels on the St. Johns River have whetted my appetite for more. I’ll be back.

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barriers islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.