Requiem for a River

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I went to the Kenwood boat ramp last week to see it for myself — how much had the Ocklawaha River risen since the end of the drawdown, and would I still be able to see the tree stumps that reveal the drowned forest below?  I paddled the river during the drawdown, when the Ocklawaha was briefly restored to its natural flow, revealing bubbling springs and sandy banks. Now I felt compelled to witness the reverse, to see how the rising waters covered the treasures below. I was surprised to see that the river level had not yet risen significantly, so I inflated my paddle board and began to paddle upstream. Dark, low clouds filled the sky—which seemed fitting, and I estimated I had about 1 1/2 hours to wind my way through this apocalyptic riverscape.

The Rodman Reservoir had been lowered for the past several months, and, like many others, I took the opportunity to see rarely uncovered springs like Cannon Springs and Tobacco Road. I joined the Florida Defenders of the Environment at Kenwood where Lars Anderson pointed out springs and historical features, and later Captain Karen Chadwick, North Star Charters, gave me a tour on her skiff. I paddled from Eureka West to the boat ramp across from near Payne’s Landing and saw fishers lining the newly uncovered banks.

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On this day, though, I came by myself, to  be in silence on the water. The overcast day was still, the quiet only broken by the occasional motorboat. The fishermen waved as they went by, and the silence was restored. Several friends told me that they did not want to see the rising water, that it would be too sad. I understood their feelings, especially those of friends who have loved the Ocklawaha for a long time. I am a relative newcomer to Florida and have become enchanted by its springs and rivers and Old Florida, but people who grew up on the Ocklawaha have entirely different stories to tell.

In “How do we Grieve the Death of a River’,  activist Winona LaDuke asks “How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.” Mining tailings have destroyed the Waatuh River, or “Grandfather”, in southeast Brazil, a river central to the lives of  indigenous people .

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Ocklawaha at dusk
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Ocklawaha near Eureka West

Many years ago longtime residents grieved as they lost access to their land and homes when the Ocklawaha was first flooded, and they grieve again as the waters rise again, drowning the the sandy banks that provided sanctuary for alligators and birds. The “Restore the Ocklawaha River” Facebook page shows sadness—some  discovered the Ocklawaha’s springs for the first time this year and now mourn the loss. Others wonder why some voices count more than others—why do the voices of the bass fisherman count more than the poor fisherman who cannot afford a boat and have lost access to much of the river? But there is hope as well. The Save the St. Johns Tour brought scores of newcomers to the Ocklawaha River and made many of us realize that we can regain what was lost.

As I paddled among the stumps, I recalled the river bends upstream near Eureka West and the times I swam in Cannon springs. The sky was darkening, and the wind was becoming stronger, so I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. I paddled through the dead trees — the water was slightly higher than when I paddled this area previously. I had to take care that hidden roots would not catch the fin on my board and pitch me forward. I wished I had seen the forests before 1968, when the Ocklawaha was first flooded.

I paddled hard against the wind and reached the boat ramp. As I deflated the board and packed up, I watched the fishermen pull up to the ramp, also trying to beat the storm. Just as I reached the main road, the storm broke, and lightning filled the sky. I was surprised that I had become so attached to the river in such a short time. I am sorry that the state of Florida insists on drowning the Ocklawaha River, but I am glad that I came to bear witness.

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Author: Whitney Sanford

Writer, research, teacher and outdoor enthusiast.

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