On December 3, over sixty intrepid kayakers gathered in Silver Springs State Park for a four-day adventure down the Silver and Ocklawaha Rivers. Our journey began in the crystal clear headwaters of the Silver River and ended in the murky waters of manmade Lake Ocklawaha near the Rodman Dam. Our float down these rivers helped us better understand the lives of those who once made the Ocklawaha home and contemporary controversies over the fate of the Ocklawaha River.
On our first morning, we paddled six miles down the Silver River. Some paddlers saw monkeys and a couple rare manatees that make it past the dam. Herons, ibis, and anhingas sunned themselves on this warm December day. After lunch at Ray Wayside Park, we continued down, or up geographically, the north-flowing Ocklawaha. The river was surprisingly clear—perhaps an effect of the drought.
Sixteen and one-half miles down river from our start, we set up camp at Gore’s Landing. That night, Peggy MacDonald, Executive Director of the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, Florida, and I spoke about the Ocklawaha River and its springs, in anticipation of our forthcoming exhibit at the Matheson: “The St. Johns River and Its Springs.” In her book Marjorie Harris Carr: Defender of Florida’s Environment, Peggy describes Carr’s efforts to stop the Cross Florida Barge canal. The canal was never completed, but the Rodman Dam on the once free-flowing Ocklawaha River remains, creating an artificial reservoir called Lake Ocklawaha. The high waters have dramatically altered the river’s ecosystem, drowning trees and disturbing habitat of fish and fowl. Captain Karen Chadwick and filmmaker Matt Keene (River Be Dammed) were also present to discuss contemporary efforts to free the Ocklawaha.
Sunday’s paddle from Gore’s Landing to Eureka was a quick 9 miles, and we reached camp by lunchtime. The Ocklawaha was still remarkably clear, but we all knew that would change as we reached Lake Ocklawaha.
That night, University of Florida archivist Flo Turcotte spoke about acclaimed author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moonshine, and life on the Ocklawaha River. Rawling’s novel South Moon Under depicts the lives of the Jacklin family who lived in the scrub along the Ocklawaha and relied on their moonshine income as farming and trapping became less economically viable. Paddling through the dense scrub made me realize how tough their lives must have been. After the talk, Flo passed out samples of moonshine, which would help power us up for Monday’s 13-mile paddle to Orange Springs.
On Monday, most people made the short detour to see the Cannon Spring, one of the lost springs drowned by the flooded Ocklawaha. Karen said that this spring captured the imagination of the public and was one of the most valuable tools in the initial efforts to restore the Ocklawaha. Later, during the 2015-6 drawdown, images of Cannon spring on social media introduced many to this once-hidden gem, and scores of people visited Cannon during its short window of visibility (Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs. After the drawdown when the waters rose, many would mourn the re-drowning of this treasure (Losing Cannon Springs).
After our side trip to Cannon Springs, we searched for our lunch stop, just past the sign for Payne’s Landing. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 commemorates some of the worst episodes of our nation’s history. The treaty forced Seminoles to relocate to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Further, escaped slaves would lose the protection they had gained by joining with the Seminoles.
After this point, the river became slower, wider, and clogged with vegetation. The Ocklawaha River is lowered every three to four years to eliminate the vegetation that makes the river impassable. Although the drawdown ended less than a year prior, the main channel was already blocked. Fortunately, Paddle Florida Executive Director Bill Richards had arranged for help from Mickey Thomason with the Office of Greenways and Trails. Possibly for the first time in history, kayakers cheered the sound of an airboat.Florida’s version of a snowplow, an airboat with a rake attached to the front, cleared a route through the thick vegetation, and we paddled single file through the narrow path that remained open only briefly.
Paddling through the weeds was difficult, but a tailwind pushed us towards our camp at Orange Springs. The day was sunny, but winds signaled that the weather would be changing. Fortunately, the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy a concert under the stars by Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters. Hearing him sing “The Poor Old Ocklawaha” reminded us that this still beautiful river—and all the wildlife that lives in and around it—will suffer as long as the dam remains.
Before going to bed that night, everyone checked their tents and tightened stakes and lines. We had all heard reports of rain and storms, and we wondered about the next day’s paddling conditions. To be continued in Ocklawaha Odyssey, Part 2.