Navigating Uncomfortable Waters: Whitney Sanford Reflects on Place

Originally posted on March 12, 2014 on Religion/Place/Pedagogy. After completing our exhibit—River of Dreams—on the St. Johns River at the Matheson History Museum, it seemed like a good time to repost this blog.

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Nothing makes me happier than a day paddling through the waves in the Fort George Inlet. This estuary, just south of Little Talbot Island State Park, has become one of my favorite places to play in the surf, and this low country ecosystem, full of dolphins, pelicans, and hermit crabs, reminds me of Tybee Island, where I spent most of my childhood summers. I have camped at the Talbot House, a property recently deeded to the North Florida Land Trust. The house–and Big Talbot Island–sits in the Timucuan Preserve which includes both Talbot Islands, the Kingsley Plantation, the Fort Caroline National Monument as well as recently discovered burial native American mounds.

The house’s long dock extends into the marshy area of Mud Creek, a tributary of the Fort George Inlet, and from the dock, looking down the Mud River, I see the Kingsley Plantation on the opposite shore of the Fort George River.

Uncomfortable Histories

"Surfing Fort George," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Joe Crespi, December 15, 2013.

Seeing the Kingsley Plantation in the distance reminds me that I have a privileged history with this ecosystem. I have had the freedom to explore and discover the history, beauty, and wildlife on my own terms. The sixty or so slaves who worked the fields at the Kingsley Plantation did not have the luxury of appreciating the area’s beauty at their leisure. While I cannot even begin to imagine their experiences of the land, I know that our experiences are worlds apart. Perhaps the land—which has received their bodies, sweat, and blood—knows something more. Waves of residents, visitors, and invaders, from the Timucua followed by French and Spanish explorers and subsequent populations of British and Africans, have inhabited this land, drawn by its abundance and fertility as well as its strategic location. The Talbot Islands near Jacksonville, Florida are the southernmost of the Sea Islands and the region known as the Low Country–typically associated with the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The Low Country, so named for its extensive tidal flats and salt marshes, provides rich habitat for birds, fish, and mollusks, and its nutrient-rich mud sustained the human ecologies of rice-growing plantations.

"Kingsley Plantation," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Whitney Sandford, March 3. 2014.

From 1814 to 1837,  Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna, an ex-slave from Senegal, lived in what later became known as the Kingsley Plantation and produced commercial crops such as sea cotton and sugar cane. Also a slave trader, Zephaniah Kingsley participated in the Triangular trade, supplying human flesh to the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Like many, he sought out West Africans due to their agricultural skills, and there he purchased Anna who later became his wife.

Those of us who love Florida for its water and waves can easily forget our state’s uncomfortable histories. In 2013, Florida celebrated the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in what is now St. Augustine, approximately 50 miles south of the Timucuan Preserve. Over time, interactions with the Spanish, French, and later British newcomers decimated the Timucua populations, and only shell middens (trash piles of oyster shells and pottery, for example) and place names such as Timucua or Calusa remind us of their presence. Touring the Kingsley Plantation provides a visceral reminder of Florida’s participation in the slave trade, and the state’s Jim Crow laws maintained segregation and created a range of barriers in the post Civil War-era. In reality, these laws meant that beaches and rivers that I now enjoy were–and in some cases are–not safely accessible to people of color, and their experiences of these places might be radically different than mine.

Becoming Native to Place

When I teach courses such as Religion and Sustainability and Religion and Food at the University of Florida, I hope to make students aware of local places and their histories and ecosystems. Ideally, they will come to appreciate and maybe even love these places such as our estuaries, springs, and wild rivers. Many of my students, from a variety of backgrounds, already care deeply about our rivers, having grown up fishing, surfing, hunting, and swimming, and they are native to their place, to borrow Wes Jackson‘s term. Our students bring with them multiple histories and meanings about these places, and I need to reconcile my privilege–and that of many of my students–with the past and present exclusions experienced by others. Many outdoor areas were segregated by law and/or custom, and some of my students even today might not feel comfortable roaming through parts of rural north Florida.

"View from Alacante," Fort George Inlet, Photography by Whitney Sanford, February 3, 2014.

I have never directly addressed this topic with students, although an artist friend and I have discussed creating a mapping project to explore different experiences of places.  This mapping exercise might have two phases: first, students would learn the historical and ecological dynamics of this place; and, second, as a reflective piece, students would consider their own experiences of the encounter and how their experiences reflect larger social dynamics. I became interested in this idea after the two of us spent hours wandering through Koppers, our local super fund site, and, despite multiple ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nobody questioned us. In this case, the invisibility of white, middle-aged women was a privilege. In 2012, Michael W. Twitty, self-described culinary historian, historic interpreter and Jewish educator, embarked on a Southern Discomfort Tour through the Deep South to learn the stories of southern food ways, enslaved peoples, and cultural memories. During the tour’s visit to the Kingsley Plantation, he discussed the African’s cultural heritage and recreated some of their typical dishes.

Projects and exercise like Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour might provide a way to discuss the rich–and often uncomfortable–histories of places that I love. I hope my students will come to love our north Florida ecosystem and will learn to love whatever ecosystem that they inhabit in the future. I also hope they will acknowledge and appreciate that places also hold uncomfortable histories that continue to shape human and non-human relations in the present.

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Pancakes and Water-skiing Elephants: Hidden Histories of DeLeon State Park (St. Johns, Part 3)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

floating on a paddleboard under cloudy skies in DeLeon Springs State Park, Florida
Liz Sparks on DeLeon Spring Run

How was I supposed to focus on history with the deafening shrieks of children ringing in my ears? I had come to learn about the park’s history and perhaps even swim, but I quickly realized that every child from every camp from miles had also come to cool off in the spring. Oh well. I was preparing to teach a class on the culture, history, and ecology of Florida State Parks and was visiting the parks that exemplified kitschy pre-Disney Old Florida. With a water-skiing elephant and a sugar mill do-it-yourself pancake restaurant, DeLeon Springs made the cut. And despite my focus on tourist kitsch, I learned a great deal about the park’s rich history.

To escape the bedlam, I entered the one place guaranteed to be child-free: the park’s small museum. The room had posters, pictures, and artifacts that traced the area’s history, starting with the Mayaca people who inhabited the area for at least 6,000 years. Unfortunately, many burial mounds and artifacts were lost or destroyed when European settlers came to the region.

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DeLeon Springs’ First People

DeLeon Springs State Park sits between Deland and Astor, on the east side of the St. Johns River. Water coming from this second magnitude spring flows into Spring Garden Lake, then through Lake Woodruff and Lake Dexter en route to the St. Johns. Fish and game were plentiful for early Florida residents.

Easy access to the St. Johns River drew subsequent populations, starting with the Spanish in the 1500s. In the 1800s, settlers established Spring Garden Plantation to grow cotton and sugar cane. Florida’s history as a slave state is often over-looked, but slavery and plantations sadly thrived along the St. Johns River in the antebellum years.

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Spring Garden Slave List, 1829 (The Broadus R. Littlejohn, Jr. Manuscript Collection. Book 304.)

In 1831-2, James John Audubon visited Spring Garden Plantation in search of the Common Gallinule. Unlike most visitors from the north, Audubon did not appreciate the scrub landscape that had enchanted William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

‘Here I am in Florida . . . which from my childhood I have consecrated in my imagination as the garden of the United States,’ Audubon wrote. But he found a place ‘where all that is not mud, mud, mud is sand, sand, sand, inhabited by alligators, snakes and scorpions.’

Drawing of Common Gallinule, James John Audubon
Common Gallinule (http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/common-gallinule)

Spring Garden Plantation did not fare well in the mid-1800s. The Seminoles burnt it down during the Second Seminole War (1835-42),  then Union troops burnt it again during the Civil War. Later the site was renamed DeLeon Springs, yet another Florida site claiming to  be Ponce De Leon’s fountain of youth.

sign on name change to promote business and tourism in Florida.
Fountain of Youth Placard
tour boat with children swimming
Fountain of Youth Eco/History Tour boat

DeLeon Springs is the epitome of Old Florida tourism, and Queenie, the water skiing elephant, was DeLeon’s Springs crown jewel. In “The Waterskiing Elephants of DeLeon Springs“, Rick Kilby writes about Liz Dane who water-skiied with her pet elephant Queenie in 1958-9. In 2015, Liz Dane returned to DeLeon Springs to speak about Queenie and her experiences at the park.

Queenie the water-skiining elephant
Mural on DeLeon Museum Wall

Finally, enough history — it was time to get on the water. My paddling buddies and I see how far we could go on the spring run. Not far, as it turned out. The fin of my paddleboard caught in the mud on this shallow run. Even more ominous, dark clouds loomed over us. We raced back, not a moment too soon, and the skies broke. The silver lining: the typically long lines for the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant had disbursed. This restaurant is a tourist favorite for good reason. Each table has its own griddle, so guests make their own pancakes at the table.

We came for the kitsch and stayed for the history. Where ever I go in Florida, I am reminded of the deep and rich history of our rivers, springs, and parks. Deleon Springs State Park , though, has one of the most interesting blends of history, ecology, and recreation and is well worth a visit.

ruins of old sugar mill for crushing cane
Sugar Mill Ruins
view across DeLeon Springs of sungar Mill restaurant
Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant
bubbling pancake with blueberries
Cooking pancakes on the griddle

matheson

Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

Cruisin’ Down Florida’s Grand Highway (St. Johns, Part 2)

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Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

In the late 1800s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) followed a seasonal migration pattern now familiar to all Floridians—snowbirds landing in Florida to bask in our balmy winters. Today people cruise down I-95 and I-75 in RVs. In Stowe’s time, they cruised down the St. Johns in steamships.

Stowe wintered in Mandarin, Florida in a house overlooking the St. Johns River, a river she came to love. Her book Palmetto Leaves describes her life and community in Florida and offers advice for other northerners heading south. In particular, she reminisces about sailing and boating on the St. Johns River. In the St. Johns lower basin, near Mandarin, the river is slow and wide, almost a mile wide at some points. Preparing for a day of boating, she describes her view as

…five good miles of molten silver in the shape of the St. Johns River, outspread this morning in all its quivering sheen, glancing, dimpling and sparkling, dotted with sailboats, and occasionally ploughed by steamboats gliding like white swans back and forth across the distance.

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View from Black Knight Boat ramp

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The St. Johns River was Florida’s “grand river highway,” and travel by steamship was more comfortable and safer than travel overland. Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land-based travel extremely difficult, so boats and rivers were a lifeline to Florida settlers, traders, and tourists.

Steamships helped open the market for Florida tourism. In Palmetto Leaves, Stowe wrote that the

St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.

Passengers from the north could enjoy Florida’s warm winters and reach locations such as Sanford, Silver Springs, and Palatka by ship.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)

By the mid-1800s, steamships plied the route between Jacksonville and Sanford, carrying goods, people, and agricultural products.  Boats that took passengers on the Ocklawaha and the Silver River required the smaller, more maneuverable sternwheeler, as in the Okahumkee below. Passengers heading northward transferred to larger ocean-going side-wheel paddleboats in Jacksonville.

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City of Jacksonville Sidewheeler (Photo credit: St. Johns River Ship Co.)

Stowe describes her overnight cruise upriver—south—to Enterprise. This grand round, or tour, up the St. Johns River to Enterprise, across to St. Augustine, and back, she wrote, marks the “accomplished Floridian sight-seer.

Turning our boat homeward, we sailed in clear morning light back through the charming scenery which we had slept through the night before. It is the most wild, dream-like, enchanting sail conceivable. The river sometimes narrows so that the boat brushes under overhanging branches, and then widens into beautiful lakes dotted with wooded islands. [Palmetto Leaves]

Only the “constant and pertinacious firing kept up by that class of men who think that the chief end of man is to shoot something” detracted from her trip.

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Log of the Okahumkee

The city of Enterprise on Lake Monroe was the southern terminus of the navigable section of the St. Johns River. Even today, most navigational charts stop at Sanford. In Stowe’s day, visitors to Sanford could stay in the elegant Hotel Sanford, built in 1886.

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Hotel Sanford (Florida Memory)

Henry Shelton Sanford (1823-1891) established the city of Sanford in the 1870s. He imported thousands of citrus trees to develop the citrus industry and established Sanford as a commercial and tourism hub of central Florida.

Today, most visitors arrive in Florida by car, plane, and occasionally, train, and the big rat dominates the tourism scene. Beecher’s slow trip up and down the St. Johns might not offer the excitement of Disney’s Splash Mountain, but traveling Florida’s waterways gives us a glimpse into the past, when rivers were our highways. Today, the Barbara-Lee, a stern wheel paddleboat, takes visitors for a slow cruise along the river, revealing birds and other wildlife. Others enjoy the St. Johns on pontoon boats, kayaks, and sailboats, seeing aspects of Florida only visible from water. These trips remind us that we have—and still do—rely on our rivers for commerce, transportation, and recreation. The St. Johns River is still the River of Life.

matheson

Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

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River of Dreams: The St. Johns River and Its Springs (Part 1)

View along the River Front_Palatka Fla..jpg
Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

On January 21, 2017, the Matheson History Museum welcomed visitors to River of Dreams: The St. Johns River and its Springs. This exhibit took months of planning, fieldwork, and meetings (and several heroic late nights by UF Museum Studies personnel), but seeing the images and the silhouette of the river installed on the museum’s walls made it all worthwhile.

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Oak Hammock residents tour the exhibit

As I have fallen in love with Florida’s rivers, lakes, and springs, I have become curious about the people whose lives are entwined with our waters—then and now. A research project on the St. Johns River gave me an opportunity to learn more about this riverine ecosystem and its inhabitants. And, of course, this research afforded me more time on the water and in the water.

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St Johns History Paddle-In William Bartram’s Wake (Photo credit: Doug Alderson)
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Satsuma Springs (Photo credit: Doug Alderson)

From the pre-Columbian era, indigenous peoples, explorers, artists, and fishers have drawn sustenance and inspiration from the St. Johns River, named an America’s Heritage River in 1998. Similarly, the crystal clear springs that erupt from the Floridan Aquifer and flow into the St. Johns have been a source of pride for residents of north central Florida, past and present. Continuous waves of settlements along the St. Johns River and its springs—from Native American mounds to contemporary fish camps—remind us that rivers like the St. Johns once served as America’s highways and illustrate how humans have lived with the river’s ebbs and flows and defined what it means to call north central Florida home.

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Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

In particular, I wanted to explore the complicated relationships between people and places and the diverse ways that people express their care for their ecosystems. For example, how do different groups understand, articulate, and, sometimes, deny environmental concerns? Today, the St. Johns and its springs face challenges that range from agricultural and industrial run-off to sea-level rise and threaten the lives and livelihoods of everyone in the river’s 310-square-mile watershed, from its headwaters near Vero Beach to Jacksonville. In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas explained how Florida’s unique limestone geology is like a limestone spoon that maintains the fragile balance of holding our fresh water apart from saltwater. This balance is threatened by projected sea-level rise and increased freshwater consumption, which alters the river, its flora and fauna, and riverine cultures.

Mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy are working to address these challenges, and their efforts tend to receive media coverage because water concerns are some of the most hotly contested issues in contemporary Florida. Other groups—few of whom would identify as environmentalists—are also working to sustain their river-based lives and livelihoods. For example, rallies to save rivers and springs draw fishers, a burgeoning kayaking industry, other river- and springs-based small businesses, and people with long memories of life on the river who represent what I call Old Florida environmentalism. While many of these Old Florida environmentalists might not identify with the broader environmental movement, they care deeply about their home, the St. Johns River and their springs. As I have attended river rallies and spoken to many people, I have learned that many of us share concerns about the St. Johns River, its springs, and our water supply and wonder how we will adapt to emerging issues, even if we do not use the same language to express our concerns.

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Save our Springs (saveoursuwannee.org)

River of Dreams: A Journey through Time and Space

My journey began in the St. Johns River’s headwaters near Vero Beach. With friend and photographer Anne Ledbetter, we visited Fort Drum Marsh and Blue Cypress Lake, what most people designate as the th.jpgriver’s headwaters (St. Johns Headwaters: Finding Wildness in an Engineered Waterscape). We followed the river’s northerly course, visiting sites to better understand the contemporary and historical riverine cultures and the problems they face. In fish camps and other sites, we saw the complicated and often conflicting attitudes regarding the river and environmental change. Many people living and working along the St. Johns River have long family histories and deep emotional connections with the river. While they care for the river and derive income through river-based business, many of these Old Florida environmentalists deny climate change and express their care for the river using terms such as “creation care” rather than “environmentalism.” Fish camps, for example, are small fishing-camp resorts or restaurants along rivers and lakes and are considered part of the pre-Disney Old Florida.

Our  journey through time and space along the ‘River of Dreams’ prompts us to consider how emerging challenges will shape these ways of life. Subsequent stops will show how early snowbirds such as writer Harriet Beecher Stowe cruised the St. Johns, the Highway A1A of its day, and how contemporary fish camps offer a glimpse of Old Florida. Further north, the Kinsgley Plantation became home to scores of enslaved Africans. Finally, the St. Johns River flows to the sea, carrying waste away from those upstream. River of Dreams illustrates the richness of human life along the St. Johns and that we can choose how we interact with this river. Shared concerns about the river cutting across cultural, racial, and class lines suggests opportunities for resilience and adapting to climate change, pollution, and over-pumping. More important, perhaps we will see that diverse groups can find common ground about their riverine home.

matheson.jpg

Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

Save

St. Johns Headwaters: Finding Wildness in an Engineered Waterscape

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Dawn on Blue Cypress Lake

Anne and I rose early to catch the early morning light on Blue Cypress Lake.  A late afternoon storm had skunked us on paddling the night before, and we were determined to get on the water. After a quick cup of coffee, we lowered boat and board into the water and paddled through the glassy waters, silently, heading towards the trees that give Blue Cypress Lake its name. (The  cypress trees did indeed look blue in the early morning light.) The day was so calm and quiet, I felt like I had melted into the scenery. Other than the one large splash that made both of us jump, the lake was dead calm.

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Deck at Middleton’s Fish Camp
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Moss hanging form the trees
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Another storm rolling in
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Glassy calm on a windless morning

We had spent the night at Middleton’s Fish Camp, right on Blue Cypress Lake, in a cabin that backed onto a canal. Although Blue Cypress Lake is not far from Vero Beach and the more developed coastal area, the lake felt isolated and remote. We had come to take pictures for our River of Dreams exhibit at the Matheson History Museum (Winter 2017). Most people, however, come to Middleton’s Fish Camp to catch large-mouth bass, catfish, and speckled perch (crappie), among other things. Jeanne Middleton, who writes the fishing report, the armored catfish, relatively unknown in Florida, draws fishers from Suriname where the fish is considered a delicacy.

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“Nature held in trust”

Anne and I had come to Blue Cypress Lake and Middleton’s Fish Camp to explore the headwaters region of the St. Johns River. Officially the headwaters is somewhere in the Fort Drum Marsh Conservation Area, a swampy area that lies just south of Blue Cypress Lake. I had hoped to paddle from the actual start of the St. Johns River, but I learned that noone can really pinpoint the exact start of the river. Vince Lamb, a nature photographer and environmental activist, noted that “somewhere two drops of rain fall, and one heads to Lake Okeechobee and the other heads north into the St Johns.” Many people consider Blue Cypress Lake itself to be the headwaters which, in terms of paddling and navigation, it is. 2016-10-03 11.09.55.jpg

The road north from Blue Cypress Lake towards Fellesmere parallels the river as it moved through a series of canals. On Sunday afternoon, boat trailers lined the canal, but the stormy weather and a Monday morning had driven off the fisherman. In Fellesmere, we stopped for some ‘Old Florida Cuisine’ at the Marsh Landing Restaurant.

Fueled by swamp cabbage soup and Cajun-spiced catfish (noone had heard of the armored catfish), we aimed for Stick Marsh/Farm 13, a reclaimed area known for its bass fishing. Created in 1987, Stick Marsh/Farm 13 is one of many Florida messes, like the Everglades, where our tax dollars fund both destruction and restoration at the same time. Writing about the St. Johns River Restoration Project and Stick Marsh, bass fishing guide Jim Porter describes the project as “Saving a Friend.”At one point, Stick Marsh was heavily stocked with bass and crappie, and now the area “is synonymous with trophy bass and other fishing.”

This entire area near the headwaters struck me as a confusing mix of wilderness and engineered landscape. Blue Cypress Lake itself has few access points and felt remote—even Middleton’s Fish Camp felt removed from the nearby more developed coastal areas. But the roads and the canals—obviously engineered—also felt remote and wild as well. The day before, sitting at Camp Holly near Melbourne, Vince had told us that the upper—or southern—part of the St. Johns River is much wilder than the lower, that there is more development along the river as you go further north. It is much easier to do a wilderness paddling trip along the upper St. Johns.

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Canal near Stick Marsh

Engineered or not, the headwaters region of the St. Johns River is a beautiful and wild marshy waterscape, and Blue Cypress Lake took my breath away. Each section of the St. Johns River has its own beauty, and the river and the people who live, play, and fish on the river tell me their stories. I look forward to learning more of these stories as I explore the St. Johns and its tributaries and springs for our “River of Dreams” exhibit.

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Spiders, Scrub, and Sweat: Hiking the Rice Creek Headwaters

Grasses in Rice Creek Conservation Areas
Rice Creek Conservation Area

After a summer on the water, I was ready to brave Florida’s August heat for a hike through the Rice Creek Conservation Area. Just west of Palatka, this conservation area’s trails wander through cypress swamps and the headwaters of Rice Creek. Rice Creek flows into the St. Johns River and is listed on Putnam County’s Bartram Trail map. William Bartram, an 18th century Quaker explorer and botanist, traveled through Florida and wrote of his visit in his Travels. 

The Bartram map includes biking, hiking, and paddling trails that incorporate these historic sites, perfect for a mix of history and outdoor adventure and most sites are marked with a QR code, linking viewers to relevant information. Last fall, I joined Paddle Florida‘s St. Johns History Paddle where we explored Bartram sites by water, and I wrote about this trip in In William Bartram’s Wake. Over the past year, I have been scouting sites around the St. Johns River for a Spring 2017 exhibit at the Matheson History Museum, “River of Dreams: The St. Johns River and Its Springs.”

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Rice Creek Conservation Area.jpg
Credit: St. Johns Water Management District

The QR code at the parking lot marked this site as the terminus of Bartram’s trip up Rice Creek. The kiosk explained that this area was established as a rice and indigo plantation in the 1780s, hence the name Rice Creek. After a short walk along an exposed gravel road, we entered the shaded woods. The trail is narrow and crowded with palmettos, cypress trees, and other greenery, typical of the Florida scrub. Spiders had woven massive webs across the trail, and I ducked under these webs.

Walking through this landscape reminds how difficult land travel once was, especially Florida’s swampy landscape. Rivers like the St. Johns and smaller creeks were America’s roads and highways, and people and goods moved by river and sea.

Scrub landscape
Scrub landscape
Spider across the trail
Spider webs across the trail
Bridge to cypress tree
Bridge to view the large cypress tree
Big Cypress Tree
{Enormous cypress tree

We followed the white blazes which soon merged with the Florida Trail.This section of the Florida Trail is raised on a dike and reveals the remnants of the file and drainage system of the rice and indigo plantation. Here, we walked alongside small creeks and swampy areas that comprised the headwaters of Rice Creek. The water was low, but the muddy terrain and cypress knees hint at much higher water levels.

Rice Creek headwaters
Rice Creek Headwaters
Rice Creek Hilton
Rice Creek Hilton
Rice Creek
Rice Creek
Cypress knees
Cypress knees

We walked just over a two-mile section of the area north of SR100, mostly around the headwaters. Rice Creek crosses under SR 100 and flows for approximately 7 miles to the St. Johns River. On January 30, 1766, William and John Bartram landed at the mouth of Rice Creek, then called Gray’s Creek, and rowed upstream.

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Credit: Putnam county Bartram Trail

“According to John Bartram’s journal, they found the creek to be about 60 feet across and 15 feet deep and meandering in a west by south direction.  After progressing about seven miles, though the water was still 7 feet deep and more than sufficient for their shallow draft vessel, and more than 30 feet wide, they found the creek blocked with trees and snags and turned about to retrace their route back to the St. Johns. ” (http://bartram.putnam-fl.com/index.php/trail-history/sites-1-thru-10/site-3-nbsp-grays-creek-final)

The Bartram Trail Map depicts a route for paddlers, and I have yet to visit this section of river. Apparently, the paddle is wild and beautiful, but this chilling description in the Florida Times-Union gives me pause:

“As we entered the creek, the 50 people on board immediately became silent. There was no sound anywhere, no wildlife except for vultures in the trees along the banks. A deathly pall hung over the area. Even the trees looked sickly and stressed.

The poisons being released into the creek had turned it to a place of death. We learned the tragedy went deep below us to many organisms which, if they survived, would be unable to reproduce.” (http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2011-07-01/story/georgia-pacific-pollution-easily-observed-rice-creek#)

Rice Creek lies downstream of the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Palatka, and the mill has been discharging waste into Rice Creek since 1947.Fortunately groups such as the St. Johns Riverkeeper have been working to mitigate damage to Rice Creek and the St Johns.

William Bartram encountered relatively clean, although inhabited, landscapes and waterscapes and wrote of their beauty. Following in his wake and imagining what he saw helps me see these places with fresh eyes and reminds me these land and waterscapes are my home and worth protecting.

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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.