Posted by: floridanature | April 1, 2008

Riverkeeping With Tree

The upper river of the St. Johns is altogether apart, wide marshes and big skies, airboats and gators, and so many braided, shallow channels that I spent as much time getting lost there this weekend as not. We had put in at Hatbill Park, a spit of land to the far east, and paddled west, running aground even in our kayaks in the low water. It’s no wonder that this shallow, sheet flow of the river is called “Puzzle Lake.”


My friend Michelle is on a quest to paddle and document all of the hundreds of miles of this complex river system. Sometimes I come along, sherping kayaks from car top to water like a good bud, and once in a while, I paddle. Today is one of those times. There are no markers here, and maps are nearly useless because the channels split, sluice away, transform, almost over night. We brought no GPS, since it weds you to numbers and not the land. We did bring a compass, and despite the uncertain nature of topography, a bunch of maps. There were no other paddlers on the river, but five or six airboats passed us, frothing up the water and making it tremble beneath our hulls. We passed a sandy point with bones of a dead alligator, and another with a dead cow. Right off another point, four baby alligators hung in the water, just their heads out, watching us with that timeless reptile gaze.

Soon, we met “Tree Trimmer”, a Vietnam vet who’s been living on the river in one place or another for over 20 years. He was with his dog, named Gator. Tree invited us to his camp and we went, hanging with him and his visiting air boat buddies for most of the evening around the fire, at the edge of a remote channel of tea-colored river water. Tree had a generator, a propane camp stove, and a large cooler full of beer and huge chunks of bacon. Feathers and bones were scattered everywhere, including a pelican skull sticking out of a hollow tent post.

Tree’s Camp at the edge of a channel on the marsh

Roseate spoonbills and white pelicans were flying over and glossy ibises and scads of other wading birds were feeding at the edge of the marsh. Several young bald eagles were living nearby. An ancient midden mound could be seen rising from the flat terrain to the west. By night, I shined my flashlight beam into the water and saw the eyes of gators flashing back, as red as the embers of our fire.

All else was water and wild bahia, exotic phragmites and native bulrush. “Tree” was as feral as the landscape, and as big hearted as the prairie here is wide. He feeds people who drop by, cleans up other sites where thoughtless folks have pitched trash out into this wild shard of natural Florida. Tree exists in a little time warp, insulated by the remoteness of place. Yep, he’s gnarly as hell, barefoot and argging like a pirate, but he’s a true American river character—sort of what happens when Huck Finn goes to war and then comes home, a mad-sane drunken shaman.

If Tree didn’t exist, the author Tom Robbins would have to make him up.treemarsh.jpg

We ate fresh-caught catfish and soft shelled turtle for dinner, and I thought of the wonderful drawing Bartram once made of the “great softshell tortoise (turtle)” over 240 years ago when he visited Florida and lived off the land. It was all the antidote to filmmaker John Sayles’ great quote from “Sunshine State”—“nature on a leash”— cuz nature here was unpredictable, primal, way off the domestic grid.

A softshell turtle about to become dinner

There is so much more to say about all of this, and I will do so later. For now, I will tell you that I thought about Tree as a true river steward, someone who cares in their gut and not just in the rhetoric of so- called civilization. Before we left, I gave him my cap with the “St. Johns RiverKeeper” and a logo of a kingfisher on it. He grinned widely and thanked me. Goodbye for now, Tree.

“Tree Trimmer” with his new RiverKeeper hat


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