Posted by: floridanature | June 29, 2008

A Morning On the Lake of the Hololo’s

I slide my kayak into the dark water just after dawn on the massive Lake Jesup and paddle towards Bird Island. The shore here is mostly cattails, native bulrush and the giant exotic reed called Phragmites. Two black guys with a small kicker-powered boat and fishing rods are getting ready to launch, but otherwise the ramp here on the western shore is quiet.

Jesup is pretending to be a mirror just for now, and I take full advantage, skimming over it in my little boat. Gators are thick here—Jesup is said to have one of the densest populations in Florida—and on the flat glossy surface that is the lake, I count well over a dozen, both in front and behind my boat. The really big ones, with tar black heads, hang there much longer than their smaller brethren—much longer, really, than I would prefer them to hang.

Their heads are all that give them away, since the rest of the bodies are submerged, noggins looking like giant gnarly gravy boats—only the nose tip and the eyes exposed with a bit of a slope in between. Jesup has a reputation for edgy gators, and I’m figuring it’s because there are simply so many of them. Then again, the lake itself is almost completely cut off from the rest of the St. Johns River. Pollutants have been building here over the last 50 years, and the disruption to the endocrine system of the gators via the toxins is not a good thing.

Generally, male gators so afflicted have less testosterone, and are becoming less virle and fertile, and I’m figuring this has got to piss them off. What’s the point in being a bull gator if you can’t swagger about the lake like a car salesman in a singles bar ? Maybe like other over-compensating males who run out and buy Hummers, they just can’t help themselves. Whatever the reason, at least one boat and one kayak have been attacked here, and I’m a bit wary today. It’s the first time I’ve ever packied away a pistol in my kayak.

Bird Island on the silver gray morning Lake of Jesup

Bird Island on the silver gray morning Lake of Jesup

I paddle into the rising sun and under the massive two-mile long bridge that takes an expressway across the middle of the lake. Finally, I near Bird Island, with the low sun backlighting it, the island and all the water around it seems almost slate gray. It is as if someone had tinted one of those old black and white photos with silver and white, eliminating all the other colors.

As I approach the island, I see that a higher rise in its middle holds a hammock of old sabal palms. The hammock itself is surrounded by a field of scrub-like plants and reeds which cascade down to the water. To the east, I see what seems to be dozens of old pilings from a dock. When I look through my binoculars, I realize they are all wading birds, standing just offshore the islands in inches of water.

The sun rises higher in the sky and to the north of the lake, I can still see thick mist in coves and sloughs along that shore. Within a hundred feet of the edge of the island, I slow and paddle cautiously so as not to scare the thousands of birds who are living and nesting here. There are white ibis, and glossies, tricolor herons, and great blues. There are snowies and wood storks and cattle egrets. There are little gallinules with their bright red becks. Ospreys circle over head, watching for a movable breakfast. Once a mullet jumps next to my kayak. In the distance, a very large animal with a fish-like tail splashes in the water, and I have no idea what it could be. The chattering of the birds is raucous, the sort of pure avian joy usually found in rookeries.

I circle the island and then on the eastern shore, see a wide flat opening in the reeds and pull my kayak into it. In the distance is the palm hammock and I walk to it. Both John and William Bartram camped here when exploring the St. Johns in 1765; Later in 1837, a Lt. R. H. Peyton was directed to make a map of the St. Johns upstream of Lake Monroe in Sanford. Like all good Indian-fighting soldiers, Peyton ignored any local name for the lake and instead christened it for the general of his garrison, Jesup. Peyton reported many birds nesting here, including the strange spoonbilled ones with the pink plumage, the one the Seminoles called “Hololo”.

(Peyton wanted to also call this “Circle Island, since it was symmetrical, but the presence of all the wading birds—then and now—prevailed, and it was mapped as Bird.)

I walk to the hammock of palms and marvel as it rises up from the surrounding edge. There’s no scientific way to measure the life of these palms since they have no rings like other trees. Relying on archival descriptions, historians elsewhere have found such palms to be 400 and more years old. Both Petyon and the Bartrams likely spent time in this hammock, resting under the same trees.

I wonder how the landscape can communicate secrets to us; I figure this one has plenty to tell. But nothing’s firing at the moment. Am guessing that’s life—relationships fire when the time is right, and not on command. Why wouldn’t a sacred place in the landscape function the same way?

The relief here is made so by millions of shells, collected by the pre-Columbians who once camped on the island. Like most middens along Florida rivers, the primary shell is the banded mystery snail. Back at water’s edge, I had picked up a few of those snails newly shucked by the birds, and had noticed the distinct bands around the tawny knobby shell.

Around me on the little island, elderberry are coming into bloom, and marshmallow are putting out gorgeous pink hibiscus-like flowers. At the shore, water locust, gator and camphor weeds and wildflowers are thriving. No Hololo’s, but otherwise can’t complain.

Back in the kayak, I head around the windward side of the island, where most of the hard packed sand distinguishes the bottom from the muck that characterizes so much of the rest of the lake. The river bottom to the west is six to eight feet deep with muck, enough to hide Jimmy Hoffa and every hit that Tony Soprano and his family ever made..

Bird Island, geology tells us, was born of subsidence—not of the island, natch, but of all the land around it. History still has secrets here: Parts of giant ground sloths and whales have turned up in muck around the lake shore, and endemic little fish live in at least one of the springs still flowing at its edge. When the Bartrams and the soldiers came through, the St. Johns only nicked off a corner of Jesup. But it was enough to allow the ever-flowing river to circulate through the great splay of water, and then to exit, just as any good river would want to do.

Now, with berms and low bridges at SR 46 blocking most of that flow, the lake filled with nutrients from farms, septic tanks, and stormwater creeks. Today, it is not tannic like the rest of the St. Johns system, but a light green, as if it is one giant vat of pea soup.

A sign back at the ramp had warned both of amoebas (which will tend to swim up your ear canals and dissolve your brain), and algae, which can have its own toxic properties. Lake Jesup, despite all of its glorious history, is what happens when eningeers–via their exuberant road building—are allowed to run amuck (no pun). A restoration is underway, but like most eco-fixes, it could have been avoided long ago if the folks with money had listened to the folks with good common sense.

For now, there is the Lake, the island, the words of Bartram and Peyton, and the grand commotion of the nesting birds. And for now, like always, there is hope, although it is that rarefied, convoluted hope that is special to Florida.

The wind is now picking up, and the water from the west creates a great fetch. Ånd the waves on my return journey back to the ramp roll towards me with great determination. And I do what I know, I do all that I can, literally and metaphorically:

I Keep paddling.



  1. Man, I gotta learn myself. This is just fascinating. Great insight.

  2. Wow! I’ve never been on Jessup. Thanks for going and leaving me at home. Would be nice to look at Bird Island. What a potential there is here for restorating something to it’s former pristine state.
    Alligators are scary enough, but used car salesmen and Hummer jockies are something else.
    None of them read narure blogs, so you’re o.k.
    Wonderful writing.


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