Posted by: floridanature | July 22, 2008

Wekiva: Between the Water & the Sky

On a weekday, the lower Wekiva seemed deserted, and the large pre-Columbian midden that used to hold Katie’s Landing had a sense of abandonment about it. The state owns the property now, and the campers and little store and RV’s are all gone, only big magnolias and cypress with official tags on them, growing up from the crushed shell. Even the waterfront bulkhead, the last true relic of the Landing, was crumbling in on itself.

I fumbled with my kayak and got it in the water a bit before Steve, and within moments the strong rain-fed current was pushing me downstream, no paddle needed. The river had grown in size since last I saw it, becoming both deeper and wider because of our heavy rains over the last few weeks. The detritus from the swamp washes in and dilutes the clarity of the spring water at these times. And it also opens up old sloughs that were little more than troughs back in the swamp. In the days when the rainy season was guaranteed, you could also count on following those sloughs until they became branches, and then splintered off into something else entirely.

With the new water, we figured we could navigate around the back of the first big island, and we each found openings in the tall grasses and willow that allowed us to try that. I came out closer to the edge of the island where an old dock had a Biblical passage on it and a gator was growling from somewhere nearby. If given to Revelations, I would take meaning in that, but I was not, and did not. In fact, I was more interested in the blooming wildflowers, the marsh mallow bush and the tight yellow bud of the spadderdock lily.

Steve yelled to get my attention, pointing to what he thought was the white head of an eagle high above the tree line. I looked, and was even more surprised when it turned out to be a swallow tailed kite, looping and diving. We fought our way through the massive “bull hyacinths” where there was absolutely no cut except the ones our hulls each made. The first patch opened to a pool of dark, deep water, and a black crowned night heron was on a log at its edge, looking as surprised as me to see us there.

Next came some of the largest specimens of water lettuce I’ve yet seen, also in a thick floating pasture. Bartram wrote about seeing it on the St. Johns in the 18th century, so I’m going to regard it as native, even though the indigenous plant police will argue otherwise.

By the time we finally made it around the entire island, I was covered in sweat. A light breeze was picking up off the water from the confluence of the main branch, and it felt good. We paddled on, northward, only a couple of old docks and a small fish camp left, a place that’s been here for years. After that, it was all public land, although the battered sign that announced this as the “Lower Wekiva State Preserve” looked as if something had been chewing on it. We paddled past the sign, and then a dead five foot gator laying on its back with a black headed vulture balanced on its stomach, happily pecking away at lunch.

We ducked back into another branch to the west, pushing over a newly fallen sweet gum log that submerged when we paddled onto it. More bull hyacinths and lettuce, and lots of dead fall. But back through the forest there was a shaft of light, likely shining onto yet another “lost” channel. It was here I stopped short. Something moved there, crashing through the water and trees. Steve heard it and said: “Bear.” I looked, and the movement was gone, but I did see a scarlet hibiscus shining as bright as a headlight on a dark country lane.

We paddled some more, and I was in awe with the way the river had changed since the last time I was on it. Moss seems thicker than ever, and muscadine grape vines trail inside the forest like huge spiderwebs. The cypress, the ones that were too small to be logged a century ago, endure with a sort of timeless aplomb, obligate knees rising up from the water and mud like tiny nuns in a pew. I think that if a tree can be said to have wisdom, then the cypress must be the greatest philosopher of all, reigning here in this tropical river swamp, its knowledge locked into the flow of its cambrus, forever linking the water and the sky.

Despite all we’ve done to it, the Wekiva has revitalized itself once again, becoming wild in its seasonal transformation and I am immensely grateful for that. Steve had once studied for the priesthood, and I still think of him as the most spiritual person I know. I can’t receive absolution from him, but our journey together, floating through the tropical forest of the Wekiva River is redemption enough for any human, if they’re willing to honor the natural sacraments.

The breeze that was welcome and light now builds, and the clouds begin to push up against each other. Thunder rolls from somewhere deep inside the horizon, and Steve suggests we turn our bows and begin the paddle back towards the midden.

Sure, I say, just a few more minutes. Then I poke my bow down another little cut to get closer to a giant leather fern, filling a nook between two large hickories. Tiny fish, excited by the coming storm, are dimpling the water, and the sky is turning dark. A little blue heron, spooked, cries loudly and from back in the hyacinths, a gator groans. Steve looks at me, and without judgment, starts paddling home.


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