Posted by: floridanature | September 2, 2008

Paddling the Storm Waters: Eco-Mayhem & Street Mimes

After more than a week of walking to the edge of the St. Johns to see it in “flood”, I finally had a chance this morning to launch my kayak there. The plan was to become more intimate with this new strangeness.

I drove with my friend Michelle into downtown Sanford and we cruised the streets that run towards the river—Park, Palmetto, and so on. Water had already covered most of Seminole, the road that winds along the edge of the river/lake. Now it was starting to slowly drift up the feeder streets, towards the historic downtown.

We stopped near the Civic Center, planning to launch on a road there there, but a gaggle of very intense gawkers soon gathered and began taking photos, circling us like sharks. Oddly, no one asked questions, just stared as if we were actors in some unfolding eco-drama—like I might respond if I stumbled onto a street mime.

“It’s like, we’re some sort of bizarre eye candy,” says Michelle, figuring it out quickly. The whole thing creeped me out, so we drove to a more remote parking lot a few blocks down, unloaded our two kayaks, and—after doing a little fire ant dance—launched them right at the edge of the street curb.

From there, we paddled out and over the River Walk, and then scuttled along until we came to some of those nice swings under one of the lakeside pavilions. I shot some video of Michelle for an independent film she’s working on about a solo trek she made on the entire St. Johns. Watching her paddle down the submerged River Walk, between the palm trees, benches and ornate railing, was visually disjunct, no logic to ground it.

We saw some odd splashes about a quarter mile offshore—almost like large fins floundering about—and paddled out for a closer look, thinking it might be a manatee in distress. By now the easterly wind was cranking pretty steady—15 or 20 knots—and the river was surging along with rolling waves and whitecaps. The sun had come out and was illuminating the tea-colored tannins in the water, so that the white caps were actually tannic.

We got closer to all the commotion and saw the giant “fins” were the tannic caps splashing on the top of a houseboat that sunk in the storm last week. Michelle warned me not to get too close. I asked her if I looked like the sort of guy who went around paddling into thrashing aquatic chasms. She reminded me I had pronounced “chasm” incorrectly.

The river was really running good by then, and we followed the current back towards shore, moving from lake to sidewalk to road. Soon, we were right down by the river side pizza shop, which like the rest of Marina Isle, was surrounded by water. I noticed a dorky looking guy with a bright red beret standing out front, trying without much success to appear fearsome. The inscription on his black T read “Guardian Angel”, so I guessed he was here because of the wonderful eco-mayhem that floods create. Perhaps he was preparing to fend off menacing kayakers who, if given half a chance, would surely loot the pepperoni and cheese.

We ran into another kayaker in a smaller red boat who had a large pizza box with him—as if preparing to deliver it—and folks were busy snapping his picture. Big guy and very outgoing. He seemed to get a kick out of that, and I had to admit it was a nice sight gag. Michelle paddled around some sandbags and onto the road where trucks and cars still splashed through to get onto Marina Isle. The traffic lights and street signs and vehicles and kayaking pizza man—coupled with a growing crowd of onlookers happily shooting photos of us shooting photos of them—created one of those special out-of-body moments.

Back on the lake, we aimed our bows into the waves again and paddled around Marina Isle and all its moored and docked boats. The three-to-four knot current aggressively pushed us to the west, little more to do than steer. The City of Sanford actually approved three nine story condo towers out here, but the falling market had kept them on the drawing board for now. The towers were absurdly out of proportion with the rest of the old historic district, but the City—hoping for a quick shot of prosperity—caved. I wish the potential buyers could be here, paddling around this ephemeral, man-made island to see what their future has in store for them.

We slip into the lee on the west side of Wolfy’s, the waterfront pub, and now in calm water, drift over to the smaller Memorial Park peninsula, where the giant American flag flies. About a third of it was also underwater, and on the high ground that remained, wood storks were loitering near a flock of black headed vultures. The vultures, which really like dead stuff, were everywhere, waiting for all the decaying bass, mullet, and catfish killed by the run-off toxins to wash ashore.

I bumped into a barely submerged “wall” that rims the perimeter of the peninsula, and saw a tiny stingray sitting on it, just six inches or so under the surface, his image tinted sepia by the blackwater. We’d already seen a larger dead ray back at the road in front of the pizza place, and this little guy was likely trying to get as close to the surface as he could to absorb more dissolved oxygen.

With all the reporting that has gone on here over the last week or so, very little considered how pathogen-enriched stormwater affects the ecology. I am thinking that when the river finally begins to recede and the current slacks, the newly deposited sediment and the reduced O2 will spell the end to many fish and the wading birds and ospreys that hunt them.

Sure, Sanford and all of the river towns and cities have had “flooding” for centuries after tropical storms and hurricanes. But there were simply fewer human-contrivances crowding out natural lands, marshes and swamps over the last three hundred years. When intact, wetlands in a river’s watershed have an amazing capacity to absorb and clean rainfall. And, with a historic population that was so much smaller—and less chemically obsessed than us moderns— stormwater flowing into our rivers was far more benign.

A government report I read when researching my book on sprawl told of how 100 year “flood events” would happen every five years if only 25 percent of any watershed was covered by impermeable surfaces—roads, rooftops, parking lots. When that hard surface ratio increased, so too would the frequency of flooding. God might have created Noah’s flood, but the state DOT and our city and county officials helped engineer this one.

I also realized that as corporations transform thoughtful journalism into a print version of a Happy Meal, stories like this will be reported less and less in the style-driven world of Media Lite.

We say goodbye to the little ray and the wood storks and paddle back into the wind, headed upstream to the street where we launched. People are now lining the river-front, snapping photos and taking video of us, as if we were aquatic floats in a very odd parade. An ice cream truck playing repetitive kid-type music pulls up to service the festive crowd. Michelle says: “I haven’t been in a float in a parade since I was in the daffodil festival for my brownie troop.”

I think of it all as a grand floating opera—with surrealist Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the lead tenor. I’m enjoying the knowledge that, sometimes, a float really does float, some nice symmetry there, after all.

And so we continue navigating this strangely enlarged Florida river, again passing the red kayaker with his pizza box and the Guardian Angel, drifting down a thin line between fantasy and what passes for reality here in the Sunshine State. The wind has settled a bit, and the chop is much friendlier. In the distance, the ice cream truck is playing “It’s a Small World.”

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