Posted by: floridanature | October 13, 2008

Taking a Bite from the River: Tastes Like Okra

Just after sunrise, the rural two-lane SR 46 that trails east of Sanford into the low valley of the St. Johns is a vision ignited with golden morning light. Sabal palms, sweetgum, redtailed hawk, a flock of white ibis, and so on.

Stands of wild sunflower cluster at the roadside, bursting up out of the nearly full ditches. There are some new purple flowers here, too, but the pick-up in front of me with the hay bales in the bed swerves unexpectedly, and I don’t have enough time to name them as we pass.

The closer we get to the bridge, the more water we see, a reminder that prolonged rains allow our Florida rivers to reclaim their historic watersheds, sneaking out of their channels and back into those nearly-forgotten marshes and swamps they once infused with life.

St. Johns River Florida by Herman Herzog

'St. Johns River Florida' by Herman Herzog

I think of the poignant Oliver Sacks book in which a comatose person miraculously regains consciousness— remembering how he once lived, vague at first, and then with more confidence and desire. That seems to be happening to our Florida topography as it reaffirms its timeless hydrological life.

We’re headed for the only high bridge crossing the river here, the one between Lakes Harney and Puzzle, intending to shoot some B roll for Michelle’s indie film about her solo river trek. The images help re-create her very real story of traversing Puzzle by herself, part of a 500 mile paddle on the entire river system, an epic buffet defined by a series of tiny bites.

At a little side road before the bridge, I turn sharply and drive towards the launch. The metal dock that usually parallels the ramp is almost entirely under water, and a sign warns the launch itself is closed. On a Saturday morning, there would usually be a couple dozen vehicles here with boat trailers, but today, there is only one other car, some guy just sitting by himself, watching the river flow. In the distance, the Jolly Gator fish camp has a couple cars around it, not even an airboat.

We unload the single kayak, bungie some gear on it to make it look as if it is on a long river trip, and then Michelle launches it. I put on one of those bright fluorescent orange vests, the one emergency workers wear to keep from becoming road kill, and trudge up a narrow walkway to the top of the bridge. Cars and trucks whiz by, rumbling the metal under me. I try to ignore them, and kneel down with the video camera pointed to the south.

Michelle paddles out several times from under the bridge towards Puzzle Lake, going as far as she can until she turns into a tiny dot on the camera screen. Then she turns around and paddles back. There’s a slight chop on the river, just enough to obscure the V-wake she would ordinarily leave behind. I watch her go back and forth in the LCD screen, wondrous at the way the morning colors settle on the images. The scenes that result look all the world like a low aerial, as if I am in a small plane a hundred feet above the river, instead of standing on a bridge, being wind-lashed by the frenetic traffic.

44 draw bridge across the river

44 draw bridge across the river

I get enough video and signal to her, and we both head back to the launch to re-load the kayak. From here, we head for the Osteen Bridge, just to scout it out. We drive off the newer highway down to where a shard of the old low bridge once crossed the river. A guy is on the old bridge fishing. Another guy has just got done releasing an animal from a trap. He smiles when we ask him about it. “Possum,” he says. “And he’s pissed…”

The sun’s not quite right here, so we drive up to the old SR 44 bridge outside of DeLand. Along the way, we get lost on the country roads over the rolling karst terrain of Lake County, at one point crossing the Blackwater Creek. We stop and scope out the creek, which has doubled in size and self-cleared much of the deadfall with the last wash-out. It looks enticing, and I wish we had brought both kayaks, just to see how far we could get.

Back in the car, we check the map, and soon find our way downstream to the little SR 44 draw bridge, the ones locals call the “Whitehair Bridge”, and get ready for another launch. Michelle gets in the kayak again, and starts paddling about. The current is soaring here from the rains, close to three knots, with a lot more “river” pushing behind it. I walk up a set of yellow metal stairs that warn “Authorized Personnel Only”, and with my quasi-official orange vest, pretend I am invisible, or at least immune, and it works. The bridge tender barely looks up from his newspaper.

We shoot more “aerial” footage here, still with good mid-morning light, and then reconnoiter at the bottom. Nearby is the ramshackle Shady Oaks fish camp restaurant where we’ve experienced some great Southern fried okra and authentic funk before, and we go there for lunch, sitting outside under a screened porch atop the river. I notice the dock on both sides of the porch, where boaters would normally tie up, is under a foot of water, as if the entire camp is sinking into the river. A friendly waitress comes and we order sweet tea and two sides of golden fried okra, a buck per dish. Right at the edge of the screen, the glorious St. Johns River is cranking, sending hyacinths and water lettuce and the bone-like roots of a spadder dock lily downstream under the bridge, as if each is powered by a little motor.

Fried okra

Fried okra

I notice the river is at the very top of the bulkheads across the way, so high that an approaching boat—not a particularly large one—must wait for the bridge to rise before it can go under.

I smile at the countless little changes that a river like the St. Johns makes when it’s re-energized, and wonder, really, how many we as humans can fully account for— or acknowledge? I’m expecting it’s only a fraction of what’s taking place, just enough to make us think we know a few things about “water management”. And, just enough to ultimately delude us into thinking we can tend our world better than Mother Nature.

And we enjoy a million-dollar view of a grand and noble river, munching on our one-dollar okra, sinking almost imperceptibly into a truth that is inexorable—only bound for sure by the uncertain knowledge of our water-driven landscape.



  1. We really do just “hack at the edges” of all the inner workings and intricacies of the river, and more broadly nature. As a hydrologist, I always try to track an index or two, but am always aware that its more complicated than that. Really nice post.

  2. […] (brthomas) wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptMichelle gets in the kayak again, and starts paddling about. The current is soaring here from the rains, close to three knots, with a lot more “river” pushing behind it. .I walk up a set of yellow metal stairs that warn “Authorized … […]

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