Posted by: floridanature | December 16, 2008

Our Burden of Dreams: Time Travel on the St. Johns

Bobby’s four-stroke Honda 90 gurgles its way to life, pushing his flats boat away from the dock and out into the main-stem of the St. Johns. We’ve launched at a marina near where SR 44 bridges the river, heading north for the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. On the opposite bank, the Shady Oak restaurant sits precariously on pilings at water’s edge.

Last month, when I was here with a friend, the dock for the little place was inundatedshadyoak3 and the screened porch where we sat and ate fried okra appeared to be headed that way. But the river has fallen a few feet since then, so all is business as usual.

Instead of following the channel all the way up to Woodruff, we duck inside the tight mouth of a creek which leads us to the Norris Dead River, broader and deeper. The creek mimics the larger St. Johns, flowing northward through a landscape of hardwood swamp, edged with duck potatoes and spadderdock lilies. Both Bob and I marvel at the isolation of the creek, reveling in the quietude of the place. Even here in winter, there’s still a few tiny white flowers blooming at the end of the long duck potato stems, along with great clumps of lavender-colored Carolina aster and a cluster of a yellow flower that looks like a marsh bidens.

fallcolors1Foliage is turning, too, but nuanced in the way of Florida seasons. It’s a great day to be on a great river, and with no real chores to perform—except for that of pure discovery—both Bob and I kick back and acknowledge the joy of the moment.

Without a need to be a grown-up cardiologist or a writer today, we turn our lives over to the river, counting only the things that really matter: The brilliantly white egrets and little blues hunting at the water’s edge; the kingfisher squawking from overhead; a red-shouldered hawk calling from somewhere inside the fretwork of cypress and maple, sweet gum and sabal palm. We’re moving along at a good clip now, and since I’m used to kayaking, I have to readjust my sensibilities to the fast-forward nature of our journey. Bob’s a great river companion: affable, sincere, brilliant. And with a genuine streak for adventure. He majored in English as an undergrad, so we also share a love for meaningful literature.

greategretjpg2It’s warm enough so that we don’t need jackets. Bobby wears a baseball cap with ‘Vanderbilt School of Medicine on it’; I simply get a kick out of the way the light wind blows across my head. Little signs with the logo of a flying goose mark both shores as part of the Wildlife Refuge. Created in 1964 expressly to protect migratory birds, the refuge and its 22,000 acres of water and land has one of the most diverse bird populations in all of Florida.

Me at the wheel of the boat

Me at the wheel of the boat

Inside of Woodruff, some 215 species have been counted; a colony of some 400 swallow-tailed kites will even nest here later in the spring, Intact landscapes like this are chock full of food for both local birds as well as seasonal migrants who either over-winter here or pass through on their way south. The expansive wilderness is a avian Valhalla in the midst of a state that has a hard time controlling its appetite to build new stuff, simply because it can.
(On a hike down at the Wekiva yesterday, I saw several bluebirds and myrtle warblers, colorful little guys flitting from branch to branch, snacking and resting during their long journeys. Like Woodruff, publicly owned wilderness around that river serves the same purpose—creating bird-happy habitat and fodder.)

Our backwater “road” will lead us all the way up to the southwest edge of Lake Woodruff, where I’m anxious to see the nearby Tick Island. I tell Bobby of the archaeological significance of that 270 acre tract tucked in between Woodruff and, to the west, Lake Dexter.tickislandbeadsw300h255

Native Americans lived on this island for almost 6,000 years, enjoying the bounty the land and river provided. The abundance of wildlife allowed them to wander less, to ponder a bit more. Villages were built, mythology evoked, sacred ceremonies invented. Dreams and visions were imprinted on shell and bone ornaments and pottery, which previously, had been spartan and bare.

A small wooden sign marking the canal entrance to Highland Park Fish Camp appears, and we turn into the old cut, heading for the camp for a way stop. Bob traveled here by road not long ago and was impressed with the cultural integrity of the place. Like manatees and short-nosed sturgeon, Florida fish camps are endangered, at the mercy of real estate developers who would much rather see fancy upscale waterfront condos than a ramshackle store selling live bait and floating plastic bobbers.

The camp/marina materializes ahead and I slow the boat to a crawl and nose it into one of the slips. We tie up and head inside where we find a personable young woman behind a counter full of almost every conceivable type of fishing tackle you can imagine. She tells us her family has owned the place for almost a half a century now. We look around, soaking up the grit of authentic river funk.

gatorheads An ancient canoe (with a sign identifying this as a “Timucua dugout”) hangs on the wall, next to more taxidermied animals than I’ve ever seen in one place: deer and wild boar and largemouth bass, a dozen tiny gator heads, and one very convincing stuffed bobcat that seems as if it might come back to life at any moment. “A half century of roadkill,” says Bobby, smiling.

We grab some cold sodas and sit in a corner on a couple of comfy old sofas,bottlesjpg1 behind the rack with the small alligator heads. Next to me is a shelf with animal skulls and large jars, sort of like those used for pickled eggs and pig knuckles. Except these are full of whole pickled animals: coral snakes and rattlesnakes, and something small with legs I can’t quite identify. “Fetus of a river otter,” says Bobby.

We finish our drinks and climb back in our flats boat, driving it back out of the canal and into the large creek that will deliver us to Woodward. Norris bobcat1Dead River leads us on a miraculous meander through the soggy floodplain, passing a few other creeks like “Alligator Lake” along the way before dumping us into the southerly shore of Woodruff. That lake is characteristic of the St. Johns as it is less a lake and more a large dilation in the river. If we traveled out of it to the northeast, we could trace Spring Garden Creek there for several miles to Ponce DeLeon spring itself. But we’re headed for the heart of the refuge and Tick Island, so we go west. It’s mild and sunny, just a few clouds in the sky, and for now, we’re the only boat on the entire lake.
We aim for the corner where the lip of Lake Dexter wraps around the north shore of Tick Island, and a little creek with the unlikely name of Eph around the southerly shore. A map from the fish camp charts a “Bennett Landing” on the edge of the island nearest us. But the landing, like almost all the others that once allowed steamships to service the St. Johns, is long gone. We maneuver into Dexter, looking for a dry shore on the island, but so far all we see is swamp, cordgrass, and sawgrass at its edge. Finally, we come to a higher flat berm that lead sback into the woods, perhaps the remains of an old tramway. We tie up here, and follow the trail back for several hundred yards. As we do, the earth rises ever so slightly and the hardwoods are replaced by pines and other upland trees.

Jeffries Wyman

Jeffries Wyman

After the Timucua and Mayaca Indians were driven off by the early 1700’s, white settlers came here, farming and growing citrus. The soil, enriched by the massive shell midden mounds, must have nurtured hearty fruits and vegetables. Archaeologist Jeffries Wyman traveled to Tick Island in the early 1870’s and wrote about it in his book “Freshwater Shell Middens of the St. Johns River.” Wyman reported the artifacts—in mounds 20 feet high— were created by a complex culture, a people who had time to consider the gods of nature and to embrace their own place in it. They carved shell plummets to anchor the bottoms of their hand-woven nets, created pottery, hair pins and other ornaments incised with the symbols of their sacred stories. At least 150 Indians were buried here, ordained for a plentiful afterlife with deer antler headgear, projectile points and knives.

Like the Cuna (also Kuna) Indians of the San Blas Islands of Panama, many of the native people of Florida also believed that heaven would be not unlike their own landscape—subtropical cypress swamps and springs, fish and wildlife, all of it encased in a balance that was harmonic and pure.
As Florida begin to boom in the 1920’s, the middens took on another life: In a sandy peninsula, they provided a rare, durable material to underpin new roads and homes. Draglines were brought to the island on barges, scooping up the shells and shards and ornaments to use for roadfill, even drainage fields for septic tanks. As archaeologists scrambled to make sense of what was left, tour boats from Ponce DeLeon Spring routinely brought tourists here in the 1960’s, giving the passengers not just a look at the eviscerated middens, but promising each a pottery shard to take home.
We would need most of the day to fully explore Tick Island, and we don’t have that luxury right now. We return to the boat, push off and head back through Dexter, beyond the shore where the spiritual naturalist Billy Bartram once fought off gators at the “Battle Lagoon” in 1774, and finally into the main-stem of the river itself. Bartram, our original proto-hippy, cared far more about the power of nature than left-brained control and pretense. Here, we follow the red and green channel markers south, congratulating ourselves on the sublime journey the backwater creeks and streams allowed us today.

I think of all the damage that has been done to this entire river over time, think of those who would simply manipulate it for their own gain without any concern for the shared “commons”. This is a Sunday and so I also give a silent and grateful thanks that wild—almost mythic— places like this still exist in Florida at all.

I finally realize it’s all in the seeing: A deer antler decorated with the hairpin3mystical twists and turns of a 5000-year-old spiritual memory—or a composition of hard calcium that mindlessly fuels a juggernaut of growth.

Those who embrace the deep and sacred feelings of mythology bear a burden of dreams. To do so, they make room in their hearts for the shards of myth that have reached out to us over time.

And, once acknowledged, can they ever be denied ?


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