FL - St. Johns River - 2003/01/19 - 17 miles

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The St. Johns River flows northward for over half the length of Florida, more than 200 miles, before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville. Through lakes, canals, development and wild area, the St. Johns is a reflection of the conflicting demands placed upon it by the burgeoning populations around it.

From Hontoon Island near DeLand Florida, past Blue Springs and south for about 5 miles, the St. Johns River flows through undeveloped area thick with wildlife - birds, alligators and manatees.

At Blue Springs, there is a large spring that was a center of early settlement in the Deland area. It is now a state park where both historical and natural treasures are preserved. In this spring, many manatees assemble in the winter months to enjoy the 70 degree water of the spring. The large slow beasts spend most of their time in the spring, venturing out only to feed. The spring is restricted from all boat traffic. A walkway extends along the length of the spring run out to the river. Swimming in the warm waters is allowed.

Blue Springs on St. Johns River"For hundreds of years the Timucuan Indians made the spring area their home. The spring run, river and the surrounding swamps and uplands provided food, clothing, shelter and materials for tools and weapons. Snails gathered from sandbars were a staple food for these people. Over the centuries, the discarded shells formed a massive mound."

"Three years after England acquired Florida from Spain, John Bartram, a prominent British botanist, explored the St. Johns in search of resources of value to the Crown. On January 4th, 1766, he rowed his boat past sunning alligators into the clear water of Blue Spring."

Manor House at Blue Springs"By the mid- 1800's most of the Indians had been killed or driven south and pioneer settlers took their place. In 1872, the Thursby family built a large frame home atop the Indians' shell mound, safe from the floodwaters of the St. Johns. The pilings of the steamboat dock remain, relics of a bygone era."

Spring run at Blue Springs "The spring is much more than a scenic area for canoeing and swimming; it's a place that plays a vital role in the survival of one of Florida's most beleaguered residents - the manatee. An observation platform provides a view of the endangered mammals that gather at the spring during the cooler months of the year. From November through March, the manatees leave the colder waters of the St. Johns River for the safety and comfort of the 72-degree spring. A designated swimming area separates the bathers from the manatee refuge zone."

Just outside DeLand, FL is Hontoon Island State Park. The St. Johns river flows past all sides of the island. Access to the island is by launch for a charge of $4.00. The launch picks up its passengers at a small parking lot, where one can hand launch a canoe or kayak. There is a $1.00 charge for parking. The lot closes at 6:30 PM. There is a nice grassy area with a shallow rivers edge. The hyacinths clog most of the bank, but there are a few leads heading out to the river. You can paddle across to the park to use the facilities or walk the trails without further charge.

I arrived at the Hontoon parking lot at 8:05 AM and paid my $1.00 parking fee to the operator of the launch who came over to collect it. I launched from one corner of the lot, pulling my way through the tight mat of hyacinths bunched along the shore. The river was running north at a speed of .75 to 1 knot. There is no tidal change in the St. Johns this far from the ocean.

On a spit of land just across the river, an estimated 50 buzzards stretched their wings perpendicular to the morning sun, warming themselves. On a three piling lighted navigation marker sat a snowy egret with its frilly white feathers blowing gently in the breeze. The calls of sandhill cranes could be heard, but the birds themselves were not in sight.

I paddled east into a small lake and then turned south. The river was lined by cypress draped in Spanish Moss. The wind was calm. There were a few fishermen in small boats trying their luck. Along Hontoon Island on my right side, lilies stood above the mirrored surface of the water. Pad hoppers jumped from leaf to leaf. An owl sat on a branch hanging over the river. Osprey wheeled and screamed overhead. Ibis hunted their prey in the shallow water among the cypress.
St. Johns cypress and sun
Cypress at Hontoon Island
This photo available as wallpaper.

I continued down the river toward Blue Springs. Just before the spring is another access point to the river - a sandy ramp with an unpaved parking lot with no facilities. This launch site is just beyond the Blue Springs Park entrance on the left of the access road. The spring was roped off with a sign announcing the manatee conservation area and the prohibition of all boats, including paddled boats. I paddled up to the rope and I could see two manatees slowly swimming back up the spring outlet. Their large bulbous bodies moved slowly and deliberately through the clear water.

The banks were thickly covered by many small cypress and small trees which in turn were covered by air plants, epiphytes, from one inch to more than two feet across. In between the tree trunks palmettos and large leaved green plants abounded.

I continued upstream on the river using one of the two channels of the St. Johns. As I rounded a corner I was confronted by floating mats of vegetation moving with the current. Like ice pack in the arctic, these mats of green moved and jostle about in the channel, opening and closing leads. I paddled into one lead only to have it close up as another mat floated into the end of the lead ahead of me. I was able to find a weak spot in the blocking mat and pulled my kayak through the tangle. Another mat floated by hosting a little heron. We shared the mat as it floated down stream.

Just after I cleared the area of the grass mats, I found a place to get out of the kayak for a stretch. Near a log with the white wash sign of the great wading birds, egrets and herons, I found the carcass of a partly eaten snake.

I continued south on the St. Johns until the two channels of the St. John merged. There I turned the kayak back and headed up the one of the other channels. There were several channels to choose from. In many places there were large groupings of ferns whose bright shiny green leaves contrasted starkly with the silver grey of the cypress and other tree trunks.

I returned to Hontoon Island up the secondary channel, seeing many lovely scenes reflected in the still dark, wind protected waters. The sky was completely clear of clouds all day. I arrived back at Hontoon at 3:30 and was back on the road at 4:00 PM after a nice 17 mile day on the St. Johns River.




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