The St. Johns River: Mysterious, meandering path to Eden
(A version of this story appeared in the February 2005 issue of Soundings Magazine)
By Peter Swanson
After the city of Palatka, the river narrowed and twisted. We had set out on a September morning to explore Dunns Creek, a tributary of Florida’s St. Johns River, and as we neared the creek’s entrance, the sky darkened. So much for the great photos we had planned to shoot.
Into Dunns we turned, as the sky unloaded on us hard. Here in Florida when it downpours, it can up-pour, too. And so it was today; raindrops ricocheted upwards off the decks of our 37-foot trawler. Multi-directional rain overwhelmed our wipers, so I opened the wheelhouse door to poke my head out, scanning for deadheads in the narrow, meandering creek.
This was fun.
Dunns Creek bisects jungle. It’s a hiding place, full of myth, mystery and alligators. Our little ship had become a 7-knot time machine, bearing the child in both of us—Richard and I—to a place of pirates and desperate Confederate sailors scuttling the schooner America.
Tattooed Timucuan Indians once plied these waters, too, and Richard’s blue Maori-style leg art, of which I was heretofore unaware, looked a lot like the Timucuans we all saw
illustrated in those old middle school history texts. Well, if Richard was to be the Indian, my job was cowboy, except here they call ’em “crackers,” after the sound of their bullwhips.
Creeks are fun because you have to drive them. I’ve been to Hell and Gone on autopilot over the past few years, and it was fun to use the wheel again, as I focused on obeying
my sailing directions for the unmarked channel: Keep to the outside on the turns but stay out of the hyacinths lining the banks. The depth sounder showed 50-feet in some spots, dropping to under five in others. That’s when I’d pull back on the throttles, but our three-foot draft carried us over each time.
A deaf old rock’n roller he may be, but Richard still had eyes like a Timucuan. To starboard, he spotted the first white bird perched beneath the canopy, then another, then hundreds more. Maybe there were thousands. Their beaks curved downward, and my Audubon bird book said they were white Ibis. When the rain quit, a pair of bald eagles passed above, and great blue herons glided over tea-colored water pterodactyl-like.
The creek had its settled parts, too. We had passed canal developments and waterfront mobile homes with docks—typical backwater Florida—and the docks were sometimes worth more than the homes. Folks lounging on their moored pontoon boats stared at our broad red hull the way Native Americans may have once beheld the European sailing ships creeping up Dunns on covert missions.
One of the earliest Europeans to do so was a Portuguese-born pirate known to his contemporaries as Big Jack the Ugly. It was his story and the scuttling of the America that inspired Richard and I to make our little voyage up Dunns Creek to Crescent Lake, Florida’s third largest.
Big Jack was a sailor aboard French, then Spanish ships until one day somewhere off the Florida coast he made a career decision. In 1703, Big Jack led a mutiny, taking command of the Spanish ship on which he was serving and murdering everyone who stood in his way.
Big Jack worked the slave trade for another five years until he ran into a British warship off Charleston, South Carolina. His ship was badly damaged by cannon fire, but fog covered its escape. Big Jack’s ship limped up the St. Johns and up into Crescent Lake, where he and his followers rested and made repairs. Over the next several years Big Jack returned to winter at Crescent Lake, where he had made friends among the local Native Americans.
In 1713 Big Jack’s ship captured a frigate called the Black Swan. They brought her up to Crescent to strip it of its guns, stores and hardware before they scuttled her about 2,500 yards southeast of the Crescent City dock.
Crescent is a consistent 10- or 12-feet deep and free of obstructions. Autopilot steered us toward the middle of the lake until we sighted the old fashioned water tower serving Crescent City. We headed for it, and tied up at the public dock for the night. The entire trip was an easy six hours. We ate three steps away at Three Bananas, a cheerful, Caribbean-themed, waterfront restaurant; owner Jerry Moldrik is an old raconteur best enjoyed by sitting at the bar.
Renegades leave no lasting monuments, though Moldrik said that a mound on nearby Bear Island marks the gravesite of Big Jack’s Indian friends, massacred in his absence by a rival band. Crescent City, like Palatka and Green Cove Springs, is a sleepy, undiscovered place and, like the others, offers fine examples of late Victorian architecture in the shade of sprawling Spanish-moss-hung live oaks.
Crescent City is on the lake’s developed western shore; but looking out from the town docks toward the north and east, the lake surely appears like it did to Big Jack—woods and tannic water.
My idea of fun cruising has always been simple. Alternate a night in splendid isolation on the hook with a night of honky-tonk. Age, of course, has amended my definition of honky-tonk to include any restaurant with a wine list that stays open past nine. The St. John’s River is a fine venue for this cruising style.
This might be a good place to interject about the scope of this article. I undertook to write about the St. Johns River as a destination, but with 200 miles of navigable waters, not including the creeks and attached lakes such as Crescent. That’s a big subject, so I’ve limited my ramblings that portion of the St. Johns, which I’ve known—Lake George to the sea, Astor to Mayport. Even at that, it’s still a big subject.
As far as restaurants, the time-travel analogy holds. Starting in Jacksonville, for example, you can dock in the Ortega River and be within a mile and half of an outstanding Middle Eastern restaurant and wine bar called the Casbah—hummus, pita,
lamb kabobs and savory rice to the sway of belly dancers and aromatic hookah pipes, which have somehow been exempted from Florida’s restaurant smoking ban.
In Green Cove, 21 miles to the south, you can park your boat on the town dock and see a flick at the Clay Theater, a neon-lighted art deco movie house. Follow it up with oysters, boiled shrimp and chicken wings at Ronnie’s next door. Now you’re in the South.
For lunch the next day, you could have poked your way up Six Mile Creek to lay alongside the new 1,000-foot floating docks owned by the Outback Crabshack, an open air place specializing in Low Country boil—the southern equivalent of a clambake—with crawdads in the mix. Vegetarians beware; the “vegetable platter” contains a generous helping of polish sausage in the mix.
Further south you will find elements of “Cracker Cuisine” on dock’n’dine menu—fried catfish, hushpuppies, black-eyed peas, cornbread, butter beans and ham hocks, smoked mullet. The number one
cracker snack food, by the way, are hot boiled green peanuts. To me, hushpuppies taste like an unsweet donut, but I will testify on behalf of hot boiled peanuts—boiled in brine and addictive. These “P-nuts” are sold at ad-hoc roadside stands with hand-lettered signs, ladled into styrofoam cups or zip-lock bags for a buck or two.
The river attracts its share of eccentrics, as I learned when I pulled into a waterside tavern in Satsuma. I was unnerved to find Abraham Lincoln astride a bar stool in party mode with another 19th Century fellow. Abe was flirting with the barmaid’s cockatoo while his partner—a fellow long-range trucker—observed mirthlessly. For reasons I will never understand, the sight of the dead-president look-alike was profoundly disorienting.
Connection to nature
In my day job as communications director for a trawler manufacturer, I have had occasion to ponder why 21st Century folk take to the water in pleasure craft. I think I cracked the code: If there’s a common thread connecting us all—whether our craft is a megayacht, a kayak, jetski
or, in my case, a ketch-rigged sailboat—is that we are making a connection to the natural world, and the vessel is how we share that connection with family and friends. Boating is too primal to call a hobby, and I think the term “lifestyle” is for sissies, too.
If I’m right about all that, the St. Johns River is about as rich a boating venue as you will find in North America today, based on flora, fauna and natural forces too numerous to list.
Instead, how about a ’gator story? Here at the marina were I live-aboard, they finally got rid of a local alligator named “Tail Lights,” who was becoming too aggressive. He was so-called because his eyes were so far apart that when you shone a light on him at night, the big gator’s eyes reflected red like the brake lights of VW beetle. Until his demise, Tail Lights was our backyard dinosaur.
For those of you who fish, we have already covered some heady ground. Dunns Creek is on Florida’s top-10 list of best places to catch catfish, and Crescent City modestly proclaims itself “The Bass Capital of the World.” Even to say a lot of fish live in the St. Johns oversimplifies.
It’s hard enough thinking about a river that flows north. Downstate is upriver; downriver is north. Defining the St. Johns is further confused by the origins of its waters. Some of the springs that feed it are
remnants of an ancient ocean trapped beneath the Florida peninsula, pushing up saltwater well beyond of the ocean’s briny reach. The river is saltier at Lake George than where I sit typing at Green Cove Springs, even though I’m 60 miles closer to the ocean.
A subspecies of the same striped bass we fished for in Buzzards Bay as kids swims its entire life in the confines of the St. Johns, never joining their brethren in a run up the East Coast. “Lake” George is frequented by many ocean species; visiting sharks are said to include bulls and hammerheads. Despite gators and visiting sharks, manatees seem untroubled. On a trip to Palatka last year, we saw dozens of small boats whose occupants were shrimping with cast nets like Jesus once threw.
The St. Johns River has had a powerful influence on today’s attitudes toward the environment. At about the time of the Revolution, a character named William Bartram, a naturalist, included the St. John’s in a tour of the Southeast to inventory the region’s resources. His descriptions of the river, like the one at the beginning of this article, beguiled poets, writers and thinkers of the American Romantic Movement, not the least of which were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Native Americans called Bartram Puc Puggy, meaning “flower-hunter.” Whatever your politics, there can be no denying the direct chain of thought linking Bartram’s writings to today’s environmental movement.
Which is why I’m a bit ashamed to admit I had no concept of the St. Johns River until I moved onto it a couple years ago, even though I had crossed it numerous times en route up or down the ICW. I always considered myself a history buff, but I’ve been humbled by my ignorance of this great river. James A. Michener may well have picked a lesser subject when he wrote “Chesapeake.”
In researching this article, I learned so much that I have no room to share, except to say that generally, the history of the St. Johns is a great people story. Florida has always attracted more than its share of adventurers, fugitives and dreamers, Bartram being
one. Another was Revolutionary War deserter-turned-outlaw named Dan McGirt.
Denys Rolle, an idealistic English politician, established a plantation on the east side of the river just south of Palatka, which he populated with beggars and prostitutes from the streets of London. When the workers ran off, Rolle became a slaveholder instead. This social experiment was located at the site of present-day power station you can see from the river.
Florida was a sideshow during the Civil War, but, as the America incident suggests, a lively one. The river was hotly contested, and the Union Navy eventually came to hold sway over its lower reaches. Yankee attempts to seize actual real estate, however, were frustrated until the end, thanks to a wily Confederate cavalry captain named J.J. Dickison. Dickison earned a niche in military history when he ordered an artillery ambush of the Union gunboat Columbine and captured her at Palatka. Dickison, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” became the first cavalryman in history known to have captured a naval vessel.
I was even surprised to learn that Hallowes Cove across from my marina, a favorite for overnight getaways, was once defended by a Spanish fortress on Popo Point.
Maybe our national ignorance about the St. Johns can be explained by its having peaked early. Its heyday was the post-Civil War steamboat era; with coming of the railroads, the region faded out of view. Florida became synonymous with beaches and sunshine, and that meant Southern Florida not the dark waters of the St. Johns.
Hazards and Navigation
Charts and Guides: “St. Johns River North (Mayport to Crescent Lake)” and “St. Johns River South (Murphy Island to Lake George, Lake Dexter, Lake Monroe, Lake Jessup and Lake Harney)” is available at local West Marine stores. “St. Johns River: North, Central and South” (with marina listings) by Kingfisher Maps (www.kingfishermaps.com). “Florida East Coast Chart Kit” from Maptech includes the entire St. Johns. Boating and the “Boating and Cruising Guide to the St. Johns River” by Tom Kranz includes segmented government charts from Mayport to Sanford and a great deal of useful information.
Anyone who has taken a vessel down the Intracoastal Waterway through Florida has crossed the broad St. Johns. Entry from the Atlantic is straightforward, with mile-long jetties and buoys marking yet another mile into the ocean. As in many East Coast rivers, timing the tide is essential practice
here, but there is no reason why a night entry cannot be carried as far as Jacksonville’s waterfront “Landing” (about 20 miles from the jetties) for a free side-tie to the floating docks.
Unlike, say, the Cape Fear River, you won’t find an undecipherable array of lighted navigational buoys; just go from light to light, red right returning. Whether day or night, however, be alert to commercial shipping from Jacksonville to the sea and barge traffic everywhere else. The current can be brutal, up to 3 knots, but shouldn’t affect docking at The Landing because the long face-dock runs parallel to the set.
The St. Johns is marked all the way to Sanford, but for most of the river from Lake George to Jacksonville, you needn’t go from mark to mark like the barges because depths average 7 to 10 feet nearly throughout. You can’t be too nonchalant because of the few exceptions where marks actually warn against hazards. Nevertheless, the width and depth of the St. Johns means that sailboats can do what they were designed to do—sail.
For sailors, the real problem—and it’s truly unfortunate—is the 45-foot overhead clearance at the Shands Bridge in Green Cove Springs. Upriver, the Palatka Bridge has 62-foot clearance and the rest are of the opening type found on the ICW, allowing passage nearly to Orlando. From where I am writing I can pop my head and see the confounded Shands Bridge, which marks the end of the line for my own vessel.
As I’ve mentioned, navigating creeks are the best part of the St. Johns, and here too are a couple limitations. Creek mouths tend to shoal and can be shallower than indicated on charts. Bridges for roadways paralleling the river are usually limit 40 to 45 feet for overhead clearance. One creek, however, has neither drawback, and it’s one of the most spectacular for its wildlife and jungle. Murphys Creek branches off the entrance to
Dunns Creek and parallels the St. Johns, which it rejoins a couple miles later at the southern end of Murphys Island. It’s a great place to anchor for a night of splendid isolation.
The Scuttling of America
We all know how in 1851 the schooner America defeated Britain’s fastest yachts to establish the world’s most famous sailboat race, The America’s Cup. Less well known is that her Yankee owners promptly sold America to a Brit, and she ended up serving as a Confederate blockage runner during the Civil War, renamed the Memphis.
In January 1862, the 101-foot vessel made her final dash up the St. Johns to Jacksonville. As rebel forces retreated from Jacksonville in March, her Confederate crew navigated the Memphis up the St. Johns, then up Dunns Creek nearly to Crescent Lake. There they sank her to keep her from falling into Union hands, and possibly to preserve the ship for future Confederate use.
The ploy failed. The Union Navy found the ship, raised and renamed her America, and put her in the blockade line. America captured one rebel blockade-runner and after the war was used as a training ship for Navy cadets. She even sailed in defense of the America’s Cup in the 1870 race, finishing fourth.
America later became the personal yacht of retired Union General Ben Butler of Massachusetts before eventually being returned to the Naval Academy in 1921. She was destroyed in 1942 when a blizzard collapsed the shed in which was stored.
As in any river piloting, in the absence of channel marks, remember to favor the outside on turns, and watch for deadhead timber, particularly near the banks.
Weather can be a factor from November to February, when northers march down through Georgia, but with so many coves and creeks, shelter is never far. Beware of venturing into Lake George when storms are forecast; high winds can quickly kick-up short six-foot seas there. In the hot weather months, afternoon thunderstorms are common, sometimes accompanied by high winds.
Tides throughout most of the lower St. Johns range from a half to a foot and a half.
What’s the best boat for the St. Johns? Your boat, of course. Any powerboat or any sailboat with less than 45 feet of overhead clearance will serve you well on the river, though shoal draft and low overhead multiply your options. If chartering, a good choice would be a houseboat or shoal-draft trawler such as the one I have used for exploration.
This is Florida, and air conditioning is essential for comfortable cruising in summer months. All boats should have screens, too, for reasons obvious and not so obvious.
Obvious are the biting insects. Less obviously you need to be concerned about non-biting insects commonly called midges or blind mosquitoes. Blind mosquitoes are neither blind, nor are they mosquitoes. Beginning in June on or near freshwater creeks, blind mosquitoes swarm like a localized biblical pestilence toward light or painted objects, such as boats. You can hear them first sometimes like the hum of far away machinery.
I’ve not seen the phenomenon, but my Florida friends describe it in nightmarish terms: literally having to shovel dead midges off their boats like snow in Buffalo. In one account, a boat’s mainsail instantly turned from white to black beneath thousands of these insects. They spoke of having to wear dust masks to prevent ingestion. And they said that when blind mosquitoes pile up dead, a couple feet thick, they smell like dead fish.
One houseboat charter company recommends bringing big cans of bug spray. That, I believe, falls in the category of placebo. Other advice: Avoid anchoring in still water, particularly if it’s fresh during the summer months. As I’ve said, I’ve never seen them in the nearly two years I’ve been at brackish Green Cove Springs, but I would think the best countermeasures would be screens, air-conditioning and a high-pressure water wash-down.
Can you swim in the St. Johns with all those alligators, you might ask?
The natives do. Just like visitors to the shark-filled waters of the Bahamas. Throughout the summer folks I see people anchor in the middle of the river and swim. Silver Glen Springs and Salt Springs off Georges Lake with their gin-clear spring water are hugely popular swimming spots. I would not swim near dusk or after dark when gators are more active.
Ever since Huck Finn and Jim took their fictional raft ride down the Mississippi, river voyages have been a national metaphor. A trip along the lower St. Johns will be one of discovery, quite possibly self-discovery, and always fun. One of the best things about the lower St. Johns is that it leads to the upper St. Johns, another 100 miles of creeks, lakes and Americana.