River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River


First explored by naturalist William Bartram in the 1760s, the St. Johns River stretches 310 miles along Florida's east coast, making it the longest river in the state. The first "highway" through the once wild interior of Florida, the St. Johns may appear ordinary, but within its banks are some of the most fascinating natural phenomena and historic mysteries in the state. The river, no longer the commercial resource it once was, is now largely ignored by Florida's residents ...
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First explored by naturalist William Bartram in the 1760s, the St. Johns River stretches 310 miles along Florida's east coast, making it the longest river in the state. The first "highway" through the once wild interior of Florida, the St. Johns may appear ordinary, but within its banks are some of the most fascinating natural phenomena and historic mysteries in the state. The river, no longer the commercial resource it once was, is now largely ignored by Florida's residents and visitors alike.

In the first contemporary book about this American Heritage River, Bill Belleville describes his journey down the length of the St. Johns, kayaking, boating, hiking its riverbanks, diving its springs, and exploring its underwater caves. He rediscovers the natural Florida and establishes his connection with a place once loved for its untamed beauty. Belleville involves scientists, environmentalists, fishermen, cave divers, and folk historians in his journey, soliciting their companionship and their expertise. River of Lakes weaves together the biological, cultural, anthropological, archaeological, and ecological aspects of the St. Johns, capturing the essence of its remarkable history and intrinsic value as a natural wonder.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Bill Belleville has written a thoughtful and engaging book about a great American river. He fully appreciates the natural values and rich history of the St. Johns and makes what I hope is a compelling case for the preservation of what is left of its native ecology and wild spirit."--Christopher Camuto, author of Another Country: Journeying toward the Cherokee Mountains

"On a slow poke by kayak down Florida's St. Johns River, journalist Belleville listens attentively and yearningly for biophilic strains from the historic waterway. . . . . Belleville reveals the waterway's exotic voluptuousness . . . in writing that is both silvery and refreshingly unrehearsed . . . two qualities much in keeping with the milieu. Belleville creates in the reader a protective affection for the St. Johns, all any river can ask of its lover."--Kirkus Reviews

“Every once in a while a book comes along that explores and defines a place or a time so thoroughly, holding up for view what otherwise is transient and hidden, that it can be called a classic. Such a book is River of Lakes. . . . Belleville's writing is by turns lyrical, elegiac, scholarly, down-home, and downright hilarious."--Florida Today

"Belleville's book is rich in history, both natural and human. This well-researched travelog is a must for every Floridian's adventure library."--St. Petersburg Times

"What an adventure . . . [Belleville's] Mark Twain-like excursion downriver is a laid back, kick-your-shoes-off lollygag that includes shooting some rapids in a kayak, exploring ornate underground caves in diving equipment, and communicating with fishermen, scientists, and river historians about the significance of a major U.S. waterway."--Booklist

"In this fascinating work, Belleville explores the state's longest river firsthand. He kayaks and boats the St. Johns, hikes its forests, dives its springs. He talks to scientists, fisherman, historians, and residents. And he depicts, with finely tuned prose, the many threats it faces from haphazard development and destructive pollution. Readers will learn a lot about the history, its ecology, and its too-often shortsighted political policies. Throughout are fascinating facts—from tidbits on the moans of spawning fish to the disappearance of Fort Picolata. . . . [Belleville] captures the beauty and appeal of the river of which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once wrote,'If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place and time of beauty, I think I might choose the night on that high lonely bank above the St. Johns River.' A superb book."--Tampa Tribune

"[Belleville] combines erudite insights into environmental science, wildlife, social and political science, economics, sports, and a wide range of other subjects related to the history and development of the St. Johns. . . [A] tour-de-force."--Publishers Weekly

"Early on in Bill Belleville's exploration of Florida's St. Johns River he asks: 'Could I still find an authentic experience here, in a go-fast state that seems either in a swoon with 'progress' and contrived theme-worldish fun or randomly sullied by crime and violence?' Belleville's rich and detailed book about his trip downstream, River of Lakes, is thus cast as a quest for the 'real' Florida, a search for something unique in time and place that exposes the essence of our fair state. . . . Belleville's keen insight, deep research, and sparkling prose carry us down Florida's longest river, and we are better for the trip."--Tallahassee Democrat

Tom Lassiter
The St. Johns is such a subtle river that, near its headwaters, it disguises itself in a typical atlas as a series of seemingly unrelated swamps and savannahs. No thin blue line identified as the St. Johns River tracks through St. Lucie and Indian River counties. But it is here, in a gentle trough formed thousands of years ago, that the waters begin their northward journey to the Atlantic.

Blue Cypress Lake is the first notable and named natural impoundment. The river disappears again as the water seeps through the marshes before pooling next at Lake Hell 'n Blazes. Finally, some 60 miles from its headwaters, the river crawls with enough determination to merit a channel as it moves on. Some 275 miles remain before the waters meet the sea. The journey courses through a series of lakes that document, in artifacts and environmental condition, man's impact over thousands of years.

An accurate interpretation of the record on the eve of the 21st century requires a solid background in history—natural as well as human—and an appreciation of the St. Johns unique riparian habitats. Bill Belleville, an environmental journalist and filmmaker who lives in Sanford, is the latest writer captivated by the river, and he is well-suited to the task. His predecessors include 18th century Quaker traveler William Bartram, and the 19th century naturalist John Muir. John James Audubon, driven back by clouds of mosquitos, never made it to the upper reaches of the St. Johns. But pioneering PR man Sidney Lanier saw a good bit of it and wrote glowingly of the river, luring steamboat tourist to winter amid the cypress groves.

Belleville, traveling by kayak and airboat and houseboat, gently explores the river and how it has shaped the course of human events in eastern Florida. The reverence that he has for the St. Johns probably is akin to the status afforded the river by the earliest Native Americans. They left countless middens, huge mounds of shell and bones, along the river as testimony to its bounty.

Settlers of European descent, however, have left more destructive marks. Lumber companies, beginning in the late 1800's, littered sawed themselves out of business by felling the cypress. Developers drained marshes, erasing habitats and reducing the volume of seabound water. The shell middens themselves often disappeared, trucked away to become crunchy fill for roadbeds.

The St. Johns surely bears scars, but Belleville's river trek proves that much of the St. Johns' beauty and mystery remains for those willing to seek it out. His powers of observation are matched by his ability to describe.

In May, he observes tiger swallowtails beginning to emerge from their chrysalis, "their great lacy yellow wings edged with black, looking like some Rorschach test, colorized and come to life. I sit on the stern, watching one doing its little butterfly dance, gliding from above the ever-closed yellow bud of the spadderdock lily, up into the leaves of the willow and hickory. Later, I will see the muted blue spring azure and then the black swallowtail, pure ebony spotted with white and blue, a distinctive frilly tail dabbling at the bottom of each ink-blotted wing. By fall, monarchs will move down across Florida in their long migration, stopping to rest on twigs and leaf edges, pumping their little wings like arabesque fans from a Victorian parlor."

Belleville conveys a sense of wonder throughout his book. Diving into a spring that pumps millions of gallons of ancient sea water into the river every day, Belleville ponders what undiscovered life forms await discovery. Cooking his freshly caught dinner on an open fire, he listens to the night and hears the Florida that Bartram experienced 200 years ago.

Would-be explorers will relish Belleville's skillful use of detail. For instance, it sticks with me that there are 56 species of fireflies in Florida. The St. Johns falls only 27 feet as it journeys from its headwaters to the sea, barely an inch a mile. And this home to manatees and alligators is tidal for 110 miles, feeling the ocean's ebb and flow all the way to the mouth of Lake George.

Belleville had traveling companions from time to time, and he occasionally gives the reader a taste of local characters. A little more from others whose lives are intertwined with the river would have made the book like a day on the St. Johns without a mosquito bite.

Too many of us aren't able to know the rivers as Belleville does. He writes:

"We seem to care most deeply about rivers when we have invested time and effort actually on them—canoeing, fishing, exploring, observing. We have to put in to get back out."

"River of Lakes" is a good way to start caring.

The Orlando Sentinel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820323442
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 772,653
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Belleville, an award-winning environmental journalist and filmmaker, is also a veteran diver. His books include River of Lakes and Deep Cuba (both Georgia). His articles, which have appeared in such publications as Sierra Magazine, Oxford American, Islands, and Salon, have been anthologized in six other collections. Belleville lives in Sanford, Florida.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Headwaters to Blue Cypress Lake

The St. Johns takes its rise in a small lake ... [and beyond the lake] extends a marsh as far as the eye can reach ... with as level and uninterrupted a horizon as the sea itself.... It is constantly underwater and may be considered as one great spring from which water is slowly but continually oozing out —Naturalist John Eatton Le Conte, who explored the river for the U.S. government in 1822

    Whales once breached here, somewhere above where I am now standing, thigh-deep in sawgrass at the river's headwaters. They did so worldwide, of course, back when they were something other than whales and land was little more than the remnants of angry, fuming volcanic pinnacles. But age is the great divider, and geological time—or the lack of it—was, and still is, what has made Florida and its waterways unique.

    A quarter billion years ago, when the Shenandoah Valley was becoming the mountainous gully that would carry the river of the same name, Florida was where marine animals still came to dream. It was the sea, blue and endless, and it swept freely over sand and coral, unrestrained.

    It did so at least until twenty million years ago, when the sandbars and cays that represented the nascent peninsula first emerged from the sea, west of my spot here in the grass, water, and peat. The oldest and highest of these sand spits would evolve into the Central Ridge along the spine of the peninsula, providing a point of reference against whichsubsequent shorelines would later define themselves. And define they did, re-forming at least eight different prehistoric coasts during assorted ice ages, sending the sea level up and down by as much as four hundred feet. The oceans ebbed into ice at the massive polar caps and then—during interglacial warming—flooded back out again, repeatedly soaking the shore that would rim modern Florida like the froth of the surf over coquina shells.

    During the last series of these re-formations, when the appendage that would be Florida was as truncated as it appears on old Spanish maps, the terrain that would hold the St. Johns River valley finally arose. This valley was born as a deep saltwater lagoon, bordered by a perforated line of sea islands and bars to the east and by the ancient ridge to the west. The time was one hundred thousand years ago, and sea level was forty-two feet higher than it is today.

    In this way, then, the basin that would one day cradle the St. Johns was not molded by the torturous chasm of shifting plate rocks or scooped out by tedious erosion through a steep ravine. Rather, it cascaded down from the sea in a timeless trickle of shell and sand and bone of animals and calciferous plants, marine life that once swam, crawled, and took root here. The walls of this valley were constructed of ancient dunes and terraces, shaped into north-south contours by the energy of the wind and the spindrift of the prevailing currents offshore.

    But the ocean that shaped the early basin of the river was not through yet. When the sea level dropped one last time and the coast and dune line migrated even closer toward the Atlantic, the function of the marine lagoon moved with it, setting up shop inside the parallel basin of what would become the Indian River. Left behind, bereft of its estuarine nature, the just-slightly-older inland valley did what many of Florida's brand new residents continue to do today—it re-created itself.

    It did so with the abundance of rain in the southern subtropic realm of this peninsula, an act that relies on the wealth of foliage and water to keep the cycle in good working order. The warm sun sucks moisture up into the cumulus, and the sky sends it back down again onto the great sprawling basin as drizzles and showers and great heaving bursts of thunderstorms. And somewhere here, somewhere around me, west of Veto Beach and Fort Pierce, the alchemy of a river is fused from the oversaturation of water into the land, birthing a tenuous flow that slowly—if not always surely—heads north for the sea.

    In the greatest of ironies, of the kind only a flat place like Florida can acknowledge, another giant river system parallels the St. Johns on this same latitude, not so far away. But instead of flowing north, it is busy moving south. It is inland from here, barely twenty miles away on the other side of the relic marine terrace of the seminal river valley. It is the Kissimmee, and the scant rise of geology moves it through its own basin, south to Okeechobee, for it is the origin of the grassy river of the Everglades.

Anyone can, if so motivated, travel to ground zero of these headwaters. Yet it's a place in which few ever step foot. That's because it's a shallow marsh, remote and isolated. Although anglers and hunters pass nearby on narrow airboat trails today, most are headed for either deeper waters to fish or higher ground to hunt.

    To come here helps me better understand why the wet, low interior of Florida was the last part of the state to be settled. When cities and towns far beyond the western frontier" of the country were thriving at the turn of the century, the river's wetlands were still immeasurable, uncharted. As recently as 1943, the authors of St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities reported that the headwaters of the St. Johns "as yet await a cartographer, for none knows how many miles [there are] among the ambiguous and lonely, wild huge bogs about the river's source waters."

    I have traveled here with Dr. Ed Lowe, chief scientist for the agency charged with somehow "managing" the water quality and flow of every vein of the St. Johns. Lowe, trained as a biologist, wants to show me not just where this river is born but how the condition of a headwater can influence a river's disposition miles away. This should be an observation of great pain for any biologist because, like the great Everglades of Florida, the headwaters of the St. Johns have been under siege until recently by drag lines and dredges, all in the name of "land reclamation" and flood control. Unlike the Glades, though, the river has not become the cause célèbre that fires imaginations far beyond its boundaries. Defenders, like Lowe, are rare.

    Lowe, earnest and resolute, also embodies a quality that sets him decidedly apart from many public agency scientists—or private environmental consultants—who often stuff their conscience here in Florida: he seems to really care about what happens to the resource he is charged with managing. Quietly, unashamedly, he often speaks of the need to have an "ethic" for the land, a belief system that can be far more powerful than paper-intensive environmental rules.

    However, he is not naive. For decades, people have settled anywhere land promoters have convinced them to in Florida, often circumventing "growth management plans" via politically granted exemptions to do so. Even now, with progressive strategies written into law, the state is hemorrhaging its natural lands to development at the rate of twenty acres per hour. Bubbaism, whereby personal connections sneak around the most well meaning of laws, still widely prevails, not just in the nineteen counties of the St. Johns River basin but throughout Florida.

    What is left is often fragmented, like a fine plate of china broken into many pieces. It is Lowe's job to help glue it all back together again, a vast chore. "We have such a wealth of water in this state," says Lowe, partly in awe, partly in lamentation. "There are plenty places for everyone who wants to live here. But, why does everyone have to live everywhere?"

    Not only do they want to live everywhere, but they apparently want to farm everywhere, as well. In its earliest days, the agency for which Lowe now works was not a "water management" district at all but one of "flood control." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which performed the actual structural work on the terrain for the district, was unleashed on Florida's wetlands, helping to build dikes and dig arrow-straight canals to keep seasonally dry wetlands from being flooded, as nature intended.

    Farmers and cattlemen worked hard to do their share, piling up berms of dirt to make levees and backhoeing ditches for canals on their land. In the simplistic, linear reality of the first three-quarters of the century, dry was always good, and wet was always bad.

    As the historic marshland around the headwaters shrank from thirty miles to barely one mile in width between 1900 and 1972, the quality of the river downstream suffered tragically. Without the kidneylike cleansing function of the wetlands to filter impurities, the entire river simply started badly, loaded with sediment and agricultural chemicals. By the early 1970s, most of the forty-six tributaries that had once seeped over adjacent marshes and wooded swamps were surging ditchlike into the upper river channel from the western ridge.

    Since the early 1980s, the water managers in the St. Johns Basin have decided to try to balance ecology with farming needs—such as the use of natural reservoirs to filter pollutants, store water, and provide habitat for wildlife. These are precisely the type of benefits a deep natural marsh, if left intact, would have generously given of itself.

    To reverse the damage done earlier in the century, farmland had to be bought and then reflooded, maintaining some levees to segregate the newer artificial "water management areas" adjacent to the groves and row crops from the more natural "marsh conservation" zones that actually hold the headwaters. Biologically, the hill-like levees separate the evil twin from the good one. The cost of buying and fixing land here between the early 1980s and the late 1990s is around two hundred million dollars—a fraction of the worth of the entire river.

    The result is a drainage basin that is a hybrid of nature and human efforts. "We are at heart, manipulators, gardeners, controllers," admits Lowe. "Now, we're trying to ask the question: What's the least we can do?" In this way, the quest for sound ecology now controls the engineering, and not the other way around, as it once did.

    Lowe tells me that some 235 square miles of land has been reclaimed in the upper river, more than tripling the size of the functional drainage basin from what it was in 1972. Government canals that once functioned as gutters to empty the marsh water into the adjacent Indian River lagoon on the other side of the terrace are being plugged. By 1976 they had reduced the outflow by 70 percent of what it once was. Today, the only fresh water that goes into the Indian River from these canals does so only to abate flooding after a severe storm—an event that occurs once every twenty-five years. The result is not just a more actualized marsh but a healthier coastal estuary not nearly as diluted by fresh water as it once was.

    The contemporary Army Corps is helping to make this happen, undoing work their predecessors did years ago. If this is one of the largest wetland restoration projects of its kind in the world, it may be—like the St. Johns itself—also one of the most unsung.

Lowe and I are journeying to the most undisturbed of these headwaters via airboat, a sledlike vehicle torqued by an aircraft engine and giant wooden prop, designed to push us across the top of the water-sogged earth and weeds. When pilot Ken Snyder, sitting behind and above us in a leather flight jacket, revs up the engine, the noise is so ear-splitting that we have to put on muffling headsets to blunt it. To steer left or right, Snyder uses a sticklike lever to manipulate narrow, vertical wings on each side of the prop, not unlike navigating an aircraft. When this hybrid vehicle is cranked up at top end, it soars, more like a hydroplane than a boat, pressing the wind against my face and letting loose torrents of adrenaline as effectively as a good carnival ride.

    The downside to soaring is that there are no brakes. To stop, both flaps and throttle are disengaged, and the sled gradually coasts to a halt, tall grasses finally giving way just a couple of feet from my face. I wonder out loud why the boat has no "reverse." Lowe informs me that if the powerful prop were to spin in the other direction, it would simply blow us off the front of the sled.

    When we approach fifteen-foot-high levees between the marshes, pilot Snyder pulls back hard on the throttle and we slide up at a forty-five-degree angle and over the human-made hills, our hull scraping and grading on the bare, packed earth, the engine roaring like a small plane on takeoff. It is a testament to the nature of this great vast tract of unroaded Florida in the river basin that an agency like Lowe's—the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD)—would have as part of its official vehicle fleet several high-powered airboats designed to travel at a fast clip across very wet mud.

    And travel it does, finally taking us four or five miles from where we put in at a nearly deserted boat ramp at the edge of the Blue Cypress Water Management Area. After leaving the ramp, the airboat had first skirted over the six-thousand-acre water management area (WMA), a tract that in 1989 was a cattle ranch known as "Lake Miami Farms." Reflooded by the scientists, the WMA today is a deep, cattail- and coot-studded natural impoundment where runoff from the adjacent citrus groves can be drained and cleansed of chemicals and silt without environmental damage to the wilder "marsh conservation areas" on the far side of the levees.

    The farmers not only get to pump water for irrigation out of the WMAs, but their groves also benefit from the natural warming effect the rewetted public lands provide. When a killer freeze blew in across the state in 1989 with temperatures as low as the teens, the results could have browned out the nearby crops as thoroughly as a brushfire. But as the chilled air mass moved over the new wetlands, it warmed by several degrees, enough to save some seventy thousand acres of citrus to the east. The farmers, who initially resisted the purchase of their land for the restoration, began to realize there might be some wisdom in the forces of nature after all.

    But turning winter marsh into a giant space heater is only one of reclamation's many gifts. Another is found in the rectangular 4-square-mile "Stick Marsh" and the adjacent 6.25-square-mile "Farm 13" reservoir, both of which have converted farmland into the state's honest fishing holes for largemouth bass. Topography has been redefined again, with the thick-bodied, hard-hitting bass roaming atop the former pastures in six to eight feet of water, swimming between the ghosts of cows and cattle egrets.

    All of this brings up the question of who, ultimately, can presume to own the title to any land—humans, cows, fish? Author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings pondered that same dilemma when she considered the little plot of land she lived on in northern Florida: "Who owns Cross Creek?" "We are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters," she answered. "[It] belongs to the wind, the sand, the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time."

    Aborigine cultures, like those who lived in the river basin of Welaka, saw the occupation of the earth similarly, not as dominion but as stewardship, one for which they developed a deep and mystical appreciation.

    Yet to occupy land soaked with water is far trickier. It is a responsibility that continually seeps, leaks, and flows downstream, ecologically if not spiritually.

Snyder, with a twist and pull of the stick, puts us into a coasting stop near a low-lying tree island and cuts the motor. Seminoles who treasured the higher ground the islands offered called them hummocks from a word meaning "home." Like other Indian words that have slipped into our vocabulary under disguise, hummock has now become hammock.

    Lowe and I each put on rubber, chest-high waders and slip down off the flat deck of the airboat into the grass, which towers above and around us like an African savanna. It is somehow hard to believe I am standing inside the genesis of a river, one that near its mouth will be strong and deep enough to hold eighty-five-thousand-ton aircraft carriers.

    It is a bright Florida fall day, with a deep blue sky bridged by a bank of puffy cumulus, the same kind of broad, water-rich sky that nurtures the Glades. From out of one of the clouds, a pterodactyl of a winged figure emerges. As it flies over, I see it is an Audubon's crested caracara—Caracara cheriway—an elegant-looking tropical scavenger, with a white throat and large crested black head setting it apart from the more common vultures. Cara is Greek for "top of head," and it is so distinguished in this way that its genus repeats the word twice.

    In the art they left behind, the Aztecs of what is now Mexico depicted a caracara eating a serpent. Considering the sanctity they afforded snakes, that was mighty praise indeed.

    In water to my waist, I bend to feel the blades of the sedge called sawgrass, letting the sharp, serrated edges brush over my fingers. Golden now from the end of its growing season, the tops of the sedge will soon brown out and die, settling down into the muck.

    Although associated only with the Everglades in popular lore, sawgrass is found scattered along the entire corridor of the river. At Lake Poinsett, it actually grows in vast pastures; in other places, it thrives in patches, all the way up into the tidal lower basin around Jacksonville.

    I look closely between the sawgrass plants and see that this is far more than a monoculture: scattered about are the flowers of the string lily, the grassy maidencane, the buttercuplike white bloom of the duck potato. From the water's surface, I pick up a strand of bladderwort, an aquatic plant that captures tiny zooplankton inside its little swollen bladderlike leaves and then—perhaps in payback for every nibble an animal has ever taken from a plant—digests them.

    By spring, this wetland pasture will be alive again with the bacchanal of renewal, greening the plants here as far as one can see. But that's not all that will come back to life: in the warm days of March and April, the marsh will be consumed with the chorus of frogs—green tree and cricket and pig—all reaffirming their rights at once in a series of croaks, squeaks, and grunts to these "ambiguous and lonely, wild, huge bogs."

    But today, it's quiet around us, the unearthly silence in which the air actually seems to hum to make up for what's not here. Part of what's not here is the chirp of the Carolina parakeet, the sharp call of the ivory-billed woodpecker, two now extinct birds that made their last stand here in the protection of these lonely bogs. Perhaps their spirits are still here, fluttering somewhere inside the hum.

    Lowe sticks a sharp metal pole tipped with a pipelike probe into the soft bottom to capture a plug of the peat below. His arms go down below the surface of the water as the six-foot-long pole sinks into the murk. When he pulls it back up, the pipe is stuffed with peat, the same rich organic matter that makes the drained marsh so attractive to farmers.

    Deep below, says Lowe, is fifteen to twenty feet of this peat, the centuries-old accumulation of sedge long gone, dating from the earliest days when freshwater plants first colonized this basin.

    We trudge through the water to the edge of the tree island, a just slightly higher plateau crowded with stunted shrubs like the primrose willow, the St. Johns wort, the wax myrtle. I see the little purple fluff of a wildflower—a climbing astor—that seems scattered like an afterthought in the darker foliage.

    This is a bonsai of a hammock, one far older than its height would have us believe, sized down through time like the dwarf bald cypress found inside the savannas of the Glades. It may well have been here when Florida was first colonized, creating itself from the marsh simply because it could. "We haven't done enough science to know really how old trees like this even are," says Lowe.

    Water here moves so slowly as to be immeasurable. Mineral nutrients that might nourish growth in the subtropical climate come not from an enriched upland flow but from the rain, pure and nutrient-poor, like the distillant-quality waters that fall on the Amazon. There is oxygen at the top but little at the bottom.

    If this tree island is low, it is also too dense for us to make our way more than a few feet inside. Lowe and I slosh back to the airboat and flop back over the side like netted tuna. Snyder fires the craft back up, and we head off to a hammock in the distance with a higher profile, one that promises enough open ground to enable us at least to walk inside.

    As we go, flocks of white ibis rise from the marsh in great sheetlike waves. Here and there, I see the distinctive black "iron" head of the wood stork poking out at the edge of the grass, watch the gallinules madly paddling for cover like wind-up ducks.

    I also see a rare bird made remarkable by the fact it still exists here at all, a raptor known as the Everglades snail kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus). Crisply etched into the sky like a finely folded work of Japanese origami, the kite is scored by a distinctive white stripe across its tail.

    With fewer than five hundred snail kites left in the world, the hawklike bird teeters in the moment, just a few threads above the threshold through which the Carolina parakeet and the ivory-billed woodpecker have already flown. Reports of kites from the 1930s told of them once being abundant from the Florida panhandle to the southern Everglades. But as they declined to only a few dozen birds in the 1960s, biologists figured the widespread destruction of wetlands would finally do them in.

    Virtually flushed from the Glades by the skewed, dysfunctional nature of the artificial water cycle there, the kite is as dependent on the delicate seasonal balance of water as any animal can be. That's because it's bound not by territory but by habitat. "It's nomadic," explains Lowe, "so it follows the habitat it needs over the southern range of the state."

    The habitat it needs must have some vegetation but not too much, and it should be full of water that is both clear and clean. Perhaps most important, the water level must be stable enough so it doesn't suddenly swamp the low-lying nests of the kites or short-circuit the cycle of what the bird hunts—the fat apple snail.

    Although I see several empty shells, I spot no live apple snails at all around us. But the snail kites do, and that's what counts, for they must dive and grab the mollusks with their talons. I do observe several birds, perched on low scrubs just above the water, pulling the snails from their shells with their curved beaks. Before the day is over, I will count almost two dozen snail kites, more than I have ever seen in my entire life.

    Later, I will encounter the giant apple snail (Pomacea paludosa) thriving throughout most of the length of the St. Johns, for, after all, it is the largest freshwater snail in North America and is not so hard to spot if you are in the business of searching for snails.

    After a while, I will look forward to watching carefully for its pinkish, opalescent eggs, laid in rows on leaves and stems just above the water's surface. It is this egg—the beginning of us all—that must survive if the kite is to endure: a sudden rise or fall in water level will either strand and dry the eggs or, more likely, drown them. With no eggs, there will be no snails, and the birds who live on them will fly away, perhaps, one final time.

    As the upper river restoration has rewetted at least a chunk of the bird's historic habitat, the raptors have increased today to a population of four hundred to five hundred—one-fourth of which are found around us in the headwaters here, a bottom-line affirmation in which nature itself forges the grade by returning ecological links to the land.

    If the revitalization of natural water levels has driven restoration, so has fire. Generally portrayed as a natural disaster good only for its terror potential in B-movies and Bambi cartoons, fire helps periodically clear away the dense cover of one dominant species or another. In this way, it continually allows the valuable wet grasses to reemerge, instead of climaxing into shrubs and, eventually, forests.

    "Fire is important for the biological diversity of the marsh," explains Lowe. Besides stabilizing the grasses, fire releases nutrients—both from the ashes of what is burned and from the oxidization of the foliage. "It helps shift the balance between all these species that are competing furiously between each other here for space and light," says Lowe.

    Once solely introduced by lightning here in the valley, fire is now coaxed to life by humans to do the sort of things it does so well. Used in "controlled burns," fire then becomes part of the process of "helping nature heal herself." In doing so, it also helps keep water-sucking exotic trees like the Malelecua—a scourge of the Glades—out of the headwaters.

    Our second hammock finally approaches from the bow of the airboat. Snyder again kills the engine, and this time we all slide off the deck onto soggy ground that only covers our shoes. We walk single file up into the drier territory of this island—a hill by scant degrees—where bay magnolias tower up into an impressive canopy they share with bald cypress. From a ground cover of royal ferns and fallen cypress needles, greenish moss-covered knees randomly poke out, venerable and gnarled, troll-like monoliths. A cat brier vine with its banana-shaped leaves winds high into the foliage, next to an old water oak with bark that seems naturally corrugated.

    The wind wafts through the foliage canopy, releasing a scent both fresh and rarefied, the smell of land seldom visited, one that it has kept to itself for a long time now. If I were a Native American, returning across the lonely sedge in my dugout, this would surely be a fine home.

    Pausing, Lowe takes stock of the largest cypress: About one hundred feet tall by four feet around—a youngster compared with the thousand-year-old trees clear-cut from the basin for lumber in the earlier part of the century by loggers.

    "This one will never be logged," says Lowe. "At least we know that."

    All things considered, Lowe is optimistic about the prospects created by the enlightened public policy that manages the river basin. There is simply more land than ever protected by public ownership, more ecological restoration of damaged terrain, stronger laws on the books to support conservation.

    "In the next fifty years, I think we're going to see a blossoming of fish and wildlife in Florida," says Lowe. "At least until the population finally overwhelms what we've been able to do.... Then it'll be up to another generation to solve it."

Ecology is all about connections—not piecemeal slabs of habitat left standing as zoolike islands to assuage our curiosity or guilt but true, natural connections. When I read about early travelers riding up the St. Johns on steamboats only a hundred years ago, it still astounds me to hear them describe their journey into the "everglades."

    But that, in fact, is what these headwaters once were. The sawgrass marsh that surrounds me today used to sweep southwest to Lake Okeechobee, and from there, across most of southern Florida. The Seminoles, who migrated down into the peninsula in the late 1700s as Creeks, believed the St. Johns originated in what they called Lake Mayaco—Okeechobee—and perhaps it once did.

    The Seminoles, like the pre-Columbian Indians who lived here before them, could travel the entire length of this ecologically linked peninsula by dugout, from the Ten Thousand Islands up through Shark River Slough into Lake Okeechobee and out across Florida's horizontal ridge that divided the newer, lower terrain of south from central Florida. Wetlands were dominant then, water was higher, and physiographic zones like this could be seasonally navigated by running creeks and deep marshes, up over the Allapattah Flats to Blue Cypress and through the channels of the St. Johns, all the way to northern Florida.

    Artifacts found today in burial and midden mounds hundreds of miles from where they were first carved, hammered, and molded remind us of how profoundly vital such waterborne routes had once been. The Everglades didn't begin and end at the boundary to a national park in the southwest corner of the state then but truly seemed to be eternal and wet and everlasting. In this reality, the headwaters of the St. Johns sometimes overflowed south and sometimes north into the river basin, depending on the rain and the winds.

    The Mickosugees, the culturally entrenched tribe of Seminoles who still live on reservations at the edge of the Glades, harbor a creation myth that is a haunting intimation of Florida's aquatic genesis. In it, their ancestors dropped from the sky like rain into Lake Okeechobee and from there swam ashore. If they did, they would have shadowed the molecules of water that birthed all the great wet marsh and swamp overflow that was once central and south Florida.

    Okeechobee, in fact, is barely thirty miles from here, and streams like Taylor Creek lead into it and out of its northern rim toward the sawgrass. Southwest of Blue Cypress, stream relics, like Fort Drum Creek, wander through the marsh like dotted lines begging for connection. Together, they provide traces of a prehistoric trail, of a natural link between here and Okeechobee.

    But they are only shadows of their former selves: the big bowl of a lake was fully diked after a devastating hurricane in 1928, and the only waters that flow into or out of Okeechobee today do so on behalf of canals and locks that breech the encircling Hoover Dike.

    And so, the St. Johns is on its own now, rising alone from a marshland to create an excruciatingly gradual sheet flow, a second "river of grass" that moves north inside the old marine lagoon, instead of southwest like the Glades.

    How long truly is this river? By water management standards, it is 310 miles, with its headwaters beginning somewhere around the southwest border of Indian River County. But its biological genesis may even be a few miles south of there, deeper in St. Lucie and Okeechobee Counties. An old United States Geological Survey chart that mapped the river long before the district's restoration project was in place charts the St. Johns as 318 miles.

Blue Cypress Lake is just north of here, and it is a magnificent body of tannin water rimmed with cypress, as clean and deep as any lake in Florida can be. Unlike other lakes in the middle river system that sometimes turn green with algae blooms from human activities, Blue lives up to its name, reflecting the trunks and canopies of cypress on a mirrorlike surface that is nothing if not cerulean. It is a far more poetic name for a lake that, just a few decades ago, was called Lake Wilmington.

    Thoreau never saw this river system, but he surely read Bartram's description of it. And, as well as anyone, he understood the beguiling powers of water. When our airboat finally reaches the edge of Blue Cypress and coasts to a halt, we ascend again into the magnificence of absolute silence, broken only by the cries of the ospreys, and I think of Thoreau's evocation of such places. "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature," he once wrote. "It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature."

    Because it is almost entirely encircled with wetlands, Blue Cypress is fed with the drainage of these moist systems. Like wetlands everywhere, they cleanse the waters of any earthen depression lucky enough to be surrounded by them, functioning as eyedrops for this natural eye.

    To have many different species in any one place is a phenomenon to behold, nature's version of a well-faceted personality—or the real-life application of Noah's Ark, a single place where a multitude of critters coexist, some on deck, others below in steerage.

    Lowe tells me that a biologist who studies little insects that live down in the mud once found a higher biodiversity of them at the bottom of Blue Cypress than in any other lake in Florida. This is not just good news for the mud-loving arthropods of steerage but a vital sign that the rest of the food chain may be just as healthy.

    Most lakes in Florida, including the thirty-five hundred in the St. Johns Basin, were once as clean and clear as Blue Cypress—and not so terribly long ago. A 1941 aerial photo of Lake Apopka, which is today a sad, forlorn body of plankton-clogged water that feeds the Ocklawaha tributary in the middle river, shows a water body so clear that you can see bottom vegetation five and ten feet under the surface.

    North of Blue Cypress, there is a vast, spongelike wetland that sneaks water quietly across the Brevard County line, up to and around Lake Hell 'n Blazes, which some more puritanical cartographers have named Hellen Blazes.

    Although road maps show nothing between Blue Cypress and Hell 'n Blazes but the great blue marsh of the river, there is actually quite a complex corridor here that is half natural, half "structural"—as the engineers like to call their handiwork of dikes and levees.

    Lake Hell 'n Blazes is where the natural channel for the St. Johns River historically has emerged. From here, on a good map, you can trace the river with your finger for 275 miles, all the way up to Mayport and the river's mighty confluence with the Atlantic.

    But, as I will soon find, a line traced on a map does not always follow one traced into the earth.

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Table of Contents

1 Headwaters to Blue Cypress Lake 1
2 Lake Hell'n Blazes to Puzzle Lake 15
3 Econlockhatchee to the Osteen Bridge 39
4 Lake Monroe to Blue Springs 60
5 Hontoon Island to Lake George 85
6 Juniper Springs to Croaker Hole 108
7 Ocklawaha to "Charlottia" 125
8 Palatka to Picolata 141
9 Palmo Cove to Jacksonville Landing 161
10 Jacksonville Landing to the Atlantic Ocean 181
App. A Relevant Public and Nonprofit Contact Agencies 193
App. B Access Points on and near the St. Johns, from South to North 197
Bibliography 203
Index 211
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