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

Read an excerpt from "RIVER OF LAKES"


"Unlike the mountains and sea-shore of the North, the scenery of the Tropics is greatest in its little things...." - a traveler who journeyed up the St. Johns by steamship in 1870.

Just moments after full dark, when the last shards of twilight slip away into the night, the jungle-like woods outside my tent turn abruptly on, as if someone has thrown a switch.

There are raspy screeches and deep, throaty grunts and the unsettling crack of branches being snapped in the underbrush. From the river nearby, something very large splashes and then exhales loudly. As I stretch out to rest, the hard-packed shell mound under me pushes through the thin tent fabric, outlining the knobby relief of thousands of fresh-water snails gathered here by aboriginal campers, centuries ago
I am not in a tropical rainforest in Latin America, but on the banks of a river that parallels the eastern coast of Florida, from Vero Beach to Jacksonville, the St. Johns. Tonight, I have have made my camp on Idlewilde Point, a rich, lush oxbow in the middle river basin rimmed with towering cypress and sabal palms, bermed by the high, chalky earth of Indian shell middens.

Historically, other chroniclers of Florida's longest river have come here before me over the last several centuries—from the early French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morques and naturalist William Bartram, to composer Frederick Delius and novelist Marjory Kinnan Rawlings. All of them found something that touched them deeply. In turn, they helped create a legacy of art and artistic science, themed by the river and the people it nourished.

At times, their discoveries and creations could be astounding, affecting those who lived far beyond the boundaries of the St. Johns. For instance, Bartram found that northern song birds didn't spend the winter under the ice of lakes, or fly to the moon, as commonly supposed in the mid-1700's. Instead, he reported, cardinals and robins like those he had seen back home in Philadelphia migrated south, down along the great winding, exotic valhalla of the "sublime" St. Johns River Valley.

For American and European readers who followed Bartram's Travels up the wild Florida river from the civilized comfort of their parlors, this jungle-like St. Johns may well have been on the moon. Although several degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, this was indeed, the "Tropics", with an exotically voluptuous promise locked inside its green walls.
Wedged in between these more aesthetic travelers have been a checkered lot of conquistadors, soldiers, renegades, and—this being Florida— unabashed promoters of tourism.

Steamships, which first hauled cargo up and down the river for early settlers and rugged frontiersmen in the 1830's, became larger and fancier, accommodating visitors lured by blue sky-dreams here in the land of flowers. These archetypical snowbirds descended on the swampy peninsula in a mad quest for health, wealth and adventure—riding the "highway" of the St. Johns each winter into the heart of known Florida, like today's snowbirds ride Interstate-95 and the Florida Turnpike. Between 1830 and 1920, there were some 300 paddlewheelers trailing their distinctive plumes of black, pine-fed smoke up and down its shores.

In this way, the St. Johns also became Florida's first tourist attraction, with luxury hotels, boarding houses and busy "landings" dotting the riverbanks from Mayport at the river's mouth all the way down to Lake Poinsett, over 225 miles south. As for the rest of Florida, it was simply too wet or too remote to catch on: A census in 1880 revealed that only 257 people lived in Dade County, including Miami—while 4535 swarmed over St. Johns, a county bordering the lower river.

For those who would promote such travel, it seemed almost impossible to describe the St. Johns without using the word "salubrious." Promotional pamphlets and guides to the river from the late 19th century told of a surreal waterway that was, apparently, not only free of bugs and frost, but a sort of balmy Shangra lai—a geographical Hotel California where you can check out, but you can never leave.

"There are men and women, healthy and vigorous, who in years gone by, came to Florida as a last resource from death," observed one guide book writer in 1885. "They dare not return to their old homes where the enemy still lies in wait for them."

As for reality, it was given a sort of backhanded acknowledgment. "There is malaria in Florida," noted the same writer, "but not to the extent commonly supposed."

Predating this deluge of Europeans by several millennia were the original natives of the river valley, the aborigines.

When the climate of Florida became more moist and the flow of the St. Johns became more sure after the end of the last Ice Age, pre-Columbians begin to settle along its shores. The certainly of this river and its bounty helped these people become less nomadic, more given to geographic commitments. They had time now to invent pottery and myth, time to interpret the nature that sustained them. The culture that arose was as complex and organized as that of any North American tribe, with ceremonial centers, pyramidal temple mounds, plazas and playing fields for a sort of ball game—a contest simmering with religion and allegory.

Of the dozen or so tribes that flourished here at the time the Spanish "discovered" La Florida, those known as the Timucua lived along the shores of the St. Johns, worshipping the sun and the stars, imbuing the eagle and rattlesnake with mystical powers, and using wild herbs to fire the magic that created a successful hunt, a victory in battle, an everlasting love.

It was LeMoyne who first captured these Indians at work and play in the valley of the late 16th century, rendering indelible likeness of them in 41 finely-detailed drawings. Theodore de Bry's engravings of LeMoyne's art were published in England in 1591, giving the world its first glimpse of the people of the St. Johns.

Although they were only here a short time, the French related to the Timucua in an intimate way, telling us more about them in three years than the Spanish could in two centuries.

Before the Timucua, there was a succession of even earlier peoples, stretching all the way back to the Paleo-Indians who briefly shared the river valley with huge Pleistocene mega-fauna like the mastodon, bison, saber toothed cat, and the glyptodont, an armadillo-like animal the size of a Barcolounger.

After the Timucua were enslaved, diseased and driven away by the Spanish, Creeks from Georgia and Alabama migrated down, often living atop the same middens and village sites the Timucua and others had created. Adapting to their new riverine environment, often accepting escaped slaves into their villages, the Creeks became known to the Spanish as cimmarones, "wild ones" or "runaways." In the Muskogean language of the Creek, cimmarone became Seminole—a description not of themselves, but of how the Europeans saw them.

The river fed them all, man and beast, bringing them to life on the banks of its channels, lakes and springs, and then—just as quickly— turning them into detritus upon which the ever-changing, water-rich system would continue to grow and reform itself.

From the Seminoles came a version of a word first used to describe the St. Johns, Welaka, —a corruption of Ylacco. It was said to mean "river of lakes." Ylacco is surely a graphic description of a system that seems to be a series of broad inland bays linked together by a channel. Then, there is another, lesser known interpretation of Ylacco. For me, it fits just as well, for it wanders into poetry: It hath its own way, is alone contrary to every other.

The clues earliest men and women left behind from their occupation of this river tells us not just about life in another time, but about how any environment shapes the social evolution of a society. And it leaves us with questions about what happens when we become clever and industrious enough in turn to shape the environment which will ultimately re-shape us.
The history of this river was a heady one to be sure. It was not only the first trail down into Florida, but, in fact, the first great river in North America to be explored by Europeans.

But, when I prepared to examine the St. Johns for myself, I was more than aware of the distance between today's expedient Florida realities and the slower, less frenetic times that set the backdrop for earlier visitors here. Since the turn of the century, the river has undergone marked changes, most having to do with man's conceit that he knows how to run things better than nature.

Could I still find an authentic experience here, in a go-fast state that either seems in a swoon with "progress" and contrived, theme-worldish fun—or which appears randomly sullied by crime and violence? When I told two friends of my extensive plans to visit the St. Johns and its swamps, one wondered if there was anything truly wild left to see; the other suggested I carry a gun...

Dawn on the river, near Blue Springs; from the cover of "River of Lakes"