New Frontiers

1/15/2010

Cruising Florida’s St. Johns River and its tributaries for the first time certainly cannot be compared to some of the world’s great firsts, such as the walk on the moon, climbing Mt Everest, or the discovery of the New World. However, for us the St. Johns represented a new frontier, one that we had not yet explored, one that has all the characteristics for a great adventure. It has abundant wildlife, remote creeks with scenic surroundings for anchoring out, crystal clear springs and the occasional small “Old Florida” town or village with unique “laid back” restaurants and friendly people. Our adventure started at Ortega Landing Marina in Jacksonville and then we headed south up river. You read that correctly, the St. Johns is one of the few Rivers in the United States that runs south to north.

Notice how black and calm the Six Mile Creek water is. We saw our first gator just to the right of the dock.

Sanford, Florida was our end destination on the St. Johns, before we retraced our path back north (upstream) with different stops than on our trip south. Our friend Louis, on Bella Luna, spent a great deal of time researching where the best stops were and based on this we decided our first destination would be Six Mile Creek. Let the fun begin!

Just another day in paradise playing tug of war with our boat.

Six Mile Creek is off the St. Johns River and only 25 miles south of Jacksonville and it was here we saw our first alligator; actually, Louis and Diane spotted it. The glut of wildlife really doesn’t become evident until after you get into the narrow part of the river south of Palatka so our first sighting was an early surprise. In our research, we had discovered that the Outback Crab Shack, up Six Mile Creek, had a quarter-mile long floating dock where we could stay overnight for free as long as we ate at the restaurant. All the reports were that the crab, gator and enormous seafood and grilled platters were well worth the stop, so we gave it a try and we were not disappointed. Lisa said we’d be stopping on our return trip.

Palatka was our next stop, before we entered the real frontier part of our exploration, where we ran into friends Roy and Ellen on Our Turn. We first met them in Charlevoix, Michigan in the summer of 2008, and have bumped into them several times since with our last visit being in Palm Coast, Florida in April 2009. It’s always good to have local knowledge so we felt fortunate when they agreed to come to our boat for dinner and share first hand experience of the St. Johns.

Murphy’s Creek is only eight miles further south and is where we anchored for the night. After both Kismet and Bella Luna were tied up together securely, we lowered our dinghy into the almost black water and proceeded up Dunn Creek. Once past a few homes and cottages the creek started to take on the feel of a Jurassic Park movie set without the dinosaurs. As we rounded a tight bend in the narrow part of the river we saw our first alligator of the day (he was a big one), lounging on a log next to shore sunning himself, and this was just the first of many we saw on this five-mile nature wonderland exploration. Even though we were in a soft bottom inflatable dinghy we felt reasonably safe due to prior research of the area. Our findings informed us alligators are not as active in the winter months and that they mostly feed at night. With that said we still stayed towards the center of the creek and didn’t take up Louis’ suggestion of towing a cooked chicken behind the dinghy. The gators were easy enough to spot without drawing that kind of attention and besides Louis was just joking around, at least I think he was!

We made our next stop at Georgetown Landing Marina for two days because of expected thunderstorms and wind, feeling more secure at dock. We did this because the area from Georgetown (mile 105) to just south of Blue Spring (mile 143) are considered the best of what nature has to offer on the St. Johns and we wanted to enjoy our visit through there under good weather conditions. We made good use of the time in Georgetown when the owners of the marina let us borrow their truck for a couple of short road trips.

Words and pictures only scratch the surface of how beautiful the Welaka Museum was, here you’re seeing just a few of the 2 dozen boats they have on display.

Welaka is a small river town seven miles down river and home to one of the finest one-of-a-kind boat museums you’ll ever visit. All four of us piled into the truck, excited like kids on Christmas morning about our road trip to the Welaka Maritime Museum (www.welakamaritimemuseum.com). The beauty of Richard Speas hand-crafted boats is best appreciated in person but if you cannot go you should at least visit the website. As a lover of all types and styles of boats I’d have to say that Mr. Speas captured a uniqueness in each of his creations, whether steam or gas powered each have their own sensual characteristics that make them truly one-of-a-kind.

We had a private tour given by Rand Speas, son to the deceased builder, and a master craftsman in his own right. Rand explained to us how he convinced his father to keep the collection together by setting up the museum and moving all the boats to Welaka, Florida from New York. Interesting side trips like these can sure help amuse a boater waiting for bad weather to clear. We’re glad we made the trip and had a chance to meet Rand and see his father’s creations.

We were probably only 20 feet from this eagle before he took flight.

We left Georgetown and after we crossed the ten-mile long Lake George (more in the next log about Silver Glen Springs off Lake George) Kismet and Bella Luna entered arguably the most Jurassic-part-like-piece of this water wonderland. In this 30-mile stretch, we saw so many alligators, bald eagles, and white ibis’ (even one roseate spoonbill), we just simply stopped counting. The gators were all different sizes, from two-footers all the way up to about 11 feet long. We had fun calling each other on the VHF stating we had just spotted an even larger gator than the last one or being advised that one of us missed spotting a bald eagle that was on a marker post only 10 feet from our boat.

The crystal clear water at Blue Spring enhanced our ability to see this manatee family swim gracefully by us.

Our destination was Blue Spring State Park. Blue Spring, as its name implies, is a spring whose head is up off of the St. Johns about one-mile. It’s not just any old State Park; it’s a very special one. At the head of the spring there’s an in-water cavern that goes down over 130 feet where 101 million gallons of fresh water feed out into the St. Johns River each and every day. The Blue Spring water is crystal clear and has a year round constant temperature of 72 degrees. Because of this, the spring is a natural migration destination for manatee as they seek warmer waters in the winter months.

Here’s one happy alligator! He looks full and relaxed without a care in the world, at least that’s what the turtle sitting in front of him on the log is hoping.

After anchoring, we dropped our dinghies into the water and beached them a short ride away at the park so we could walk the boardwalk back to the head of the spring. A short distance after we started our walk we came to the first platform hanging out over the creek and there they were! Four manatees swimming in unison, completely visible in the pristine waters, surprised us as they swam majestically and playfully together among the turtles and fish, with no visible concern for our presence. As we all worked our way back to the head of the spring, we continued to see more manatees enjoying the protected comforts of the spring. There were well over twenty of these magnificent creatures, gracefully moving around the shallow clear water. When we returned to the dinghies, on our way back to our anchored boats, we spotted a couple more manatees frolicking in a lagoon behind the visible protection of a Lily-pad field. Nature at it’s best!

With both Bella Luna’s and Kismet’s anchors set and tied port to port we never moved in the narrow Snake Creek, just up from Blue Spring.

After a comfortable night on the hook we made our way to the Monroe Harbor Marina in Sanford, our southern most destination on the St. Johns. Our trip up this river provided us a host of pleasant surprises; we found out that Sanford, Florida has a rich history in the American orange and celery industry, railroads and tourism. The revitalized downtown district, within walking distance from the marina, has some unique restaurants, art stores and museums. I took a walk in the rain for a self-guided tour, spending an hour in the Sanford Museum learning about this town and how this area of Florida used to be the largest shipper of oranges in the world as well as being nicknamed “Celery City” when it was the world’s largest producer of celery.

The four of us walked downtown to dine at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café, just recently voted the second best German Restaurant in the United States. Our tasty and authentic German meal was topped off by rounds of German beer and freshly baked German chocolate cake and just when we thought the evening couldn’t get any better, it did. Just as we finished dinner, a two-man band playing an accordion and singing German music (in German) entertained the crowd with their lively act. We couldn’t understand a thing they sang but, as they say, music is universal and it was a blast. When was the last time you saw an accordion being played?

He taught me about hunting, fishing, work ethics and so much more - that’s my Grandpa.

My Grandfather and his wife Donna winter in Mt. Dora, only 30 miles away, so Sanford was a convenient place for a little family get together. After a short tour of our boat we went out for lunch, but the best part, for me, was hearing my grandfather’s boating and fishing stories. One, that I remember the best was, when vacationing together with family in northern Michigan, he snuck up on my uncle and me (ages 8 and 9) while we were showering and took all of our clothes. When we finished showering we were completely surprised when we couldn’t find our clothes so my uncle and I had to run back to the cottage with just a scrap of newspaper as our cover. It was nice to see my Grandfather and Donna again; we had fun creating new memories and savoring old ones.

There’s so much to see and do on the St. Johns River, we’ll share the balance of our return trip “downriver” and more New Frontier explorations in the next log, stay tuned.