Three Nights in Paradise

2/1/2010

After having traveled fairly quickly up the St. Johns River all the way to Sanford, Florida, we were ready to slow the speedometer down on the way back to Jacksonville. Our goal was to see a few different areas on our return trip and my personal intention was to find a special spot to hunker down in for a few nights so that we could truly enjoy the sleepy, swampy, ambience that makes up this river. If you are a long distance boater you know that there are times when, due to schedules or weather, you find yourself in a pattern of moving from place to place every day without stopping to pause, or the stop is so short it’s not fulfilling. Sometimes we would find that even though we did stop for a well-deserved break it was often while being tied up to a dock at a marina where we could be busy with land activities or social events. It’s a demanding way to live with little time to reflect and relax. Well, I love moving and seeing new things and I love visiting the various marinas and towns while making new acquaintances, but there is a part of me that craves swinging on a hook in far removed locales where I can enjoy a rare opportunity to just savor the surrounding wildlife while also being able to experience an unspoiled preserve. I am always amazed that, when we are anchored in some vastly remote place, our chosen lifestyle has enabled us to fulfill our desire to commune with nature. It also has provided us with rare opportunities to experience what the native wildlife encounters on a daily basis, the dark and quiet nights, the glow of early, sometimes foggy mornings, all those beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the pitch-black darkness, or sometimes even a hot, windless, rainy afternoon.

We enjoyed our dinghy ride through the Wekiva River.

While my craving to slow down and check out for a few days is in my nature, I don’t think Jim shares the same trait. He loves to be on the move and feels confined when he can’t get off the boat, so when the subject of stopping to relax and commune with nature comes up I sense a little anxiety seeping from his well composed demeanor. I think it just takes him longer to slow down and relax because when he does indulge me in an occasional “pause,” he usually ends up thanking me for insisting on the break and admits that it was restorative for him as well. Sometimes we don’t realize what we need until after we have experienced it. As we were heading away from Sanford, unbeknownst to Jim, I was already quietly planning which spot to hide away in for a few days. I was becoming almost giddy with the prospect of swinging on the hook, with nature and my honey.

Hontoon Landing State Park has a nice hiking trail through the park with different types of vegetation throughout.

Our first stop after Sanford was an anchorage in an oxbow across from Wekiva River, just a short eight-mile cruise. We found a nice anchorage near the river, which made it convenient to dinghy over to explore and take photos. We had been told not to miss a chance to go back into this swampy black water preserved area, which is full of hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods. The Wekiva River is part of the near-pristine river system in Central Florida and is a major tributary to the St. Johns River. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including several designated as endangered, such as the wood stork which nests in the cypress trees within the aquatic preserve. We did not see any that day but we would have liked to, as they are very impressive birds. The river is also home to some threatened plant species such as the needle palm, butterfly, water orchids and the Florida shield fern. We had a visually entertaining afternoon to say the least, followed by a quiet dinner on the boat. As I said before, this was a very nice anchorage, there were lots of palm trees and a good view of a colorful sunset, however, since the anchorage was dotted, further back, with little homes it was not as remote as I was hoping for, so we passed on an extended stay there.

As you can see we were all alone on the docks at Hontoon Island State Park.

Next was Deland where we tied up to the dock at Hontoon Island State Park. For twenty bucks, (five more for electric hook up) this was a real deal. We found a spot on the end of the t-docks and, except for a few small boats and the ferryboat that crossed back and forth frequently to Deland, we were alone during our stay. This island has been a state park since 1967 and previously was a pioneer homestead, a boat yard and cattle ranch. Depending on the elevation there are pine flatwoods in the higher areas with palm/oak hammocks and cypress swamps in the lower areas, with marshes bordering the St. Johns River. We took the long three-mile hike around the island and saw a few armadillos near the trail but that was all, no gators, bears, or snakes. Thank goodness!

This gives you a good idea of the channel and springs area at Silver Glen Springs.

Day 3 on our return trip we finally arrived at the spot I had been scheming to escape to with Jim for a few days, Silver Glen Springs (http://www.sjrwmd.com/springs/silverglen.html). Ever since we left Sanford, it had been overcast with some light rain, but shortly before our arrival at the entrance to the springs, the skies miraculously cleared and the temperature warmed to the high seventies. Everything was coming together for execution of my plan, good weather, crystal-clear water, (72 degrees year-round) and a happy captain.

For the better part of three days we had the springs all to ourselves.

We were nervous about the channel into the springs as we have heard, in our research of the St. Johns River, that this channel can be very shallow with only about 4.5 feet of depth most of the way in. Due to recent precipitation the spring and channel were at a higher level, so this helped with our ability to navigate into the springs. Our boat has a 3.5-foot draft and since there was a sandy bottom with crystal clear water, we decided to make our way into the spring, but it was a little nerve wracking. Except for our time in our home waters of the Great Lakes or the Bahamas, we usually travel in murky water and can never see more than a few inches under the surface of the water. So the clear water made it seem shallower than it actually was, we were glad when we finally set anchor with the help of Larry, a boater, and a regular visitor to the spring, who was anchored nearby.

Kismet at anchor in Silver Glen Springs, Florida

Jim kept pretty busy cleaning the bottom of the boat and working on the dinghy motor which decided to quit on us recently.

Now Jim may have had the idea in his head that we would spend two nights at this anchorage, but I waited until he relaxed a little to spring the idea of a third night on him. “Why not,” I said. “This is paradise and it will be awhile before we see such warm clear water again.” Well, it didn’t take a lot of coaxing to convince him of the benefits of hanging out for another night. I have to say he took advantage of the down time, but only after he scrubbed the bottom of the boat – something you can do yourself, if you can see the bottom under the water. He found a few other projects to fill in those anxious moments when he felt the need to move around. I, on the other hand, had no problem relaxing. I spent time reading outside in the warm sun, went swimming two of the three days and even baked some bread. We played our new favorite card game, Liverpool, daily and we both dinghied around the anchorage and swam up to the cavern where the water flows from the spring.

After swimming in the clear warm water I am soaking up some sun and enjoying our little getaway.

One of my relaxing activities was to bake some fresh sourdough bread. Yummy!

I really enjoyed watching the birds stalking fish and flying from one bank to the other, back and forth, over and around our boat. There were schools of fish that swam around the “pool” and at dusk, they would jump high out of the water to catch bugs flying above the surface. At night it was so still and quiet, except for the fish jumping and all the noises emanating from the woods. However, the thing I enjoyed most was being able to hang out with my sweetie in such a remote area where we could truly unwind, enjoy some personal quiet time and each other.

A relaxing happy hour on the bow of Kismet.

When our three days at the springs came to an end we spent four more days getting back to Jacksonville. First we went to Welaka to stay at their free dock, which is located right downtown. We had dinner in town that night, as we like to return the favor to a town that has so generously provided our dockage for the night by visiting its restaurants or stores. After that we returned to two places we visited on the way up river, Palatka, for two nights due to weather, and Six Mile Creek, for one night, including a return visit to the Outback Crab Shack Restaurant. Both were excellent stops with free docks available for the boating community. Jim and I both agree that our St. Johns River trip was a huge success, the kind of boating we crave and look forward to in our travels. So now, as we begin to head south once more down the ICW, we find ourselves still savoring the time spent on the sleepy St. Johns River, especially our three nights in paradise.