Adventures in Central Florida
Discovering St. Johns River, nature’s reverse waterway, a serene day trip
The concrete legs of the Florida State Road 40 bridge rise around us, echoing the rattle of a car crossing overhead. Beyond the bridge there are overhanging trees and dripping moss waving at their own reflection in the fresh waters of the St. Johns River. We’ve just set out on a four-hour cruise in a posh pontoon boat. We’re excited because it’s not every day you get to head upriver on a waterway that’s already headed up. Most rivers run north to south but the St. Johns runs south to north, an odd geographical fact that is one reason for making this serene daytrip worthwhile.
Setting out from the Blackwater Inn in Astor―just east of Florida’s Ocala National Forest―we glide past fishing camps, private piers, fancy homes and falling shacks. Quickly the riverside decorations melt away and the waterway and views expand. Now we can see for miles in all directions, 6 wide and 11 long, to be exact. We’re on Lake George, the second largest freshwater lake in Florida, smack dab in the Ocala National Forest. It’s breathtaking, and we find ourselves gasping and gaping at the massive scene, the chubby white clouds to the east, heaped on one another like dollops of whipped cream; feathery wisps of cotton to the north; a screaming patch of brilliant blue to the southeast, all hovering above the vast lake.
On average only 8 feet deep, the brackish lake waters offer a playground for humans and otherwise. Bass and mullet wait patiently for a tease and a hook, while local and migratory birds wander in and out like swim club members. With three salty springs pouring in from the west―the Juniper, Silver Glen Spring Run and Salt Springs―and the northward flow of the St. Johns River, the salinity of the lake is high, supporting other less likely visitors that include stingrays, striped bass and blue crabs. I’m told alligators are longtime members of the club. Despite not seeing any, this is Florida and I have no reason to doubt the info.
Starting in the central Florida marshlands of Indian River County, this monster waterway flows 310 miles north to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean, enhancing the shores of a dozen state counties. Along the way it widens and narrows as much as 2 miles as it collects and trades water in three separate basins with more than a dozen lakes and plenty of springs. The beauty and serenity are more than enough reasons to be here.
We stop for directions from a local bass-boat fisherman, then head into the Silver Glen Spring Run. Once again nature puts on a show, box turtles jockeying for position on a fallen tree limb, an anhinga spreading its wings wide to dry, and fish darting and jumping all around us. The channel narrows precariously, then suddenly explodes with boats, kayaks and floating inner-tube people, all peppered
It’s not every day you get to head upriver on a waterway that’s already headed up.
across the cul-de-sac spring. It’s the human swim club! I set our anchor in the weedy and white-sand bottom, noting the colorless clarity of the warm water. With a cooler of snacks and beverages, our boat is a floating patio of padded sofas and chairs, a table, a Bimini top and a music system.
Another of the pleasant surprises of this venture is you don’t have to be a licensed captain to operate the watercraft. The pontoon boat is steady in the water because of its design and I find it a pleasure to drive and the experience exhilarating. A little basic markers-and-buoys information from the rental company and you too can keep your timbers from shivering and make it out and back. (There are guided tours available if you don’t feel the captain in your soul).
With a four-hour rental we’ve had plenty of time to cruise, anchor, relax and return. We gas her up at the rental dock and slip into a berth, already thinking of that ice-cold captain’s reward on the upstairs deck of the Blackwater Inn.
Reflecting as the sun dips, there’s nothing like a day of rollin’ up the St. Johns River.
Like much of the state, wildlife in central Florida is everywhere. It's the quiet shorelines, a lift bridge, the chubby white clouds, the pure serenity of this journey that grabs your heart.