Adventures in Cen­tral Florida

Dis­cov­er­ing St. Johns River, na­ture’s re­verse water­way, a serene day trip

Gulf & Main - - Gulf & Main - BY THOMAS O’GRADY JR.

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.

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