With 200 miles of navigable waters, the St. Johns offers a true Southern blend of wildlife, creeks, and a colorful past
My idea of fun cruising has always been simple. Alternate a night in splendid isolation on the hook with a night of honky-tonk — though age has amended my definition of honky-tonk to
include any restaurant with a wine list that stays open past 9 p.m. Florida’s St. Johns River is a fine venue for this type of cruising. My idea of fun cruising has always been simple. Alternate a night in splendid isolation on the hook with a night of honky-tonk — though age has amended my definition of honky-tonk to include any restaurant with a wine list that stays open past 9 p.m. Florida’s St. Johns River is a fine venue for this type of cruising.
I undertook to write about the St. Johns River as a cruising destination, but with 200 miles of navigable waters, not including its creeks and lakes, that’s a big topic. So I’ve limited my ramblings to that portion of the St. Johns that I know: from Astor on Lake George north to Mayport at the Atlantic. Even so that’sa tall order.
It’s hard enough thinking about a river that flows north. Downstate is upriver; downriver is north. Defining the St. Johns is further confused by the origins of its waters. Some of the springs that feed it are remnants of an ancient ocean trapped beneath the Florida peninsula, pushing up salt water well beyond the ocean’s briny reach. The river is saltier at Lake George than where I live aboard in Green Cove Springs, even though I’m 60 miles closer to the Atlantic.
As for restaurants, there’s no shortage of variety along the St. Johns. Starting in Jacksonville, for example, you can dock in the Ortega River and be within a mile and a half of the Casbah Cafe, an outstanding Middle Eastern restaurant and wine bar serving hummus, pita, lamb kabobs and savory rice to the sway of belly dancers and aroma of hookah pipes, which have somehow been exempted from Florida’s restaurant smoking ban.
In Green Cove, 21 miles south, you can tie up at the town dock and see a film at the Clay Theater, a neon-lighted art deco movie house. Follow that up with oysters, boiled shrimp and chicken wings at Ronnie’s next door. Now you’re in the South.
For lunch the next day, you could poke your way up Six Mile Creek to lay alongside the new 1,000-foot floating docks owned by the Outback Crabshack, an open-air place specializing in Low Country boil — the Southern equivalent of a clambake with crayfish in the mix. Vegetarians beware: The “vegetable platter” contains a generous helping of sausage.
Farther south you’ll find elements of “Cracker cuisine” on dock ’n’ dine menus — fried catfish, hush puppies, black-eyed peas, cornbread, butter beans and ham hocks, smoked mullet. The No. 1 snack food, by the way, is hot boiled green peanuts. To me, hush puppies taste like an unsweetened donut, but I will testify on behalf of hot boiled peanuts. Boiled in brine and highly addictive, these so-called “P-nuts” are sold at ad-hoc roadside stands with hand-lettered signs, ladled into styrofoam cups or plastic baggies for a buck or two.
The river attracts its share of eccentrics, as I learned at a waterside tavern in Satsuma. I was unnerved to find Abraham Lincoln astride a bar stool in party mode with another 19th-century fellow. Abe was flirting with the barmaid’s cockatoo while his partner — a fellow long-range trucker — observed mirthlessly. For reasons I will never understand, the sight of the dead-president look-alike was profoundly disorienting.
En route to Lake Crescent
South of Palatka, the river narrows and twists. We had set out on a September morning to explore Dunns Creek, and as we neared the entrance the sky darkened. So much for the photos we had planned to shoot.
Into Dunns we turned as the sky unloaded on us. When it downpours in Florida, it can up-pour, too. And so it was, raindrops ricocheting upward off the decks of our Great Harbour N37 trawler. The rain overwhelmed the wipers, so I opened the wheelhouse door to poke my head out, scanning for deadheads in the narrow, meandering creek. This is fun.
Dunns Creek bisects jungle. It’s a hiding place full of myth, mystery and alligators. Our little ship had become a 7-knot time machine, bearing the child in both of us — my sidekick Richard Groene and me — to a place of pirates and desperate Confederate sailors scuttling the famous schooner America (see accompanying story).
Tattooed Timucuan Indians once plied these waters, too, and Richard’s blue Maori-style leg art — of which I had been unaware — looked a lot like that of the Timucuans we saw in those old middle-school history texts.
Creeks are fun because you have to drive them. I’ve been to hell and gone on autopilot over the past few years, and it was fun to use the wheel again. I focused on obeying my sailing directions for the unmarked channel: Keep to the outside on the turns but stay out of the hyacinths lining the banks. The depth sounder showed 50 feet in some spots, dropping to less than 5 feet in others. That’s when I’d pull back on the throttles, but our 3-foot draft carried us over each time.
A deaf old rock ’n’ roller he may be, but Richard still has eyes like a Timucuan. To starboard, he spotted the first white bird perched beneath the canopy, then another, then hundreds more. Their beaks curve downward, and my Audubon bird book says they are white ibis. When the rain quit, a pair of bald eagles passed above, and great blue herons glided over tea-colored water like pterodactyls.
The creek has its settled parts, too. We passed canal developments and the waterfront mobile homes with docks typical of backwater Florida. (In fact, the docks sometimes looked to be worth more than the homes.) Folks lounging on their moored pontoon boats stared at our broad red hull the way Native Americans may have once eyed European sailing ships creeping up Dunns on covert missions.
One of the earliest Europeans to do so was a Portuguese-born pirate known to his contemporaries as Big Jack the Ugly. It was his story and the scuttling of the America that inspired this little voyage up Dunns Creek to Crescent Lake, Florida’s third-largest.
Big Jack was a sailor aboard French and then Spanish ships until he made a career decision one day in 1703 somewhere off Florida. Big Jack led a mutiny, taking command of the Spanish ship on which he was serving and murdering everyone who stood in his way.
Big Jack worked the slave trade for another five years until he ran into a British warship off Charleston, S.C. His ship was badly damaged by cannon fire, but fog covered his escape. Big Jack limped up the St. Johns and into Crescent Lake, where he and his followers rested and made repairs. Over the next several years Big Jack would return to winter at the lake, where he had made friends among the local Native Americans.
In 1713 Big Jack’s ship captured the frigate Black Swan. They brought her up to Crescent to strip her of guns, stores and hardware before scuttling her about 2,500 yards southeast of the present Crescent City dock.
Crescent Lake is a consistent 10- to 12-feet deep and free of obstructions. Autopilot steered us toward the middle of the lake until we sighted the old-fashioned water tower serving Crescent City. We headed for it and tied up at the public dock for the night. The entire trip from Green Cove Springs was an easy six hours.
We ate just steps away from the dock at 3 Bananas, a cheerful Caribbean-themed waterfront restaurant. Owner Jerry Moldrik is an old raconteur best enjoyed while sitting at the bar. Renegades leave no lasting monuments, though Moldrik says that a mound on nearby Bear Island marks the gravesite of Big Jack’s Indian friends, massacred in his absence by a rival band.
Crescent City, like Palatka and Green Cove Springs, is a sleepy, undiscovered place, and like the others offers fine examples of late-Victorian architecture in the shade of sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss. The town is on the lake’s developed western shore, but looking out from the town docks toward the north and east, the area surely appears as it did to Big Jack: thick woods and tannic water.
Connection to nature
In my day job as communications director for trawler builder Mirage Manufacturing Co. in Gainesville, Fla., I have had occasion to ponder why 21st-century folk take to the water in pleasure craft, and I believe I’ve cracked the code. If there’s a common thread connecting us all — whether your vessel is a megayacht, kayak, PWC or, in my case, a 41-foot ketch-rigged sailboat — it’s that we are making a connection to the natural world. The vessel is how we share that connection with family and friends. If I’m right, the St. Johns River is about as rich a boating venue as you will find in North America today, based on its flora, fauna and natural forces too numerous to list.
At the marina where I live aboard, they finally got rid of a local alligator named Tail Lights that was becoming too aggressive. He got his name because his eyes are so far apart that when you shine a light on him at night, the big gator’s eyes reflect red like the brake lights of a VW Beetle.
For those who fish, I have already covered some heady ground. Dunns Creek is on Florida’s top-10 list of best places to catch catfish, and Crescent City modestly proclaims itself “The Bass Capital of the World.” On a trip to Palatka last year, we saw dozens of small boats whose occupants were shrimping with cast nets. To say a lot of fish live in the St. Johns oversimplifies.
A subspecies of the same striped bass we fished for as kids off Massachusetts in Buzzards Bay swims its entire life in the confines of the St. Johns, never joining its brethren in a run up the East Coast. And Lake George is frequented by many ocean species. In fact, visiting sharks are said to include bulls and hammerheads. Despite the ’gators and sharks, manatees seem untroubled.
The St. Johns River has had a powerful influence on today’s attitudes toward the environment. At about the time of the Revolution, a character and naturalist named William Bartram included the St. Johns in a tour of the Southeast to inventory the region’s resources. His descriptions of the river, like the one at the beginning of this story, beguiled poets, writers and thinkers of the American Romantic Movement, not the least of which were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. American Indians called Bartram Puc Puggy, meaning “flower-hunter.”
Whatever your politics, there is no denying the direct chain of thought linking Bartram’s writings to today’s environmental movement. Which is why I’m a bit ashamed to admit I had no concept of the St. Johns River until I moved onto it a couple years ago, even though I had crossed it numerous times en route up or down the ICW. I always considered myself a history buff, but I’ve been humbled by my ignorance of this great river. James A. Michener may well have picked a lesser subject when he wrote “Chesapeake.”
The history of the St. Johns is a great “people” story. Florida has always attracted more than its share of adventurers, fugitives and dreamers, Bartram being just one. Another is Denys Rolle, an idealistic English politician who established a plantation on the east side of the river just south of Palatka, which he populated with beggars and prostitutes from the streets of London. When the workers ran off, Rolle became a slave-holder. This social experiment was located at the site of a present-day power station, which you can see from the river.
Florida was a sideshow during the Civil War, but a lively one. The St. Johns was hotly contested, and the Union Navy eventually came to hold sway over its lower reaches. Yankee attempts to seize actual real estate, however, were frustrated until the end, thanks to a wily Confederate cavalry captain named J.J. Dickison. Dickison earned his place in military history when he ordered an artillery ambush of the Union gunboat Columbine and captured her at Palatka. Dickison, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox,” became the first cavalryman in history known to have captured a naval vessel.
I was surprised to learn that Hallowes Cove, a favorite for overnight getaways across from my marina, once was defended by a Spanish fortress on Popo Point.
Maybe our ignorance of the St. Johns can be explained by its having peaked too early. Its heyday was the post-Civil War steamboat era. With the coming of the railroads, the region faded out of view, and Florida became synonymous with beaches and sunshine — that meant South Florida, not the dark waters of the St. Johns.
Ever since Huck Finn and Jim took their fictional raft ride down the Mississippi, river voyages have been a national metaphor. A trip along the lower St. Johns will be one of discovery, quite possibly self-discovery, and always fun. One of the best things about the lower St. Johns is that it leads to the upper St. Johns, another 100 miles of creeks, lakes and Americana.