-Suspension bridge, Ravine Gardens State Park, Palatka.Today’s blog post continues the story of Ed my recent trawler excursion along the St Johns River. It was September 9 and we had been Adrift for eight days. Definitely starting to “mellow out,” the world as we knew it seemed a million miles away.
In order to reach Palatka, we’d departed Ortega at dawn. With the wind at our backs and overcast skies, Ed guided us past some of the most beautiful small towns and shorelines of the St Johns River: Mandarin, the home of Harriett Beecher Stowe; Hibernia, where Margaret Fleming taught her slaves to read; and Green Cove Springs, location of the famed “Fountain of Youth, and the “Mothball Fleet.” So much history and Palatka would offer even more. –St Mary’s Episcopal Church built in 1878, shoreline, Green Cove SpringsGetting from Ortega to Palatka took about five hours. As we nibbled on apples and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we looked down on a tannin colored, wide, curvy, and heavily treed St Johns. I had to wonder how much different it looked during the St Johns Riverboat era, long over a hundred years ago. The river’s path was taking a significant swing west. Dark clouds had formed and the ominous Seminole Power Generating Station gleamed like a dark sentinel as we slowly approached Palatka.“Is that Georgia-Pacific?” Ed pointed from the upper deck to what looked like billowing smokestacks.
“Yes, the area of the paper mill, and a coal-fired power station I think.” I yelled back from the bow.
“Isn’t Palatka the place you read there was once a giant lumber yard?”
I shook my head up and down. “Wilson Cypress Company, established 1891-the second largest cypress mill in the world! I can’t imagine cutting down all those giant trees!”
-AdriftWith a few squalls but no major issues, we pulled into the Boathouse Marina, where Craig, the dock hand, greeted us with firm direction and a friendly demeanor. As were tying up, I saw the remains of an old riverboat along the shoreline; a gator slipped into the water. “I’m gonna love this place.” I thought. And we did!
Before we went exploring, Ed wanted to take the dingy out and go across to East Palatka. It was windy and clouds were in the distance but I agreed. We made it across and explored but on the way home the engine sputtered and died.
“You have got to be kidding me.” Ed said.
I remained silent. Ed fooled with the battery. Watching the clouds rolling in from the west and checking my phone, I could see it read: “Lightening in Area.”
“There is lighting Ed. You better start rowing!” Ed looked sternly into my eyes. “That’s why I have the paddles!” he replied. I knew this was not the time for discussion. So like a modern Cleopatra I sat looking at my phone while Ed rowed across to Palatka proper. Luckily, Ed did a great job and we made it safely across. Ed immediately got a beer and went over to look at the old riverboat and see if I could find the alligator. Paltka is like a time-capsule of Florida history: railroads, riverboats, and wonderful historic homes. Our favorite excursion was Ravine Gardens State Park, one of nine 1930s New Deal state parks in Florida. The park is an ancient ecological wonderland with two ravines up to 120 feet deep featuring walking paths, gigantic trees, and wildlife. Its springs and waters trickle to the St Johns. It is part of the famed Bartram Trail of 1773-1777. It was a quite a hike and beautiful! -Court of States, “Hi mom and dad!”I was born at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, 1964! -The Amphitheater We also enjoyed the “The Hammock,” part of Palatka’s authentic Historic District. These homes were built during the city’s hay day of railroad crossings and Riverboats. Palatka is the City of Murals. All together there are twenty-three! On the way home from Ravine State Gardens we followed the on-line guide and visited almost all. A great way to share the past. Palatka has a great historic downtown right in the middle of the murals and the homes. They have not taken down their Confederate statues but the conversation is alive and well!Before I close on this chapter of Palatka, there is one more story I must tell. The public docks were within vision of the marina. For two days and nights Ed and I had seen crowds of locals throwing cast nets off the dock and this went on for hours. One night there was thunder and lightening and I awoke around midnight. I got up and looked outside. To my surprise the people were still throwing their cast nets! I woke up Ed.
“What do you think they are catching?” I asked. “There must be something really incredible in those waters! What do you think? Catfish? Mullet? What could it be?”
Ed kept snoring and when we awoke the next morning, the fisher people were still there. When we went to dinner that evening at a great Mexican restaurant, the fisher people were still there! On our walk home, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Let’s go visit the dock Ed!”We walked in the dim light onto the dock filled with people. Old folks, children, women, men. They were casting their nets into the water methodically, one throw at a time. Ed and I watched, walking along the far side of the dock, trying not to get in their way. We strained our eyes to see.
“Shrimp Ed! “They are catching shrimp!” They were not bring up many, maybe ten to twenty at a time. Each person had a five gallon bucket. Little kids would pick up the shrimp that got free and place them back into the bucket. I saw one they’d missed at the edge of the dock that certainly would have shriveled up. I snuck it into my hand. I looked at the people working.
“May I take a picture?” I asked one of the sitting men.
“Sure,” he said. “Are the shrimp here all the time?” I inquired.
“No mam. They are here just once a year. This is the St Johns River shrimp run.” Ed and I smiled. We walked to the end of the pier. “I can’t believe it!” Ed said, “I never would have guessed!” I threw the shrimp that had been snapping in my hand as far off the dock as possible. “Stay low.” I whispered, hearing the shrimp are caught as they ride a rising current.
“Incredible,” Ed said grabbing my hand.
So many things we didn’t yet know about the wonderful St Johns River. Next stop Astor.
Watch a video of the locals shrimping!
12 thoughts on “Tales of the St Johns-Ortega to Palatka”
Thanks, Jackie. Those Cypress trees were “free stuff” to Americans, another conversation that should be ongoing.
It was free and they took just about all. I agree. I too often think we do not talk about the first destruction that inevitably affected our waters-the logging from the late 1800 to 1930. Thanks so much for your great comment.
Love reading about your adventures! And I’ve been in the same situation where you said “I remained silent!” So I totally get it! 😂
Enjoyed reading about your travels. It takes getting out of one’s comfort zone to delve into real history!
Oops…. Forgot to leave my info. From Marsha Livingstone
Well said! Thank you so much!
Oh how fun that must have been. Thanks for taking us with you!!!!
Dear Janet, so great to hear from you! I thought about you along our travels as you and I have spoken about the health of lakes near this area before. I learned, the St Johns is a river of lakes and springs! I also never forgot that photo you sent me of the air quality in China. Whether it is air or water it must be protected. Everything is linked. I do hope all is well with you and yours and thanks so much for reading and your comment.
Thank you for sharing your trip with us. My grandson lives in Palatka. He loves the area and has done a lot of fishing in the St. Johns river over the years. Beautiful history in the area also. My daughter lives in Hawthorne about 25 miles west of Palatka. She enjoys swimming and fishing in the St. Johns river and also the crystal lake area. I think you and your husband met her when she was down to the Locks in 2015 with the River Warriors. Her name is Tracy and she has done a lot of work trying to save our waterways. I really enjoyed viewing your trip with you. Sandy
My dad was a fish guide on st Johns on week ends. I belive we still have pictures of me in diapers some
60 plus years ago—fishing pole in hand.—this is Brent
Oh your dad- that is just wonderful Brent! I can just picture you as a baby on that wonderful river! Thank you for sharing.