Tales of the St Johns – Palatka to Sanford

East Palatka, St Johns River selfieHow does one tell the story of the St Johns River?  Believe it or not, the St Johns River starts close to home in the western marshes of Indian River and northern St Lucie counties. Drained and destroyed for agriculture and now in the process of being restored, the waters of these wetlands wind north, melding with springs, creeks, and rivers finally exiting into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville. This is the mighty St Johns!

When Ed and I began our trawler excursion this year, I really didn’t know what to expect. I read as much as I could, asking my mother to share history, but even so I was really unprepared for the experience. The St Johns is so long (310 miles) and covers so much territory. It runs through twelve counties. I couldn’t even find it on one map. With the Mainship’s  four foot draft, only a portion of the river was navigable (Jacksonville to Sanford) but it is much longer than that. So again, how does one tell the story of the St Johns River? A part at a time.

  1. Stuart to Ortega
  2. Ortega to Palatka

Today’s part, 3, Palatka to Sanford, is longer than the previous two and will be the final tale of our journey. By the way, as 1st Mate, I didn’t miss a line! 🙂On September 11, 2021, Adrift departed the shores of East Palatka headed for Sanford. We were excited. There would be famous things to see along the way like, Rodam Reservoir, Lake George, Welaka State Forest, Astor, Hontoon Island, Blue Springs State Park, and Lake Monroe. We had overnighted at Corki Bells close to the 2,757 acre Horseshoe Point Conservation Area the night before. As with the entire St Johns, in some areas the water appeared impaired and in others not. By the conservation area the water looked healthy. The fish were jumping.  It was this morning that we saw the first eagle.

“Ed is that an osprey or an eagle? It has a white head. Oh my gosh! It’s an eagle!”

Over the course of the next two days, Ed and I saw a total of sixteen eagles, mostly in pairs.  They were staring down at us from tall cypress trees; they were sitting on channel markers eating fish; they were swirling overhead. It was incredible! None of my photographs are good enough to share, but I did take a photo of a mural at Corki Bells that gives the feel of these soaring majestic eagles, especially on Patriot Day. -Map showing St Johns River cut of Cross Florida Barge Canal to the Ocklawaha River

PALATKA

One cannot tell the story of the St Johns without telling the story of the Ocklawaha. Not too far south of Palatka’s conservation area lies a cut from the St Johns River into the Ocklawaha River -scared by the history of Rodman Pool and Kirkpatrick Dam. In the 1960s and 70s Marjorie Carr and Defenders of the Environment garnered public and political will to halt the ecological nightmare of the still infamous Florida Cross State Barge Canal. Today activists calls continue to free the damed Ocklawaha.

I had read so much about the 1800s Riverboat trips to Silver Springs and how they define the history of Florida itself -so much so that there is a giant painting by Christopher Still in the state Capitol entitled “Ocklawaha”and historic documents and photos of the river are housed in the archives of the University of Florida. She is a part of the St Johns we must never forget.

-Dredged cut  into St Johns River- the beginning of the Cross Florida Barge Canal-Historic postcardsRiverboat mural of the Ocklawaha, Florida State CaptiolUFLibrary Theodore Hahn’s Ocklawaha historic documents and photos

LAKE GEORGE

The winding waterway south of Palatka is treed with cypress, sable palms, and other trees I didn’t know with only a few small towns along the way. We saw turtles, alligators, wading birds and more eagles!  After about five hours we made it to Lake George the second largest lake in Florida and interesting enough, although the river is fresh at this point miles from the ocean, the lake is brackish -due to salt water springs- leftovers of an ancient Florida sea. The first clue we were in a different ecology was the abundance of hundreds of seabirds: seagulls, terns, and smaller birds I did not recognize. It was as if we were at the ocean! Shallow, eleven miles long, and six miles wide, Lake George is known for quickly- rising dramatic storms. Sure enough, when we entered the lake it was a beautiful day, by the time we were exiting, cumulonimbus had developed over the eastern edge forming thunder, lightening, wind, and white caps.

-Seabirds line the wooden guide to exit Lake George

ASTOR

Just south of Lake George lies Astor, a small hamlet that friend Captain Paul, who we’d met in Ortega, recommended. Ed and I stayed at Astor Bridge Marina. After a creative docking assignment, Ed and I exited Adrift stumbling upon the gigantic William Bartram Memorial Oak that had almost been obliterated by Highway 40 -basically cutting this little town in half.

As most of us were taught in school, in the mid 1700s William Bartram returned as he’d first come as a boy with his father to famously document the St Johns River Valley’s flora and fauna. The records remain a baseline today. For me it was serendipitous to find the  memorial tree and learn that Astor was a location that William Bartram had actually overnighted. Between all the eagle sightings and the memorial oak, I was feeling inspired to continue my own  journey for the St Lucie River. -William Bartram Memorial Oak, Astor, FL

AN ACCOUT BY WILLIAM BARTRAM

There was an exquisite sunset that evening. Sitting on the upper deck, as Ed sipped a vodka, and I drank white wine, I read Ed an excerpt from William Bartram. An account of a storm on Lake George as shared in Tales on the St Johns River, by Hallock.  Behold the little ocean of Lake George!” How absolutely full of wildlife the St Johns River Valley must have been when the Bartrams visited Florida in the 1700s! His accounts of birds, alligators, deer, bears, wolves, fish, the tannin-clear waters, and native people is especially amazing . I started to realize the St Johns Valley is equally important to the Everglades.

SANFORD

-Ed fixing the water pumpOn the morning of September 12, 2021, we departed for our final St Johns destination, Sanford on Lake Monroe. Docking was easy at Monroe Harbor Marina. Ed wanted to go get a pump as our water pump was failing, so I looked around  while he went to the office. Immediately I recognized  something because I’d been reading that William Bartram book. I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of dime sized banded mystery snail shells.

The grackles had eaten the mollusk and thrown the shells aside. I remembered Bartram’s account about the native people of Lake Monroe eating these by the millions to sustain themselves, creating middens, and that some of these middens remain today. What a name: Banded Mystery Snails…

-Lake Monroe approaching Sanford-Banded Mystery Snails from Lake Monroe, Sandford, FLWhere is Sanford anyway?To the east of Sanford lies Cape Canaveral and to the west Mount Dora. My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Dell Rawls Henderson, was born in Plymouth, Florida, not too far southwest of Sanford, close to Lake Apopka. The metropolis of Orlando lies south and Sanford International Airport, once a naval air station, now operates worldwide. Sanford has had its up and downs but now it is growing!

It was a fun change from being anchored out. There were good restaurants. There are great historic districts. Goldsboro was interesting. It was the second black incorporated township in the Inited States!  And the Sanford Museum?  It told the story of how the city grew up from agriculture south of Lake Monroe and Swedish immigrants role in its success. Once the citrus crop froze in the late 1800s, Sanford became the “Celery Capital of the World.” I never knew that!

-Sanford Museum with celery columns  -Sandford’s famous downtown clock -St Johns Riverboat tours  on Lake Monroe a big hit since 1850! -Downtown is historic and modern -The best pancake breakfast and coffee Ed and I ever had! Colonial Room Diner-Having fun! Many homes had natural yards for butterflies and birds in the historic district. -Veterans Memorial Park, Lake Monroe It’s hard to share everything so I have just noted highlights. What a great experience the 2021 St Johns trawler excursion had been!  It was sad to leave but it was time to get back to the St Lucie. Our farewell was a  beautiful and crystalline day and Ed and I shall cherish  it forever. “Goodbye St Johns! Thank you for sharing! Thank you for educating! Thank you for un-plugging us from social media! Now please safely take us home.”

So on September 15, now tried and true, Ed and I left Sanford to head back up the St Johns and then down the Indian River  towards “Stuart on the St Lucie.”

-Heading out of Lake Monroe-A mirror of beauty, the St Johns… -Returning home…

Watch a video of the beautiful St Johns River 

16 thoughts on “Tales of the St Johns – Palatka to Sanford

    1. Stephanie we went up the Indiana River from Stuart to Jacksonville where we entered the St Johns River. From there we went “down” as far as we could to Sandford. I’d like to go kayaking in some of the areas south of Sandford to Indian River County where the marshes of the river are. Thank you for your kind comment!

  1. Jacqui, we took the Autotrain home on Sunday. Trackside scenery tends to be pretty drab, but the stretch between Palatka and Sanford was just magnificent. The reflections of the giant clouds on the ponds, lakes, lily pads and sawgrass looked just like a Highwaymen painting.

  2. It’s interesting that you are just now writing about the Barge Canal – it was just featured in another article, and is part of the perennial debate over destroying the dam and returning the area to wildlife. FIshermen and environmentalists – normally aligned – diverge here because the lake created by the dam is one of the last unspoiled prime bass fhishing areas left in Florida. THAT’S the REAL shame: Thank you for your first person reporting of water quality issues here in FL!

    1. Thank you for this comment. I so wanted to cover the Barge Canal even more but I really am no expert (so interesting) and I too have been seeing more in the news as that controversy heats up. You provide many insights.

  3. Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip to Sanford. We have friends that live on a lake there and just love visiting. Also watched the video and it looks so familiar. Welcome home!😎

  4. Growing up in Winter Garden, near Lake Apopka, I have fond memories of my Daddy and his friends and their “flotilla” going up the St John’s for the Gator Bowl. I never got to go, but he took me up the Dora Canal and all the way to Silver Springs…and monkeys!!! Such memories! I loved traveling with you two. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Janet hi! What memories! Just wonderful! Silver Springs and the monkeys -I believe some are still there.
      -Winter Garden is such a pretty part of the state; too cool your family had a flotilla up the St Johns for the Gator Bowl! I just smiled thinking about how much fun that would have been!

  5. I have a hummingbird depth recorder with side scan sonar you could have borrowed for your trip. The world you are totaly oblivious to is the underwater world and you shouid really
    check into the humming bird depth recorder w sidescan sonar. Then you would know if you are on dead water or water full of life. You can bet water full of life you will find calcium near by.

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