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Florida's Heartland - The St. John's River

Travelogue - March 20, 2013
"I feel closer to Wyoming here than any other place in Florida."

- Rick

River route 2013 Rick was very comfortable with the sense of remoteness that we enjoyed on the upper reaches of the St John's River.

Mighty St. John's

Our cruising goal this year has been the mighty St. John's River. The St. John's is the longest river in Florida, wending its way 310 miles from its marshy beginnings west of Vero, to its outfall into the Atlantic east of Jacksonville. Its overall drop in elevation is less than 30 feet (for an average slope of 0.00183% FYI) and at its widest point it is nearly 3 miles across. That's a lot of water, moving very slowly.

Looky: here is a map of the watershed (source: St. John's River Water Management District) displaying the northeast corner of Florida. The red line shows our route from Vero Beach, paralleling the coast on the ICW: 248 miles northward from the St. Lucie Inlet to Fort George Inlet. Then inland 18 miles to Jacksonville, then south 112 miles to Hontoon Island State Park near Deland. The navigable river continues on past Sanford, south of Orlando, nearly as far south as Vero again, but by then you'd need a smaller boat than the awesome Sea Gator.

And the river is flowing north, which is counterintuitive to those of us who are directionally challenged. The St. Johns is one of about 33 north-flowing rivers in the world, including the Nile (the longest at 4,150 miles), the Little Bighorn (traversing Wyoming and Montana over 80 miles) and the Saginaw in Michigan (the shortest at 20 miles).

Whereas the Nile has crocodiles, the St. John's has alligators. Since we're on the subject I'll tell you that the Little Bighorn has bison and trout. I don't know about the Saginaw but they probably have trout, too.

Sea Gator's previous travelogue Heading North brought us into Jacksonville. Although the city is 18 miles up the river from its mouth into the Atlantic at Fort George Inlet, we considered Jacksonville the starting point of our St. John's River journey. I don't know why. We just did.

Sea Gator at Jacksonville Landing Friday, March 8: We had an uneventful night tied to the free Jacksonville Landings dock, left. By morning's light we read the array of interpretive signs along the riverwalk where we learned that Jacksonville gained its fame as the loading point, first for cattle, then for vast lumbering interests from upriver.

This county-sized municipality was once a pokey town called "Cowford," where cows were transported by ferry across the river. By 1859 when Jacksonville was chartered as a city, it had become the state's major port, exporting both timber goods and cotton.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Jacksonville had a population of about 7,500 permanent residents and drew more than 75,000 tourists annually. By the end of the Civil War Jacksonville had developed three primary industries: lumbering sent massive quantities of hardwoods from inland to growing communities along the coast, tourism brought wealthy easterners to their winter playgrounds, and exporting produce (especially oranges) kept everybody busy.


Sea Gator is a riverboat now

We cast off our lines at a civilized 9:15 and started upriver. Then we immediately screeched to a halt, Rick peddling Sea Gator in place for nearly 20 minutes as we waited for a train to cross the low-rise railroad bridge spanning the river in downtown Jacksonville.

While we wait, let's talk about the trains.

During our jaunt up the east coast we've been listening to the rush and whistle of trains. The whistles wail from afar, perfectly pitched to evoke wanderlust.

Florida's east coast is corrugated with railroad tracks carrying passengers and freight:

Like many other east Florida coastal areas, Jacksonville's beach communities became established with the development of the railway system. A group of Jacksonville businessmen united in the late 1800s to construct a rail system that ended at the beach east of town. In time deluxe hotels were built, beach property was sold, and in 1888 the first direct railroad service between the city and the North was established.

Henry Flagler is often credited with extending the existing routes from Jacksonville further south along the coast at the same time he built luxury hotels along the way. We discussed Flagler in a previous travelogue, Marathon, and will do so again when we return to St. Augustine.

Meanwhile, Rick began to wonder whether the freight train we were waiting for would ever end, but it finally did and we resumed our journey upriver/south.

Jacksonville from the south Soon after clearing the last of its urban bridges we left Jacksonville in our wake, literally. Rick began to call it a lake as the river widened suddenly to about two miles across. On the eastern shoreline we could see jets making touch-and-gos at the naval air station. Elsewhere the lake was bordered by occasional water-front neighborhoods.

It would be about 3.5 hours to our destination, Green Cove Springs, so let's learn more about the river's history, shall we?

Naming A River

Historians hold that the Timucua tribe lived on the site of today's Jacksonville since before the year 2000 B.C.; they called the river Welaka — or river of lakes.

The first documented European visitors to the area were a group of French Huguenots who sailed into the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 — almost 50 years before the settlement in Jamestown. The French established Fort Caroline on a high bluff overlooking a river they called Riviere de Mai because they arrived there on May 1.

In 1565, Spanish soldiers marched north from St. Augustine and captured Fort Caroline in a bloody massacre. Later, the river was renamed Rio de San Juan after a Spanish mission near its mouth.

In 1763, soon after England acquired Florida from the Spanish, King George III sent botanist John Bartram to explore Florida. His son, William Bartram, stayed in Florida and published his book Travels in 1791. It describes his exploration of the river as far south as Lake Harney.

Finally, at the cost of 300 years of bloodshed between natives, Spain, France, Great Britain and America, the region became a territory of the United States in 1821. And the English translation of the name — St. Johns River — has endured.

Green Cove Springs

Around 1:00 we cruised past a cute little dock and boathouse on the eastern shores of the river. I texted Pam of S/V Blackfoot: "Yoohoo, I can see your house from here!" Pam went down to the dock to wave, then crossed her yard and hopped in her car.

Clay County Courthouse, Green Cove Springs Sea Gator slid primly up to the Green Cove Springs city dock - river mile 42 - and we tossed lines to the cleats and pilings, just as Pam arrived to greet us. She and I piled in her car - Pam had scored me a hair cut appointment concurrent with hers and we had a lovely time at the salon and the antique stores, abandoning Rick to his task of securing Sea Gator and locating the police station to pay our $20 for overnight dockage.

Green Cove Springs appeared to be a nice little town - see its historic Courthouse, left.

Spring Park, Green Cove Springs The city used to boast a historic luxury hotel on the waterfront, which is no more - the railroad having carried wealthy sun-seeking tourists further south in its day. But the town has many lovely old homes and some cute businesses downtown. The "city center" consists of several blocks surrounding the actual "springs" for which the town is named.

The burbling mineral spring fills a lined basin, from which a waterfall feeds a large public swimming pool. There is an old historic bathhouse nearby. The rest of the block contains a very pretty and well-used park lining both sides of the spring's outfall to the river. Signs warn would-be waders to avoid snakes and alligators, and fortunately it was cold enough we weren't tempted to be scofflaws.

Right, there is Sea Gator at the end of the dock, seen from the Park's gazebo.

All the necessary amenities are within walking distance of the dock. That evening Rick, Pam and I strolled to dinner at D'Fontana. The next evening we all saw OZ at the downtown cinema where, following the main feature, they projected old cartoons on the exterior building wall. We saw vintage Mickey Mouse dancing in his underwear at the helm. Very cool!

Steamboat Willie was an appropriate cartoon to show on the St. John's because paddle-wheelers were once the preferred way to travel the river, first carrying settlers and then plantation goods, soldiers and arms during the Civil War, and later tourists:

Sternwheeler on the St. Johns
In 1807 Robert Fulton successfully inserted a steam engine into a boat, the Clermont, to drive huge paddlewheels on either side of the boat. "Fulton's Folly", as detractors called the project, changed the world...

Sidewheeler on the St. JohnsIn its heyday, the Steamboats made the St. Johns River a popular winter destination for northerners. By the 1860s, several steamers were making weekly round trips from Charleston and Savannah to Jacksonville and Palatka, and other settlements.

St. Johns fleet of approximately 150 steamers carried freight and passengers on the river and its tributaries. These vessels made daily trips and during the peak period carried nearly 100,000 tons of freight each week... The U.S. Census of 1880 recorded that there was a larger fleet of steam vessels carrying passengers and freight on the St. Johns than on any river south of the Hudson in New York...

By the end of the Civil War, Jacksonville had developed three primary industries: lumbering, tourism and exporting produce, especially oranges; although there was some overlapping, each type of industry normally called for its own type of ship. Thus, three main types of commercial vessels plied the St. Johns: the schooner, the side-wheeler and the stern-wheeler:

Sternwheeler Schooners were sailing ships with a fore and aft rig; they were especially good at carrying bulky cargo.

Side-wheelers were steamers with two paddle wheels located on each side amidships; they were usually employed as ocean-going vessels for both passengers and cargo. Most tourists arrived in Jacksonville from the north aboard side-wheelers.

Stern-wheelers were steamers driven by one huge paddlewheel pushing the vessel from the rear; these shallow-draft vessels were good to maneuver in the relatively calm waters of inland rivers to bring produce from inland farms to the port (right).

And wouldn't it be cool if such interesting ships still plied the waters?

Green Cove Springs Marina Saturday, March 10: We bid adieu to Pam and headed out. Within a few miles of town we spied the old Navy docks, which now house the Green Cove Springs Marina. The river is two miles wide at this point so our pictures of the docks aren't logue-worthy. Nor are they aerials, like this cool one I scavenged on line, left. Just A Vacation warns that it can be a technical challenge to climb from your normal-sized boat up onto the destroyer-sized docks. But it's a popular place.

We seemed to be traveling back in time as we followed the river, experiencing its history in reverse: We started at the ridiculously bustling metropolis of Jacksonville where the rushing of automobiles over the nearby bridges went on all night. Motoring up the river in the morning we immediately stopped for a train - a vestige of the grand era of railroad travel which had displaced the steamships. And as we followed the river south we would get back into riverboat country, and then into canoe country, and then into gator country...

The cruise to Palatka would take four hours. In the meantime here are some more cocktail party tidbits:

Palatka

Noah's Ark When William Bartram sailed down the river, he stopped briefly at an Indian village on the very spot where Palatka is now located. Into the 1830s the area was a trading post, until Fort Shannon was built there in the early 1840s to secure the strategic location during the Seminole Indian Wars. In the 1850s, Palatka became a port of entry into the interior of the state. Steamboats were vital to the city’s economy until the 1920s.

As we cruised along, the river eventually narrowed until we slid beneath the soaring Highway 100 bridge. We skirted a half-dozen sailboats enjoying a race, and easily located the Boathouse Marina at Palatka City, river mile 75.

The marina has an interesting past: it's the remains of a facility that manufactured PT boats. The one standing building has workshops below (still containing tools) and offices above (with not-very-modern bathrooms and washer/dryer). The previous owners sold the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, including (wait for it) the remains of the sternwheeler Noah's Ark, which sits on stilts awaiting restoration, right.

There were no dockhands to help us into our slip, as the marina owner was participating in the regatta instead of twiddling his thumbs standing around waiting for us. But no worries: had we needed assistance, a very friendly man wearing work clothes and knee pads was there to greet us. He proved to be Don, our neighbor on the dock - the marina owner had phoned him to ask that he greet us when we arrived.

Don, Maryann and their Yorkshire Terrier "Tater" use their houseboat Contented as a weekend getaway from Jacksonville, and they were very nice folks. We all piled in their truck and went out to dinner that evening, and Rick and I enjoyed their company.

Rick's Florida Heartland Theory

Don, Maryann and Contented This day began a new phase of the trip, during which we would meet exceptionally friendly, kind and genuine people. It's not that Rick and I were suddenly more outgoing and friendly ourselves - just the opposite in fact - but that Don and Maryann, left, exemplified the friendliness that we encountered along the River.

Rick developed his "Heartland Theory" which revolves upon the following premise: That some people on America's east coast can appear (brace yourself) cold and/or obnoxious (nobody we know personally) and some people on the west coast can appear hurried and snooty (ditto), and it is generally accepted that folks in the heartland of American are more laid back, genuinely friendly, and have better manners.

In a microcosm of the country's profile, so Rick's theory goes, the east coast of Florida - lying in a direct line from New York via I-95 - is often populated with not-so-downhome snarky folks in the heavily populated areas, and its west coast the same. But whenever we've traveled inland from the coasts, we've encountered more easy-going and friendly people. Not all of them happy to see us tourists, of course, but nice enough themselves.

I hate to generalize, there are always exceptions. But Rick's theory began to prove itself out as our trip wore on.

Goldie

By this time Goldie was sick again - the protocols we followed to manage her renal failure weren't keeping her little body working like it should. And so we took An's advice, rented a car at the Enterprise in Palatka, and made the two hour drive to UF's Small Animal Hospital in Gainesville. There she stayed for a biopsy, and then she had to stay for several more days after that because she got an infection from the procedure. Jeez! Poor Goldie!

She also was not recovering from the anesthesia the way she should have. When they brought her in to us, limp and wrapped tightly in a blanket, she was completely unresponsive. I hissed, bared my fangs and snarled "Give her to me!" and Rick and I clutched her to us and took her outside in the sunshine and grass, and we talked to her and stroked her fur until she came back to us.

We visited her each day, and several days later went to pick her up. As we paced we heard a sharp report echoing in the tiled waiting room. It was the unmistakable barking cough of a velociraptor. Rick and I looked at eachother with wide eyes. Surely dinosaurs should be in the large animal hospital, across the parking lot? But no, it was a lady with a cold. Kh-hark. Kh-hark. Kh-hark kh-hark kh-ark! We quickly moved to the other end of the waiting room - the last thing Goldie needed was us bringing home any respiratory germs.

We brought her home to Sea Gator with care instructions for her NEW diagnosis: IBD, Incendiary Bowel Disease. Which included feeding her 25 ML of food and water with a syringe every three hours, plus an array of medicines on the clock. We were glad to do it, if it meant she would feel better.

Punchin' the Prowler

That evening Don and Maryann came to us with the terrible news that little Tater had died unexpectedly the previous night. It was a sad day for them, but they were extraordinarily gracious and shared our relief that Goldie was back with us. To distract them from the weight of their grief, we all went to dinner at Corky Bell's Seafood, a fun establishment on the riverside featuring an alligator theme. There were life-sized statues of gators standing upright and wearing hats, and gator pictures on the walls. The blurb on the menu included an old faded photo of Noah's Ark in its day.

Chrysler Prowler The next morning Don came to ask if Rick wanted to go for a cruise in the Prowler. Rick was getting ready to decline due to his typical overload of work but as I told Maryann, the poor guy hadn't had a single moment's break from me and Goldie for months - he needed to go. And he and Don had a great time:

I'm glad I accepted Don's offer of a ride in the Prowler. I knew about Chrysler's retro-roadster but had never seen one up close or had a chance to ride in one. As soon as we got out of town Don punched it and I got to see what the big V6 in the lightweight prowler could actually do. He hit 75 in just a few seconds.

We crossed the river on the high-rise bridge and headed south, Don intermittently speeding where traffic allowed, and then pulled over at the Dunn's Creek Bridge. We got out and looked at the creek, visited with fishermen, and watched a trawler come under the bridge heading for Crescent City - said to be the Bass Fishing Capital of the World.

Visual aid We piled back in the car and headed to Tommy's house. Don's friend Tommy is the owner of Gibson's Boat Yard on the St. John's. Tommy, one of his friends, and Skip from the Boathouse Marina were there and we all discussed our common interest in wood turning. We got to tour Tommy's workshop, which was amazing.

Then all piled in a pickup for the ride to the boatyard - Don would not take his Prowler on a dirt road! He joked that of the nice machines we all owned, we four grown men would rather all pile in the back of a pickup. The boatyard was fun, we met a guy working on his 1960's sailboat with extensive brightwork. He gave us a tour aboard and his work was beautiful.

On the way back to Tommy's house we took a circuitous route looking for the wild turkeys Skip claimed he'd seen, but they had vanished.

Leaving Tommy's house, Don took the Prowler across the highway then pulled over and told me to switch seats. OK! I carefully pulled out of the lot and headed up the highway, diligently observing the speed limit and all applicable rules of the road, when Don said "Punch it!" So I punched it and I had us at 75 miles an hour in seconds flat like he did.

When I noted that the steering was exceptionally tight Don explained, "Yes, well, it's a sports car!" Nothing like my 1983 Ram Charger at home. I punched it a couple more times where traffic permitted, then returned to the marina at a conservative speed.

Riverfront park, Palatka Ah, no wonder MaryAnn had come to call on Sea Gator around lunchtime to assure me that "When Don gets in that car he could be gone for hours, don't worry." I had begun to wonder. Now I know.

Later that weekend a large Defever yacht came to the end of the pier. She was Sara K on her return trip downriver, and we met her people, Tata and Lucius. We immediately found we had mutual friends - Sara K and Aurora had ridden out Superstorm Sandy together. Small world indeed.

Tata gave us the lowdown on their favorite sights along the river, some fun little "safari" sidetrips in the dinghy, and some not-to-miss restaurants along the way. When we discussed groceries I assured her that we were set because I had bought three bags of M&Ms in St. Augustine, and she said "Oh no, you'll need more." She was right - I had to restock periodically.

Which leads us to the visual aid, above right, which should be self-explanatory.

Victorian mansion for sale Palatka has an interesting downtown that they are trying to revive - the non-profit Palatka Main Street has hired a full-time "downtown manager" who schedules events and tries to fill the empty historic buildings before they fall down. There are some nice-looking restaurants, but on a Sunday afternoon is was pretty quiet and we settled for cool drinks at Viva! Italia Pizzeria's outdoor tables. The edge of town that fronts the river is banded by a linear park with fountains and walkways, above left, leading from the bridge past the city dock and just short of the Boathouse Marina.

There are many many lovely old homes near downtown as well. Don explained that the really nice homes were inland, as the waterfront was considered rough and dirty in its day. But this gem is only a couple blocks off the river and is even for sale, right.


Ravine Gardens State Park

The Court of States in its heyday On our last afternoon we took a quick jaunt to Ravine Gardens State Park. The annual Florida Azalea Festival was held here on March 2nd and 3rd - we missed it by a week. The Park is 146 acres, 90+/- of which is ravine:

The gardens were developed by the City of Palatka, the Federal Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression from 1933-39 in an efort to spur the economic recovery of the City of Palatka. Azaleas were chosen as the theme flower of the gardens because of their brilliant bloom during the tourist season. By 1934 over 95,000 had been planted by Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) workers.

The ravine garden in its heyday In 1937 the gardens were declared "the Nation's Outstanding CWA Project"... The surviving structures and landscape features - examples of the American Rustic architectural style popular during the mid-20th century - include the main entrance, two suspension bridges, amphitheater, stone terraces and the Court of States with its obelisk dedicated to President F. D. Roosevelt.

In recognition of its historic significance, Ravine Gardens was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places... in 1999, and was recognized as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Court of States today Those who equate "garden" strictly with "flowers" may be disappointed. The fabled azaleas were past their bloom when we were there, but that way we were able to study the Garden's bones. The trail system was intact and we walked the inner loop for several miles, admiring the place from every vantage.

Wyoming's plaque The premier space is The Court of States, an enormous formal lawn approximately a football field long by one-half football field wide (Rick's estimate). It is strictly symmetrical and each long side is bound by a vine-covered arbor. Originally, each of the arbors' pillars held a state flag. A small plaque named the state, its year of admittance to the union, its nickname (?) and its state flower. We located Wyoming's plaque, right, and felt oddly proud.

The formal lawn slopes to a circular court around a spring-fed fountain. From there twin staircases lead down to the next level: a smaller lawn bounded by a stone wall with the stone stairs in front, plantings on either side, and a portico into the ravine behind. We passed through just ahead of a wedding party - the small lawn was already filled with folding chairs and flowers. Folks in their Sunday best mingled and tried to keep little kids clean. There was joy in the air as soon the bride would float like an angel down the winding staircase.

Under the arbor We stepped through the portico and left any semblance of groomed symmetry behind. Originally, the bottom of the ravine was filled in with soil, its naturally-flowering springs piped to a central pump house for distribution to the town above, and 90,000 azaleas were planted filling the ravine with a river of color. The ravine was crossed by two pedestrian suspension bridges; their original concrete abutments remain, as does the old pump house which is now a classroom.

Rick under the portico On one edge of the park is a broad lawn terraced with native stone. The terraces face a rough stone stage, where the first Miss Azalea contest was held.

A scenic drive still circumnavigates the park, while the original trails still bring visitors down into the ravine and around it sheltered by many huge trees. The ravine itself has gone completely to wild, it was more an archeological site than what even I would call a garden. The springs have broken through their pipes so there are pools and flowing water in the bottom, and the azaleas have been elbowed out by ferns, waterlilies, and native woody shrubs. It's surely very pleasant, but it's nothing close to meeting its original design intent. Today, there is no way a volunteer group is able to maintain the ravine: the stone walls are teetering in many places, the stairs have become uneven, and one end of the ravine is completely overrun by bamboo.

That said, the entire Park is still a great space with lots of room for many different activities to take place, from weddings to picnics. The pumphouse area is a good destination for walkers, as it has an open lawn and access to all the open waters converging there from the many springs. We had a great time walking all the trails and trying to figure out where we were down in all the over grown nooks and crannies. Although the "trail guide" is NOT helpful it's still a good idea to bring it along, you never know.

Palatka could be a fun place to spend some real time, but we had water to explore.


Murphy Creek Anchorage

Murphy Creek sunset Monday, March 18: The three of us needed some quiet time to collect ourselves and Goldie needed to sleep, so we departed Palatka at a reasonable hour and motored upriver. The river grew narrow and more beautiful with each passing hour.

River mile 82. We turned up Dunn's Creek - enjoying from the water the scenery that Rick had seen from the bridge on his Prowler tour - but then we made a quick turn to starboard and wound into Murphy Creek, where we set our anchor in 12' of water.

Kitty asnooze Murphy Creek was absolutely wonderful. It was probably the nicest anchorage we've ever visited - good holding, minimal tides, unparalleled scenic beauty. We rested in quiet company of fish, birds, alligators and the occasional fisherman. It was a beautiful, peaceful evening.

Figures, it got cold again, so we also concentrated on keeping warm. Here is Goldie cuddled up to Rick and snoozing in the warmest place on the boat - I moved the insulating layer of blankets to check on her, she's fine, then gently covered her up again.

We would have stayed longer if we weren't behind what passes for a schedule around here.


Welaka

River below Welaka Tuesday March 19: We reluctantly hoisted the anchor and rejoined the world, er, main channel.

We passed through the Buffalo Bluff railroad bridge. The bridge tender didn't have a shelter of any kind, so it seemed he had a tendency to wander. No worries, the bridge is normally open unless a train is coming so we sailed on through.

Fifteen winding and lovely miles later we again came upon low-key riverside development, mainly single-family homes and fish camps, and soon came abreast of Welaka's town pier.

River mile 97. We motored gently up to the tee-dock on the end of the city's fishing pier, getting it right on the second try because the current and wind were not in agreement. Tying up was relatively easy, but getting on or off the boat proved to be a bit trickier: clusters of thick pilings cabled in a clump (collectively called a "dolphin") stood sentinel at the edge of the dock. Their girth held Sea Gator several feet away from the dock; add Sea Gator's bulky fenders between her hull and the dolphins, and the result was an extremely high and long step from the sidedeck down to the dock. A gangplank would have come in handy.

I minimized my forays ashore, just to be on the safe side.

We fed and med Goldie and made sure she was warm, then collected our hats and sunscreen. We clambered ashore for a walk, and just then an unmarked cruiser came down the road to the end of the dock. Rick strode forward to introduce himself to Welaka's Chief of Police, Charlie.

Rick had heard that Chief Charlie welcomed visiting cruisers - as long as you could truthfully assure him that you weren't going to stay very long.

The Chief greeted Rick by gesturing at Sea Gator and joking, "What, you couldn't bring the big boat?" Ha. Then he asked if we were there for the upcoming auction...

The once-legendary Welaka Maritime Museum had recently closed and all its exhibits were going up for auction the following weekend.

Rick said "We wish," and confided that he just hoped to be able to see the Museum before it was all gone. The Chief said, "Nah, it's closed, but she's up there right now. Go on up, tell her I said you could look around."

After posing for a picture with me, and then snapping a portrait of me and Rick and his thumb, the Chief went on his way. We walked up the street to see what there was to see in Welaka Florida.

Welaka Maritime Museum

Wooden boat 1 A block up from the dock we found a little park bordered by extraordinarily clean (!) restrooms and showers (!!), tennis court, playground and fitness circuit. Nearby was the Town Hall, and a short walk under large live oaks brought us to the Wooden Boat Museum.

Wooden boat 2 A woman and her assistant were loading a couple of pickup trucks in the draining heat; she apologized to Rick that they were in a huge hurry before the auction and just getting ready to leave - but then she signed wearily and said, "You can go in that door, keep moving, come out this door and we'll lock up behind you..."

Wonderful, thank you!

We did as she asked, but it was hard to hustle when our heads were whipping around in circles as if we were possessed and there were so many incredibly beautiful things to see:

Her husband had built all of these wooden boats by hand. Then, he built steam engines to run them. Then, he fixed them with unique whistles and ornamentation. He also built fabulous wooden containers and urns - all from strips of wood glued to form, not turned on a lathe. He had passed away several years previous, and his son ran the Museum until he, too, passed away. The sole survivor was now visibly weary and heartsick and ready to call it all a day. Hence the auction.

Engines We moved as quickly as we could and once outside the second door, dazzled by the bright sunlight and all we had seen, we thanked her. She padlocked the door behind us with a sense of finality that made us sad.

Pieced urn We continued our walk. Most of the town nearest the park seemed to consist of single family homes on large lots and several neighborhood churches.

The town seemed pretty clearly segregated, so when we saw two pale and casually-dressed individuals walking a dog in the distance, we recognized them as Larry and Susan of the Grand Banks East Bay Zest, who had come in soon after Sea Gator arrived. We rendezvoused at a street corner and made plans for dinner later on - it was easy to come to agreement as there were two restaurant choices and one was closed that evening.


The New Wooden Boats

Joest Boats, Welaka FL As we angled our steps toward the river to finish our walk we spotted a large and ornamented structure, which looked old but in good repair, right. The door on the right had a welcoming sign so we peeked inside and found Skip Joest of Joest Boats: "Expert wood boat restoration by Master Shipwright Skip Joest, new wood boat building and repair, expert boat carpentry."

Joest Boats workshop Skip obtained his formal education at The Landing School, and he's spent the past decades working on boats old and new, notably the Schooner Mistress (click the link to view photos of the restoration).

Skip and his one dreadlocked and tattooed assistant were working on what would become the hull of a new catamaran. Skip said the boat will only weight 7000 lbs when it's completed. Holy cow!

Skip showed us how he was doing the glue-up of slats for the hull, below right, and outlined the design and construction process. Another shop would wrap the hull in graphite when Skip was finished.

Back at the dock we boarded Sea Gator without even using a grappling hook, arriving well in time to feed and pet Goldie.

Skip Rick and I and Larry and Susan rendezvoused on the dock and headed up the road again, turned right, and several blocks later found ourselves at the popular and crowded Shrimps Are Us.

We settled in at a table for four, and here came Chief Charlie. He immediately asked us how we liked the Museum, and that's when we learned that he had gone straight from us to the Museum, told the proprietress we were coming and asked her if she couldn't let us in. On the surface that seemed very tourist-friendly and neighborly, and I'd prefer to think of it that way.

In any case, the restaurant was packed, everyone knew everyone else and they were very friendly toward us. We enjoyed a dinner of salad and good seafood, and walked back to our boats content.


Georgetown

Georgetown Marina fuel dock Wednesday, March 20: We fed and med Goldie, waved Zest off on their journey home, then fired up Sea Gator's mighty engine and turned her bow upriver.

Soon we came to the little riverside town of Georgetown, river mile 104. Georgetown sits on the very verge of the large Lake George, and the Georgetown Marina, Lodge & RV Park is perched on its edge.

We pulled in for diesel fuel, and the dockmistress working there warned Rick that the pump was slow and it would take forever.

No worries, it was a nice day. I restocked the M&M supply at the ship's store and strolled around the marina, admiring the herons and noting that the majority of boats were small day fishing boats, with a few quite large fast-boats and trawlers at the outside slips. Right, see Sea Gator at ease on the fuel dock, a large boat tied at the first slip, and the expanse of Lake George in the background.

Meanwhile Rick pumped fuel and chatted with the youthful dockmistress. She had some fun stories about the town, and some very good information about the marina. It's rates are reasonable and it looked like a good stopover, should worse come to worse.

Onward.

Lake George

Upper Lake George fenders OK, wow, this was a pretty big lake indeed. Measuring eleven miles long x six miles wide it could stir up a respectable chop in the weather.

Fortunately we had an easy crossing and an hour and a half later came to the southern edge of the Lake.

There the narrow river emptied into the broad lake, and Rick piloted us through a set of bizarre fenders that we still can't figure out, photo right. Either they are for the express use of birds or are intended to reduce cross-currents while transitting the narrow dredged channel. Or something else.

Again on the river and enjoying its lovely meandering stillness. Small houses and fish camps lined the banks for several miles as we passed Astor.

Soon, there were no buildings, and only the occasional bass fisherman to be seen. The water was still, the banks were overgrown and verdant, the clouds were photogenic, and we were in heaven.

This is what we had hoped for, and it was even more beautiful - and fun! - than we had imagined. We were entranced.


St. Johns River St. Johns River


St. Johns River


Pat at the helm, St. Johns River




Hontoon Island State Park

Still Wednesday, March 20, although it seems we motored into another era.

Sea Gator at Hontoon State Park dock We followed the river in a daze, until it brought us to Hontoon Island State Park, at river mile 139. We brought Sea Gator abeam of the eastern tee-dock and tied up safely.

Here she is early the next morning, from the Park's ferry dock on the EAST shore of the River - which is now MUCH narrower now than the two-mile width we started with above Jacksonville.

We had lots to see and do here, so we decided to settle in and stay for a week.

In the meantime, everybody, stay safe.

- Pat and Rick

Resources and fun reading

St. John's River Keeper: Explore Your River

For riverboats, see Virginia M. Cowart's 2005 Paddlewheelers on the St. Johns - a very informative and thoroughly-researched article. With pictures!

Jacksonville History, lots of interesting information.

The River Returns: Stories of the Great St. John's

If you don't read anything else before planning your trip, don't miss St. John's River Water Management District.

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