Life along the St. Johns River

Published 1:25 am Sunday, March 27, 2011

I was not serious when I complained about being left at home when my three sons made their annual motorcycle tour out west last summer but, to compensate, they took me down to Daytona Beach for a full week to motorcycle and enjoy the Florida branch of the Watson clan. Son Mark, gave me transportation from my home for five unforgettable days in central Florida on motorcycles.

Last week I told about traveling to the Indian pow wow at Mt. Dora. Today I want to share with you a 2 hour ferry trip down the St. Johns river. Are you familiar the St. Johns? Neither was I but I can tell you this, it is not your ordinary river and here’s why:

With a length of 315 miles and thirteen tributaries the St. Johns River is the longest river in Florida. From the headwaters to the mouth it meanders slowly through twelve counties with a drop of less than 30 feet. This explains why the flow of the river is only a third of a mile an hour and why it is described as “lazy”.

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St. Johns is also peculiar in that it, like very few other rivers in the country, runs north. It is also different because, in this vast swampland it spreads out to form numerous lakes on its way to the mouth near Jacksonville where it empties into the Atlantic ocean. At its widest point between Jacksonville and Palatka it forms a lake three miles across. Like all the other waterways in Florida, St. Johns is fed by rainwater and maintained by the Floridian Aquifer, a natural underground reservoir.

We arrived early for the ferry boat trip and were pleased to spot a few manatee in the big Blue Springs knowing that as the days grow warmer they leave the warm springs to graze on the tender water plants up and down the freshwater streams.

I was not familiar with manatees but interested in learning more about this huge gray mammal that lives in water. They are about 10 feet long and average about a thousand pounds. The homely face is wrinkled with whiskers on a snout. The manatee’s closest relatives are the elephant and the hyrax. And what’s a hyrax? I looked it up and it turned out to be a small gregarious plant-eating mammal that resembles a rabbit with short ears and has toenails resembling hooves. Strange kinfolks.

Manatees have to surface every few minutes to breathe but they have been known to remain submerged for as long as 20 minutes. Unfortunately, since they stay close to the surface of the water, they are often injured or killed from collisions with boats.

Our guide for the trip was Captain Tom who called our attention to egrets feeding in the shallows and blue herons, one sitting on her nest, wild turkeys in the woods, large turtles sunning on the logs and alligators resting quietly along the river bank. “Gators” can reach 13 or 14 feet in length and weigh over 600 pounds but Captain Tom stopped the boat to allow us to see a monster alligator of 15 feet. Don’t be fooled, that critter might be feigning sleep. He can lunge out of the water at a burst of speed equal to that of a fast horse. Everyone remained in the boat.

At one time both the manatees and alligators were protected as endangered species but today the manatees, as of 2011, now number 4,480 while the gators have become so numerous that they are no longer on the endangered list. To illustrate, Captain Tom stopped the ferry to show us a momma alligator in a nest surrounded by numerous recently hatched little gators plus a number of larger ones from last year’s hatching and beyond them several half grown gators from the year before last. Yes indeed, alligators are flourishing and it is largely due to the protective instinct of the momma gators. In fact, that is her only job after her babies are hatched. They are born, fully able to swim and find their own food and all they ask from their momma is to keep them safe from predators including their daddy.

Although big and dangerous, alligators are now respected as a link in the life cycle of nature. Their assignment is to maintain a balance in the ecosystem by keeping the numbers of other animals in check by hunting them- a job they enjoy doing.

I am very pleased to see that the natural life of the nation is respected today. When I was growing up in Oklahoma only domesticated animals such as horses, cows, pigs, dogs, cats (and people) were off limit for hunters; anything else that moved was fair game. I am pleased that today my grandchildren and their children can float down the St. Johns and visit the critters in their native habitat.

My attitude has certainly changed since the day I was handed a rifle and taught how to handle it safely and hit a moving target. You might say that I am now a conservationist. Did I ever tell you about little Rufie, the hummingbird from Washington state that wintered with us here on the farm for seven straight years? Or about Bandit, the raccoon that used to came to the back door every evening for a hand-out? I still put out leftovers for one of his descendants— partially out of habit, partially because it seems the right thing to do. Isn’t there a verse in the Bible about the stewardship of mankind toward the good earth and everything in it? Would this one from the creation story do?

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” —Genesis 1:26