Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shipwrecks of North Florida

4/01/09

Most people are surprised to hear of shipwrecks in North Florida’s rivers. In reality, only a few would actually qualify as “ships” and most would more accurately be called “aquatic disappointments” than “wrecks.” But, semantics aside, the remains of ill-fated vessels can be seen in many of our local waterways. Most of them offer an intriguing glimpse into a moment in the area’s past.

Ironically, the most recently discovered sunken vessels in local water are also the oldest. During the severe drought of 2000, over 100 Indian dugout canoes were found in the exposed muck in Newnan’s Lake. Their ages--ranging from 500 to over 3000 years old--suggest these were victims of individual sinkings (or abandonings) rather than a single, large-scale event. These boats were re-submerged when water levels returned to normal. A better place to look for an Indian dugout is Silver River near Ocala.

Resting on the white, sandy bottom of one of Silver River’s beautiful headsprings is a relatively intact dugout canoe. Although not exactly “in situ,” having been brought from a site a few miles downstream, the crystal clear waters of this river are a spectacular setting. In fact, Silver River offers the curious explorer a virtual smorgasbord of boat wrecks, whose stories span many years. A hundred yards from the Indian canoe, another spring holds the remains of a wooden rowboat thought to date back to the Spanish period in 1700’s. Around the next bend, lies yet another boat—the remains of this one consisting of a large, metal hull. Unlike most of Florida’s aquatic disappointments, however, this one was never meant to float. It was placed here as a prop from the Jerry Lewis movie “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”


Four miles downstream, two more sets of decaying remains are a reminder of Silver River’s colorful steamboat history. Observant paddlers often look down to find they are drifting over the wooden ribs of an old boat hull. Local lore claims these are from a nineteenth century stern-wheeler. Another ill-fated steamer apparently ended its career a few river-bends later, where beams, metal fittings and hardware litter the forest floor.

The majority of North Florida’s interesting wrecks date back to steamboat days. Even such unexpected places as Paynes Prairie, which was filled with water for nearly twenty years in the late 1800’s, saw steamboat traffic. When the prairie’s natural, underground drain unplugged, the lake dried and a number of small boats were stranded. Most famous among them was a steam yacht called Chacala, whose salvaged anchor sits alongside the main street into Micanopy. Her propeller is displayed in the Paynes Prairie State Park Visitors Center.

Other local lakes, including Orange and Lochloosa also saw steamboat activity. But it was on Lake Santa Fe that Alachua counties heftiest steamboats operated. With the completion of two canals in 1881, one connecting the railroad town of Waldo to Lake Alto and the other connecting Lake Alto to Santa Fe Lake, commercial steamboats were soon making regular runs to the small lakeside community of Melrose—now essentially a port town. Next to the dock on Melrose Bay, guests found lodging at Bay View, which still operates, off and on, as a bed and breakfast.

The three best known steamers to operate on Lake Santa Fe were the F.S. Lewis, the Alert, and the City of Melrose. Of these, only the F.S. Lewis is known to have ended her days on Lake Santa Fe, burning in the Santa Fe canal in 1884. There’s no account of the final resting place for the City of Melrose, but the decaying remains of two large wooden hulls, one near Bayview’s dock, and the other in the pass out of Melrose Bay, definitely tweak the imagination. Alert was moved to the Suwannee where she eventually sunk. It is reported that part of her top side could be seen sticking out of the water for some time afterwards.

The Suwannee River has been the final resting place for many boats over the centuries, including two of north Florida’s best known aquatic disappointments. The most impressive existing remains are those of The City of Hawkinsville, the largest steamer to ply the Suwannee. Her 141 ft. hull remains remarkably intact in the tannin stained waters near Old Town. She was the last commercial steam boat on the river, operating until May of 1922. Her last job was hauling materials for the rail bridge near Old Town. Her job complete, the grande damme of the Suwannee was moored along the river’s west bank, within sight of the bridge she had helped build, where she languished regally. Eventually, as her owner’s descendants squabbled over rightful ownership, the City of Hawkinsville quietly slipped under the water and settled on the sandy river bottom.

Today, this submerged paddlewheeler has the distinction of being one of only two official underwater archaeological sites in the State. But visiting her is no typical day in the park. While the top of the wreck is relatively shallow, the Suwannee’s waters are dark with organic tannins. This is the realm of advanced open-water divers and conditions fluctuate greatly. Anyone interested in exploring the site needs to check with local dive shops or State officials for rules and regulations.

Another way to see the site is from the same old rail bridge the City of Hawkinsville helped build, now part of the Nature Coast Trail State Park. From this lofty perch over the river, you can look downstream (south) where you’ll see a set of buoys marking the submerged boat’s starboard side (she’s facing upstream). Granted, you won’t see the actual boat, but it’s a great place to let your imagination run wild, conjuring images of the City of Hawkinsville and other steamers sloshing their way up river over a century ago.

Forty miles to the north, the famous Suwannee steamer Madison met her end in the clear waters of Troy Spring. She was a much smaller boat and her remains are less impressive, but what she lacks in physical stature, the little Madison more than makes up for in colorful history.

Owned and piloted by James Tucker, the Madison played an important role in the lives of settlers living along the entire length of the Suwannee, as far up as Branford, and sometimes beyond. During her heyday in the 1850’s, she ran two trips per month between Cedar Key and Branford, stopping at riverside communities along the way.

With the onset of Civil War, the Madison’s days of glory were numbered. Tucker was ordered north with a group of local militia, so to avoid having the boat captured by Union forces in his absence, he decided to sink her. When local townsfolk in Branford heard the news, they asked Tucker to allow one last shipment to be delivered. He agreed, asking that they sink the boat after the trip. True to their word, a group of men scuttled the Madison in the mouth of Troy Springs. The wooden ribs of her hull are still visible in the shallow water near the mouth of the spring run.

With advances in technology and transportation in the twentieth century, there aren’t many interesting post–steamboat era wrecks in our waters. Examples of these more modern aquatic disappointments can be seen in King’s Bay at the headwaters of Crystal River. These are the decaying remains of a couple of commercial fishing bioats that floundere3d here nearly a decade—victims of tropical storms sweeping in from the Gulf. And, while these don’t have near the colorful stories of the older wrecks, they do still offer a lesson. In spite of our finest advances in technology, the Big Girl always has the final say. Given a chance, she’ll quickly lay claim to even the most modern contrivances created by humans.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Many Faces of Santa Fe River

10/08/08

Anyone who has spent time on Santa Fe River knows her to be a seductress--complex, mysterious and always beautiful. Many people, from diverse backgrounds have courted her over the years, and from each we've gained a little insight into her complex nature.


From cave divers and geologists, we know that her public face--the gentle-flowing, spring studded stream that saunters with seeming indifference toward the Suwannee--is but one of many. Below the surface, a network of underground "side-streams" flow unseen, sometimes touching and joining adjacent channels and at other times veering away in different directions. When one of these unseen, subterranean channels joins the surface channel, it interacts with the surface flow in one of two ways. If it's a strong, highly pressurized channel, it adds some of its flow to the surface river by way of a spring. If the underground stream is weak, the heavier surface water forces its way down into the subterranean stream. This is called a siphon or swallet hole. On the surface, this appears as a drain in the riverbed, into which some of the river disappears.

From biologists, we know that the freshwater springs along the Santa Fe (and throughout North Florida) are among the most diverse, species-rich freshwater systems in the world. The clarity of spring water allows sunlight to reach great depths, allowing a wide variety of algae, phytoplankton and larger green plants to thrive. These, in turn, host a complex web of animal life.

From archaeologists and historians, we know Santa Fe to have once been an important route of travel and commerce for both indigenous peoples and the European settlers who followed. Village sites, burial mounds and abundant artifacts found along the river, show that countless generations, stretching back thousands of years, knew the Santa Fe as more than just an avenue of travel--it was home.

This weekend, we'll be sharing time with Santa Fe in a few of her more somber, gentle moods. Saturday morning, we'll explore the region of her origins - the Northern Highlands. Paddling up from I-75, we'll see a quiet section of the river that relatively few people ever see (or even know about), up to the confluence of Olustee Creek.


That evening, we'll see a side of the river usually known only by her many crepuscular (dusk) and nocturnal (night) residents. On this moonlight paddle, we'll share the river with such nocturnal residents as beavers, raccoons, possums and armadillos. And, if you want to expand your exploration of the Santa Fe's nocturnal life even further, bring mask, snorkeling gear and underwater light and have a swim in the spring. Among the many critters you might see working the springs night-shift are crayfish, eels, freshwater shrimp, apple snails, tadpole madtoms, stinkpot turtles and the ever-present (at night) loggerhead musk turtles.

On Tuesday, we're paddling up to see River Rise--the granddaddy of Santa Fe springs where the entire river re-emerges after flowing for three miles underground.

To Catch a Fish


I thought I had planned the perfect sunrise paddle. Full moon? Check! Water level high enough for paddling? Check!; Jim Cantore’s promise of clear skies for a fine sunrise? Check! But it never occurred to me that some local fishing organization might choose to stage a huge bass-fishing tournament for this same morning, launching from this same boat ramp. It was one of the more disheartening moments in my guiding career. And yet, for all the disappointment and the angst I felt as I apologized to my bleary-eyed crew (did I mention it was 5 AM?) the over-riding sentiment was horror for the pending fate of Orange Lake’s fish population. Because the decks of each shiny, high-dollar boats that we watched backing into the water, held an arsenal of rods, reels and fish-catching machinery that made the Normandy landing look like happy hour on Daytona Beach. Looking at this high-tech armada, I marveled at how far Floridians have come in our quest to deprive fish of any semblance of hope.

When I was young, I wondered how primitive fishermen ever survived. Armed with little more than bone hooks and line made from animal sinew, I imagined coming home with an actual fish was cause for a village-wide celebration, with lots of drums, frenzied dancing and something involving scantily clad virgins. It wasn’t until I was a teenager, learning outdoor lore and aspiring to one day wear animal skins and live in a mud-hut, that I started to fully appreciate the prowess of primitive fishermen.

One of my best sources for such information was Tom McCullough, an expert survivalist and a treasure trove of quirky nature lore. We’d spend long days wandering the woods around north Florida, him mumbling snippets of plant or animal lore while I watched for poison ivy. Usually, I would file his observations in the ‘interesting but useless trivia’ lobe of my brain, but occasionally one would leak into the dangerous ‘I could do that!’ lobe. Such was the case when Tom told me about making fish nets from spider webs.

It was day three of a five-day survival camp in the Ocala National Forest; the culminating event for an Outdoor Survival course he was teaching through Santa Fe Community College. We had spent the morning grubbing for edible roots in a low, dense oak hammock. Emerging from the underbrush, we looked at each other and broke out laughing. We were both totally covered with the honey-glazed webs of golden orb weaver spiders (Nephila sp). As we peeled off our silky drapes, Tom mentioned that some Indonesian tribes made fishing nets from Nephila webs. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I didn’t discard it either--such intriguing lore never really leaves our brain.( Just me?). After rattling around in my head for a few months, I could no longer ignore the idea and set out to make a Nephila fish net. It seemed like it should be easy enough. Nephila spiders, commonly known as banana spiders, live in Florida’s hardwoods in miserable plentitude and I already knew how to make twine. How hard could it be?

The next day I hiked down into “Hoggy Bottoms” (our name for the Hogtown Creek forest along 8th Avenue) where I gathered over 300 webs. Back home with my haul, I twisted and spun till my fingers ached and were caked with a tar-brown pitch that stuck to everything. When finished, I was the proud owner of an attractive (and strong), gold-colored cord. Unfortunately, it was only 2 feet long – hardly enough for a short hand-line, much less a fish net! My enthusiasm died and the cord was relegated to duty as a strap for my sunglasses – a duty it has served admirably ever since.

Several years passed before I learned that my net-making endeavor had been way off the mark. It turns out the natives simply bent the end of a long, thin branch and tied it back on itself to form a hoop – sort of a Flintstones tennis racket. This was then set out where a spider would make a web inside the hoop. For quicker results, they’d waft the hoop gently through an existing spider web like a slow motion tennis swing. A stronger net could be made by adding more webs. It was a great lesson, not so much because I could now fish with spider webs, but because I had learned that nothing brings out the “clever” in our species more than wanting fish for dinner.

High on that list are the Japanese fishermen who train cormorants to catch fish and deliver them to their handler. These birds go through an extensive training that starts at birth. Beginning with a leash and a ring around its neck to keep it from swallowing its catch, the bird eventually performs these tasks obediently, requiring nothing more than its thoroughly washed brain and an occasional fish of its own. Several species are used, all of them close relatives of our local “double-crested” cormorants. To my knowledge, our local species has never been ‘Shanghaied’ into the life of servitude. Oother local species haven’t been so lucky.


In the distant past, when superstition rested on the same shelf as science, ospreys were believed to have special oil in their feathers that stunned fish. Their feathers were sometimes collected and used as fishing aids. Later, falconers tried to train ospreys, but the ospreys would have none of it. Apparently, they were fine with the first part of the act – catching the fish - but never got the part where they were supposed to deliver it to the guy with the bewildered look on his face standing on shore. Instead, they flew to a nearby perch and snarfed the fish for themselves.

Closer to home, some of Florida’s aboriginal people had a few great tricks of their own. Perhaps the most interesting was remora fishing. Remoras are bizarre looking fish, whose dorsal fin has evolved into a powerful suction disc on top of their head. With this, they attach themselves to just about anything that passes, including fish, turtles, manatees and even the occasional boat. The practice of remora fishing, first noted by Columbus among the Arawak Indians, involved tying a cord around the fish’s tail and releasing it into the sea. Always eager for a free ride, the remora would latch on to the first thing that passed and the fishermen would then pull in the remora with its catch. Sea turtles were the main quarry, but fish and even an occasional manatee were also landed. The Arawaks held their remoras in high esteem and sang songs of praise to them. Australian aborigines, who also fished with remoras, were apparently more hungry than grateful - often eating their remoras at the end of the day.

On Florida’s inland waters, weirs and basket traps were sometimes used. Near the town of High Springs, beneath the cool, tannin-stained waters of the Santa Fe River, a line of eroded post holes in the limestone river bottom are the remains of an ancient fish weir. Spanning the width of the river, the line of posts formed a downstream pointing funnel which presumably had a wicker basket attached in the center to catch the fish. An interesting description of how such weirs were sometimes used in other parts of the country comes from an article written in 1902, by V.K. Chesnut.

In that account, California’s Pomo Indians stunned fish with mashed roots from the toxic soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). The operation involved many people, sometimes from several neighboring villages, who took up stations along the river and dumped the root-poison into the river until the fish and eels went belly up. They were then grabbed or washed downstream into a weir. The Santa Fe weir may have been similarly used, since a number of local plants are known to have been used as fish poisons, including dogwood and smartweed.

Once, while paddling the Waccasassa River with my son Niklaus, we paused under the low canopy of a beautiful little red buckeye tree. As he palmed one of the tan, plum-sized fruits, I explained how local Indians ground them into a mash and put them in the stream to knock out fish. Needless to say, Niklaus spent the rest of the day, gathering and tossing buckeye seeds into the river as we made our way down stream. Fortunately, his 6-year-old attention span had missed the part about having to grind the seeds, so he became a veritable “Johnny Buckeye seed” who may one day be credited with planting a wondrous buckeye forest along the banks of the Waccasassa.


Bellamy Rd. and Charles Spring

7/20/08

It's a strange irony that we go to forests to escape civilization and yet the things we often find to be the most exciting are the traces of people who were there before us. And it doesn't take much. We stumble onto a deer trail and are mildly interested, but if that same trail has been worn deep by a thousand years of Indian foot traffic, we are fascinated. We wonder about the people who passed this way. Who were they? Where were they going? We visualize them running barefoot with news for a neighboring next village; skipping behind their parents; tip-toeing toward a deer seen crossing ahead; making long, determined strides toward a nearby town and waiting friends; strolling dejectedly from a village that had cast them out; limping with injuries from a recent battle; tripping over exposed roots. We wish we had seen them.

One ancient trail can be seen at Charles Spring. When early Indians chose follow an old deer trail leading to this spring, they could not have known they were pioneering a route that would eventually become one of the most important trails in the land. Today's history books refer to this road alternately (depending on the time period of that particular chapter) as the Old Spanish Road, the Mission Trail, and eventually as Florida's first Federal highway (in the original, pre-asphalt sense), Bellamy Road, which spanned the Florida Territory from St. Augustine to Tallahassee.

These days, there are few places where we can see this storied old trail. A section passing through O'leno State Park is one of the best. At Charles Spring, a vestigial section can be seen as a deep cut in the river bank leading down to the river. This served as a ramp for wagons to descend to the riverside and load onto a waiting ferry.

Nearby, an unassuming little trail enters the woods. A small green sign identifies it as the Old Bellamy Road. Following the overgrown trail into a plantation of young pines, we find ourselves, once again wondering about those who walked here before us. The trail ascends a sandy, wooded slope and we come to a small cemetery plot. We read the headstones of Rubin and Rebecca Charles who died in 1835 and 1849, and we wonder...


In addition to our paddle on the Suwannee, we have some great coastal trips this weekend at Cedar Key and Ozello (the Suncoast Keys. Here's the plan.

A Pair of Mounds - Hontoon Island and Turtle Mound

7/15/08

For centuries, Floridians have enjoyed the expansive views offered by large Indian mounds. In a state where the highest elevation is a 345 foot hill in the western panhandle, high ground has always held special importance. Before modern, multi-level structures were built, some of Florida's larger shell mounds were the highest features for hundreds of square miles.

The huge Turtle Mound, located a few miles south of New Smyrna, served dual purposes as both lookout point and landmark. Located on a narrow sliver of land (actually a long sand dune) separating the Atlantic Ocean from Mosquito Lagoon, this 70 foot heap of oyster shells, bone and pot shards provided local Indians and settlers a great vantage point from which to scan the horizon. Conversely, seafarers sailing along this level coastline, were all familiar with this distinctive, turtle-shaped landmark.

These days, Florida's Indian mounds are offering a new kind of view. As the highly concentrated and centralized repositories of food remains and artifacts, these refuse heaps are providing invaluable "views" into the lives of the people who made them. Through ongoing excavations, archaeologists are peeling back the layers of mystery surrounding these ancient people.

One limiting factor to studying these mounds is that most materials decay with time. It's usually only hard substances like shells, bones, cartilage, teeth and pottery that have survived. Softer items, such as those made of wood, flesh and plant material don't make it - usually. One rare exception is the large mound on Hontoon Island. Uniquely situated at the the edge of a backwater swamp, much of the mound material fell into the acidic, low-oxygen water where it was preserved. Through analysis of seeds and other perishable materials, researchers have identified 48 animal and 28 plant species that were used (mostly for food) by the people who lived here from about A.D. 1 well into 1700's.

This weekend, we'll be enjoying the views from both of these unique mounds. And, if you decide to take the short hike to the top of Turtle Mound, you might be able to enjoy the newest kind of view offered by this ancient lookout. In clear weather, with average binoculars, one can easily spot NASA's huge vehicle assembly building (which, by some accounts, houses the largest single "room" in the world) - a hopeful view of the future.

Explorer's Journals

6/23/08

When I read the journals of Florida's early explorers, I sometimes wonder, "who were they talking too?" In some cases, the answer is obvious. William Bartram, for instance, was clearly talking to the guy writing his checks - Dr. Fothergill. Luckily for us, Fothergill was a man of many interests. He was also a good judge of character and knew that despite William’s previous failures, he was the perfect person to send into the wilds of Florida and document virtually everything he saw - plants, animals, native peoples, geography, etc.

The Chapman/Brewster expedition of 1890 was more focused. Headed by a group of noted ornithologists, the emphasis was predictably heavy on birds - looking for them, making notes about them and shooting as many as possible (standard MO for 19th century explorer/naturalists, including John James Audubon). However, in his journal of the expedition, William Brewster provides a welcome bonus with his detailed descriptions of the places he explored (Chapman's journals have been lost).

While most of the small back-waters they explored were unnamed (most are still nameless), with close scrutiny it is possible to retrace much of the route. This is a rare gift, but it begs the same question - who was he giving these directions to?! This remote area was unlikely to see settlement for a long time (it's still largely uninhabited) and these men's professional peers were academics from around the country that were unlikely to ever visit these waters. So, it appears that Brewster's intended audience was essentially that small fraternity of outdoors enthusiasts who have both a keen interest in history and nature and who like going into those wild, remote areas where few people in their right mind have gone before. Sound familiar? If some researcher ever finds missing "lost pages" of Brewster's manuscript, I wouldn't be surprised if it ended with - "wanna go?"

Leapers Great and Small

5/26/08


I'm afraid the world's sea creatures have discovered our secret - air is good! And now it appears they want to leave the watery depths and join us top-side.

Ever since the first prehistoric creatures flopped onto the beach and discovered the world of air and light, their sea-bound brethren have probably wondered what all the commotion was about. What could any clear-headed, self-respecting fish possibly want up there!? Of course, I don't base any of this on science, just the simple observation that fish seem to constantly be trying to leave the confines of their watery homes to get a lttle fresh air and sunshine. The most recent proof came last week in Japan, where a TV crew filmed a flying fish gliding alongside their boat for a record 45 seconds (check out the amazing YouTube video).

It's not just the Japanese fish that are growing weary of all that gill flapping. There are plenty of examples to be found right here in Florida. While the only true flying fish in our part of the world are found off our shoreline, Florida's fresh water rivers are home to a small relative, the Atlantic needlefish. These foot long, pencil-thin, fish can be seen darting in small, silvery schools under the surface of rivers like Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers. As with all members of the flying fish family (actually the houndfish family) needlefish like to leave the water occasionally, but only in little jumps. Once in a while, an eager little airborne needlefish will bump the arm of a passing "wanna-go" paddler.

Of course, no discussion of leaping Florida fish would be complete without honorable mention to the humble mullet. It's a rare paddle on Florida waters that we don't see these frequent fliers. While researchers are hot on the case, nobody has definitively pegged the reason that mullet leap. Of the many theories, my favorite (not to be confused with the one I most believe) is that they are passing gas - the fish world's equivalent of politely stepping outside to let one rip.

The main reason I embarked on this long (and admittedly torturous) lead-in to this weekend's trip notice is the Atlantic sturgeon, the granddaddy of Florida jumpers. Every year, as the days begin to warm in March and April, these fantastic fish migrate up the Suwannee. Throughout the summer months they are frequently seen jumping high into the air, majestically spiraling, flipping and occasionally slamming into a speeding motor boat (no kayakers have ever been hit). To my knowledge, nobody's keeping records of sturgeon hang-time, but it is meager compared to that of flying fish. We more often hear one splashing down than actually seeing it. As with mullet, the reason sturgeon jump remains a mystery. But, a surge of interest in this species in recent decades has sparked a lot of research which may shed some light.

These days, with summer gas prices on the rise, the prospect of going whale-watching this summer is becoming increasingly undoable for many of us. So, why not go sturgeon watching instead? Paddle the Suwannee any time between April and October, who keep a watchful eye will be rewarded with the sight of one of Florida's true wonders of nature. By strange coincidence, we have a Suwannee sturgeon watching trip going this weekend.

The Real Mystery of Some Indian Names

5/12/08

Seeking the origins of Florida place-names often spawns more questions than answers. When inquiring customers learn that Chassahowitzka means "Place of the Hanging Pumpkins," their typical response is, "Why?" Of all the interesting wildlife and significant events that must have happened along this scenic waterway, were hanging pumpkins really the thing Seminoles found most noteworthy? Maybe it was just their way of saying this is a far more exciting place than, say, Apopka, "the potato eating place."

In my youth, as I tried to track down the meaning of Native American place-names in North Florida. I eventually realized that early Floridians had little flair for drama. Names like "Big Creek, "Little Creek and "Big, Little Creek" were typical. So, I was thrilled (and a bit surprised) when I learned that Steinhatchee actually meant "Dead Man's River." Finally, a reference--albeit vague--to some interesting event that presumably happened along this quiet corner of the Big Bend.

But that was as far as my inquiry got. Whatever killed this man, and why his death was memorialized in the name of a river and bay, remains a mystery. Probably just as well. All those blank pages gave my young imagination free reign to conjure the possibilities. Was he a casualty of the Seminole Wars?  Tribal warfare? Domestic violence? Perhaps the "dead man" was simply a poor horseman who fell into the river. I considered many scenarios. But in none of them did anyone eat a potato or giving even a passing glance to a hanging pumpkin.