Breaking news - there’s too much life in Ocklawaha River. So says the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) and other State agencies tasked with "protecting" our waterways. It’s a recurring theme. In the 1960’s, the problematic life-form was a beautiful swamp forest growing on ground slated for a barge canal. So, after flattening a sixteen mile, 400 foot-wide path through the forest, they flooded the river valley to a depth sufficient to float the anticipated barges. Outside the cleared canal path, the remainder of the forest was left standing, to be killed by the flood waters. Soon, the reservoir was a forest of dead snags.
In the years following the valley's flooding, the dead trees decayed and toppled over, but only the parts standing above the water. Below the surface, the submerged stumps were preserved by the acidic, tannic water. The result is a submerged forest of trunks that appear to have been topped by a giant mower. In the deeper, downstream end of the reservoir these stumps stand 8 – 10 feet high from the reservoir bottom. For motor boat operators, these submerged trunks form a virtual mine-field where many propellers have met their end.
Decades have passed since construction on barge canal was halted in 1974 (it was officially de-authorized in 1990's). But, the reservoir remains. It turns out that the large, artificially maintained lake with its submerged forest of stumps is ideally suited to large-mouth bass. Enter the well-funded fishing and motor-boat lobbies and a handful of local legislators who have fought hard to keep this artificial fishing hole in place. As politicians and big business duke it out with environmentalists, Florida's tax payers continue to shell out nearly a million dollars per year for operations and maintenance and sixteen miles of the Ocklawaha Valley (including over 20 springs) remain submerged.
These days, all funding for Rodman Reservoir is used to artificially maintain the good fishing. High on the list of SJRWMD's management concerns is the overabundance of aquatic vegetation in the reservoir. The unnatural conditions created by this man-made pool have caused aquatic vegetation—mostly hydrilla—to grow out of control. Fish and fishing boats alike have trouble maneuvering.
To remedy this, SJRWMD is conducting a “draw-down” (partial draining of the water) to kill the vegetation. It’s a stressful time for the fish and other wildlife in the reservoir. But, for paddlers, these draw-downs (conducted every 3 - 4 years) offer a unique opportunity to explore the lost segment of this amazing river.
In the past, I’ve called Rodman Reservoir “Florida’s Pompeii.” It seems like a fitting comparison when I see the field of ashen grotesques, frozen in their tragic, final moments. It’s also powerful image to use when I’m trying to describe the magnitude of what was lost when this reservoir was filled and what continues to be lost every year that it remains. But, frankly, some aspects of the comparison don’t fit. Pompeii speaks of screaming agony and the loss of all hope. The Rodman stump forest is simply a beautiful forest frozen in time. It's a quieter, gentler tragedy.
These days, I’m more inclined to compare the Rodman stumps to sculptures. Some days, paddling down the old river channel feels like a stroll through a museum gallery, moving from one gnarled grey masterpiece to the next. They are at once lifeless and full of emotion, like the “Hands” of sculptor Auguste Rodin. As the name implies, this series of clay sculptures are of hands and nothing more. Without the benefit of a body or a face to give expression, Rodin’s Hands convey the full spectrum of human emotions and experience—longing, playfulness, excitement, agony, sadness, love.
Likewise, the sinewy detail of many of the reservoirs stumps allows us to imagine the Ocklawaha forest the day it died. Elegantly curved stems of climbing aster and buttonbush rest among the folds of a bald cypress's flared buttress. We recognize the twisted, muscular trunk of a blue beech curving around the smooth bole of a red maple. Seven feet above ground the small tree leans against the finely checked bark of a green ash. We smell bay blossoms and dodder. We welcome the shade of a towering cathedral of cypress and ash and tupelo and revel in a thousand greens of summer (or was it the fiery hues of autumn? or maybe cool, airy winter?). We hear the hammering of a pileated woodpecker and a trio of squirrels chasing though the canopy. We hear the laughter of children splashing in Blue Spring. Let's ignore that ominous, sickening rumble in the distance.
It’s not all death in the drawn-down Rodman Reservoir. Reptiles are occasionally seen along the banks of the relict channel, though not as many as in the living river upstream and downstream from the reservoir. Wading birds, and wintering crowds of white ibis and American coots work the flats. Ospreys and bald eagles love this area as well. Of course, the only living trees we see are on the far bank. One, in particular, always draws my attention. It is a huge, solitary live oak growing on a spit of high ground near Blue Spring. Its massive size and long, gravity-defying limbs are powerful reminders of nature’s ability to endure and to heal--a fine contrast to the reservoir's constant reminder of our own capacity for bad ideas. It reminds me of another famous Rodin sculpture, “The Thinker.”