Saturday, February 13, 2021

A History of Paddling in North Florida


For all you home-schooling parents out there, here’s a small addendum to the famous Columbus rhyme that you can scribble into your kid’s Florida history book:

In fourteen hundred and ninety two,
Columbus discovered the dugout canoe.

Actually, like so many “discoveries”, the finely wrought dugout boats that curious Carib Indians paddled out to Columbus’ ships as they sat anchored off a lush Carribbean island, were hardly new. Back in Europe, canoe-like boats had been developed at least 10,000 years earlier. But a long legacy of warfare, trade and exchange of boat-building knowledge between advancing cultures, coupled with challenging maritime conditions, brought great advances in shipbuilding in the Old World. By the 15th century, many of those nations were building ships capable of crossing oceans. Canoe-like boats were things of the distant past.

In the Americas, where primary water routes were often along streams too shallow or narrow for larger vessels, canoes remained “state of the art” for thousands of years longer. They continued to be used long after the arrival of Europeans and remain popular even today in smaller streams and headwaters.

Nowhere is America’s long legacy of dugouts more apparent than in North Florida. With the world’s largest concentration of dugout canoes (423 as of 2016) and the single largest cache (101 canoes found in the lake bottom of Newnan’s Lake), North Florida is arguably the dugout canoe capital of the world.

Why North Florida? If you’ve ever flown over the state, you know the answer. Water! Florida is saturated with water. On sunny days the peninsula glistens with shards of sunlight reflected off the waters of a thousand flowing springs, 10,000 miles of streams, 7800 lakes and vast expanses of marsh and swamplands—all of it wedged between the liquid expanses of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Florida wasn’t always so wet. Ten thousand years ago, when much of the planet was still in the icy grip of the last Ice Age, Florida’s climate was cooler and drier than today. It wasn’t until perhaps 7,000 - 8,000 years ago that the water table rose to the point the springs overflowed their banks, creating the streams that, today, make this a paddler’s Mecca.

The new abundance of waterways was a boon to travel and commerce, a reality that is revealed in the rich archaeological record. To date, 423 dugouts or remnants of dugouts (many look more like driftwood than boats to the untrained eye) have been discovered in Florida. Radio carbon dating puts their ages in the range of about 500 to nearly 7,000 years old.

One of the most important epicenters of canoe activity in Florida was Newnan’s Lake, on the east side of Gainesville. Before 2001, Newnans Lake was best known as a great place for fishing and wildlife watching. But during a severe drought that year, it gained international fame when students from Eastside High School discovered the decayed remains of some dugouts sticking out from the exposed muck. Archaeologists were summoned and, in the months that followed, they identified 101 dugout canoes nestled into the muck. The ages of these boats span nearly 4500 years. The most recent was cut and crafted just 500 years ago—about the same time Columbus was marveling at the first New World watercraft ever seen by Europeans.

Columbus’ account, (which included the first usage of the natives word, “canoa”), gives us something the decaying relics of Newnan’s Lake cannot—a first-hand impression of the boats and of the people who paddled them. According to Columbus, the dugouts were “made of a single trunk of a tree, wrought in a wonderful manner considering the country; some of them large enough to contain forty or forty-five men, others of different sizes down to those fitted to hold but a single person. They rowed with an oar like a baker's peel, and wonderfully swift. If they happen to upset, they all jump into the sea, and swim till they have righted their canoe and emptied it with the calabashes they carry with them.”

In the following decades and centuries, throughout the period of exploration, conquest and settlement by Europeans, canoes remained the primary means of transportation in the inland waterways of Florida. The waterways we’ll be paddling over the next two weeks carried much of that traffic.

Silver River, where we’ll be paddling this Thursday (2/ 18), has a long and storied history of boating. As described in my Wanna Go tour notice of about half a year ago, this river holds the remains of everything from dugout canoes to steamboats, attesting to the central role it played in the lives of people who lived in this area from the Archaic period to the present.

Less documented but equally interesting was the boating history (and prehistory) of Ichetucknee River.  Archaeological evidence, coupled with historical documents, give vague but enticing evidence that the village near the head spring served as sort of a shallow-water port. Here, large trade canoes eased onto the shallow riverbank, loaded with goods brought from as far away as Cuba. In the 17th century, trade-canoes using these same, ancient trade routes, supplied San Martin and other Franciscan missions along the Mission Trail (the land route that passed near Ichetucknee’s head spring). They also helped conduct some shipping of ranch goods for the La Chua cattle ranch at Paynes Prairie.

Out on the Gulf coast, the town Cedar Key has served as an important sea port since the early 19th century. But ten miles north of the town, the shallow waters surrounding the scenic islands near Shell Mound, where we'll be paddling on an upcoming tour, were too shallow for larger ships. This, again, was an area best served by canoes. The dozens of shell middens we will pass on our tour speak to many centuries of occupation. For these people, like their inland contemporaries, canoes were vital to their survival.

Closer to Gainesville, the story of steamboats on Paynes Prairie during the late 1800’s is well-known. Less known is the fact that the sister waterways—Lake Lochloosa and Orange Lake and the beautiful, mile long Cross Creek that joins them—also had steamboats. On our Cross Creek paddle tour on Thursday, 2/25, we’ll be plying the same waters that carried small steamers carrying produce and lumber between communities on the west side of Orange Lake to the east side of Lochloosa, by way of Cross Creek. In earlier centuries and millennia, canoes would have been a common site on these waters. During periods of high water, the direct connection to Newnans Lake (through Prairie Creek and River Styx) would have made these waters easily accessible to the famous canoes of Newnan’s Lake.