“If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place of time and beauty, I think I might choose the night on that high lonely bank above the St. Johns River.”
—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Still half asleep, I set my coffee on the roof of my rented houseboat and climb the ladder to meet it. I’m anchored at Silver Glen Springs, a midway point on Florida’s St. Johns River.
Surveying the scene through a thin veil of fog that has settled a few feet above the water, I see a bald eagle—likely the same one I observed last evening—perched atop a nearby cypress. A splash breaks the morning silence, and I spot a river otter just a few feet from the boat.
He sees me too, and as we make eye contact, the little creature flips onto his back and, folding his front paws to his chest, simply floats there staring at me. He exhibits no fear and seems to be smiling, as if pleased to meet me.
I’m reminded of the words a fisherman spoke to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in 1933, when she and her good friend Dessie Prescott spent ten days journeying these waters in an eighteen-foot wooden motorboat. “The river life is the finest kind of life,” he told them, according to Rawlings’s book Cross Creek. “You couldn’t get you no better life than the river.”
Flowing lazily from a flood basin near Vero Beach to the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville some 310 miles north, the St. Johns is Florida’s longest river and one of the few major waterways in the world that does not flow south. It is a semitropical tangle of lakes, lagoons, creeks, and tributary rivers, home to more than fifty freshwater springs and dense stands of bald cypress.
Herons, egrets, ibises, wood storks, ospreys, and bald eagles are but a handful of the more than 300 species of birds found here. Alligators keep watch from the river’s banks. Bears and bobcats hide in its dense hammocks, and endangered West Indian manatees seek refuge in its warm-water springs. They’re joined by all manner of fish, most notably largemouth bass prized by freshwater fishermen. Though Florida continues to develop at a dizzying pace, the St. Johns remains largely unchanged, snaking toward the sea as it has for millions of years.
The cultural history of the St. Johns extends back to the Pleistocene Epoch, when Paleo-Indians shared the river with mastodons, bison, and saber-toothed tigers. Later, Timucuan peoples developed an advanced society along the waterway, the remnants of which can still be seen today in massive middens—mounds of freshwater snail shells—piled on the banks along certain stretches of the river, marking village or ceremonial sites from thousands of years ago.
Spanish conquistadors came and went in the sixteenth century, enslaving and ultimately decimating the Timucuans. In the late eighteenth century, Creek Indians migrated to the area from Georgia. Known as Seminoles, they were driven out by frontiersmen bent on settling what the Spanish called La Florida.
By the 1830s, steamships hauled cargo and tourists up and down the St. Johns. Luxury hotels and mineral-springs resorts popped up around busy landings from Lake Monroe to
Jacksonville. But with the advent of railroads and highways, steamboat tourism faded. Nowadays, the river is largely the domain of recreationists—boaters, birders, fishermen, and hunters—who come to see the place author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe called “the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida.”
Other luminaries chronicled the river during the last several centuries, including artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, naturalist William Bartram, and artist-scientist John James Audubon. And of course, there was Rawlings, a native of Washington, D.C., who moved to a rural Florida community called Cross Creek, just thirty miles west of the St. Johns, in 1928.
When she and Prescott embarked on their ten-day trip on the river, Rawlings was not yet a well-known author (The Yearling was published five years later in 1938), and her marriage to fellow writer Charles Rawlings was crumbling. Her Cross Creek neighbors, who’d taught her to respect the tangled beauty of the Florida backcountry, warned her of the river’s perils: It passes some of the wildest country in Florida; false channels could lead them astray; they were two women alone. “This is fantastic,” Rawlings thought, according to her account in Cross Creek. “I am about to deliver myself over to a nightmare. But life was a nightmare. The river at least was of my own choosing.”
My boat is not wooden like Rawlings’s, nor is it a mere eighteen feet. It’s a fifty-five-foot behemoth with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a pair of flatscreen TVs, and marble kitchen countertops. I rented it from Holly Bluff Marina in DeLand, some thirty-five miles south of Silver Glen Springs. While I’m grateful for my boat’s amenities, Rawlings’s vessel would certainly have been easier to maneuver: The St. Johns is filled with shallows, and many a boat like mine has found itself lodged on its sandy bottom.
I learned all this yesterday when I tried to cross Lake George, a seventy-two-mile reservoir that stood between Silver Glen Springs and me. It’s Florida’s second-largest lake and as broad, blue, and shimmering as the Sargasso Sea. But it is deceptively shallow, and houseboat pilots must follow its narrow shipping channel before charting a precise compass course leading to
Silver Glen Run, hidden away on the lake’s western shore.
Once I made it to the run, I still faced a tricky bit of navigating to thread my bus-sized vessel through a flotilla of pleasure boats anchored or tied to buoys along the thin, mile-long passageway. I’d heard that Silver Glen Springs is the most popular gathering spot and recreation area on the entire river, and the truth of this claim was evident. When I finally reached the end of the run, I anchored for the night near the spring source, a swirling boil that pumps out 65 million gallons of God’s freshest water daily. Sleep came easily, attended by the muttering of frogs and grunts and murmurs of unknown origin.
Sitting on the rooftop of my boat and looking out at the dry, sandy banks, I understand why this part of the state is called Big Scrub country. It’s where Rawlings fell in love with the rugged people and untamed land of Florida Cracker culture. Not surprisingly, her presence is felt everywhere. On the shore near my anchoring point lies the head of Spring Boils Trail, which leads to Jody’s Spring. Described by Rawlings in the opening of The Yearling (and named for the novel’s young protagonist), it is bright blue and constantly bubbling. Another nearby passageway, the Yearling Trail, winds onto Pat’s Island—and the origins of the acclaimed novel. This is where Rawlings met Calvin and Mary Long in 1933, shortly after her trip on the St. Johns. Calvin, an old man with a long beard and a penchant for overalls, told her a touching story from his childhood. Turns out, when Calvin was young, he spent some of his happiest days raising a baby fawn who’d lost its mother.
Ready to leave Silver Glen Springs, I decide to travel south, against the current. I cruise through a wild, undeveloped passage bordered by the Ocala National Forest, the domain of bald eagles and ospreys who nest among the cypress trees overhanging the river.
After fifteen miles, I stop at William’s Landing restaurant, part of the Blackwater Inn complex in Astor, where I order platters of fish ’n’ chips and fried gator bites (yes, they do taste somewhat like chicken). After lunch, I approach Manhattan Island, a small, slightly elevated islet crowded with oak and cypress. It bears no resemblance to its New York namesake, though it might have been a lively spot at one time: A thick layer of shells fringing its banks suggests a former Timucuan settlement.
My next stop is Hontoon Island State Park, thirty miles south of Astor. Located on a tiny island accessible only by boat, it’s home to a small museum that reveals fascinating clues to the island’s past. Archeologists believe it was the site of a major Timucuan village, based on the presence of a massive shell midden visible from a hiking trail at the southwestern end of the island. The recent recovery of three ancient wooden totem poles—depicting an owl, an otter, and a pelican—dredged up from the river substantiate a theory that the island was also an important Timucuan ceremonial site. (These are the only North American totem poles found outside the Pacific Northwest.)
Continuing a few miles south, I arrive at Blue Spring State Park, located on a stretch of river that narrows to about 150 feet. It’s slow going as I pick my way through a swarm of kayakers and canoeists who paddle between the two parks. Big Blue is the largest spring on the St. Johns, discharging 104 million gallons of water daily, but what makes it one of Florida’s most popular parks are the hundreds of West Indian manatees that crowd it during the winter.
Blue Spring is a certified refuge for the endangered creatures, so boating, swimming, snorkeling, and diving are not permitted when manatees are present in large numbers (usually from mid-November to mid-March). During these times, the best way to see the “sea cows” is from an elevated boardwalk flanking the spring.
I push south, passing the Wekiva River, one of several tributaries emptying into the St. Johns. Seminole settlements once lined its banks, and in the 1870s, the steamship Mayflower made semiweekly runs along its seventeen-mile course to a busy landing then called Clay Springs. Today, overgrowth prevents all but the smallest of boats from entering it. Protected from development by state and local mandates, the Wekiva has become a wilderness wonderland, ideal for exploration by kayak or other small craft.
At last I arrive at Lake Monroe, where Rawlings and Prescott docked their tired boat next to a gleaming yacht. It was a Sunday, and Rawlings wrote that she felt untidy in her dirty clothes and self-conscious of her boat piled with gasoline tins and supplies. The yacht’s owner offered to fetch the women gas, but his wife insisted he escort her to church in nearby Sanford. When he left, Prescott whispered, “The poor bastard. I’ll bet he’d give his silk shirt to go down the river with us instead.”
She was right, I’m sure. Traveling the St. Johns with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings—or at least attended by her spirit—invites both adventure and abandon. Though it’s been more than eighty years since her trip, I imagine the sights and sounds that have greeted me along the way are virtually the same as what she experienced. As my voyage nears its end, I feel a growing sense of solidarity with Rawlings, a kinship with both the writer and the wild Florida river on which she sailed.
Essential St. Johns
Must-see spots along Florida’s most famous river
Fort George Island
Situated where the St. Johns meets the Atlantic, this picturesque surfing spot is known for its exposed oyster reefs and undeveloped coastline. Fort George Island is also a stop on the historic St. Johns River Ferry.
Known as the River City, Jacksonville showcases the glistening St. Johns in nearly every landmark photo. Harriet Beecher Stowe wintered here along the river’s edge; learn about her experiences in Old Florida at the Mandarin Museum in Walter Jones Historical Park.
Green Cove Springs
The pearl of quaint Green Cove Springs is St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a beautifully restored wood-frame church built in 1879. Don’t miss the natural springs for which the town is named.
Known as the “Gem of the St. Johns” in the late 1800s, the historic district of this former logging outpost faces the river. The first weekend in March, Palatka hosts the Florida Azalea Festival, which began in 1936 and draws tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Springs of Lake George
The second-largest lake in Florida, bordered by the Ocala National Forest, Lake George is fed by a series of gorgeous crystal-clear springs—Juniper, Salt, and Silver Glen—that make it a unique destination for snorkeling.
Naturalist William Bartram described the area now known as Astor as a “true garden of Eden” when he visited in 1765. With the river serving as its de facto main street, visitors arrive by boat to dine at its lively waterfront restaurants.
Accessible only by boat, this former Timucuan tribal village, now a state park, displays replicas of the only ancient North American totems found outside the Pacific Northwest. Hontoon Island’s unspoiled lands are ripe for hiking and camping.
Blue Spring State Park
A designated manatee refuge, the popular Blue Spring State Park serves as a winter home for hundreds of endangered “sea cows” from November through March. It’s also a great spot for swimming and diving.
A paradise for paddleboarders, peaceful Wekiva River (along with Wekiwa Springs) is surrounded by jungle-like terrain with a number of rhesus monkeys rumored to have been brought here for the original Tarzan movies.
Founded during the steamboat era, Sanford still exudes old-fashioned charm. Stroll the tree-lined riverwalk, and don’t miss the charming boutiques and hip eateries along the waterfront.
Blue Cypress Lake
Located at the headwaters of the St. Johns, Blue Cypress Lake features stunning dwarf cypress trees and an abundance of wildlife, including eagles and ospreys. Middleton’s Fish Camp offers boat rentals and fishing opportunities.