106 St Johns River Cruising

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It takes a bit of maneuvering getting dressed in a 4×7 foot compartment complete with sink, toilet, and bunk beds. Once dressed the upper bed raised to ceiling. A few pushes converted the lower bed back into facing seats. Outside the train a thick, wet, heavy blanket of snow bent trees to breaking. During breakfast in the dining car the porter announced the train was running 3-4 hours late because of the storm. We settled into our snug compartment and watched the effects of the storm fade as we headed south. Snow slowly changed to a sparkling ice coating and that disappeared as we reach Georgia. We watched the passing scene while reading and talking about all the fun we’d had visiting family.

Holiday partying had us badly out of shape, and a rare Florida topographical feature– a hill– almost beat us as we struggled up on our bikes. Still peddling, we made the top but were exhausted and completed the last of our 3.5-mile ride to the grocery store at a slower pace. The hill became a great conditioner as we made a number of trips to the stores no longer located downtown, but rather out along the highway where huge parking lots make them easy to reach by car.

Even more unusual than the hill, is the ravine created in the hill by natural springs. Back in the WPA days people worked to turn the ravine into a wilderness park. Today Ravine Gardens is a jewel of nature trails winding through live oaks, palm trees and azaleas. The azaleas were just starting to bud during our first visit. A few weeks later on our 3rd visit almost 50% of the azaleas were in bloom. For us, the early blooms were great. The Azalea Festival in March will be a bit bare.

Hitting ‘enter’ the computer screen responded with “Scanning Drive C to Partition.” In horror I realized the wrong drive was being processed and stopped the computer. My assumption that if just a scan were going on no damage would be done proved to be wrong. The computer wouldn’t restart; the operating system was gone. Recovery was slow and frustrating. Finally everything is back to normal and the new hard drive backs up changes on the fly.

The bass boat’s bottom was all that could be seen. It had sunk and turned turtle during an overnight rainstorm. Five of us worked for an hour and got the port side showing. Now we needed a way to pull the starboard side out from under and up. First we rigged a towing bridle and long line to the dinghy. Ruth idled the dinghy while I slipped into the water and dove. Working by feel in the inky black, cold water I found an attachment point and secured the line. Ruth started the dinghy and slowly the starboard side came around and to the surface. We got the gunwales the critical quarter inch just above the surface and set to work with buckets to bail. With three of us bailing it didn’t take long to have the bass boat floating again. We’d been casting off lines when we learned of the sinking and had delayed to help. Now, happy with our success we again said good-bye to Dee and Roger on Pockets and headed on up the St Johns River. Ruth, happy with her second save using the dinghy and now known as Wonder Woman among those who rescue boats using dinghies, wondered if we should get a stencil to paint boat-saves on the dinghy.

A few miles from Palatka we found our wilderness anchorage. Visually we were anchored along the edge of Cyprus swamp with alligators and turtles sunning themselves along the riverbanks. The rumble of trains and their whistles for crossings reminded us that civilization was nearby. For us, being aboard all day at anchor has a different feeling from being aboard all day tied to a dock. We stayed a second day at Murphy Creek, enjoying our wilderness setting. It was entertaining watching Ruth trying to identify birds which flew away the minute she got the binoculars and bird book.

Lake George was mirror flat as we made the arrow straight 10-mile crossing to a very different St. Johns River on the south side of the lake. The river took on a wilder tropical feel and water hyacinth became prevalent in the now narrow confines of the river. Huge rafts of houseboats rested along the shore waiting for their peak season occupants. Small fishing boats were tucked into every likely fishing spot as we idled along. Vacant docks at Hontoon State Park caught our eye, so we decided to dock for the night. The park is only reachable by water, and we had the place to ourselves as we explored the trails going out to ancient Indian shell mounds.

Downtown Sanford has succeeded in revitalizing their downtown area after all the retail shop owners moved to the suburbs or went out of business. Now it’s an antique row mixed with an interesting variety of restaurants. Ruth found cruets for olive oil and balsamic vinegar at one shop. They’re now a functional memento of our stay in Sanford. We explored town and the surrounding residential area with its interesting mix of old restored homes. One evening a classic car cruise was scheduled for the downtown area, and we wandered among three solid blocks of vintage cars from our teen years.

Threading our way behind an island near Blue Spring State Park we dropped the anchor. Ashore ibis poked along looking for lunch. In the water an alligator moved along without a ripple. Along the island shore a couple of large alligators lay basking in the warm sun. We settled in to enjoy the wilderness. A short dinghy ride took us to Blue Spring, the winter home of manatees warming up in the constant 72-degree waters of the Spring. Few manatees were in residence, most had taken advantage of the warm weather to venture out into the St. Johns River and munch water hyacinth.

A small creek feeding into Black Creek provided a sheltered cove for our last wilderness anchorage before Jacksonville. We stayed for two days enjoying turtles doing their slow motion pushing and shoving to gain the best sunning spot on a log. As a finishing touch, alligators came in and found a place to bask in the sun.

Morning fog was there as forecasted. Waypoints plotted the night before gave us a route to follow. We started out early so we’d be sure to arrive in Jacksonville for slack current. As always, our plans are subject to change and change they did. The fog didn’t burn off as forecasted—in fact, it got thicker, and even though we had radar going we slowed down. Our slow pace provided an opportunity to sort out and fix an instrument disagreement problem that had perplexed us for some time. Slack current was long gone when we arrived in Jacksonville. A one-knot following current pushed us toward the slip. Ruth eased us in working reverse to keep the current from crashing us into the dock. The dock master and I secured lines, and we were snug in the current that sometimes reached two knots in the marina.

Jacksonville was a bit disappointing. A nice waterfront walkway follows the river linking huge hotels, high-end restaurants, and office towers. The area felt sterile and out of scale. We felt like we were the only people in the heart of downtown one Saturday as we walked passed empty offices, restaurants and shops geared to support the office workers now gone for the weekend.

Linda and Dean joined us on their way to check the progress of their new Trawlercat 44. They take delivery in a few months and will live aboard like us. We had a grand reunion and a fun time swapping notes and learning about their activities as they set up their final downsizing and retirement plans. We lingered in the morning enjoying each other’s company. Linda and Dean headed toward Endeavour with their first carload of stuff for living aboard. We watched them leave and then slipped our lines and started up the last 20 miles of the St Johns River to meet up with the ICW.

Between Jacksonville and the ICW all traces of wilderness are replaced with an unusual mix of industrial and residential vistas running along the shores of the now very wide river. Huge navigation aids sized for ocean going freighters made navigation easy. We’d loved the wilderness, fresh water, inexpensive marinas, and lack of cruising boats. We added the St Johns River to our list of places we plan to visit again someday.

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