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downtowngal

NY Times Article re: St. Johns River

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Along the St. Johns River, a Slice of Old Florida

December 19, 2004

By SUSAN HARB

HAD it been a century and a half earlier, the vessel that

is slowly navigating this watery highway through central

Florida in the middle of winter would have been an elegant

steamer, not this small flat-bottomed johnboat, and its

passengers would have been adventurous tourists,

celebrities and hunters, who would have come by the

thousands to see a tropical wilderness. Then, as now, the

tannin-stained river would have twisted like a water snake

along stretches of nearly impenetrable banks of cypress,

live oaks and palms.

Spanish moss drapes the trees in funereal gray. Bundles of

mistletoe hang on bare branches like exotic Chinese

lanterns. Egrets, herons, ibises and cranes take flight at

every bend. Alligators watch unblinkingly from the river's

edge.

The St. Johns River was among Florida's first tourist

attractions, with up to 300 paddle-wheelers ferrying

visitors to lavish hotels, rustic camps and rejuvenating

artesian springs. Then came the railroad, and travelers

headed south to warmer resorts leaving the St. Johns to

amble through some of the state's most uninhabited lands.

Florida's longest river begins in a flood basin west of

Vero Beach and flows 310 miles north to join the sea near

Jacksonville. It is a lazy river, falling less than 30 feet

- or one inch per mile - at its snail's pace to a salty

grave.

Not many tourists seek out the St. Johns these days. But my

husband and I wanted to explore it last January, on a road

trip that began in Orlando and ended in Jacksonville. It

was a route that, under normal driving conditions, would

have taken about three hours. We did it in four days, in a

journey that took us down back roads, into tucked-away

towns, and occasionally onto the river itself.

We picked up the St. Johns River near DeLand, 35 miles

north of Orlando. This area of Florida is studded with

artesian springs that feed the St. Johns via a tangled

waterway of lagoons, creeks, lakes and rivers. Our

destination was Blue Spring State Park to visit the

endangered West Indian manatees, residents of the St.

Johns, who head to the springs - a constant 72 degrees -

when the river temperature drops.

From an observation platform we had a clear view of the

manatees as they lolled around in the glassy water,

appearing light as a feather. Adults average 1,000 pounds

and stretch 10 feet in length. Early sailors mistook them

for mermaids, and they are called both sirens and sea cows.

A few steps down the boardwalk we boarded the St. Johns

River Cruises pontoon boat for a two-hour ecological tour.

Our guide was knowledgeable, identifying birds and plants

and spouting scientific facts. "Look for the tire treads,"

she said repeatedly as logs became alligators. We became

blas

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That sounds like a pretty unique trip. I've always wanted to explore the river myself. One of these days I just might have to.

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I was fortunate to take a boat trip down the length of the St. Johns river several years ago. We started in Sanford on Lake Monroe and finished in Downtown Jacksonville. It was quite a trip. I encourage anyone who is thinking of going to do it now.

I am especially glad that I went when I did since the person that went with me is now suffering from Alzheimer and is fading fast. He still remembers that few days on the river.

I Also have traveled the Intracoastal waterway from Jacksonville to Charleston SC. Another trip I would recommend. It is like going back in time.

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A long time ago, my dad and I were going to take a boat trip from south Jax up to the Landing, but the boat like....broke! So we ended up going to the beach, lol. But I went with my 5th grade class on the Annabelle Lee, and we went from the Shipyards to the Matthews and back. That was alot of fun. The river really offers so many advantages, to downtown and the entire region.

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Speaking of the Annabelle Lee. I went on that about two weeks ago and we traveled from the Radisson to NAS and by the Shipyards. It was a fabulous trip where I could see a lot of downtown.

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