Florida's ongoing struggle with non-native water hyacinth
As rivers go in the United States, the St. Johns is a rarity. From its headwaters near Vero Beach to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean 310-miles downstream, it is entirely confined within the borders of Florida and runs in the opposite direction of most large rivers, from south to north. And it’s slow, dropping only an inch per mile, making it one of the laziest rivers in North America.
The river can be insufferably hot, windless, and buggy in summer, so it’s much more enjoyable to explore in the winter months, which I did recently on a small sailboat. With every mile, the river’s appearance and that of the surrounding landscape altered as we passed through everything from swamps and marshes to dense forests of moss-covered live oaks and the buttressed trunks of stately cypress trees to downtown Jacksonville. Many of these were the same views that American naturalist William Bartram had as he explored the river in 1774.
Since pre-colonial times, the tannin-dyed waters of the St. Johns have always been used for transportation. Its wide and slow-moving expanse bisects the state and earned it the name Welaka, or “river of lakes,” by the Timucua Indians. Until creation of the railroads, it was the primary method to travel in Florida, and was used to transport goods to market and deliver mail. As people headed inland to develop farms and cattle ranches, towns sprang up along the riverbank, supplied by regular visits from steamboats.
Tawny water hid the many manatees we passed. The large aquatic mammals only revealed themselves through plumes of water as they pumped their flukes like Olympic swimmers. And as we progressed southward past sleepy river towns the salinity diminished until somewhere near Georgetown the river water became completely fresh.