Gliding through the St. Johns in a kayak on a gray morning, it was hard to imagine that more than 250 years ago two strangers in this strange country called Florida did the same in this place.
I was here with Sandy to participate in the first Bartram Adventure Tour.
We stayed with Linda Crider, the organizer of the longtime Bike Florida, at her B&B, Bartram Inn, in the historic district south of modesto municipal, and spent every day together with Bartram experts, learning about the Bartrams on guided tours.
At the age of 66, John Bartram had a large garden on his property in Philadelphia. He was a botanist who sent plants from America to his native England.
When England took Florida to Spain, John Heard of King George. He had become a botanist, and was going to explore this strange new Land.
John and his 26-year-old son William made their way south on horseback. They started paddling on the River St.Johns in a shelter in December 1765.
They spent eight weeks following it upstream to present-day Brevard County. It was a whole trip of paddles against the current, especially in their time.
In addition to a handful of colonies where they met Indigenous peoples and some trading places where Europeans had settled, Florida was a very wild place: insects, Bears, Panthers, snakes and of course many alligators.
On our last visit to Palatka we visited the St. Johns River Center and discovered the Bartram National Recreation Trail. This visit became our first opportunity to know where it led.
Today it was time to take water. We bet on the boat ramp of Shell Harbor. The River St. Johns is wide, so we hugged the shore.
Since the Bartrams were looking for plants, they would not have ventured far from the shore. They had often made shore excursions in search of new and unknown plants.
Dean Campbell, our guide, showed the West side of the river.
Thanks to the Ocala National Forest and other protected areas on the West Bank, it is mostly swampy, with no real Land in sight, and is part of the vast floodplain for which much of this river is known.
Dean reminded us that it looked like the time when the Bartrams passed by more than two hundred years ago. I thought about it when I was paddling and asked, ” Wouldn’t there be huge old cypresses?”
“Yes, it would have been,” Dean answered. “Like most of the rest of Florida, these giant trees have been registered.”
I walked west between the Redwoods and Redwoods, and I felt insignificant standing among them. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to stand in a forest of old cypresses.
Thousands of years old, with water and cypress knees between them, they were part of a world that will never be seen again.
It will take generations for such a large forest to settle here again. We hope that through so many generations comes the wisdom to preserve these places of the past.
If he stopped on the way, Dean would indicate places that William and John might have written about. William wrote a travel diary which was published.
After John returned to and took another trip by canoe all alone, just before the war of independence, he wrote a book that you can always find sold today, popularly known as Bartram’s Travels.
By special arrangement we were allowed to stop on a piece of private property and return to a very obsessed place, Satsuma Spring.
Through the courtyard we walked under the arches of old oak trees on a well-kept path to the spring. Here we were at the same spot where William stood and wrote about.
Here his words reminded me of a sermon preaching about the beauty and importance of natural places. We are lucky that this hidden piece of history has landed in the hands of a caring and understanding Person.
She realizes that it is a unique and important place, and has set the wheels in motion so that it is protected for future generations. Maybe one day everyone who paddles through will be able to visit Satsuma Spring.
As we paddled off Acosta Creek Marina, I saw a beautiful sailboat in blue ketch. As an old sailor, I was attracted to take a closer look. Some of my fellow paddlers joined me, but couldn’t feel the connection I was making.
It was a well maintained ship and the pride of the property showed. I am good enough to identify older sailboats, but this one had many unique features that left me clueless.
Later, when we were back on the paddle, I started a conversation with a colleague who was working on a neglected and dirty motorboat. He said he was in the process of restoring it for the new owner.
I shook my head and said it seemed like he was working it for a very long time.
His Answer? “It won’t take much time. I have been working on boats for a long time.”
He pointed a shiny boat to the next Dock. I had noticed it earlier. “This is the last boat I have restored,” he said.
I couldn’t imagine that it would ever look as rough as the one he was working on. I told him I was impressed-and I didn’t impress him easily after working on the space Shuttle for more than thirty years.
He was amazed at early career, and I was amazed at the skills he had as a carpenter. He couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t continue on the next space program because he couldn’t imagine giving up on restoring old ships.
He asked if I had noticed the Blue ketch in the marina. When I told him it was such a beautiful boat, I was drawn to take a closer look. He smiled and said she was his.
He and his wife built it in 1969. when I asked what it was made of, he asked me “ ” what do you think?”
I put wood or fiberglass on wood. No. Aluminum? No. Steel? No, again. When he saw the confused look on my face, he said ” concrete.”
Concrete was once a material from which people built powerful sea boats. Who fell out of favor many years ago.
When I was looking for a cheap cruise ship more than 20 years ago, I came across many neglected concrete boats.
After cutting the river to paddle towards Welaka Spring, our guide reported a beautiful river bluff that Bartram had written about the proximity of the source.
Believe it or not, the source was used in 1907 by the Welaka Mineral Water Company for bottled water – glass bottles.
In the 1920s, a hunting and fishing house was built on the bluff. There are still many” old Florida ” fishing camps along this stretch of the St.Johns today.
Reaching the spring we celebrated with a snack. Dean told us how “some local guys”, after breaking a large piece of karst and reducing the flow of the source, tried to” open ” it with dynamite.
The Explosion did exactly the opposite. He filled much of the spring opening with smaller pieces of Broken Stones. Fortunately, the spring still flows and is accessible by kayak.
After leaving the spring race, we enjoyed paddling with the current to the ramp where we started.
Sandy was there to meet me after spending her morning exploring hiking trails around Welaka on foot.
We joined my fellow kayakers and old friends Robert and Laura at Shrimp-R-Us for lunch, before returning to Palatka for another night on the Bartram Adventure Tour.
The Bartram Adventure Tour
With the Bartram Inn in Palatka as a base Camp, we spent four days with the inhabitants of the nature protectors and Bartram Experts.
We learned from John and William Bartram where they were in the area, what they saw and how their visits impacted history.
Here is a video overview of our entire adventure, which included hiking, biking and paddle boarding as well as parties with Palatka.