Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida's Oklawaha River
There are two Oklawaha Rivers today. There is the twisting, unspoiled black-water stream of the Florida Wilderness. And there is the dammed, straightened, Army Engineered desolation of the unfinished Cross-Florida Barge Canal.
Five miles meandering with mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran…
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, so far as I know, never paddled in a canoe, but in “Kubla Khan” he caught the dreamlike quality of Florida’s spring-fed rivers as only a poet could. Alph, the sacred river, was of course conceived in a dream, (so rudely interrupted by “a man from Porlock”) but it was firmly based on factual description by one of America’s earliest and greatest naturalists, William Bartram, in his classic Travels. That the journal of a botanist in the Florida wilderness should have inspired one of the greatest poems of the English language is of more than purely literary significance. It is a dramatic symbol of the change in the attitude toward wild nature that took place quite suddenly in the closing years of the 18th century. Wilderness, hitherto considered alien and hostile, entered into our culture as a source of inspiration and a road to truth. In conquering a continent, Americans have lost that road more often than they have followed it back. But we a finally finding our way back, seeking out and preserving where we can the fragments of natural beauty that remain.
One of the finest and rarest is the area in northern Florida where the traveler can still look down into the “mighty fountains” willing up from limestone springs, and drift through a place “as holy and enchanted/ As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover.” Though the demon-lover has alas, gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Carolina parakeet, the enchantment is still there. On the clear “runs” where for miles one can see every inch of the river bottom; in the pine-lands and hammocks and cypress swamp; on the lakes, and above all, on that famous “black water” river, the Oklawaha — the Ockli-Waha, or Great River, as the Indians call it, — one can recapture the sense of wonder that gives an almost religious quality to the writing of early naturalists.
The Oklawaha is not a familiar rover to most Americans today; less so, I imagine, that in the last century, when visitors from the north rhapsodized over the wonders of travel by excursion steamer on Florida’s inland waters. Today’s tourist, driving at eighty miles an hour through a bill-board jungle, has little ideas of the beauties that like hidden in the softly rolling country between the harsh ribbons of cement. One of the most enchanting oases in this desert of progress is the so-called Marjorie Kinan Rawlings country. It lies in north-central Florida, southeast of Gainsville (seat of the University) and east of Ocala and the north-south freeway. It is an area of rivers and lakes and crystal springs bubbling up from the underlying limestone aquifer know to geologists as the Ocala dome — the largest single water storage in the United States. It is a country of orange groves, hugging the lakes as insurance against frost; of stock farms with hundreds of acres of neatly fenced pasture, here and there shaded by great live oaks; of hardwood hammock (a few virgin stands remain); of pineland and scrub forest, famous for its abundance of game. The latter flourishes in Ocala National Forest, an area approximately twenty by forty miles in extent, bordered by the St. Johns River on the east and the Oklawaha on the west. The scrub country is the scene of Mrs. Rawling’s Novel, The Yearling; west of the Oklawaha lies the town she made famous in Cross Creek.
The Oklawaha River itself rises in several large lakes near the central of the Florida peninsula. It flows north along the edge of the national forest and then turn abruptly eastward at Orange Springs to join the mighty St. Johns. A third of the way along its northward course it is swelled by the outflow from the most fabulous of fountains, Silver Springs, which “with ceaseless turmoil seething/ As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing…” pours forth some 500 million gallons of water a day, so clear that the blue catfish on the bottom sixty feet below seem almost within arms reach. Now commercialized and vulgarized, Silver Springs was at one time the Mecca for travelers on riverboats that made the steamer trip upstream from Palatka on the St. Johns.