Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida's Oklawaha River
As it entered the true cypress swamp, the character of the river changed. No longer did it have definable limits. Though the main channel was as clear as ever, the current ran not between banks of solid earth but through a winding avenue of trees knee-deep in the water. Instead of the occasional cypress tree standing alone, they extended far back from the river as far as the eye could reach through the tangled undergrowth, their boles arrow-straight, their branches hung with Spanish moss. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote of spring on the St. Johns River almost a century ago: “The long swaying draperies of the grey moss interpose everywhere their wavering outlines and pearl tints amid the brightness and bloom of the forest, giving to its deep recesses the mystery of grottoes hung with fanciful vegetable stalactites.” As the brush country birds diminished, the waders became more abundant. One old cypress, heavily buttressed at the base, bare now but for delicate, feathery patches of russet needles, bloomed like a giant flower stalk with white blossoms of snowy and American egrets and the blue-gray of the great blue heron. Another was black with a canopy of boat-tailed grackles.
Compared to the bright flowering of spring, the autumn colors along the river were subdued, but they had their own subtle beauty: the head-high masses of pale purple asters climbing over the shrubs along the sunny edge of the channel, the dark shiny leaves of the magnolias, the red berries of the water holly leaning out over the river. All signs of civilization had vanished hours ago. The only sounds were the plop of a turtle as it dropped from its log, the squawk of a heron, and now and then a wave of mingled songbird chatter so loud and various as to remind us of the “dawn chorus” in a New England spring. And, of course, the woodpeckers. A common note in this forest is the loud churr of the misnamed red-bellied woodpecker, a bright little bird with a zebra back and red crown, forever darting from one dead snag to another. But the great sight for the birder is the pileated. The cock of the wood of New England is, according to Mrs. Rawlings, known at Cross Creek as the “Lord-God.” “The woodpecker was enormous,” she wrote, “swooping from trunk to trunk of the orange trees, he appeared the size of a half-grown turkey. He was brilliant in black and red and white, and gave a loud clapper-like cry.” This cry is the signature of the cypress swamp, as the weird quavering call of the loon is of the North Woods.
Though even at high water there remain a few spots along the Oklawaha where one might pitch a tent, the nights in November are too long for camping out. We made our trip in two stages, leaving a car at the end of each day’s journey. By midafternoon of the first day we had reached the junction with Silver Springs, where state route 40 crosses the Oklawaha. Next morning we put in there for the somewhat larger run to Eureka, down the stretch of the river that will be wholly destroyed if the Cross-Florida Barge Canal is ever finished.
After the previous day’s experience, we feared an anticlimax, but we need not have worried. This “continuous river swamp or hydric hammock habitat,” as a biologist describes it, is wilderness from start to finish: a self-contained world of water, trackless and inviting exploration, where even the casual canoeist (ignorant, as we were, of so much hidden life around us) cannot but share the sense of discovery that was felt by the first white men to see it, two centuries ago. We often put down our paddles to drift and watch. There was plenty to look at: a water turkey—“the most preposterous bird within the range of ornithology” in Lanier’s opinion—drying its outspread wings in the sun; an alligator stretched out on a log; a pair of buffleheads, most stylish black-and-white ducks, scampering ahead of our canoe like mergansers on a northern river; a barred owl that allowed us to drift silently beneath the low branch where it perched; a limpkin, oblivious of our presence a few feet away as he extracted a snail from its shell with his down-curved bill. “The Oklawaha,” we read in Cross Creek “is one of the two or three remaining haunts of the strange brown crane who cries before the rain.”
The forest seemed ever more exotic and tropical, perhaps because of the abundance of tall cabbage palms and the spheres of mistletoe on the treetops. “Along the immediate edges of the stream,” as Lanier noted from his steamboat, “every tree-trunk, sapling, stump or over projecting coign of vantage is wrapped about with a close-growing vine.” Bright-green plumes of wild rice, with tiny yellow flowers, grew in the shallows, Here too were familiar butterflies: monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and the delicate, silver-spotted Gulf fritillary. As the river writhed in ever-growing oxbows, our main job was not so much to paddle ahead as to keep the canoe in the main channel, away from the swirling eddies and the occasional sawyer bobbing in the current. When we stopped to explore one of the side streams leading back into the swamp—which gave a sense of utter remoteness in a vast jungle—the main river on our return seemed like a highway.
Dusk was but an hour off when we reached Eureka. We pulled up our canoe below the high bridge spanning an expanse of dry sand, the bed of the future canal. Midway in the center span, a light had already been fixed to guide the barges of tomorrow. On the lightpoles leading to the dam perched two red-shouldered hawks. Tracks of an otter marked the sand. Beside us flowed the river, dark and clear and free, as it had for a thousand years.