Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Primordial swamp

I am once again typing under way in Lake George, after a busy few days on a very pleasant cruise up and down the St. Johns. I probably won't get all the way through typing before I need to go back to driving the boat, this post will upload later in the day.

Shortly after uploading my last blog post we found the skinniest water of the whole trip. We were lined up on the range markers and in the middle of the charted dredged channel, nominally 12' deep, when we ran into a hump of some sort, and watched in horror as the sounder dropped below seven feet and then six. We jogged this way and that trying to get around it, to no avail, and when the sounder hit six we had to just plough through it. It was short-lived, but making matters worse was a charted rock just at the edge of the channel that probably does not exist, but which we nevertheless dodged.

Once past the hump we had good water all the to and across the Volusia Bar, which is traversed by a channel protected by a pair of wooden jetties. South of the bar the river enters a beautiful wooded stretch, the start of many over the next 50 miles or so.

Typical stretch of the upper St. Johns river. It got more narrow as we moved south.

After a few twists and turns the river enters the community of Astor, where it is crossed by a bascule bridge. I get the feeling the bridges open rarely in these parts. Just the other side of the bridge is the Blackwater Inn, which has a free dock for patrons, but not large enough for Vector. We continued another mile upriver and dropped the hook just off-channel near a small island (map), the first of a number of very tight anchorages for us over the next three days.

Unusual sights: a sports car, on a pontoon boat, on a boat lift, in a boat house, on the river.

We dropped the tender and went back to the Blackwater for happy hour drafts in the casual upstairs venue, followed by prime rib dinner in the more upscale dining room on the main level. On the way to the Inn we stopped at the boat ramp a half mile up, which was a short walk from the Ace Hardware, so I could pick up a couple of project items.

The Blackwater Inn from just upriver. The docks are too small for Vector and the water gets shallow.

Saturday we decked the tender, weighed anchor, and headed upriver through some spectacularly beautiful landscape, much of it looking like a scene from Jurassic Park. Our cameras could not capture them but we saw plenty of alligators and turtles sunning themselves, and more birds than we could count, with great white herons, anhingas, ibises, wood storks, coots (present company included), bald eagles, cormorants, turkey vultures, terns, and various ducks all well represented.

The birds grow on trees around here.

We had hoped to end our day in the vicinity of Blue Springs, where manatees congregate in large numbers. With inexpensive docks at Hontoon State Park and a number of marked anchorages along the way, including one right next to the springs, we thought it would be straightforward. The reality is that Vector is among the largest boats to ever visit this end of the river, and we judged the anchorages along the way too tight. The docks looked like they might be too shallow (we later found only 5' of water there in the tender), and I ran aground sounding the anchorage nearest the springs in what was charted as ten feet.

We ended up going considerably further upriver, dropping the hook off-channel at the entrance to Butchers Bend (map). It was very peaceful there, and there was not much traffic even for a weekend. We were close enough to the channel that we left plenty of lights on overnight, though. We.got the anchor down just before sunset.

The railroad and highway bridges at the entrance to Lake Monroe and Sanford. We turned around here.

That stop put us just three miles from Sanford and the bridges that mark the entrance to Lake Monroe, possibly too shallow for us outside of the dredged channel. Even then, the dredge is just eight feet. Still, we wanted to go at least to the bridges as long as we were this close, and so Sunday morning we weighed anchor and continued upriver to the railroad bridge. The bridge was open, and we could have passed through and gone another mile or so, but we've been to Sanford before.

Speaking of which, just downriver of the bridges is the Boat Tree Marina, and behind their docks is the enormous building of Millennium Coach, a premium bus converter. Long-time readers may remember we spent Thanksgiving there a few years ago with our good friends and fellow bus enthusiasts Ben and Karen, who were having some work done there.

Millennium Coach is the building just behind this marina.

We turned around in the large basin just downstream of the railroad bridge, and started our long journey back the way we came. We still wanted to see Blue Springs and Hontoon Island, so we set our sights on a marked anchorage around the corner and a short distance up the Hontoon River, off the St. Johns.

Vector anchored mid-channel in the Hontoon.

We had to go a bit further up the Hontoon than the anchorage marker to find a spot "suitable" for us, about three quarters of a mile in (map).  This is, bar none, our tightest anchorage to date; the river is just 200' wide tree-to-tree here, and the six foot contour is about 150' across. We found a spot with 12' depth mid-channel after passing mostly 16'-17', and dropped the hook. Once set, we shortened scope to just 2.5:1, giving us a swing circle that would have us grazing the mud should we get sideways to the river.

We passed this juvenile alligator close enough to get a photo from the dinghy.

We did completely reverse during the evening, but we never left mid-channel and there were almost no forces on the boat at all. And while the tightest spot so far, it was also the most idyllic; an occasional houseboat or bass fisherman passed us, but the whole river is no-wake, and we could see most of the aforementioned wildlife right from our deck.

Returning to Vector, which looks as if she's steaming away from us.

We splashed the tender once we were comfortable with our short-scope holding, and headed back to the St. Johns and across the river to Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina, where we fueled the tender and were met by good friends Chris and Cherie, who have a place nearby in DeLand. We brought them back to Vector for cocktails before heading right back ashore to a most excellent dinner at Emmy's Time Out Tavern, a German restaurant nearby. They dropped us back at the dock afterward and we headed back to a well-lit Vector up the creek.

A wide part of the Hontoon Dead River. Would be a nice anchorage for those drawing less than four feet.

A view back up the canal, looking rather primordial.

Yesterday morning we took the tender on a circumnavigation of Hontoon Island, by way of the Hontoon River and one of several old "canals" cut through the swamp eons ago. The first canal we tried was impassable but the second is clearly being maintained for the purpose. That put us back in the St. Johns just upstream of Blue Springs, and after traversing a couple of oxbows that we could not pass in Vector we stopped at the springs, just outside the boat barrier, where we interacted with several curious manatees. We raised the engine and paddled the last hundred feet for safety.

Just off Blue Springs. That's a manatee under the blue kayak.

This youngster came right up to us. He already has a propeller scar on his forehead.

This much larger cow also came right up to us.

After getting our fill of manatees we continued downriver to the Hontoon State Park docks, across from Hontoon Landing. Despite the marina volunteer managing to get his big Krogen 53 to the docks there, we found just five feet of water at the outside T-head, so it was a good thing we did not try to get Vector in there. We spent a few minutes at the park visitor center before heading home to load the tender and weigh anchor.

The docks at Hontoon Island State Park, with a venerable Krogen 53 in residence.

We picked our way back out of the Hontoon River and retraced our steps back to Lake George, through two bascule bridges. In addition to the Astor bridge I mentioned earlier, there is the Whitehair bridge in DeLand, whose tender told us on our southbound approach that there'd be a delay while the lube warmed up; we might have been his only customer all month.

Mindful of our experience in the channel coming south, we diverted to the west of the marked channel well south of the trouble spot, and while we did proceed at dead slow through a number of seven foot soundings, we never saw six. Once back in the nines we set a course for the entrance to the Silver Glen Springs Run, and dropped the hook in nine feet about a half mile offshore (map).

Vector at anchor in the morning mist on Lake George.

This morning we splashed the tender and headed in to see the spring. We had a bit of a false start as the engine struggled for fuel with just a gallon left in the tank -- we used the couple of gallons we added at Hontoon Landing on our big excursion. I think the lift pump on the little motor struggles to pull through the big fuel filter we have, and rather than fight it we returned to Vector for more fuel, which I siphoned out of the two scooters.

Louise at Silver Glen Spring. Hard to tell how clear the water is, but you can see sea grass four feet down in this photo. By contrast, the water is so tea-brown in the lake that we can only see a few inches of the snubber.

The second attempt was successful and we very much enjoyed the crystal clear water of the spring. Being able to see the bottom some seven feet or so below was reminiscent of the Bahamas, although at just 73, the spring water did not call to us for swimming (though at least one family in a houseboat was enjoying just that).

Adventures in anchoring. That's a dead branch with a cinder block attached.

We weighed anchor around noon and are now headed back to Palatka, where we plan to tie up tonight at Corky Bells restaurant. The lake had one last surprise for us, as our anchor brought up a tree with a cinder block tied to it, which we had to extricate before getting under way. Tomorrow we'll head back to Green Cove Springs, to be on track for Christmas in Jacksonville.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!