Abhaya and I decided to go paddling last Saturday (Feb 2, 2008) upstream on Orange Creek from the Rodman Reservoir (Lake Ocklawaha), a damnable impoundment of the Ocklawaha River. She was in her small kayak and me in my 13ft canoe. I tried to get Brack and Bruce to join us, but no.
The Ocklawaha River was once arguably Florida’s prettiest river. Its headwaters are freshwater marshes near Cape Kennedy, which discharge water that is nearly clear and very clean. Flowing northward, the Ocklawaha gathers dystrophic (brown, tannin-stained) waters from small tributaries draining cypress and hardwood swamps along the way, resulting in the river becoming more opaque. East or Ocala, the river receives the ultra-clear discharge of the Silver River, known for its principal source, Silver Springs.
Silver Springs was the setting for numerous movie battles between Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan vs alligators, snakes and other dangerous denizens of Africa’s jungles. I had the privilege of cave diving in Silver Springs some years ago when Eric Hutchinson was hired by the concessionaire to “discover the source of the water.” It turned out that the spring has at least two sources, one relatively shallow and clear, and the other mineral-laden and probably quite deep, but we were never able to penetrate far into the cave due to its tightness.
In recent years, the concession established a zoo comprising numerous species of native and exotic animals within the wetland floodplain of the river. Manure and urine from the animals have built up such that now the park stinks of animal wastes, which are deposited into the spring basin and spring run with every rainfall event. This excessive nutrient load, in combination with nutrients from the overpopulated commercial and residential development in the springshed has caused the replacement of most of the beautiful native aquatic grassbeds in the spring basin/run by ugly mats of drab olive algae.
In the olden days, before local overpopulation, the Silver River would discharge clear, clean spring waters into the Ocklawaha River. In my childhood, my family took a glass-bottom boat ride from the spring basin out into the Ocklawaha and back, and along the way the Ocklawaha was so clear that we could see schools of catfish swimming along the river’s bottom approximately 20 ft deep. Some of those catfish were over 4 ft long!
The Ocklawaha would be that clear only during droughty times, as at other seasons the tannin-stained tributaries would darken the river. Nowadays, the Ocklawaha runs dark all the time, a result of overpopulation and nutrient overloading, and longer droughts.
The Rodman Reservoir was one of two reservoirs constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) back in the 1970s as part of the notorious Cross-Florida Barge Canal. Although the barge canal was finally de-authorized by congress, portions of the obscene canal still exist in parts of the Peninsula, as are the two dams and their reservoirs.
The credit for the de-authorization goes to Marjorie Carr, whose dedicated, focused anti-canal activism over a period of 20+ years resulted in her becoming Florida’s leading environmentalist. Her victory over the barge canal was the first time the USACOE had ever been defeated on a major pork barrel project. Incidentally, her husband, Dr Archie Carr, almost single-handedly achieved a similar distinction in that his activism saved the green sea turtle from extinction. Marjorie and Archie Carr are heroes of mine.
The Rodman Reservoir today is very popular for largemouth bass fishing, so popular, in fact, that despite numerous attempts over the decades by environmentalists have failed to de-authorize the reservoir. One good thing about the reservoir, however, is that it is a trap for organic sediments from the overpopulated upstream landscape, which would otherwise discharge into the St Johns River and eventually the ocean to pollute them.
This detritus is so abundant that the reservoir bottom quickly becomes too muddy for bass, crappie and panfish to nest and breed, so periodically the reservoir is drained down to the level of the original river and the mud allowed to oxidize. This cycle is repeated every few years.
Unknowingly, Abhaya and I chose to go paddling during one of the drawdown episodes. Thus, our scenery was of vast expanses of sand and mud and dead, rotting vegetation. As I wrote above, we had planned to launch at the reservoir’s edge and paddle upstream in Orange Creek, so we grimly tried to follow our plan. Unfortunately, the creek, which would normally be maybe 10 ft deep at the confluence with the reservoir, was only a couple of feet deep. Doubly unfortunately, this depth quickly decreased to less than a foot and often less than 4 inches.
That is an insufficient depth for me and my canoe, so I hopped out of the boat and started pulling it upstream. The bottom was composed of coarse sand here and soft mud there, but the water was cool and refreshing on this 80+ degree winter day. Abhaya soon joined me out of her craft, and upstream we slogged until it became obvious that the water was only going to get shallower and shallower. So, we turned around and slogged and paddled back downstream to the river, going first upstream and then back down to the boat ramp from whence we came.
It was not a great day on the water, but it wasn’t a total loss, either. Any day outdoors is better than a day spent inside. We saw numerous wading birds, including the great blue heron, common egret, snowy egret, cattle egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, green-backed heron, sandhill crane, white ibis and wood stork – pretty much all the species of wading birds that one might find in north Florida in winter. We also saw the fish crow, common crow, common grackle, redwing blackbird and an unidentified gull, and possibly a small alligator.
That would have been an excellent day to cave dive into Blue Spring, which is near the east bank of the river at the place where the river has a major 90-degree bend from south to east. Ordinarily, Blue Spring is submerged under the reservoir’s waters, which it pushes up in a visible boil. We did not see the spring, but it was undoubtedly not submerged that day.