A group of 18 adventurous kayakers, including Adventure Outpost river guide Lars Anderson, ventured into the Ocklawaha River on Saturday to learn about its history and to experience all its diverse inhabitants.
This particular history tour was a product of a partnership between Adventure Outpost and the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville. The idea was to create a river tour to complement the museum’s current exhibition “River of Dreams: The St. John’s and it’s Springs.”
The Ocklawaha, which is connected to the St. John’s River, has a story that winds through many chapters of Florida’s history, and there is no shortage of wildlife to be seen along the way.
The Rodman Dam, built in the 1960s, stands at the start of the Ocklawaha River and gives way to a wide, man-made portion of the river that slowly and inconspicuously transforms into an all-natural narrow passageway filled with twists and turns. The dam was part of an attempt to build a single canal through the entire state of Florida for travel, shipping and wartime needs, but the project was stopped shortly after the dam was built and was never finished.
The group of paddlers began their adventure at the mouth of the dam, taking in the view of the Rodman Reservation from a new perspective. After the canal project was stopped due to environmental concerns voiced by the Florida Defenders of the Environment, the dam became a reservoir that turned out to be an ideal fishing spot. The project was halted by years of environmental studies, but there were no funds to remove the work that had been done up to that point. So the Rodman Dam and reservoir remain accessible to local fishermen. Anderson estimated that about $1 million of taxpayer dollars go into canal and dam maintenance every year.
A great blue heron wades in a sea of spatterdock, the lily pad look-alike that lines the majority of the river’s edge and accents the Ocklawaha’s curves. The plant life in the river has evolved over time because the dam prevents natural water cycles, like summer floods, from occurring, according to Anderson.
A makeshift ladder and rope swing situated precariously on a large, leaning ash tree allude to past adventurous and innovative river-goers. The Ocklawaha is about 7 to 8 feet deep in most places, so rope-swingers should proceed with caution. The shallow and narrow nature of the river required steamboats in the Civil War era to be tall and thin, sometimes three stories high. They sometimes squeezed by each other so closely that cooks would lean overboard to exchange notes in passing.
The group continues its journey, surrounded by a sea of diverse greenery. The most common tree species situated along the riverside are the Carolina ash, red maple, bald cypress, swamp tupelo and the willow, Anderson said.
A bright white egret perches on a messy pile of fallen trees blocking one of the many side channels branching off the main river. Anderson described the river and its channels as “braided” and said it’s the most accurate way to portray the endless twists, turns and branch-offs. Fittingly, the Seminole translation of “Ocklawaha” is “Crooked Waters.”
Anderson takes a quick break from paddling to share a few facts with his fellow kayakers about their approaching lunch stop. The small, now peaceful site was once a riverside community home to many early Central Florida settlers, including the Fillyaw family, the first to settle in the particular site. Mr. Fillyaw, a Civil War veteran, and his wife, a Choctaw Indian, were killed in the 1870s when the settlement was raided by a group of Indians whose identities remain unknown.
After a couple hours of paddling, the kayakers stop for a well-deserved lunch at Davenport Mound, an old steamboat landing. Acting as a water highway for Central Florida, the Ocklawaha allowed the transport of pine and cypress trees that contributed to Florida’s first major industry: logging. Boats also transported various trade goods and people. Catching a ride on a steamboat was common for new settlers, hunters and Confederate soldiers going off to war.
Above a slightly uphill path from the landing is a fenced-in area that gives meaning to the name “Davenport Mound.” The area is an Indian burial mound. Such mounds commonly contain multiple deceased and ancient artifacts. American Indians built burial mounds in Florida for thousands of years, and archaeologists say this one is about 500 to 1,200 years old.
Nearing the end of the trip, one kayaker leads the way at the front of the pack, leaving the rest of the group in her tiny, smooth wake. The trip was about 8 miles total and lasted almost four hours.