Jefferson County’s Rivers: Florida’s Frontier

We drove to Mandalay at dawn, sliding an open boat into the Aucilla. Charlie Ward handled the tiller with Jack Carswell beside him. I rode amidships to take pictures.

Charlie picked out his route along the curved riverbanks. “Sharp rocks hide under the surface of this water. One of them can rip this boat to pieces.”

We entered a maze of channels between curving stretches of marsh grasses dotted with palms, twisted cedars and willows. At Apalachee Bay Charlie pointed out Saint Marks Lighthouse and the almost hidden mouth of the Pinhook.

Charlie said the Pinhook is mostly limestone under the reeds and grass. Trees rooted directly into slabs of moss-covered limestone hang over the water, closing out the sun.

The river narrowed and banks came closer until our boat stopped, the keel caught on a tree fallen across the water. Grabbing a nearby limb in one hand, Charlie yanked on the side of the boat and gunned the motor, sliding us across.

We finally turned to head back through the tunnel of trees. When we came out in the open the sky was dark. As soon as we ran clear of the narrow part of the river we sped up, ignoring the danger of hidden rocks. We were unsure whether to head back to the Aucilla or make for Saint Marks by open water where we would be safe.

We ran into a storm on Apalachee Bay just as we left the Pinhook River

We ran into a storm on Apalachee Bay just as we left the Pinhook River

The sky turned purple and black, and a strong wind picked up. After a few miles of wind blowing in our faces the clouds moved on to our west. The sun came back out.

As we turned north back into the Aucilla, we saw a gathering of Wood Storks resting on the limbs of a dead tree. One turned his back and spread his wings to show his eight-foot wing span.

Overhanging tree limbs cast intricate patterns on the water. We turned left at Ward Island where Charlie stopped at a floating dock. Pointing to a path up the hill he said, “Climb up there and you’ll see a real family fishing cabin. Those folks hauled every stick of lumber in here on a boat.”

The weathered structure looked shabby but sturdy. A covered porch protected a line of chairs backed up to the wall. I could picture a family enjoying the solitude–adults resting on the porch and children yelling as they played in the woods nearby.

Fishing Shack on Ward Island on the lower Aucilla

Fishing Shack on Ward Island on the lower Aucilla

Leaving the river, we followed the same route back to Monticello. Soon Charlie turned onto a narrow lane to show us the headwaters of the Wacissa River.

The Wacissa is pristine—as clear as the springs that feed it. Narrow and twisted, it is land-bound and finally disappears into the earth. Its waters connect with the Aucilla through a “Slave Canal,” cut by hand in antebellum times.

A large part of Jefferson County is like these rivers, still unchanged in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Much of the route we covered on this trip is a land and waterscape untouched and undamaged, rare and beautiful.

Cold and clear, the Wacissa is  spring fed

Cold and clear, the Wacissa is spring fed

 

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Jefferson County’s Aucilla River

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By Anne Haw Holt

 

Today, in autumn, the river is dry under the Ashville Highway Bridge. In early spring I spent more than three quiet hours in the bow of a friend’s canoe, wandering among the channels, wide pools and small bays created by the overflow. I snapped photograph after photograph of water birds, the pale new leaves of rampant undergrowth and gently greening cypress forest.

In the hot Florida summer, from Lamont south to our landing near the lost town of “Cash Money” we paddled a wide, strong and full-flowing river. The water sometimes tumbled and rushed over rapids, cutting into high banks. We found fallen trees blocking our canoes, forcing a portage through the underbrush alongside the stream. Once we pushed lightened canoes across a partially submerged log. Wide-winged birds flew off into the forest at the sound of our paddles. The sun sparkled on water rippling over hidden stones and swirling around cypress knees.

The Aucilla disappears underground near Goose Pasture. Rushing, it dives into the depths of a limestone labyrinth for somewhere between four and five miles. The water intermittently surfaces through windows in the rock to create tiny ponds and graceful lakes, some with floating islands made of lily pads. The “Aucilla Sinks” are bordered by a well-known hiking trail.

Near Nutall Rise the water comes back to the surface where it is joined and augmented by the spring-fed Wacissa River. From there the Aucilla flows wide and deep to wander around Ward Island, curve into Apalachee Bay and race out into the Gulf of Mexico. On the far side of Apalachee Bay, hidden in the sawgrass, we found the narrow channel of the lost Pinhook River.