Going Down The Ocklawaha
( Originally Published 1900 )
The Ocklawaha, the dark, crooked water, comes from the south, by tortuous, windings, through various lakes and swamps, and then turns east and southeast to flow into St. John's River, after a course of over three hundred miles. It rises in Lake Apopka, down the Peninsula, elevated about a hundred feet above the sea, the second largest of the Florida Lakes, and covering one hundred and fifty square miles. This lake has wooded highlands to the westward, dignified by the title of Apopka Mountains, which rise probably one hundred and twenty feet above its surface. To the northward is a group of lakes—Griffin, Yale, Eustis, Dora, Harris and others-having clear amber waters and low shores, which are all united by the Ocklawaha, the stream finally flowing northward out of Lake Griffin. This is a region of extensive settlement, mainly by Northern people. The mouth of the Ocklawaha is sixty-five miles from Lake Eustis in a straight line, but the river goes two hundred and thirty miles to get there. To the north-ward of this lake district is the thriving town of Ocala, with five thousand people, in a region of good agriculture and having large phosphate beds, the settlement having been originally started as a military post during the Seminole War. About five miles east of Ocala is the famous Silver Spring, which is believed to have been the "fountain of perpetual youth," for which Juan Ponce de Leon vainly searched. It is the largest and most beautiful of the many Florida springs, having wonderfully clear waters, and covers about three acres. The waters can be plainly seen pouring upwards through fissures in the rocky bottom, like an inverted Niagara, eighty feet beneath the surface. It has an enormous out-flow, and a swift brook runs from it, a hundred feet wide, for some eight miles to the Ocklawaha.
This strange stream is hardly a river in the ordinary sense, having fixed banks and a well-defined channel, but is rather a tortuous but navigable pas-sage through a succession of lagoons and cypress swamps. Above the Silver Spring outlet, only the smallest boats of light draft can get through the crooked channel. This outlet is thirty miles in a direct line from the mouth of the river at the St. John's, but the Ocklawaha goes one hundred and nine miles thither. The swampy border of the stream is rarely more than a mile broad, and beyond it are the higher pine lands. Through this curious channel, amid the thick cypress forests and dense jungle of undergrowth, the wayward and crooked river meanders. The swampy bottom in which it has its course is so low-lying as to be undrainable and can-not be improved, so that it will probably always re-main as now, a refuge for the sub-tropical animals, birds, reptiles and insects of Florida, which abound in its inmost recesses. Here flourishes the alligator, coming out to sun himself at mid-day on the logs and warm grassy lagoons at the edge of the stream, in just the kinds of places one would expect to find him. Yet the alligator is said to be a coward, rarely attacking, unless his retreat to water in which to hide himself is cut off. He thus becomes more a curiosity than a foe. These reptiles are hatched from eggs which the female deposits during the spring, in large numbers, in muddy places, where she digs out a spacious cavity, fills it with several hundred eggs, and covering them thickly with mud, leaves nature to do the rest. After a long incubation the little fellows come out and make a bee-line for the nearest water. The big alligators of the neighborhood have many breakfasts on the newly-born little ones, but some manage to grow up, after several years, to maturity, and exhibit themselves along this remarkable river.
It is almost impossible to conceive of the concentrated crookedness of the Ocklawaha and the difficulties of passage. It is navigated by stout and narrow flat-bottomed boats of light draft, constructed so as to quickly turn sharp corners, bump the shores and run on logs without injury. The river turns constantly at short intervals and doubles upon itself in almost every mile, while the huge cypress trees often compress the water way so that a wider boat could not get through. There are many beautiful views in its course displaying the noble ranks of cypress trees rising as the stream bends along its bordering edge of swamps. Occasionally a comparatively straight river reach opens like the aisle of a grand building with the moss-hung cypress columns in long and sombre rows on either hand. At rare intervals fast land comes down to the stream bank, where there is some cultivation attempted for oranges and vegetables. Terrapin, turtles and water-fowl abound. When the passenger boat, after bumping and swinging around the corners, much like a ponderous teetotum, halts for a moment at a landing in this swampy fastness, half-clad negroes usually appear, offering for sale partly-grown baby alligators, which are the prolific crop of the district. Various " Turkey bends," "Hell's half-acres," "Log Jams," "Bone Yards" and " Double S Bends " are passed, and at one place is the " Cypress Gate," where three large trees are in the way, and by chopping off parts of their roots, a passage about twenty feet wide had been secured to let the boats through. There are said to be two thousand bends in one hundred miles of this stream, and many of them are like corrugated circles, by which the narrow water way, in a mile or two of its course, manages to twist back to within a few feet of where it started At night, to aid the navigation; the lurid glare of huge pine-knot torches, fitfully blazing, gives the scene a weird and unnatural aspect. The monotonous sameness of cypress trunks, sombre moss and twisting stream for many hours finally becomes very tiresome, but it is nevertheless a most remarkable journey of the strangest character possible in this country to sail down the Ocklawaha.