Exploring the St. Johns River in Florida by Houseboat

Houseboat reflections“C’mon, c’mon…drat!”

For the last twenty minutes, I’ve cast out into the shallows on the edge of the Hontoon Dead River, where the bass have been surfacing, nibbling at flies, since we anchored. It’s my first attempt at using a rod and reel, and despite the best efforts of my tutor, I keep coming up empty. I’ve hauled in a healthy amount of eelgrass, but no fish. Virginia isn’t having much luck either. But around us, the river comes alive as the sun slips behind the floodplain forests surrounding Hontoon Island. A kingfisher chatters as it swoops low across the placid water. Deer crash through the woods. White ibises honk as they settle down on a tall Carolina willow.

With the generator cut off, all is still. It could be 2000 B.C., when the Timucua slipped down this channel in a canoe made from a hollowed-out cypress log. It could be 1765, when botanist and explorer William Bartram paddled along the St. Johns. Then the roar of a jet taking off from the Sanford Airport breaks the stillness of twilight. Virginia sighs, and we open the sliding glass door to step back into the mosquito-free comfort of our houseboat.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • In the stretch between Deland and Astor, the St. Johns River is still a wild, unruly place, just as William Bartram experienced it.
  • A houseboat makes an excellent base camp for experiences on and in the water.
  • Learning how to pilot a houseboat is a great skill if you want to get off the grid.

Learning the Ropes

Five ladies afloat on the St. Johns for a week—a twist on the usual vacation! We convened at Holly Bluff Marina, where a brisk orientation gave us the fundamentals of how to operate a houseboat. I’d been expecting a captain to join us; little did I know I’d be taking the wheel! A crash course in reading navigational charts, boater etiquette, and the difference between port and starboard followed.

“You might just want to head down the Hontoon Dead River,” Terry said, “and practice how to maneuver this thing.”

On my first turn at the wheel, I panicked on a turn and yelled for our sole expert boater, Sandy Huff, to take over.  “Don’t worry, honey, throw it in neutral,” she yelled back as she unpacked. So I did.

I was glad to hand the wheel over to Eva, and amused to see G.K. Sharman figure out how to turn the boat on a dime. With my boating experience limited to canoes and kayaks, I found this houseboat a box on water, an ungainly creature. It doesn’t steer like a car, and can’t maneuver like a kayak. Yet once we have it anchored in a quiet cove, we appreciate the advantage of being able to camp on the water.

Experiencing the St. Johns

St Johns RiverOn our second day, we build our confidence, each taking a turn at the wheel. The river remains blissfully empty of boat traffic. North of the Whitehair Bridge at Deland, the river reverts to Bartram’s day: unending floodplain forests of ash and sweetgum, hickory and cypress. At a top speed of 8 MPH, we have plenty of time to relax and enjoy the scenery slipping by. We spy a massive alligator, its bulk covering one of the few pieces of dry land along the river’s edge. Around Horseshoe Mud Lake, the diminutive cypress forest speaks to the days of logging along the St. Johns. We pass a houseboat tied up in a cypress-line cove, but our destination lies farther north: Silver Glen Springs.

After hours of practice, my terror at piloting the craft dispels, and I steer the behemoth as though it were an old truck, slipping between the piers of the Astor Bridge. As we emerge into Lake George, I turn the wheel over to Sandy and take over as navigator. I have hiked its shores before, but to come into Lake George from the water is to understand how vast it truly is: 18 miles long, 5 miles wide. Our destination must be charted with map and compass, our route leaving the main channel and venturing into dangerous shallows. Keeping an eye on the depth finder, we aim for the island that marks the mouth of Silver Glen Run. The entrance is narrow; the run, shallow. Sandy takes us over the bar.

Safe Harbor

Coming within sight of Silver Glen Spring, we find six fellow vessels at anchor, shattering the wilderness illusion. To my relief, however, our fellow boaters treat this natural gem with the respect it deserves. All is still and quiet. Virginia suggests we try fishing again. Looking down into the crystal clear shallows, I can see needlefish and sunfish, bluegill and mullet, racing in schools. Casting for bluegill, I find the experience surreal. I can see exactly where my cast lands, where the hook drifts, where the fish ignore the bait. Virginia shows off a handful of bream and several fat catfish before retiring to the deck to prepare our dinner.

Twilight at Silver GlenA storm passes in the night, and in the morning stillness I sit on the forward deck, shivering in a stiff wind, as a bald eagle swoops past, following the tree line. It’s tough to say goodbye to this slice of Florida wilderness we’ve claimed as our own, but it’s time to take the houseboat back to Holly Bluff. With four people acting as depth gauges, we manage to slip down the center channel back out to Lake George. Rough waves replace the still waters of two days ago; like Bartram, we truly feel our vessel “diminished to a nutshell on the swelling seas.” It is a relief to rejoin the main channel, to cruise with the prevailing wind. Puttering upstream, we watch mats of water hyacinths drift past, another difference in the river since Bartram’s day. But from atop a cypress, silhouetted against the deep blue sky, a great blue heron lets out a fussy cry. A red-shouldered hawk screams as it dives. Alligators drift along the river’s shore. Some things never change.

Practicalities

  • Holly Bluff Marina rents houseboats from their complex west of downtown DeLand. Rates start at $750 for a weekend.
  • Before you head out on the river, be sure you have a current navigational chart of the St. Johns. You’ll find online charts for pre-planning on the website for the Monroe Harbor Marina, but you’ll want to have a copy with you to keep close watch on river depths.
  • Silver Glen Springs gets very crowded on weekends. If you plan to drop anchor there, limit your visit to weekdays.

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