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The St. Johns River

Posted on Monday, August 10, 2015 at 9:43 am

The St. Johns River
AUDUBON SPECIAL PLACES SERIES
By Lisa Rinaman

stjohnsriverThe St. Johns reached out and grabbed me the first time I encountered this amazing river, one of the largest in the United States that flows North.

While scouting out new territory, I ventured to Northeast Florida. Lured by Jacksonville’s rich history and aggressive land conservation efforts, I journeyed from Arkansas in April 1997 for a visit. The first sight of the St. Johns sealed the deal and by October, I made Florida my home. The next year, the river was selected as one of America’s 14 Heritage Rivers, and I certainly understood why.

For thousands of years, the St. Johns has attracted newcomers and visitors with its ice-tea-colored waters, both wide and narrow channels, abundant wildlife, and banks of all types including salt marsh, high bluffs, forested floodplains and freshwater wetlands.  Before the arrival of European settlers, pre-Columbian civilizations and the Timucuan people lived along the river.

In the 1500s, Spanish and French seamen explored, settled and fought for the lands and waters of the St. Johns, naming the river Rio de Corrientes (River of Currents) and La Riviere du Mai (River of May).

Today, nearly 5 million people call the watershed of the St. Johns home. While this tremendous growth has certainly taken its toll on the river’s health, its beauty still attracts nature lovers from near and far.

The St. Johns begins to flow very slowly north from a vast marsh west of Vero Beach , narrows into deeper channels, continues  through a series of lakes, widens as it approaches Palatka and then flows through Jacksonville before reaching the Atlantic Ocean near Mayport.  Along this 310 mile journey, the elevation decreases less than 30 feet, making the St. Johns one of the laziest rivers on Earth.

In 1765, William Bartram wrote of a stretch of the river in what is now the Ocala National Forest: “blessed land where the gods have amassed into one heap all the flowering plants, birds, fish and other wildlife of two continents in order to turn the rushing streams, the silent lake shores and the awe-abiding woodlands of this mysterious land into a true garden of Eden.”

Today, one may still experience some of the same beauty and natural wonders that mesmerized  William Bartram.   The St. Johns remains home to hundreds of species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mollusks. Visitors can enjoy viewing ospreys, great blue herons, great egrets, wood storks, anhingas, American Bald Eagles, wood ducks, barred owls and many more feathered natives.

The St. Johns is also blessed with more than 85 freshwater springs that flow provide a critical source of freshwater flow to the river. This abundance and diversity of wildlife and geologic features provides an incredible array of opportunities for exploration and enjoyment, including kayaking, hiking, camping, swimming, snorkeling, camping, birding, and wildlife watching.

Like many other Florida rivers, the St. Johns faces challenges of water quantity and quality. In 2008 the river was listed as the sixth most endangered  in the nation because of excessive withdrawls by the regional water management district.  Since, flows have increased and excessive nutrient pollution from multiple sources have declined somewhat from serious levels.  Looking ahead, it is important to monitor these issues carefully.

By remaining diligent in our efforts to protect and restore the health of the St. Johns, we can honor the rich historical and cultural heritage of the river and continue to enjoy the recreational and economic benefits that it has provided for residents and visitors for centuries.

“If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place of time and beauty, I think I might choose the night on the high lonely back above the St. Johns River.” – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek (1942)

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman serves as the chief advocate and public’s voice for the St. Johns River.  For more information about the St. Johns River and its Riverkeepers see  www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org.  For more about AUDUBON FLORIDA and its “Special Places” program visit www.FloridaSpecialPlaces.org.  All rights reserved by Florida Audubon Society, Inc.