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Going with the flow to Jacksonville

By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2005
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When city leaders were trying to convince the National Football League that Jacksonville has what it takes to host a Super Bowl, they turned to the region's lifeblood for help. And the St. Johns River came through.

Last week, cruise ships docked downtown on the St. Johns to accommodate 3,600 extra fans and NFL officials in this, the smallest market ever to host a Super Bowl (city population 818,000; metro area 1.1 million). Without those extra ''rooms," the city could not have sealed the deal for today's Super Bowl XXXIX between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.

All week, the St. Johns has been holding center stage. Boat taxis take visitors on the short ride from Northbank to Southbank, and dozens of diversions have been set up along the wooden river walks, already flanked by hotels, restaurants, shops, and other attractions. Patrons high inside Alltel Stadium (near the Northbank) can look down on the river, and folks on the river can look up to the stadium. Jacksonville Jaguar fans are known to view home games on the stadium's wide screens while relaxing on boats docked along the river.

Despite the river's reign here, however, the St. Johns is shared with dozens of communities throughout Florida. As Northern steamboat travelers in the 1880s once did, I visited some of those spots this winter -- by car. For four days, I loosely followed the river's northward-flowing 310 miles, from its marshy headwaters in rural Florida to its widemouthed release into the Atlantic Ocean just above Jacksonville.

Off Highway 60, there are only a few roads in Indian River County between Florida's turnpike and Vero Beach, some 30 miles east, on the Atlantic Ocean. The road is flat and straight. A few cattle ranches can be seen before the land turns into miles of marsh. Middleton's Fish Camp is out here, 5 miles down a rutted dirt road that seems to go nowhere.

This area is the site of a 150,000-acre reclamation project, the Upper St. Johns River Basin Project. By using reservoirs and levees, the St. Johns River Water Management District is trying to restore marshes by working to reverse decades of pollution and other damage.

At the end of the road is Blue Cypress Village, a tiny community of trailer and small-home owners, perched on the side of pristine Blue Cypress Lake, which some call the headwater lake of the St. Johns. There's no marker -- or even consensus -- as to exactly where the St. Johns starts.

Joe Middleton, who has run the fish-camp community with his wife, Jeanne, for 43 years, lives here on this 7-mile-long, 3-mile-wide lake known for its largemouth bass and rows of cypress trees hugging the shore. Indian River County has a small park here, and Middleton lets anglers camp for up to a week for free.

When I arrived unannounced at noon on a Tuesday, four men were sitting under the awning outside the small, weathered shop that sells fishing supplies and bait and handles boat rentals. One of them, Gary Fineout, volunteered to take me out on the water in a rental motorboat.

Fineout, 64, discovered Blue Cypress Lake by accident years ago when he was visiting from Michigan. Now he lives in nearby Lake Kissimmee, where he works as a bass and crappie guide.

As we motored up the lake on this brilliant day, he pointed out ospreys, cormorants, and a lone alligator sunning on a log. For a while, we drifted silently among knobby-kneed cypress trees, whose tannin stains the water rusty. We were alone on the lake.

''This is the only lake in Florida I know of where you don't see any buildings," Fineout said. ''This is still natural Florida wildlife."

If I had an airboat, he told me, I could fly over the wetlands to my next stop, Stick Marsh, just north of the lake. Instead, I drove north 30 miles past more farmland and through tiny Fellsmere until I found an unmarked dirt road that leads to two conservation areas run by the water management district, Three Forks Marsh and Blue Cypress. The district publishes a guide to its recreational areas along the St. Johns and its tributaries.

A few people were fishing near the parking lot in this area legendary for bass. Others were out in loud airboats. I hopped on my mountain bike and pedaled along the dirt levees, where only cyclists and walkers are allowed. The low sun illuminated the palm trees and marsh grass and turned the water orange. An otter humped across the trail ahead of me while egrets, herons, and other wading birds dotted the sky. Out here, no other person was in sight.

Development on the river doesn't really start until Sanford, in east-central Florida about 30 miles north of Orlando. Here the St. Johns widens and spills into Lake Monroe. This city of 39,000, well on its way to reviving its lovely 19th-century downtown near the water, is also gussying up the nearby waterfront. Last May, it completed the first phase of the Sanford RiverWalk, an inviting 1.2-mile multiuse trail that curves gracefully along the shore. Markers denote historical spots, and rest areas have benches and even porch-type swings that look over the water. Finished, the RiverWalk will total 5 miles. A Best Western is on the lake, and the cruise boat Riverside Romance takes passengers out on the river daily.

A few miles up Highway 17, in Orange City, I couldn't wait to get out of the car and look for manatees at Blue Spring State Park. They're not hard to find when the weather turns cold. Pods of sea cows floated in the roped-off crystal-clear spring waters (always 72 degrees) just off the river. Visitors (a lot of them for a weekday, it seemed) crowded observation platforms amid mossy oaks to view Florida's favorite mammal.

A winding boardwalk leads through oak hammocks and cypress to Blue Spring, which you can see bubbling up from a depth of 120 feet. Each day, 104 million gallons of water travel from the spring to the river, making it the largest spring on the St. Johns. You can swim here when the manatees aren't around. The popular St. Johns River Cruises, a pontoon tour, operates out of the park.

In Palatka, 80 miles north of Orlando and 50 miles south of Jacksonville, Memorial Bridge takes you over the St. Johns to downtown. The city, population 10,500, has seen better days but is making a comeback. A revival is slowly starting, both downtown and on the riverfront a block away. A mural project has spruced up several buildings downtown. I followed the Palatka Historic Tour of the North and South historic districts near the river and found beautiful homes from the late 1800s through the early 1900s.

After getting turned around and heading toward nowhere for an hour, I finally located State Road 13, along the famed William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway (famed does not mean well marked). This two-lane country road skirts along the river's east side and through forests, past clusters of summer homes and year-round mansions. What used to be country is now a Jacksonville bedroom community. Folks from Jax, as the city likes to call itself, also like to frequent the Outback Crab Shack, a sprawling and seafood outpost on Six Mile Creek.

I crossed the river again into Green Cove Springs, whose historic district, tucked between busy roadways, is a delight. The town (population 5,500 and rising) was gearing up for its official Super Bowl event, a weeklong riverfront festival. I stayed at River Park Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that has a view of the water from the upstairs porch. A self-guided walking tour of the small and tidy historic riverfront area took me first to the Springs, a spring-fed town swimming pool. I imagined the rich guests from the Clarendon Hotel swimming there when they had exclusive rights to it a century ago. Down a block is St. Mary's Episcopal Church, built in 1879 on the west bank of the river.

Heading north, Highway 17 will get you to Club Continental in nearby Orange Park, 15 miles south of Jacksonville. The Mediterranean-style mansion, which overlooks the St. Johns, has remained in the hands of the Palmolive family, which built it in 1923. It now has an inn, membership club, and banquet facilities.

An alternative route is the other side of the river back on Route 13, where you'll reach the community of Mandarin, in southeast Jacksonville. If you worship Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ''Uncle Tom's Cabin," this ground will feel sacred. Mandarin was her winter home starting in the 1860s, and the just-built Mandarin Museum has some Stowe artifacts and a lot of information. Also here is a park that leads to the river. During Stowe's time, a boardwalk connected the houses along the river, which was the main thoroughfare. Now, the bridge along Interstate 295 around Jacksonville is visible from their piece of the river.

In Jacksonville, the St. Johns cuts a large elbow-shaped swath through the city of seven bridges. Jacksonville has the distinction of being the largest city in terms of landmass in the contiguous United States, covering 840 square miles. One of the nicest neighborhoods is the Riverside-Avondale Historic District, where stately homes line the streets and the river. There are several B&Bs here, but only one, the House on Cherry Street, built in 1911, has the distinction of facing the river. In Riverside you'll find the spectacular Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, a fine art museum with formal historic gardens that stretch to the St. Johns. The current exhibit, ''Florida as Paradise: Five Centuries of Art," featuring more than 65 works from the days of European explorers to the present, has some wonderful paintings of old Florida and the St. Johns River, including works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.

The end of my journey was less than an hour away. After driving through about 120 intersections with stoplights, I reached Mayport Village, a refreshingly ungentrified fishing community on the northeast tip of Jacksonville. I couldn't get to the spit of land where the river meets the Atlantic because it's part of Mayport Naval Air Station and those darn gatekeepers wouldn't let me through. The next-best thing was to spend eight minutes crossing the river on the St. Johns River Ferry, over to Fort George Island. That gave me enough time to salute a waterway that has long served its citizens and visitors from small swamp to big city. Now it can add Super Bowl fans to the list.

Diane Daniel can be reached at ddaniel@globe.com.

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