Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017

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The floating life

Escape the theme parks on a houseboat gliding up Florida's tranquil St. Johns River

Florida never ceases to amaze and horrify. For the travel snob, a trip to Florida is usually considered the cultural equivalent of a trip to the mall. In fact, many of the tourists who head to Florida hit the 24 hour Wal-Marts first, even before mortgaging their homes for a week at Disney. But hidden behind the theme parks, away from the traffic-accident strewn highways, there is another Florida, one that is wilder, weirder — yes — even occasionally wonderful.

It combines the laid-back-to-the-point-of-inertia safety regulations of the Southern US, with vast tracks of beautiful and varied parkland. Florida as a wilderness wonderland? Believe it. And, even better, some of the best spots are within an hour’s drive of the Mouse House. And you can float through them.

My family of four decided to go houseboating down the St. Johns River. It took under an hour to drive from Orlando to the marina in DeLand, on the St. Johns River. When we arrived, it was raining. Not hard, just an annoying drizzle. It is an odd area of Florida, wild and lush with swamps and willows dripping Spanish moss. Locals speak with Southern accents. There are farms and necks that are red.

A floating RV

A cheerful blonde girl checked us in at the main building then brought us over to our boat, the Chief 4. Boat? The thing was a floating two-bedroom apartment, complete with fully equipped kitchen, air conditioning, shower and front-porch barbecue.

We watched a 20-minute long instructional video we found on top of Chief 4's VCR. Or, we tried to. We couldn't get the machine to work and had to call in a technician. He "fixed" it by turning it on.

We settled into the Chief’s sofa and watched the friendly man on the tape vaguely mention a generator, motor, septic system, bilge pump, oil levels and other sundry boating essentials. When it was over, we looked at each other. Was that it? Were we supposed to just take this expensive, floating liability out into the Florida outback? We, who couldn't even get the VCR to play the instructional video? Yep. That was the idea.

The blonde girl waved goodbye from the dock and with a lot of grinding of propellers and frantic consultations of our Captain’s Manual, we chugged off into the hinterlands, the theme from Deliverance ringing in our ears.

It had taken us so long to find the generator switch that, by the time we got underway, there was only an hour of daylight left. In order to stay out of morning traffic danger, we would have to spend the night anchored in an off-shoot of the St. Johns, encouragingly called Dead River. The most terrifying aspect of Dead River was trying get the family to co-operate enough (one with the front anchor, one with the back anchor, one steering, one optimistically shouting instructions over the chatter of the engine) to anchor our 14’ x 52’ metal home without ramming into the mangroves or ending up in the middle of a shipping lane. In the dark. It was a bit like one of those survive-or-die team-building exercises – combined with the pent-up frustrations of 1000 family Christmas dinners.

When the last rope was attached to the final cleat, we did what any group of urban warriors could be expected to do. We took a look outside, noted how peaceful and beautiful it was, then turned on the TV and made dinner in the microwave.

Swamp dogs

Dad was the first one up the next morning. I found him sitting on a chair on the front porch, his feet up on the picnic table. “We had visitors,” he said.

I looked around. We were in a shallow, narrow, dead-end river, surrounded by bird-filled mangroves. There was no real shoreline, just marshland mixed imperceptibly with fallen, rotting trees and mangrove roots. It was neither swimmable nor wadeable, though the lushness was beguiling.

Dad explained that he had been fussing around the kitchen just after he woke up when he saw two large, rangy dogs sniffing around on our front deck. They didn’t seem dangerous but, to dad’s expert canine eye, one of them looked “sneaky.”

Sure enough, Sneaky Dog started to cock a rear leg. Dad was indignant. “It was trying to scent mark my boat”. He chased them off. They jumped into the water and disappeared into the swampy underbrush.

Given the remoteness of our little dead end river, the whole thing seemed very odd. There were no nearby houses. Finally we settled on the coolest option and decreed them wild swamp dogs. We had breakfast and prepared to move off. Sister was dispatched to the rear to liberate the anchor. We heard a shout and rushed out back to see if she was ok. She was staring very intently at a spot about five feet off our rear. I followed her eyes. There, lazing on a log, just next to where we had thrown out anchor in the dark the night before, was an enormous alligator.

Once we learned how to spot them, we saw so many gators over the next few days that we didn’t bother pointing them out to each other unless they had six legs or could do the Macarena. But your first is always special. So we stared, took an embarrassing number of pictures, and very, very carefully pulled up our anchor.

We followed our waterproof map North, up the St. Johns River towards Lake George. We were heading towards Silver Glen Springs, one of the few spots in the area where the water was ‘gator-less and warm enough to swim in, thanks to a fast flow and natural hot spring. Human habitation came in clusters along the river. Long stretches of mangrove shoreline would break to allow for a marina, a restaurant, a petrol station. Before and after these, would be maritime suburbs of lovely houses, each with their own pier.

Where the gators are

We took turns steering the boat, sitting up on the roof deck watching the bird life and chatting to the bridge masters on the CB radio. We barely ground our gears anymore. We were becoming, if not swamp rats, than at least swamp bunnies.

We arrived at the entrance for Silver Glen Springs late in the afternoon. As we boated up the little river that led to the spring, the water became perceptibly clearer, the bottom shallower and sandier. We rounded the final bend and, instead of seeing the fountainhead of the spring in all its gurgling glory, we saw the rear end of another houseboat.

We slowly pulled along side. The mother of the family of four in the other houseboat, Ruth, shouted out to us that their engine had broken down. Could we help? We tied the houseboats flank to flank and dad went over to have a look. Meanwhile, the younger ones from our boat swam around the spring with a morbid teen from the stricken boat who delighted in increasing our vocabulary of terror past gators on anchors to deadly water moccasin snakes in the engine compartment.

Dad got their boat started and, in a fit of holiday spirit, the eight of us joined forces and shared a big dinner aboard our boat. Our new neighbours were from California, lively and delightful. Over coleslaw and barbecued steak, we started swapping life on the river stories. After tallying our respective gator counts, dad described our run-in with the wild swamp dogs. “Oh,” said Ruth “that explains it.”

She said that on the way up the river, a wild-looking backcountry guy in a small outboard motor boat had pulled alongside them. He was carrying a shotgun and looked mighty hostile. He had shouted out: “You got my dogs?” When Ruth and her family said “no,” the man wasn’t convinced. He wanted to board their boat to search for his missing “huntin’ dogs”. Ruth refused and it got pretty dodgy for a while. Finally, the man sullenly motored off. Luckily for us, he had found the wrong houseboat.

Mystery solved. Who could ask for a more Disney perfect ending to a Florida vacation?

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