A little over a month ago two good friends and I, along with my apprehensive wife, Linda, attempted to answer an age-old question: Will four and a half cases of beer, 12 bottles of wine and a quart of Vodka be enough for three and a half days floating down the St. Johns River on a houseboat?
Long-time friend and former Tampa Tribune colleague, Tom Wukovich, who edits the Tampa Bay Times travel section, occasionally asks me to trek to glamorous Florida locations such as Sopchoppy and Stark and write about their fascinating attractions for his readers with low expectations.
This year the choices I was offered were a houseboat trip on the St. Johns or a visit to Micanopy, where the sole allure is Cafe Risqué, a 24-hour-a-day strip joint on Route 441 where totally nude women serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. One Yelp reviewer called it “Tits and grits” and went on to say, “Just imagine two eggs over easy with bacon and toast brought to your table by a completely naked waitress.” A highway sign advertising the place says it offers “Trucker Discounts.” Since Linda normally accompanies me on these excursions, Micanopy didn’t make the cut.
Other than Linda, my other shipmates were Amelia Island pals Pajamadave Voorhees and Fran Kane. Pajamadave’s no-nonsense, pretty fiancé, Zan, was unable to make the trip due to the demands of the very busy Fernandina Beach’s PJD’s Beer & Wine Garden, so bachelor Fran pinch hit for her. Oh, Dave knew Fran was a guy so that was not a surprise. Besides this outing wasn’t planned as a drunken fraternity party since we’re refined, gracious, fully grown men. Linda’s house mother presence ensured we acted that way.
In addition to the fact that he’s a hail-fellow-well-met, hilariously funny, an impeccable dresser, and a good friend, I also wanted Pajamadave along for his skills as a licensed boat captain and his incredible knowledge of Florida wildlife and vegetation. Fran, an all-around nice guy, despite not being a licensed captain, acted as first mate. He also has experience driving large vehicles that float. I do not.
On the morning of Monday, April 2, the four of us left Fernandina Beach and drove 150 miles southwest to Deland where we checked in and boarded the Holly Bluff Marina’s 63-foot houseboat, Lady St. John.
As we were icing down the beer we were greeted by deckhand, Tim, who briefed us on how to operate the boat. I was surprised to learn that none of us had to show any proof that we were capable of piloting this very expensive hulk. Since certification and prior experience aren’t required it’s really important to pay attention to Tim, particularly if you didn’t bring along your own Captain Pajamadave.
Tim’s orientation familiarized us with gauges and meters on the boat console such as a volt gauge, tachometer, hour meters, marine radio, depth finder, blower, and bolt and trim buttons — terms that held no meaning for me whatsoever. Dave knew what all this stuff was and I just nodded knowingly in Tim’s direction and pretended to take notes so I wouldn’t look totally stupid as he explained the purpose of the mysterious knobs, buttons and levers.
Tim also offered suggestions on situations we might encounter once underway. The ones I found most interesting were: never cross in front of a barge, because barges can’t stop as they have no brakes, and avoid the east side of Lake George because it is an Air Force bombing range. Tim also provided a booklet detailing all of this and more, as well as a note saying that feeding alligators is illegal and can be dangerous since they are unable to distinguish a human hand from an anchovy. The booklet also contained a detailed map of the river markers, distances, hazardous areas and anchorage locations.
Tim said the most difficult renters he encounters are people who own sailboats because they have no concept of reverse. He recalled that one of the best novice crews he’s ever experienced was a group of young girls celebrating a bachelorette party. “Those girls picked up all the details quickly while the sailors that thought they already knew it all eventually had to be towed back in.”
If the Lady St. John, which the Holly Bluff owners Judy and Rick Armstrong recently purchased from a private owner, was located on Amelia Island it would be located in an expensive gated community on the south end of the island. It contains two private bedrooms, one with a king size bed and the other with twin beds. Both have their own bathrooms complete with toilets, showers and sinks. There is also ample closet space, and a chest of drawers in each.
There is a complete kitchen, with a large refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, oven, and generous cupboard space. A dining area and bar are in the living room that also boasts a couple of arm chairs and a fold out sofa-bed that will sleep an additional two folks. And, yes, there was a big TV, which we never turned on for two reasons: 1- we couldn’t figure out how and; 2- we were busy drinking beer and didn’t care. Linda, however, made good use of the radio-CD player combination which had speakers on the top and lower decks and inside.
The boat can be piloted from the living area as well as the top deck which contains another bar, chairs, and chaise lounges. Bath towels, linens, dishes, pots and pans, cork screws, and silverware are all supplied. A propane grill is located on the front deck that also hosts a table and four chairs. A gas powered generator powered the air conditioning system, stove, refrigerator and other such appliances.
This thing had all the amenities of a large yacht or a small modern house, with front and back porches. The only things it didn’t have were a putting green and a pool. People live on them full time. In fact Pajamadave lived on one a number of years ago when he first arrived in Fernandina Beach.
It was suggested we bring certain items and here’s what worked for us. Beer! And lots of ice to keep it cold. We also brought some food. Several days before we arrived, Holly Bluff provided a list of items it recommended we bring including binoculars, bottled water, salt and pepper, sun block, mosquito repellent, personal toiletries, snorkeling equipment, and for a reason I still don’t understand, a bungee cord. I think the bungee cord might of had more practical use if we had gone to Micanopy.
At 2:30 p.m. Monday, with Pajamadave at the helm, we departed Holly Bluff and left behind a cacophonous, distracting world of bongs, beeps, whirrs, and compulsive cell phone checking, to embark on a getaway free of tension, chatter and apprehension that didn’t involve a pursuit that could be described as busy, controlling, active, impatient or stressed….just the opposite. I brought a few magazines and books. We also had beer that needed drinking.
There are numerous houseboat vacation locations located throughout the United States, but only five that have commercial locations along their waterways where boats can pull in. Two of those are in Florida, one along the St. Johns, the other the Suwannee River. Out of curiosity we stopped at one of them — the St. Johns Marina — but left after about 15 minutes as there was nothing to see except a bored bartender and an empty restaurant.
Towns along our route included Astor, a quaint waterfront tourist community, and Sanford, which bills itself as an historic district dating back to 1836. It’s probably better known today as the town where Hispanic neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman (28) shot and killed black Trayvon Martin (17) in self-defense, sparking a national controversy in February 2012 that still hasn’t faded. It doesn’t market that and we chugged past both.
Since the maximum speed for our floating hulk was about 8 knots we leisurely putted along, impressed with the dense colorful foliage on both banks of the river. We had been told that several Tarzan movies were made along our route and could easily understand why. We could have been on the Amazon or a remote African river based on the jungle-like scenery, exotic birds, peculiar noises coming from the river banks, and lack of populace.
Birds performed some of the most impressive animal activity we witnessed, particularly the Osprey and Kingfisher, both excellent fishers. We watched as huge Osprey plunged feet first into the water and caught fish with their claws. Pajamadave alerted us to watch after they deposited their catch in one of the many huge nests they’ve built along the river, as when they returned, they skim just above the river with their feet in the water to clean their talons before going in for another catch. Dave also explained that after spearing a fish the Osprey would drop it, then catch it again so the fish’s head faced in the direction it was flying making its flight aerodynamically easier. Dave said he has seen eagles swoop in and grab an Osprey’s catch as it dropped it for adjustment, but we weren’t witness to that on this trip.
The Kingfishers were plentiful and it was interesting watching them hover over an area when they spotted a fish, then dive into the water to grab it. What I initially thought was a snake, was actually a bird called an Anhinga, explained Dave. This odd bird has no oil glands so its feathers are not waterproof, a factor that enables it to dive and chase fish underwater and spear them with its pointed beak. When it was swimming toward us its head was sticking out of the water resembling a snake thus earning it the nickname snakebird. There were also an abundance of Egrets, Ibis, Cormorants and Heron.
The first night we tied up to a couple of large cypress trees just before entering Lake Dexter and enjoyed beer, grilled steaks, beer, sweet potatoes, and beer. Linda by then had figured out how to work the boat’s CD player and we were subjected to her eclectic selection of tunes that included a fat English girl named Adele and drunken Texan, Jerry Jeff Walker, two entertainers that Dave, Fran and I will not be requesting to hear again anytime soon, as Linda played them repeatedly during this excursion.
The next morning Dave headed us toward Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida after Lake Okeechobee. This is the lake where the Jacksonville Naval Air Station has a practice bombing area. If that isn’t enough to scare off boaters, a note in our Houseboat Handbook says the planes have been known to “buzz boaters” that stray into the range.
Captain Dave also had to maneuver under two bridges that weren’t tall enough for the Lady St. John to pass under and used the marine radio to call the bridge tenders to raise the draw bridge enabling our passage.
The second day was as relaxing as the first and we witnessed numerous alligators in the river as well as some laying on both banks and could hear them bellowing from the undergrowth. Bass fishermen were plentiful in this area and Dave tried his hand with the poles we brought without any luck.
The river is supposed to be home to numerous manatees but we didn’t spot any. And I don’t care. Manatees are big and ugly and perform only two functions — eating and farting. If you do see any the guide book says don’t run over them and don’t give them water. I don’t know why you aren’t supposed to give them water but don’t do it, OK. If these creatures live in water and beg for water, they obviously aren’t the
sharpest knives in the drawer.
Anchoring for the evening in the center of the river is not recommended due to wind, other boat traffic, and areas that may be too deep for anchors, so we continued to moor the remaining two nights along shore areas. During those evenings we drank beer and exchanged interesting stories such as those of the great swine drives along the Chisholm Trail in the old west and recalled some of our favorite restaurant experiences like the one at the Parisian Frog & Peach. And we drank beer.
We discovered a mysterious very pink slug-like creature attached to trees in one location and were told it was a critter called a pink snail, although I’m more inclined to think it is an invasive species from another galaxy far, far away and wish Linda hadn’t brought one home with her. (I think there’s a cheap sci-fi movie here somewhere.)
In the early evenings the dense jungle-like growth, gentle breezes, sounds of mullet jumping, and bird calls were calming and soothing. However, during our last evening startling primordial screeching, bellowing, crashing and thrashing sounds directly behind us in the thick foliage where we were moored can only be described as those similar to Hillary Clinton’s election night reaction. The clamor was loud enough to drown out Adele and Jerry Jeff and it was the only time we locked the sliding glass doors. Rumors are that large colonies of monkeys live in this densely wooded area. There have also been reported sightings here of Florida’s Sasquatch-like creature, Swamp Ape. We didn’t see any monkeys, Swamp Ape or Hillary.
The next day, as we putted back to a more populated Holly Bluff area, we watched kayak paddlers , snorkelers, swimmers, fishermen and other boaters enjoying the river and area springs. As we unloaded we also discovered five full cans of beer, that we successfully emptied once back on Amelia Island.
Holly Bluff Marina houseboat rentals are available from $825 to $3,300 depending on the size of the boat and the season. Folks can preview the offerings and the marina at hollybluff.com or call them at 800/237-5105.
Trump 1 -Media 0: The same evening that President Trump was in Washington, Michigan reminding a pro-Trump rally audience that the national media were a wolf-pack group of hateful hacks the media were in Washington, D.C. at their annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner proving him correct. Michelle Wolf, a comedian I’ve never heard of, had the D.C. media folks rolling with laughter as she spit out vile, vulgar “jokes” about abortion, compared Ivanka Trump to an empty box of tampons, said she hoped a tree would fall on Kellyanne Conway, and taunted White House Press Secretary and media guest Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ makeup. Many in the press corps that attended saw whatever credibility they had left commit suicide as their attempt to demean President Trump actually demeaned the press that invited this crude and obnoxious comic to their self-congratulatory event.
Unanswered Question Department: Why would any organization invite Hillary Clinton to speak to its members and why would anyone go hear her? During a book tour folks in New Zealand were subjected to this insufferable sore loser continuing to whine about why she lost the election and listen to her litter the rhetorical landscape with inelegant and reprehensible dismissals of the American electorate. So far she’s blamed her 2016 defeat on everyone including James Comey, the media, the FBI, Russia, Wikileaks, misogyny, sexism, racism, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Democrats, and the Democratic National Committee. With no one left to blame, and her continuing to trash Trump voters, it would give all Americans some relief if this pants-suited Swamp Ape slithered back into the muck and stayed there.
Things I Wish I’d Said: “The most romantic thing a woman ever said to me in bed was ‘Are you sure you aren’t a cop?”‘ — Larry Brown.