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Steam-Yachting on the St. Johns RiverCamp Life in Florida; A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers.
There is a combination of pleasure in boat life that is unrivalled, and it is a matter of regret that, with our magnificent inland waters, some among them attractive at every season, so little effort has been made to render more simple and economical the methods for enjoying them. Our steamboats are perfection, and he who will go by time card, and with half the population of a city as companions, may be wafted along like a prince, and find at hand every luxury of life; but if he will go or tarry at will, hasten or linger as tempted at the moment, there is less chance to do it, with any present arrangements, than on the Nile or Amazon.
Fleeing a year ago from the cold, your correspondent found himself steaming rapidly away from one of the long wharves of the lower St. Johns, on a small, impetuous little yacht, one of the busy, bustling kind, imbued with the restless spirit that small things usually possess and exhibit, to show that, after all, size is not everything.
It was a day for idling, and the rapid puff was not in harmony; so, leaning over the small bow deck, that just held a bell and two easy chairs, the order was given to old Paul, the well-known pilot, to slow up, and Paul conveyed the same to the engineer, when the sharp ripple at the bow lost its rustle, the engine breathed more comfortably, and with a wide, lazy wake spreading far behind on the golden river, we laid back in our seats, and determined to abandon Northern haste, and learn, laziness in earnest—in fact, to do nothing as hard as possible. And the lesson was very easy. The slow-drifting clouds, the currentless river, the gentle wind, and all about was peaceful and free from suggestion of haste; and coming fresh from driven clouds and hurrying storms, it was enough to take in sunshine and repose, leaving for another time action and progress.
All that surrounds one at the South is suggestive of, and in unison with, rest; and nothing is more grateful. At the North it is not so; energy and haste seem the spirit of animate and inanimate life. The wind blusters and frets in an eager way, while the clouds drive on as if their haven was not yet found. The surf on the rocky shores is not the low, long tone of the strand; it essays the conquest and crumbling of the rock-bound coasts, while the streams hasten on their way to the sea, cutting corners like messengers, and turning a whirl here and there with an expression of relief at getting away from a temporary delay in the quiet pond. And are we not too much the same? Do not Northern men wear away in efforts to save time, and never command leisure? Are not brains mazed by efforts to save and systematize that only increase complexity? Do not our women assume care to preserve and protect their beautifully furnished homes, until their chairs and fragile China outlast their weary lives? Can minds always engrossed really see what is laid broadcast of beauty and interest any more than ruffled waters can reflect the sky or beautiful shores; and does not our laboriously assumed discipline of habit finally become a power that cannot be shaken-off, even if weakened vitality warns that it must be done? But our bows were unbent, and our surrender to the peaceful influences was unconditional. The broad, quiet river bore no evidence of the centuries that have passed since the first adventurers explored it for the fountain of youth—a fountain that, undiscovered for man, assuredly maintains the evergreen vigor of this remarkable stream. Known longer than any river on the, continent, it is the same to the eye as when the first boat passed over it. At hardly any point are there breaks in the line of foliage that crowds to the water's edge; and miles and miles did we pass on, seeing no evidence that the swells from our boat were not the first that set the water-lilies nodding a friendly welcome.
The lower river is too wide for game, being often ten miles from shore to shore-quite sea-room enough for a yachtsman's skill, and water enough for a good sized craft all stretches. From this wide water we turned into Black creek, where we were promised shots at alligators. This is a very beautiful stream, about one hundred yards wide. The alligator is very much like our northern turtles in his manner of life; and, like them, enjoys sunshine on his scaly form. We slowed the engine and went on very quietly, keeping near the sunny bank of the river, and half forgetting, at times, our purpose, in admiration of the same. The alligator is not easily seen by a novice among so many new forms to catch the eye. Their scaly backs, when dry, are precisely the color of bark, and lying on or by fallen trees, their form assimilates so closely to the decaying trunks, that we were unable to distinguish them at first, even our small imp-of-all-work would grimace like a monkey in efforts to point them out. We did not admit With candor that we did not see them, but bravely fired away, and kept up an expression of entire wisdom, even when, in response to hurried shots, chips flew from logs that were not very near the splash made by the escaping saurian. One or two were hit, and when wounded gave a display of power that increased our respect for them. Smashing about, they made the foam and water fly like a propeller wheel on a tear, but almost invariably retained enough vitality to get to the bottom, where the body remains in the mud and grass until, expanded by decomposition, it rises to be food for swarms of turkeybuzzards. We continued this rifle practice for some time, until the long shadows covered both banks, when the alligators, as dependent upon sunshine as butterflies, went into their slimy homes. Then we turned, to reach the open river before dark, let on more steam, and laid aside our rifles to enjoy the scene. It was wonderfully fair. Foliage of new forms pressed out over the water; vines, laden with bloom, hung, like Narcissus over the flood, lost in their reflections; ducks swam hastily on before us, drawing a wake that became long rays of light, and, overtaken, took long circles back to the quiet scenes we were leaving; while, on the topmost branches of tall trees, turkey-buzzards sat in rows, waiting like ghouls for death and decay to lure them down. They were unmindful of rifle-balls; safe in worthlessness they surveyed the scene their repulsive forms marred, and when the shadows were almost as dark as their sable wings, we were glad to enter the open river. Over the bar, with full steam, we pressed on as long as we could see; and then, tied to a deserted wood wharf for the night, lighted up our little cabin, had our supper, a few glasses of social wine, and turned in to dream of semi-tropical life.
These piers are often carried a long way into the broad river before reaching water of sufficient depth for a steamboat, so shallow are many of the bays, and they do not endure long in a climate where heat and moisture expedite decay, and where, under water, various borers are ever at work running their galleries through and through even the gummy pitch-pine logs.
With some ingenuity very comfortable beds were improvised from cushions, rugs, etc., and despite the hot breath and loud respirations of the furnace and boiler, very near our heads, we made out a comfortable night on our steam tug. At daybreak a fog hung over the stream, and we were forced to await its clearing. It did not delay long, but rolled away like a curtain, and opened a morning view of the scenes that we were so reluctant to have overshadowed the night before. Our cook was busy in a caboose a little smaller than a watch-box, from which drifted a fragrant odor of Java as we came on deck and freshened up in pails of clear water, and ate our fruit before breakfast. We were drifting along, with summer all around--air, water, and sky all full of warmth. Our will our law, to go, to stop, hasten or linger as we fancied at the moment, and in unison with the soothing, influences of the scene we gave ourselves up to vigorous idleness. After our meal, as our crew was small, your correspondent took the wheel while the captain enjoyed his breakfast. The pilot-house was low and open. Just in front, in easy camp-chairs, sat the little party smoking, with their guns on a front, all of us feeling little interest in getting anywhere, the one fact of gliding along amid slowly varied scenes being sufficient. It was indeed luxurious. Our black imp was at hand to respond to every wish and attend to every want that might have caused greater exertion than winking, and we were convinced that man's natural bent was laziness, from the very rapid and complete surrender of three hurrying, worrying, nervously active Northerners to the abandon of the Sunny South.
There was but little game in sight as yet. We were on the highway, where from the forward decks of every steamer a fusillade of small-arms is kept up on every living thing, from alligators to the useful buzzards that clustered upon the floating carrion. Every man and boy feels called upon to do some "sporting" in Florida, and all are armed with as varied a lot of guns and pistols as would adorn an arsenal. The rapid movement of the river boats prevents any very serious results to the animals and birds, unless when now and then the ricochet of a ball kills a cow in the woods; but it amuses all but the timid people, and is a customer of very great value to the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.
The birds seem well informed as to the range of modern arms. The stately and beautiful snowy herons spread their white wings only when rifles are raised, and the less beautiful alligator seems to know just when to launch himself to save his scaly sides from harm. The animal life of the lower St. Johns is not of the simple kind, but the denizens of this Broadway know a thing or two, and are not to be taken in by any cheap tricks. Consequently our guns were idle and nothing aroused us from the quiet state of enjoyment that is so valuable to the strained minds that have been keeping pace with the restlessness of Northern life.
The afternoon found us at Pilatka, where the larder was reinforced, ice purchased, and a boat obtained. At twilight we pushed on turning into the narrower and more picturesque channels, where the forest crowded out to the water's edge, and sprays of flowering vines hung far over the flood, lost in vain admiration of their mirrored beauty and grace.
The water was deep even to the shore and we cut the bends of the stream close under the foliage that rustled with the breeze made by our motion, while views of remarkable beauty opened every moment before us, each in deeper shade and more mysterious beauty as the rapid darkness came on. As later every form on shore was lost in the dense blackness of night, it became a wonder to us how old Paul could thread the devious and narrow channel; but on we sped, only halting inshore once to let one of the great river boats go by. The huge thing came panting like a leviathan breathing flame; and with wide-open furnaces casting broad bars of light over the water, and rows of colored signal lamps far above the bright cabin windows, she made a striking scene against the night as she sped on, bearing a gay throng of pleasure-seekers to the upper river.
We were not anxious, however, to get on. There was a wealth of beauty by the way, that few on the great stream would see, and after feeling our way for a time, old Paul rang to "stop her!" "back her," and our little boat drifted against a wood wharf, that no one but our pilot could have found, with no sign to mark it under the forest blackness; and here, tied up to a decayed dock we did not envy the passengers going "on time."
Former experience told how there would be a rush for seats, and a scramble for food, and a long cue of tired men and women waiting to learn from a patient purser that there were no more state-rooms, no more beds on the floor, and no more blankets for a curl up under the dining tables. We were not at the mercy of negro stewardesses, nor to be snubbed by magnificent waiters; we were as independent as chimney-sweeps in a crowd. Your correspondent was admiral of the fleet (steamer and two skiffs), sailing-master, "bo'sun tight and mid-shipmite," and chief of ordnance (one Scott and one Remington), while Madame was in command of our cabin passengers (maid and one child), and reigned supreme over a culinary department consisting of two spirit-lamps at night and a fire on shore in the day time.
Just at the time we tied up, hot tea was singing one lamp, hot soup (thanks to Liebig), on the other; and with rolls, devilled meat, and canned luxuries, there was a good supper laid away, and the events of the day came in pleasant retrospect through the cheering medium of sparkling wine.
At dawn we clambered on to the old Wharf. A wood road ran back from it through the forest to a settler's home. Birds were singing gayly, among them our familiar summer friends; but many strange notes came from the low growth. Following what seemed to be the sound of an axe, a woodpecker was found, an earlier workman than the lazy "crackers." It was one of the large fellows that are sometimes seen on southern tree, as large as a teal duck, a gay, handsome bird, With a bill like iron and a head that enables them to exercise the feat, long considered impossible, of sawing wood with a hammer. Ducks, herons, water turkeys, ospreys, and other birds followed the narrow water in their flight, shying above the tree tops as they found us occupying their solitude, and saying hard things of us in their own way, while high up on a venerable cypress limb sat several ducks, rather an unusual sight, and they sat while we made a fire and cooked our breakfast, and only moved off when a ball went very near them.
Nothing can equal this mode of enjoying the southern rivers. From the lofty decks of the steamers a great deal is seen, but every moment one is hurried ruthlessly away from some spot where there is every temptation to linger, and then left to while away hours at some landing where preceding crowds have gathered every flower, and alarmed every bird with pistols and parasols.
After a leisurely breakfast on shore, as free from care as gypsies, we went on board; put easy chairs on deck, laid our guns before us, and steamed on through scenes of great beauty and variety, now and then getting a duck, which was picked up and enjoyed by our men, who cooked them in the furnace under the boiler.
Above Pilatka the river becomes less lake-like. There is more perceptible current, and it bends and drifts by islands, when, the channel being nearer the shore, more of the forest is seen. Unbroken woods and ranks of tall stems come quite to the water's edge; indeed the huge cypress trees stand in the margin, and surrounded by the upward pointed roots, rising from one to four feet high, called knees, they give a novel appearance to the ground, while overhead the long gray drapery of Spanish moss adds an impression that these are bearded woods of unknown age, hoary and ancient as Druid oaks. Fresh and bright are the grand magnolias, every dark green leaf polished until it is silver in the sunlight; and as a new form to the Northern eye the tall palmettoes raise their tufted crowns of huge leaves. On dry ground the live-oak assumes superb proportions, its low spreading form and broad shade being in grateful contrast to the rigid formality and upright lines of the southern Pines, so abundant and so monotonous. Beneath these trees is a varied and interesting growth of forms very strange in contrast with the small thin undergrowth of the North. The huge leaves of the cabbage palmetto, five or six feet in diameter, are very handsome, with their crimped fan-like radiating form, and the saw-palmetto shrub is very similar. A wealth of small growth and vines is mingled in the green tangle, while parasitic plants, mistletoe, and air-plant, form mid-air clusters foreign to any our hardwood hills present.
About noon we reached Lake George and found it very rough, but leaving the channel we followed an unusual route through the island and ventured out, our Yacht rolling a good deal, but we soon came under the west shore and found shelter. About midway on the shore is one of the wonderful springs that are so beautiful. Leaving the Yacht, we poled in a flat skiff over a shallow bar, and up the stream that flows from the spring. The entrance was among lilies called bonnets by the natives, and they were swarming with duck and rail; while in the water, that was as clear as air, were shoals of fish, bass, mullet, long, savage-looking gar-fish and huge cat-fish. They would not bite, but were easily punched with an oar, and with a spear numbers could have been obtained. Here and there lay alligators, eyeing us wickedly, and they were far more bold than in the main river. On the low points—resembling spirituelle as completely as the alligators represent the infernal—were stately, snowy herons, the most beautiful feature of all this sunny land. Following the dark thread of water through a profusion of semi-aquatic growth, we entered the forest until it overreached the narrow water, and was, in all its beauty, repeated in the calm flood below. The long gray moss hung almost to its reflection, and in the long vista all mingled into a confusion of waving form and shadow that concealed the water line, making a scene as indefinite and unreal as a dream. All kinds of birds and animals fluttered on before us or stole away into the woods. The grotesque snake-birds, or water turkeys, wriggled and stared, and tumbled off their perches with a helpless splash into the water, as if overcome with astonishment, and would next be seen with two or three inches of snake-like head and neck, going rapidly by. Precisely do they resemble a small swimming snake, and one can hardly believe that there is so large a bird under the surface. In the dim light that found its way through the huge leaves, we came upon a congress of owls, assembled, beyond doubt, in the mysteries of some ancient order of Minerva, and never was so much wisdom so solemnly arrayed. Silent, dignified, and conservative, doing nothing lightly, committing themselves to no unmatured ideas, even and temperate, what body could equal them? I had seen less manifest self-respect in the great and august men who eat peanuts in the beautiful chambers at Washington. Silently we gazed mutually; on my part a conviction of trespass became uncomfortable, and I was about framing an apology in long words of Greek derivation when the gray wings opened and the whole party flitted silently away, merging into the smoke-colored moss like a transformation scene.
Life abounds in these retreats. Here the wood duck winters in solitude, curlew sweep along in flocks, coot and rail run among the sedge, deer come shyly down to drink, or, frightened by the puma, plunge in and seek refuge in swimming. Under the bonnets are voracious wide-mouthed bass, called trout by the natives, who know not our clear northern waters nor the bright-hued fish that enliven them; and when the sun is bright, huge gar-fish, or alligator gar, long-nosed follows, bask near the surface. Near springs where the waters are clear the stud of aquatic life is very interesting. In one such stream, with a bright sandy bottom, I saw more varieties of fish than I can describe or name. Among them, in groups, were fish like pike, from one to two and three feet long. The gar were abundant, and four to six feet in length, going off like arrows, leaving a swirl like a propeller. In deeper spots clustered bass, a spotted fish I could not learn the name of, and fish called silver fish, while flitting along like bats, raising little clouds of sand at each stroke of their liver-colored wings, were electric rays, or stingarees. Under our boat, too, undulated the water moccasin, eyeing us angrily and darting out a forked tongue most viciously. At another time, in one of these bayous near Enterprise, while paddling along, I shot a small alligator, some four feet long. The ball tipped and cut his skull, and, as my excellent boatman July said, killed him! Poking him up from the bottom we took him guardedly aboard. He was seemingly very dead, so his shiny form was placed under the bow deck, over which I stood, shooting at garfish, hoping to get one. I had forgotten the fellow, when I was astonished by a smashing under my feet, and with a jump over July made my escape into the stern, where a lady was sitting, just in time to save my legs from a rasp of his well-aimed tail. Out he came, smashing and spoiling for a muss, his long mouth open and an unpleasant look of mischief in his bloody head and eyes. There were just then some amazing ideas suggested. Jumping overboard was going from the alligator frying-pan into a fire of sting rays, electric eels, and moccasins. Shooting him was a pleasant and revengeful idea, but it meant blowing a hole in the bottom of the boat. The old story of the natural histories reminded me that it was the proper thing to jump on his back and hold up his fore legs; but I was at the wrong end of him, and riding one without a saddle is not a thing to do even with the spur of necessity. It was rather close. The boat was not as long as we wished it was, and we had exhausted our retreat, but, master of the situation, he waddled on with an air of conquest and extermination until July met him bravely and punished him with the butt of an oar until he was again stunned. We had lost confidence in killing him, and to be safe tied him overboard and towed him to a landing, where he recovered his fine disposition under a system of annoyance from all the visitors, and finally gave evidence of it by biting a man. When I heard this I said nothing of his being my pet, and due justice was meted him.
Injury from alligators is very uncommon, but they are at times very fierce. A gentleman going to recover a duck, shot on the upper St. Johns, saw an alligator seizing it, and poured a charge of shot into his head, when the injured and infuriated beast turned and bit a large piece, gunwale and all, from the skiff. Their power is Very great, and when wounded they give evidence of it, thrashing and crushing all about them. I shot one through the head on Six Mile creek, and he leaped from the ground until he looked as high as a horse. Heavy and awkward as they seem, they are not to be approached unguardedly, and although always ready to escape, if prevented they are very vicious.
Half a mile from the lake, the stream ended in a curve under a high bank, and here by hard rowing we found the spring, and looked down into a white walled chasm through water that seemed too ethereal to support our skiff. It was a dizzy overlook down into this deep pool, where long weeds writhed and swayed forty or fifty feet below us in the swell of the current, and' where shoals of huge fish would sweep out from under rocks and be swept rapidly about like shadows. The water rose with such force as to make a high boiling centre where skilful rowing could poise a boat, only to slide away with a rapid balloon-like motion that was not at all pleasant. Fine palmettoes bad surrounded this wonderful pool with a fit and beautiful shade, but they were just then a heap of smouldering ashes, having been cut away for cotton ground that might better have been taken from the unlimited forest beyond the small clearing. Vandal bands have rarely marred a more weird scene, nor ignorance more surely damaged the value of a rare possession; but so it is in Florida; all hands, from the jewelled one that wrote its owner's name in a font at St. Augustine, to the "cracker's" horny palm, are against the ancient, the curious, and the beautiful; and ere long the cliffs will bear quack medicine names, and the old walls will fall before want of taste, and give away to pine fences, as has the old and mysterious "Treasury wall" at St. Augustine. (A disgraceful fact.)
The tropical character of this noble river is chiefly seen above Lake George. North of this lake the north-west winds, the cold storm winds of the country, pass only overland from the frozen north, and in mid-winter sometimes bring a very unpleasant chill, one that rein renders orange culture precarious, blighting in some years the new buds; but south of this the winds having any westerly direction pass over more or less of the Gulf, and are disarmed by the warmth and moisture of that body of water of their blighting chill and dryness, and about Enterprise snow and frost axe practically unknown ; Palms, palmettoes, bananas, and orange trees assume forms of vigor that render them very beautiful to the Northern eye, and the refugee from winter finds an assured promise of gentle air and golden sunshine.
The river is very crooked, bending sharply around points, cutting deeply into the banks, forming deep boiling pools, where fish are seen breaking constantly. The shores are usually low; a point ten feet high is known as a bluff, and such are sought by settlers for homes, possessing all the freedom from miasma, insects, and dampness that can be expected where the sun of almost perpetual summer breeds during many months a full crop of, annoyances. The driest and most desirable places are found upon the shell mounds, where one strata upon another of shells form elevations of very considerable extent. These shell formations are of great interest, and puzzle the keenest minds with their layers of different shells, each distinctly defined in character, and differing in a marked form from the next.
The water-worn river banks show long and perfect sections of this character, and the strata are plainly seen in even and distinctly marked lines, not always level, but extending in long, unbroken elevations and depressions; showing that some disturbing upheavals have raised and lowered the deposited shells after they were imbedded in their present order.
Some of the strata, lying perhaps six inches in thick'less, are composed of bivalve shells almost exclusively much crushed and broken, but cemented quite firmly; other strata are without shells of this form, being composed of conical, convolute shells of about one inch on each angular side; but these differ again-in some the shells are fresh, but little broken, and not firmly cemented in others-crushed in fine fragments, and strongly united with the lime made by their partial decomposition. All these varieties may be seen overlying one another in a vertical height of four or five feet, and the different bands of color form lines that are visible as far as the face of the formation is exposed.
Upon these shell lands there are found numerous conical mounds, regular, in form, rising from ten to thirty feet, evidently of human origin, supposed to have been, like the pyramids of Egypt, burial places for the distinguished dead of some race that has left no other record. The arrow-heads, axes, and other works of rude art, found in these mounds, are those of the Stone Age, which on this continent is extended to the present time among some remote Indian tribes; but some of these implements are found imbedded in a conglomerate so firm and stone-like that they convey to the mind of the ethnologist an impression of as remote antiquity as surrounds the bone caves and gravel deposits of France.
A great deal of learning has been exhausted upon these remains; but full examination has not yet been made, and many links in the chain of unwritten history may be supplied when a full comparison of these mounds, and the works they contain, is made with the corresponding discoveries of the Old World.
As the more minute peculiarities of our pre-historic ancestors are learned, there is no safe limit to assume of the unravellings of the maze that surrounds the deeply interesting questions of unity or diversity Of races; and it is not unlikely that secrets are hidden in the shell mounds of Florida that may, when discovered and interpreted in the broad light of future knowledge, tell many curious tale of wandering tribes and far-fetched arts and customs.
Half lost, in vain theories and surmises, aroused by these peculiar remains, gun and rod were not unfrequently laid aside, and our minds given up to the romantic associations of the first voyagers who here sought the fountain of youth, carrying so much of woe and cruelty with them that it is fortunate for the present that they did not find any elixir of the kind; and to the more vague but pleasant fancies of the race that still earlier possessed this alluring land, and roamed freely, with no more idea of a coming and overcoming race than occurs to us now in our period of supremacy.
But this is drifting, and we would not be left without anchorage in the realms of speculation. We really went rapidly against the stream, and after a long day of full enjoyment tied our craft to a bank, and in our small but snug cabin made pleasant plans for the morrow.
Our third day on the little steamer found us among the prairies that lie on either side of the river, below Lake Monroe. Their were low plains, with groups of tree like islands, and long rows of stately palmettoes defining the curves and retracings of the idle river, reminding us of the pictures of Eastern scenes of desert and palms. Herds of half-wild cattle were seen upon them, and sometimes a wild turkey would seek cover, not by flight, but by running like the wind. A little back from the river, on wet places out of rifle-range, were groups of white herons, the most stately and beautiful of birds and great flocks of large curlew, while, now and then gannets would spread their huge black-and-white wings, and seek quiet further apart from the river. No bird is so showy and conspicuous as the gannet, and it was long our ambition to get one for the plumage, but they were very wary, and only settled down in wet places, remote from any cover of trees or brush. Fortune, however, at last did better for me than patience or perseverance (p don any imputation in favor of the fickle goddess) for, while rowing in a skiff, a flock, alarmed by a steamer came laboring over the river, urging their way with powerful pinions against a gale of wind. They saw and tried to steer clear by turning their course several points into the wind, but they made too much leeway to save their distance, and one fellow came down before my gun, and sent up a cloud of spray from the river in his fall.
"Get 'um quick!" exclaimed old July, my faithful boatman, "or an alligator may carry him down;" and get 'um quick we did, bringing in as magnificent a mass of green, black, and white plumage as nature ever adorned a bird with, arousing some speculations as to what a great economy would result, and what a vast amount of envious and toilsome strife and ambition would be saved, had poor bare humanity been as comfortably and superbly clothed, without the toil of the needle, or the costly fabrics of fashion. These reflections did not impress July, who at once explained his "get 'um quick" counsel, as inspired by an experience that had impressed him very deeply. A gentleman hunting from Enterprise, shot a duck which fell in the water. As he was about taking it in, a large 'gator appropriated the bird. The gentleman in turn gave the beast a peppering of shot for his sauce, enraging him, Without any serious injury, when he turned on the boat and took out a piece of the side, gunwale and all, so damaging it that they only made their way home in it by careening the broken side high out of water. These ill-mannered fellows often deprive the hunter of game that falls in the water, and the foregoing incident teaches imprudence Of irritating them with shot.
The fishing about the outlet of Lake Monroe is very good, but gar and catfish play the mischief with trolling gear, and carry away spoons most annoyingly. Bass are the best fish obtained. In one of the eddying pools I took bass so rapidly, that in less than half an hour the bottom of the Skiff was alive with them, which, to avoid waste were given to the steward of a steamboat, and abundantly Supplied the table for a hungry crowd of tourists.
In the spring time the herons assume, to adorn their season of love-making, a plumage Of remarkable beauty. It commences at the base of the neck, and extending backward between and over the wings, the long, airy plumes of dainty feathery sprays hang down gracefully behind the bird, and give a very stylish addition, a la panier to a bird that never saw a fashion-plate; and has no trouble with any laundress. To obtain these exquisite decorations for the race so sadly neglected by nature in regard to the adornments so lavished on the inferior creations, these "angel birds" are assiduously hunted, and are consequently so wild, that only by strategy can they be shot on any of the borders of the river. From our deck we noticed that numbers Of blue, white, and lesser herons alighted very constantly upon two isolated trees, standing at the end of a shallow water that extended from the river in to the prairie; so, with the hope of gaining some shots, we ordered a halt. The steamer was tied to a tree, and we launched a skiff and paddled through the water-lilies, or "bonnets" (as the huge leaves are called), starting flocks of duck, rail, and birds, and disturbing the siestas of numerous alligators and turtles. The only shelter was under some small water-growing bushes, where we hid ourselves as well as we could, draping our hats with Spanish moss, and disposing it about, for concealment. After a time all the turmoil we had caused ceased. The ducks came, one by one, and dodged about under the reeds and lily leaves, while inquisitive blackbirds flitted near with impertinent airs, and chaffed our ideas of concealment with unbounded slang. An alligator, that bad been out sunning himself where our boat laid, came up without a ripple, and eyed us with long curiosity as interlopers, and drifted almost against the boat. But we were after herons, and would only shoot them, after the manner of the Western man, who, "when he went a cattin' went a cattin'," and would not accept a bass or pike in lieu of the wide-mouthed bull-head. Animal life was abundant all about, with little evidence of fear, and, watching it, it was easy to realize how deeply engrossed such naturalists as Audubon became in thus studying birds and animals when free in their own haunts. Nothing seemed aware of us but the herons. They came from remote points, and seemed about to perch on the old trees, where so many were seen, but swept by and went on to other retreats. It was hardly possible for them to discover us, and we could not divine any cause for their wary movements unless they were warned by the angry scolding of the blackbirds that hovered about with incessant sharp cries. A shot or two reduced these pests to comparative silence, when a blue heron sailed up, poised for a moment on a bare limb, and then fell lifeless into the pool below. Hoping for other shots, we did not gather it in, but it was not long before an alligator slowly swam toward the dead bird, and would probably have carried it away but for the arrival of a Mead explosive ball in his bead. He churned the water for a moment like a propeller wheel, and then sought the bottom to die among the weeds; and again all was quiet. But we waited in vain; herons sailed about over the marshes, but none came near, until, weary and sunburned, we poled back to the yacht, glad to get claret and ice.
Our plan was to go above Lake Monroe, but the water was too low on the bar, and our boat could not get over. We visited Mellonville, where shad were being taken in enormous quantities; and then anchored abreast the site of the old Enterprise Hotel, and landed, to visit once more, after several years' absence, the Blue Spring, than which none can be more beautiful, It has been often described, but it is not easy to convey an idea of the deep opaque tint of the water, nor of the picturesque effect of the round pool, and its overhanging shade of live-oak, palmettoes, and vines. It is about eighty feet in diameter, and very deep. There is no motion to the blue water, but a large stream flows away from it, showing the volume of the spring. The water leaves traces of White sulphur along the brook, which falls some twenty or thirty feet to the lake, affording a perfect place for running water and shower baths. A small tent over the stream was the only bathing convenience, but in time this will undoubtedly be developed into one of the most beautiful resorts on the river, and prove one of the most healthful and agreeable.
We remained over-night at the Mellonville wharf, visited some gardens conducted by people of taste and skill, and saw many evidences of the capacity of this soil and climate to produce almost every luxury. Potatoes were grown in February for the table, oranges and bananas flourished free from danger of frost, and beautiful flowers rewarded very little care with profuse bloom. The geranium was a small tree in the open air, and the oleander made shade for a party. Strawberries were ripe while ours were under deep snow, and it was not easy to put faith in the idea that the cold March winds were heaping drifts that would for many a day resist the sun That fell with such force upon us.
Turning northward, we gave ourselves to the current, and went rapidly on. At times we would tie to a tree, and leaving the yacht, row quietly up some of the small and unfrequented streams that join the river. Here all was as wild as when the Indians pursued game with their stone arrow-heads, and took fish with bone spears; and nature seemed to revel in her own power and beauty, and cast her glories of golden sunlight and varied foliage on every band. The huge serried leaves of the palmettoes swayed and glistened like shields hiding a woodland host. Cypress trees held their light foliage high against the sky, and graceful vines hung in long curves from them to the dense undergrowth of novel form. Creeping plants hold their bloom over the water on dead trunks, and air-plants and ferns found resting places on the old oaks, in whose upper branches balls of mistletoe shone with their polished leaves. All this would be doubled in reflection, while the dividing line between the beautiful reality and the no less beautiful image below, was so hidden by trailing vines and aquatic plants that the vistas of the narrow streams became dreamy and indistinct as they extended far away into an uncertainty of waving moss and deceptive shadows.
Again we would go on miles in advance of the yacht, drifting noiselessly with the stream, often stealing upon game, and frequently getting a few fish. When tired, we could wait until overtaken, tie our skiff behind the steamer, and enter the snug cabin to find shelter, rest, and all the comforts needful. No life could be more enjoyable. We were not confined to a limited district, as when in camp, and yet there was the same freedom, and the same opportunities for seeing and sharing wild-wood pursuits. There was variety in every day, fresh scenes each hour, and new temptations and anticipations leading on and on from one point to another, all with little or no fatigue.
This steam yachting must develop as one of the most popular of all indulgences. With our great lakes, connected by safe and navigable routes, and rivers of endless extent and unlimited variety, through which one may wonder from the tropics to the far north, and find all climates and the fruits and game of each, there are unparalleled opportunities for this luxurious life. Whatever taste or fancy may impel one to wandering, in a yacht all the comforts and conveniences can be carried. The botanist can, at leisure and undisturbed, unfold his cases of plants, the artist can sketch and not have to up the disorder of easel and studio; the geologist may ballast his craft with stone, and the ichnologist gather relics and form a museum en route. For the naturalist and sportsman it is perfection. His rods need not be unjointed, or his guns uncased. He can stuff his specimens, load shells, and tie dainty flies by a window before which new and varied scenes are passing; and after a hard day's tramping come back to abundant comforts. As yet there are but few of these dainty craft afloat, and few are aware of the charming life they offer. The fleet and dainty private yacht Falcon, on the St. Johns, was a pleasant exponent of a sportsman's craft, and in time many more will follow in her wake.
Of course there is a good deal of expense inseparable from steam yachting, but very complete launches and small yachts are now put afloat in perfect trim for hardly, any greater cost for purchase or maintenance than is represented by each of hundreds of fine carriages that are to be met with on the fashionable avenues of our great cities, and the writer is confident from personal experience that, abandoning all ambition for the luxuries of cuisine, and seeking only, plain and needful arrangements, a small family or a few gentlemen may make summer or winter trips with no more cost than is incurred by hundreds of pleasure parties who find far less of comfort and independence than they would commanding their own yacht and their own movements. A man of as much skill as is required to make a successful sportsman, can do a great deal in attending to his own boat, so that the cost and annoyance of having too many men may be avoided; but unless our inspection laws are made more liberal, he must provide himself and his men with expensive licenses, and be sometimes compelled to take his men from a guild or union commanding needlessly high wages. All this, however, is in course of revisal, and beyond doubt, boats that do not carry for hire will be set free from all needless restrictions. [*]
The trip described in these notes was made in a small yacht chartered by the day. She was about 48 feet long, and carried captain, pilot, engineer, and fireman, yet the cost for a party of four Was only about the same as the daily hotel board and passage tickets over the route; while the ability to visit many points without remaining until another boat should permit moving on, was a very great economy of time and money. Of course much was seen and enjoyed that the tourist is usually hurried past, or only seen in company with a crowd that does away with all the romance and characteristic quiet of the wilderness. The captain was a useless party, and did no service. The pilot was needful. The fireman was a luxury, a mere attendant upon a lazy engineer; one man could easily feed the fire, and run the engine with less trouble than he could get out of the fireman's way, so that two men, one a competent and careful engineer, and the other a pilot well acquainted with the channels, could run a launch or small Yacht with ease, and keep her under way as many hours per diem as would be desirable.
Not only are the rivers and lakes of Florida attractive cruising grounds, but the inlets and estuaries of the southern coasts offer great inducements for the invalid, the naturalist, the antiquarian, and the sportsman. In the spring, when the sun begins to fall with a fierce heat on the rivers, and despite all said to the contrary, does render too much exposure imprudent, the sea coast is perfect. The finer kinds of fish are in season, and many beach and bay birds are to be obtained. In April the sea-bathing is safe and pleasant, and invalids and well people will do a prudent thing who halt alongshore and delay their return until such birds as the bobolinks and orioles are with them, and not risk the loss of all the benefit of a long and costly trip by coming on with the robins and blue-birds, who are beguiled by a few warm days into shivering through many a long, bleak storm.
Your correspondent was, later in the spring, one of a party to cruise about the mouth of the St. Johns and the Sisters' Islands, and during the trip we landed on Fort George Island, where we were kindly driven about by the owner, who is engaged, with a number of gentlemen of taste, in forming a little Paradise. The island is not large, about eleven hundred acres. The St. Johns outlet is on the south, Fort George Inlet on the north, and the Sisters' Inlet on the west. Seaward a densely Wooded bluff, eighty feet high, shelters from the ocean gales, and beyond is a superb beach for driving, bathing, cricket, or croquet. From the bluff the view is of course very fine, and all the commerce of the St. Johns river passes near at hand. The cleared part of the island has a palmetto avenue that has no equal, and the forest are more varied than any that are accessible by drives. Shell mounds supply material for fine roads, and many drives are being laid out that are wonderfully beautiful. There is but little of the dreary formal pine; but huge bearded oaks that are worthy of druidical homage, and stately palmettoes, cast deep wide shadows, while orange trees and flowering vines and shrubs fill in the scene with luxuriant bloom and foliage. At St. Augustine the beaches are inaccessible to carriages, and distant by boats, but here they are where one can turn to them from the shaded avenues. The fishing is fine, to my knowledge, as my fisherman took a thirty-five pound bass from my skiff.
For lingering places for late March, April, and May, these islands supply just what all feel the need of. No arrangements are yet made for general accommodation, but plans are maturing that, when executed, will supply a new and valuable resort to already attractive Florida, and more tempting to yachtmen than any now existing.
Returning from this rambling disquisition upon drifting in one's own craft, we come back to our own for the time, and tie her to the wharf at Orange Bluff, above Lake George. Night has fallen, and we light a pitch-pine fire, and cook thereon while enjoying the picturesque effect of the rich, mellow light that illumines our boat against the dark river, and brings out here and there a tree in bright relief. Some hunters join us, light their pipes, and take their nightcap from our flask. The stories of real backwoodsman are always amusing and awaken the common interest of all the craft. So it is late before we mature plans with our new friends for a hunt together, and they call their dogs and go to their cabin, and we turn in the yacht.
L. W. LEDYARD.
[*]The attention of owners of steam yachts is called to the importance of embodying in the new steamboat inspection laws some exemptions in favor of steam yachts and launches. As the law now stands, they are liable to severe penalties for not complying with requirements that neither their size nor character render proper, and in the Southern States a number of small exploring and pleasure boats have been abandoned because of the oppressions of a law designed for large vessels, carrying for hire. An immediate effort will undoubtedly secure such amendments, as will encourage the use of steam launches, and enable explorers and sportsmen to use them with a reasonable economy, and free them from needless legal red tape and embarrassment. For instance, the requirement that a boat, however small, must carry an engineer, captain, and pilot-no one man to hold two licenses, and these licenses costing $10 each, and a good deal of trouble--is one that is unreasonable when applied to a small boat, where one man is competent to do all about the engine, and the owner can steer, taking his own risk now and then of getting on a sand bar. There is no real reason why a boat carrying no persons for hire should be under any more restrictions than a sail boat, in which people are permitted to drown themselves with the main sheet tied, and no licensed sailor on board. Sportsmen cannot carry so many men on small yachts and launches. There is neither need nor room for them, and it may be presumed that any person owning a craft of the kind will, for his own comfort and safety, exercise the same high degree of care and skill that distinguish sportsmen, yachtmen, and horsemen, in their guns, boats, and equipage.
Excerpt from "Camp Life in Florida; A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers." Chapter 19. Compiled by Charles Hallock, published by Forest and Stream Publishing Company. American News Company, Agents. 1876.
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