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Local Woman paddles 500 miles on the St. Johns River
By Woody Wommack
Date: June 9, 2008
Although the St. Johns was one of the very first rivers in North America to be explored by Europeans, very few---if any---people have paddled the entire length of it in modern times.
Over the last few months, Michelle Thatcher has navigated the river from its headwaters to its ocean confluence by herself a 14-foot kayak. Although the river is 310 miles long, branches, sloughs, canals and tributaries create a larger river “system” that is well over 500 miles. Thatcher may be the first person to paddle that entire river system from beginning to end by herself.
Thatcher, 41, is the executive director of the Association of Florida Conservation Districts and past director of the Seminole Soil and Water Conservation District. She used a 14-foot Necky rec-touring kayak (Manitou 14) and packed away food, water, and camping gear in the vessel. She often camped on conservation land managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD).
Thatcher relied on a compass rather than a GPS. And although she used a number of topo and aerial maps, she says the “ St. Johns is a complicated river system that changes by wet and dry seasons. It was easy to get lost, especially on the southern (upstream) stretch south of Sanford.”
Thatcher, who lives on the Little Wekiva River in Altamonte Springs, says she made the solo journey for several reasons. As an ardent conservationist, she wanted to bring attention to the importance of the St. Johns and to highlight the challenges it faces today.
To do so, Thatcher documented her trip with high definition video, digital stills, and by keeping an audio journal. She plans to produce a film and more immediately, to share her experiences via a website and a PowerPoint presentation. (She is working with the nonprofit Equinox Documentaries, Inc. of Orlando on the film and is negotiating underwriting for the project.)
In addition to getting lost in the shallow, labyrinth of “Puzzle Lake,” Thatcher also battled high winds and large white capped waves on the 12 by 9 mile Lake George, and explored remote, southerly canals where large ‘gators routinely launched themselves into the water only feet from her single kayak. “Gators often hang low in the water, and several times I paddled over their backs. That would surprise both of us!”
At other times, she dodged stray bullets from careless hunters, narrowly missed being caught in a cattle stampede when camping on a prairie, and had a number of close encounters with airboats. She also got a first hand look at how shallow the southern half of the river actually is, and many times had to get out and walk while pulling her kayak.
Even though the St. Johns flows near heavily-populated Orlando and through Jacksonville, Thatcher stresses there are many miles of the river that few ever see. “Paddling all the disparate parts helps bring attention to the ecological complexity of the St. Johns”, Thatcher says.
She began her trip in Okeechobee County at the true headwaters in the densely-wooded Ft. Drum Creek---which is far below Blue Cypress Lake west of Vero, and well below the “navigational headwaters” of Lake Helen Blazes.
“The St Johns changes dramatically, depending on where you are in its watershed,” she explains. The “upper river” (which is south) is mostly open marsh and prairie. The middle section, roughly between Sanford andLake George, is defined by the shores of a hardwood swamp, and is more spring-fed. The lower or northernmost section is deep and averages two miles in width from Palatka to the river mouth.
“We live in a place where so many define adventures by the choreographed rides at Disney World. Yet, there’s this primitive, subtropical environment right outside our backdoor!”
In addition to gaining a rare look at the river, Thatcher also met many locals for whom the St. Johns is a vital part of their lives---from a free-spirited Vietnam vet living in a river camp to more refined riverfront dwellers in Jacksonville. “All share a devotion and conservation ethic for the future of the river,” she says.
She recently gave a presentation on her adventure to the Inaugural River Classroom sponsored by the St. Johns River Alliance at Blue Spring State Park. Author-teacher Herb Hiller of Drayton Island praised Thatcher’s presentation as the “highlight” of the four-day immersion seminar.
Thatcher said she was intrigued by the St. Johns after reading “ River of Lakes”, by Bill Belleville, which tells the cultural and ecological story of the river. In planning for her journey, Thatcher consulted with several land managers of the SJRWMD, as well as author and naturalist Belleville. The author says Thatcher is “the only person---and certainly, the only woman--- I know of who has paddled the entire river on their own”.
While the main trip was made over several months during winter and spring 2008; Thatcher continues to scout the remaining tributaries, lakes and canals of the river in order to better understand and more fully document the entire St. Johns.
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