As the sun fades into stripes of orange and purple across a backdrop of cypress trees behind me, I flick the rod and cast out to where I saw that last big bass jump out of the inky Hontoon Dead River. I watch a mama alligator drift across the river, drawn by instinct to the muffled gwonk of one of her young.
Activity along the water picks up as the day draws to a close. A belted kingfisher chatters as it swoops low across the placid water. Two anhingas perch in the high branches of a cypress, flapping their wings. White ibises honk as they rise up into their perches on the spindly dead upper branches of a Carolina willow. All is still, pristine, natural. Night closes in, and I hear the lapping of the river beneath my window as the boat gently rocks, moored to an overhanging limb. This is a different kind of ecotour, one where you immerse in your environment—exploring the wilds of the St. Johns River by houseboat.
After a fast-paced orientation at the Holly Bluff Marina on how a houseboat operates and how to pilot the craft, we gals cast off on a clear blue Tuesday afternoon, heading for the serenity of the backwaters of the St. Johns. I’d been expecting a captain to join us, but instead, we quickly learn the difference between port and starboard, how to read navigation charts, and how to use the radio to call ahead to the drawbridge. My first turn at the captain’s chair sent me into sheer terror. While lovely and well-equipped, the houseboat is an ungainly creature—“a box on water,” said our tutor Terry. It’s tricky to steer. As I turned the massive wheel, I discovered it didn’t work like a car at all. I sent the boat barreling off in one direction and then the other like a drunken sailor as I tried to overcompensate for each turn too far of the wheel. “Sandy, get up here!” I yelled to our sole expert boater, fearing I’d careen into the trees on the first sharp curve. “Don’t worry, honey, throw it in neutral,” she yelled back as she unpacked. I was shaking when I turned the wheel over to Eva Knapp, the instigator for this trip, happy to escape the responsibility. But Terry’s suggestion saved us—an afternoon in the quiet Hontoon Dead River, each of us taking a turn at the wheel, and eventually we get the knack of how to spin the boat around on a dime.
Sitting at anchor, the generator turned off so we can fish off the back of the boat, we have time to enjoy the ceaseless chatter of the birds. Flocks of ibises return to their roosts in the tall cypresses along Hontoon Island; kingfishers dive abruptly to skim the water’s surface. The mucky aroma of the floodplain forest deepens as daylight wanes. Patiently, Virginia Young, my 77-year-old tutor, shows me how to thread the line through my new fishing rod, how to tie on the lure, and how to cast, shooting the line across the black water. I study the river. Again and again, the bass surfaces, just next to a patch of water lettuce. But all I snag are strands of tapegrass from the river’s bottom.
Darkness settles like a soft blanket, the silhouettes of cypresses outlined by a sliver of moonlight. We cluster around the dining room table and discuss tomorrow’s logistics, charting our course up the St. Johns: a stop at the marina, to pick up a few forgotten items; a plan to anchor at Silver Glen Run. With the cleanup of dinner dishes and the laptops that Eva and Sandy Huff whip out, it feels like home, the houseboat an apartment on the water. We laugh and pass snacks around well into the night, five ladies on a houseboat.
Swinging out into the St. Johns River in the early morning light, we push through a dense mat of water hyacinths blocking the channel. “Capt’n Huff” maneuvers like a pro. But we find we’re too early for the marina to be open, so we divert to the dock at Hontoon Island State Park. G.K. Sharman is ready for a morning walk, so off we go, down the Indian Mound Hiking Trail. It’s an easier journey than the last time I was here—no mosquitoes, no swamp water lapping at the footpath. We marvel at the cathedral ceiling of tall longleaf pines and cabbage palms, and the peace and quiet around the massive Timucuan mound at the end of the trail, scant yards away from last night’s anchorage.
Back on the water, we get our bait and linens at the marina, and I take the wheel as we head north, calling ahead to the Whitehair Bridge on SR 44 to make sure we have enough clearance. I’m still a little nervous, so I turn the captain’s chair over to Sandy as she maneuvers us between the bridge pilings. Each of us take a turn at the wheel, and with the river blissfully empty of boat traffic, our steering is forgiven—and we know we look just as silly as the houseboat we passed earlier, its stern swinging wide time and again on the approach to the bridge. But my confidence builds out on the open river as I figure out the steering ratio. By noon, I feel like an expert.
North of Deland, the river reverts to the beautiful scenes described in William Bartram’s Travels. Protected by both the Ocala National Forest and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, it’s a broad waterway surrounded by floodplain forests. Grand moss-draped cypresses sway over the water while anglers tuck away in their gunkholes, casting for bass. Alligators claim what little high ground lies along the river’s edge. One stretches out on a snag to its full twelve-foot length, jaws gaping open in a toothy smile. Ospreys build their massive nests on snags and channel markers. At Lake Dexter, I play navigator while Virginia steers, the broad sweep of shallow water treacherous to boaters. Channel markers form watery blazes across the expanse, where we must zigzag between them to keep in water at least three feet deep.
Astor marks the beginning of civilization again, with boathouses and homes lining the river’s edge—residential, but with a touch of Old Florida about it. I take the wheel and get us under the SR 40 bridge, snaking up the channel towards the vastness of Lake George, where I pass responsibility to our expert Sandy. To find the route to Silver Glen Run means following a compass bearing across this mirror-smooth surface, shimmering silver under a clouded sky. Our only companions are the random drifts of hyacinths. The depth finder causes concern, as the draft drops to 2.5 feet as we aim towards the mouth of the run. Slipping around an island, we spy dozens of cormorants fishing, their heads bobbing out of the water like snakes. One has a needlefish grasped tight in its bill. Each time it surfaces, it swallows a little more of the fish.
As we expected, a line of houseboats, motorboats, and a sailboat awaits us within the anchorage at Silver Glen Run. Come here on a weekend, and you’ll hardly be able to breathe. But these six neighbors respect the beauty of the spot, sitting quietly on their decks fishing and playing cards, looking up into the trees with their binoculars. Sandy eases us into a spot under a massive bald cypress. After a while, G.K. calls us all up on the roof deck to stare at the bald eagles roosting in the branches of this particular cypress. We’ve picked the perfect spot. A massive nest caps the cypress, where a full-grown fledgling bounces from branch to branch as its parents look on. Around us, the waters are crystalline, tapegrass and southern naiad waving in the current. Sandy jumps in for a swim, and I try a little fishing off the deck, mesmerized by being able to watch mullet and sunfish as they swim by. I reel my line back in again when I notice a young sting ray sniffing near the bait. At the bow, Virginia works well into the waning light, fighting off mosquitoes as she hauls in a catfish and some sunfish. Dinner tomorrow!
Morning breaks with the fury of a storm front, the wind and driving rain pushing our home to and fro. Thank goodness for anchors! Despite the tumult around us, we simply drift back and forth between them. It’s a good thing we decided to stay put for our final evening. By lunchtime, the weather clears, and we’re feeling cabin fever. Sandy jumps in for another swim, while Virginia and I man the oars of her canoe, toting G.K. up to see Silver Glen Spring. We beach the craft and hike around the main spring, marveling at the sparkling fossilized periwinkle shells glimmering as they’re tossed around like confetti by the force of water bubbling from the springs. Following the Spring Boils Trail, we find Jody’s Spring from The Yearling, where the tiny eruptions bubble like miniature dust storms across the bottom of the run.
Sandy suggests she and I swim back to the boat. At 72°F, the water is like ice, and I find it easier to hike down the waist-deep channel, returning to our houseboat just in time to help G.K. and Virginia disembark from the canoe. Although the air is crisp, I find it an absolute joy to be outside in the sunshine, watching the birds. I settle down in a deck chair, shivering in the stiff wind, as a bald eagle swoops down along the river’s edge, following the tree line, passing mere feet in front of me.
Now this is life on a houseboat.
IF YOU GO
Holly Bluff Marina sits at the end of Hontoon Road in Deland. From Deland, take SR 44 west to Old New York Avenue, following the signs for Hontoon Island State Park until you reach Hontoon Road. Continue straight down the road; the marina is on the right. No special boating license is required to pilot a houseboat, but if your boating skills are limited, you may want to consider hiring a captain for your trip; ask in advance. Although our group fared well, we had one experienced boater on board who was able to dock the boat—a task none of the rest of us felt comfortable tackling.
Houseboats range in size from 38’ for one bedroom models to 53’ for four bedrooms, and have both air conditioning and heat, and hot water for your shower. All linens, utensils, and cookware are supplied, and each boat comes with a fully-equipped kitchen and a gas grill on the front deck. Other amenities include a television and VCR, and deck chairs. Prices vary by season, time of week, and size of boat, plus the cost of fuel. A security deposit is required. For more information, call Holly Bluff Marina at 800-237-5105, or visit their website.