Time Capsule: Canal Threatens Florida's Oklawaha River
There is no vantage point like a low-flying plane for comparing the works of God with the works of Man. The drainage of the Oklawaha is note, of course, a well-defined “valley” running between hills. Rather it is a mile-wide belt of mixed cypress and hardwoods; a deep-green jungle, now in November washed with pastel shades of red and purple and rusty brown. All but hidden by the tall trees except from directly overhead, the river—as one follows it downstream—is a meandering black thread, joined here and there by almost invisible tributaries, twisting and turning in ever-wider loops as it approaches its mouth. Here, in the heart of Florida, lies an oasis of pure wilderness. As Marjorie Carr, one of the leaders in the fight to save the Oklawaha, has written: “The role the valley forest is serving, as a reservoir of wildlife for the adjacent lands, is most evident when seen from an airplane…to the west lie open pinelands, and the dry low forest of the Big Scrub spreads out to the east. Clearly, the valley forest serves as a safe highway and sanctuary for wildlife over an enormous area.” Here, we learned, are found deer and bear, raccoon and otter and wildcat. And here are some of the finest flocks of that indicator of true wilderness, the wild turkey.
As we flew on downstream, we were suddenly jolted by the sight of the high white arc of a concrete bridge at the crossing of the Eureka road. Near the bridge rises the great mass of the Eureka Dam, still on dry land, waiting for the moment when the channel wll be diverted and the last wild stretch of the valley drowned forever.
Below Eureka lies a graphic history of how the wildest river can be broken and put between shafts. Dead water from the impoundment above Rodman Dam has replaced the running stream. A wide straight swatch, its borders black against the forest edge, cuts the S-curves of the river like the strokes of a dollar sign. This is the route of the still unfinished canal. More and more drowned trees, and more and more waterweeds and debris; then the large expanse of the “reservoir” itself. The river has disappeared, though here and there its old channel can be detected, a green blanket of water hyacinth among the truncated trees. Scattered far and wide over the surface of the impoundment, looking from the air like handfuls of jackstraws, lie vast numbers of dead trees, some solitary, some in solid rafts. Crushed into the mud before the reservoir was flooded, they continue to float up through the ooze: gigantic corpses that refuse to lie quiet in their graves.
Though the scene from the air was bad enough, a closeup view was worse. The following day an outboard motorboat (no point in canoeing here) took us over the “Rodman Pool.” We threaded our way among the floating snags, occasionally striking a sunken log with a jarring crash. In a thicket of standing trees, an airboat was drenching the carpet of hyacinth with poison (2, 4-D, mixed with fuel oil); the weeds in the open water had already been sprayed from helicopters. On a barge flying the ensign of the Army Engineers, a crane was lifting one tree after another out of the water, piling them on an island to be burned. At the head of the reservoir, on the line of the future canal, stood the tree-crusher—or the “monster,” as it is locally known—which had created such expensive havoc. Resembling an oversize tank, with a crossbar in front to knock down the living trees and two enormous tracks to crush them into the ground, it was an obscene symbol of man’s war with wilderness. We left the scene of carnage with relief. There still remained a long stretch of wild river. For the next two days we would explore it by canoe.
To launch one’s canoe on a wilderness river is to realize a new dimension in space and time. A heavy morning mist was just burning off when we put in as Moss Bluff, the upstream limit of the free-flowing Oklawaha (there is a new dam just above). After the fall rains, the water was high and the current strong; we were soon out of sight of human habitations, though not yet in wild country. We could hear a chain saw cutting the slash pines that flourish in the sandy soil along the east bank; for some perverse reason, Ocala National Forest does not include the edge of the river which forms its boundary. To the west lay a flat pasture with a herd of beef cattle accompanied by cattle egrets. A flock of killdeers, flying low upstream, split on either side of our canoe; phoebes darted over the water; scrub jays shrieked among the pines. The shores here were bright with the orange-red of the maples and deeper crimson of the sweetgum; glimpses of cardinals and mockingbirds and the song of a house wren suggested that we were still in open scrub country, as did the black vultures and turkey vultures wheeling far above us in the sky. Then to our delight a pair of sandhill cranes, recognizable at a distance by their outstretched necks and purposeful flight, flew directly overhead. For a moment we were back on the Yukon Flats in Alaska, another great nursery of birdlife that the Army Engineers would like to destroy with a needless dam.