Mossy green patches of forest line the banks of the St. Johns, welcoming all who seek its mysterious domain. The river offers a beautiful scenic adventure. And tour companies like St. Johns River Eco Tours, based in DeBary, are helping to raise awareness of the health of the river and its need for protection.
“Anybody can ride down the river at 40 miles an hour and go, ‘Look; there’s a bird,’ but we stop, we back up, I go, ‘Look at the babies, look at these ferns here that look dead, but when they get wet, they turn green,’” said Doug Little, owner of St. Johns River Eco Tours. “We offer something you can’t find anywhere else.”
The St. Johns has helped sustain many people throughout its history, from Paleo-Indian and Spanish settlers to modern-day fishing guides, land developers and retirees. The river plays roles in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ books and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s letters home.
Florida’s history takes a weaving and winding route: Home to the first permanent European settlement in what would become the United States, the state was also the last territory on the east coast to be developed, and Florida remained under development into the 20th century.
Along the way, the St. Johns, like many rivers in Florida, was altered to make way for agriculture and residential centers. One of 14 American Heritage Rivers and also among America’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers, the St. Johns has suffered severe pollution and human interference that diminished the natural order of life in and around the waterway.
Today, the river offers relief from the hustle and bustle of busy towns and gives an unobstructed view of Florida as it has been for centuries.
Running 310 miles long and winding through 12 counties, the St. Johns River is the longest in Florida.
According to Little, it is the magic of the St. Johns River that entices tourists to take a break from suntan oil and sandy beaches. Visiting these earthy shores of Florida is growing in popularity as ecotourism becomes more common.
“We’ve seen about a 30- or 40-percent increase in our business over the last few years,” Little said. “And if you look at the kind of stuff we do, you can’t do it anywhere else. Our tours and the river are completely unique. You can go to fish camps anywhere and there are bicycle trails, you know, but we offer something different, something magical.”
What started as a big dream for Little’s wife, Jeanne Bell, before her death, has become a well-established and loved business.
Little and his wife taught themselves about the ecology of Central Florida.
“If we saw something we didn’t know, you know, she had books and she would go through and find what she needed to know. I called her an icon. She would say a trained monkey could do it, but she knew her stuff. She could tell you the common name and the Latin name for all the plants and trees,” Little said.
St. Johns River Eco Tours offers two-hour tours two times a day, Tuesday through Sunday. Guests travel in an eco-friendly 35-foot hybrid gas-and-electric pontoon boat.
The tours travel along the backwaters, giving patrons a glimpse of migratory birds during the winter and indigenous animals during other seasons.
TripAdvisor gives St. John River Eco Tours a five-star rating, with 98 percent of reviews indicating “excellent.”
St. Johns River Eco Tours also offers a day-excursion package, teaming up with DeBary Hall historic site. The package is offered to groups of 10 to 28 people, at $45 per person.
“The day-excursion tour starts with DeBary Hall, and there is a stop at Antonio’s for lunch, and then they come to me later in the afternoon for a tour. It just adds a little extra step in learning the history of our area,” Little said.
He noted the excursion package is great for small weddings, office meetings or parties, photography groups, birding tours, and even memorial services.
“This is the place that my soul lives,” Little said. “There is a sense of magic here that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s in the light reflecting off the water and in the animals that are here, and I want to share this magic with those who come on my tour.”