BY JOE BALOG
November is my favorite month for a boat ride. These “pre-snowbird” days find the St. Johns River quiet. Summertime spring lovers have packed it in, and the jet skis moved south for the winter. It’s a perfect time to load up a group of friends and spend the day afloat.
Eco-tours are becoming popular in our area. For once, “eco” stands for ecology instead of economy, though the two are uniquely linked in Florida. Education is a focus, and everyone can learn from this river. For our purposes, we’ll concentrate on the DeLand corridor, though the same program could apply from Sanford to Palatka.
I’ll need a boat, as my normal river-runner is too small for much of a crew. Here, a pontoon fits the bill.
If you’ve never ridden in a pontoon boat, you’re in for a treat. Modern pontoons are, really, like a floating front porch. Comfortable seating, a fresh breeze, table space and ample cup holders make up the perks. Add today’s easy-running four-stroke outboards, and these rigs purr down the river on their way to a truly natural experience.
There are plenty of local places to rent such a rig. Highland Park Fish Camp is a favorite, as launching in this locale puts the boater immediately inside the wildest of Florida. On our last trip, friends spotted a gator before they lathered on their sunscreen.
Farther upriver, near Lake Beresford, a number of locations rent boats. Tropical Resort sits on a gorgeous piece of ground and offers direct lake access. Nearby, the Riviera Resort always has quality, clean rigs, as does Hontoon Landing, down at the end of Hontoon Road in southwest DeLand. There, you’ll also find Holly Bluff Marina, a place to rent a houseboat if you’re up to it, offering the possibility of an overnight experience like no other.
Once on the water, it’s the animals that make this place so special. Alligators and turtles are sure to be out, soaking up the warm autumn rays. Our area’s incredible bird life is the highlight of my trips. Many birds uncommon to other parts of the country find homes here, including anhingas, snail kites and limpkins. Each scores big points with bird-watchers.
Sometime back, I purchased a laminated field guide to the birds of Central Florida. It includes everything from songbirds to raptors, and has been invaluable on my quest to learn more about our winged friends.
We’re fortunate to have a National Wildlife Refuge so close. The primary concept of these American gems is the protection of fragile species, often birds. One concept that gets lost in the shuffle involves the funding for these wild places. A majority comes from the Duck Stamp program — the mandatory license addition for waterfowl hunters. In fact, 5.7 million acres of habitat have been conserved thanks to this program since its inception in 1934. For that reason alone, I buy a stamp each year.
It’s a good idea to have a map of the river before you take off, especially if you’re unfamiliar with our area. While most of the main waterway is self-explanatory, there are a number of backwater lakes and creeks that can get confusing. And don’t expect to see a bunch of folks out there, especially on weekdays, or think Google Maps is foolproof. Reception gets a little dicey, at times, between DeLand and Astor.
Destinations can be diverse. Hosting a group that wants an appetizer and a cold drink? St. John’s River Grille, just north of the State Road 44 bridge, can accommodate as big a group as you can carry. On the opposite side of the bridge, Shady Oak Restaurant continues to crank out old Florida better than anywhere around. This original establishment literally rests on the riverbank, and was once home to the area’s busiest commercial fish house. Now, it’s home to the best burger and wings on the water.
For a stretch of the legs, boaters can stop off at Hontoon Island a bit farther upstream (south). Here, the state park offers docking for your rig, and the island abounds with outstanding hiking trails. There’s also a first-class jungle gym for the kids. All free.
Farther south yet, boaters can travel to Blue Spring, home to the area’s largest seasonal manatee population. While it’s a bit early for the gentle giants to take up residence, you’ll likely spot a few on your way to the spring as they travel the main course of the river. Look for telltale “boils” of their tails, followed by a whiskered snout at regular intervals.
Once at the spring, docking is unavailable, but there’s usually a place to beach the boat and jump out. You’ll have to navigate around a few cypress tree knees, but it’s worth it. Check with the park on admission when you hit land. Picnic areas abound, including those undercover.
All along your voyage, magnificent stands of cypress are filled in with sweet gums, hickory and bay laurel. This time of year, our colors come out, turning the cypress a shade of orange and our swamp maples bright red.
And like much of Florida, there’s always something in bloom. The exotic hyacinth brings its purple showstopper where you can find it. Alligator grass, a heavy, floating vine, shows off an annual, daisylike yellow blossom. But it’s the asters that steal the show.
Aster flowers did not name Astor, Florida, but they should have. These beauties grow all up and down the river, bringing purple blooms to November and supplementing the feeding of thousands, if not millions, of pollinators. A close look at a river aster in bloom always reveals dozens of honeybees and butterflies, reminding us how important these wild lands truly are.
‘On the Pontoon’
You’ll need that catchy song on your playlist before heading out, along with a few cold drinks and snacks. Don’t forget sunblock and a hat; bug repellent if you plan to take in the sunset. Should a rocket be launched from the Cape, you’ll earn the status as premier tour guide, the view unencumbered on much of the St. Johns.
I used to scoff at boaters who didn’t carry fishing rods; now I find myself often in the same group. The bass can wait. There’s only one November.
I’ll see you out there.
— Joe Balog loves the Central Florida outdoors. Through his Millennium Promotions agency, he provides authentic content to outdoor-industry brands. Balog lives with his wife, Kim, in DeLand, and can be reached at Joe@mpromoinc.com.