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Cruising the St. Johns River

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Page 4

Upstream, the eastern leg of the never-finished Cross-Florida Barge Canal cuts off to the west through an enormous lock and into stump-and-bass-filled Lake Rodman. Thanks to the lock, any vessel can enter, but it's  no attraction for cruising — for  fishermen, however, it's heaven!

Mile 99 marks the town of Welaka, the last convenient place to stock up on supplies north of Sanford. Acosta Creek Harbor has dockage, accommodations, ship's store and a full service or DIY yard just north of town. There is good anchorage inside Turkey Island nearby.

Near Welaka, watch out for the Fort Gates Ferry. This ferry service, Florida's oldest, originated in 1780 and was used to move troops across the St. Johns during the Seminole Indian Wars. Today, the ferry provides access to the west bank of the river and the Ocala National Forest. They make from five to twenty-five trips a day — no runs on Tuesdays. It's run by Capt. Dale Jones and the Fort Gates Fish Camp is there at the ferry dock. Phone is 386-467-2411.

South of Welaka at Mile 105 is the entrance to Lake George, another bass fisherman’s paradise. Right near the lake entrance you'll find Georgetown Marina & Lodge with fuel, pumpout, laundry and supplies in addition to transient dockage to 50 feet. They also accommodate RVs. The east side of the lake is great fishing but also a well-used Navy bombing range, not recommended for cruising. Silver Glen Spring Run, a spring creek about six miles down on the west bank is a popular place with local boatmen on weekends. The exit at the south end of the lake is a mile of rather exacting channel through Volusia Bar and back into the river again. From here on you are in real manatee waters, especially in the colder months. Keep a lookout for signs marking the manatee zones — and obey them; the regulations are being avidly enforced.

The 35-odd miles southward from Lake George to Lake Monroe is another of the most beautiful and least developed stretches of the river. Four miles south of Lake George is the village of Astor with a few waterside restaurants and transient dockage at Astor Bridge

Across the river is Blackwater Inn with docks and restaurant. Seventeen miles south at Crow’s Bluff, St. Johns Marina  offers full services. Pier 44 is at the southwest corner of the bridge. The river between skirts the swampy Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge; the fishing is great but do it from your dinghy.

About Mile 151 is Hontoon Island and the State Park of the same name. It's a lovely park with some limited dockage, and nearby is Hontoon Landing Resort &  Marina, a full-service facility and home to a good many rental houseboats. A couple of miles north of the park is the mouth of Hontoon Dead River, more wilderness cruising worth considering. Get local information at the park or resort first, or rent a runabout at the resort.

A short distance south is Blue Spring State Park, where the pretty spring creek attracts so many manatees in colder weather that the rangers close it to boat traffic. A few miles farther south, opposite High Banks, the Wekiva River branches off to the west with yet more miles of wilderness experience if you can negotiate the entrance, which, like inlets and entrances everywhere, tends to be shallower than the water farther upstream. Here again, local information is recommended.

A few miles farther south the river turns sharply eastward, then widens into Lake Monroe at Mile 161. In a little cove just above the railroad bridge and twin high bridges is Boat Tree Marina.

From there it's a short hop across the south end of the lake, following the eastbound channel and giving good berth to the shallow shoreline, to Marker 143 and Sanford, an oasis of civilization and hospitality. Monroe Harbor Marina is a convenient stop and there's a hotel (with restaurant) next to it. Downtown Sanford is within walking distance, as are many fine old homes of historical and architectural significance  — and numerous antique shops. Sanford was also a major port on the “old” St. Johns.

The many attractions of the Orlando area are only 20 miles away with transportation readily available.

Less than two miles east of Sanford up the Monroe Canal, the Sanford Boat Works & Marina lies just below the 25' fixed bridge at Indian Mound Slough, and marks the end of our St. Johns cruise. Above the bridge the river reverts to the primitive state, best traversed by canoe.

But for the 160-plus miles from Mayport to Sanford, the St. Johns offers unparalleled cruising, scenery, facilities, fishing and hospitality. To bypass the river would be a shame, for you would miss some of the very finest of Florida’s freshwater cruising, a Florida quite different from its coastal counterparts.

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