I Can See Clearly Now

A funny thing happened on the Sangamon in the last few weeks: It cleared up.

There’s something about clear water. Clear water is clean water and muddy water is dirty water. Period. There’s no way to know what’s under the surface of muddy water. But clear water shows all. And its cool to see what’s down there.

My morning coffee and I take a stroll out to my bluff over the Sangamon nearly every morning. I’ve been watching the river with increasing clarity. I start to see beneath the surface. More and more of the logs down in the river start to appear.

In slower current, the bottom of the Sangamon can be covered in fine greenish-brown silt. But in places where the current flows faster, the simple, sandy bottom shows through.

Paddling clear water is a unique experience, and one that we people of the Sangamon don’t get to experience too often. It’s a little like flying suspended over the river bottom, looking down.

It turns out that, like long-anticipated pictures of Mars or of passing meteors, there’s actually not a whole lot down there except sand. /That and the saturated leaves that sank to the bottom. And the greenish-brown silt. But hey, is it ever clear!

Growing up, I swam, innertubed, paddled, snorkeled and scuba dove many of the springs of North Florida. Unfortunately for most visitors, North Florida’s spring country is an area they pass right on by on the way to Mouse-land or on to one of many salt-infused beaches.

Clear, cool, Florida spring country occupies the area (mostly) south of I-10 and down south to Orlando and centering near Gainesville and Ocala.

Many people (such as me) remember visiting Ocala’s heavily advertised Silver Springs and viewing the clear spring through their “World Famous” Glass-Bottomed boats. (Here I always used to imagine some dude in Paris or Hong Kong saying “Silver Springs’ Glass-Bottomed boats? Yeah, I heard of ’em.”)

I also used to tube, snorkel and scuba dive in the area’s Itchetucknee Springs, another of North Florida’s hidden treasures that once was just a spot in the woods where we drove in, parked our pickups and hopped in tubes for a several-hour leisurely float in crystal clear water through live oaks and spanish moss.

Over the years, Itchetucknee was to become overrun with partying, beer-swilling, potato-chip-bag-discarding tubing enthusiasts who were coming close to loving the place to death. As the Eagles said “Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

Like many things, Silver Springs is no more, at least, not as a North Florida Tourist Trap; now it’s a protected State Park.

The state also took over Itchetucknee Springs and now nearly all of central Florida’s springs are Florida State Parks. And of course, they decided there’d be no beer and no food on the Itchetucknee.

Ultimately, the state taking over with its rules and regulations is probably a good thing. Florida’s springs are a real treasure, most people agree. And they had come to be at great risk of being carelessly trashed by the few and the reckless.

The interesting thing is that people mostly think this is a good thing because Florida’s springs are so obviously beautiful: so clear and clean and good (just like a Sprite).

Which of course leads me to think as I’m paddling along through the clear waters of the Sangamon: what if it were clear all the time?

Yes, I can see clearly now. Clear water is clean water. It doesn’t take much to imagine: what if what I were paddling over were actually the Sangamon’s “normal”? How differently would we think of our river? We’d think of it is as clean. We’d happily jump in for a swim on hot summer days, we’d go tubing and we’d be reluctant to think of it as an area trash receptacle.

And we’d all happily be willing to do what it takes to step up to protect our river “treasure”. People would, quite literally, see beneath the surface of the river. They’d see it with greater clarity. They might even move here just to be near the river (as some of us actually have).

But then thinking backwards in time, it doesn’t take much to realize that before the era of modern agriculture, “clear” was in fact the Sangamon’s “normal”. In the pre-agricultural era it would take up to 2 months for rainwater to migrate and filter down from the Central Illinois wetland prairie to the river while the dirt stayed on the land, filtered through the grasslands and wetlands. Now it takes no more than about 2 hours. With all of the dirt along with it. Yes, we often see the muddy Sangamon, and we think that muddy is the way that “it is”, but then do we then think: “we did this.” Not usually.

Our own “muddy river” consists almost entirely of our Central Illinois farmland’s topsoil flowing away forever downstream, much of it to ultimately be deposited at the bottom of Lake Decatur.

But that’s another story. For now, I’m just enjoying my ability to see things a bit more clearly. And left to imagine: what if?

Epilogue: The day after I took this trip saw steady rain all day. The river rose quickly and visibility dropped to a more “normal” one inch.

Appeared as Notes from the River, December 4, 2014, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays

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