This time of year, I sit back in my red Adirondack chair overlooking the Sangamon River holding a stoneware mug of hot, lightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea and look down upon the river.
Just a few weeks ago the Sangamon flowed nearly clear, but now falling leaves stain it the color of my Irish Breakfast tea.
I grew up down South where majestic cypress trees draped with Spanish moss stained rivers like the St. Mary’s and the Suwanee the color of strong Southern sweet tea.
And so it is that sitting here on the banks of the Sangamon rekindles memories of the rivers of my youth. Starting with the first river I came to know: the Broward.
Growing up in north Jacksonville, Florida, all I had to do was walk down behind my house through my best friend Patrick’s three acre yard dotted with spreading live oaks to get to the banks of the Broward River.
Looking across the Broward River from Patrick’s red wooden dock, you’d see what appeared to be an expansive lake, stretching out in a lazy crescent over a mile both southward and westward; the opposite shore over a half mile away.
Looking a mile or so south toward where the Broward met the St. Johns, the St. Regis Pulp Mill digested southern slash pine trees into paper while belching thick white smoke; an acrid bouquet with a hint of sweetness and distinct suggestions of sulphur and turpentine. Folks who lived around there and held those good mill jobs referred to this as “the smell of money”.
Following this “lake” off to the west, you’d see that the Broward was truly a river to nowhere, as it narrowed a mile or so away into sprawling and utterly impenetrable sawgrass marshes that stretched off to a horizon dotted with live oaks, pines and the occasional palm tree.
And then the tide would go out.
Low tide revealed that this expansive lake-river was actually a 2 and a half foot deep backwater tidal mudflat the consistency of jiggly Jell-O pudding. Stepping in it could suck you in like quicksand, but stepping in that stuff wasn’t even remotely tempting.
Guided by the pull of the moon, nearly all of the water drained from the Broward nearly twice every day, revealing this blackish-brownish-greenish mudflat. And although I spent my entire youth on this tidal river, precisely timing high and low tides always escaped me.
Approximately 6 hours and about 20 or 30 minutes or so lapses between high and low tide during which time the river drops about 2 and a half feet. And after that, the river changes direction and the lake fills again. And even that timing and that height depends on the time of the year, the phase of the moon, and even the direction of the wind.
Tides therefore were something like (but not quite) an hour and a half to two hours later every day. So figuring out when high or low tide might be from day to day – much less week to week – was completely befuddling. This makes watersports on the Broward River rather problematic.
We could easily set out canoeing from Patrick’s dock during a nice high tide only to return with the dock a quarter mile of jiggly black Jell-O pudding away. And if you’ve ever tried slogging a canoe across a quarter mile or more of jiggly Jell-O pudding that you don’t dare step out onto…well, just don’t.
The Broward’s waters were not the pleasant reddish-brown sweet-tea hue of the area’s freshwater rivers and lakes. No, they were the color of strong black coffee with just enough cream to reduce visibility effectively to zero.
The Broward’s waters have the unappealing label “brackish”; neither salty like the ocean nor freshwater either. This made swimming, which we rarely did (and only at the highest tides), not only unpleasant if your feet ever touched that slimy muck on the bottom, but also an exercise in guesswork because you never knew exactly what was down there such as the blue crabs with their sharp pincers.
Which brings me to the seafood. Tidal rivers such as the Broward are estuaries for oysters, shrimp and blue crab. The Broward was dotted with Styrofoam balls marking blue crab traps. Sometimes we’d pull them up just to tease the trapped crabs inside. They’d open their pincers at us threateningly while helplessly trapped in their chicken-wire cage and we’d laugh as we’d toss them back in. It took me well into adulthood to learn to appreciate that they were actually edible.
But I did like the shrimp. We could cast a net off Patrick’s dock just as high tide was heading back out and haul in netfuls of tasty shrimp which, after lots of tedious peeling, Mom would toss in the deep fryer.
So the Broward wasn’t all bad. I recall days of canoe trips; of shrimping off Patrick’s dock; of paddling into the marshes for overnight camping trips among the pines, palms, live oaks and Spanish moss; and of sailing my little 10 foot plastic and Styrofoam Sunfish over to St. Regis and back ‘til the time we bent the cheap aluminum mast in two. We even tried waterskiing behind Patrick’s aluminum rowboat with an 18 horse Evinrude outboard (not recommended, but Patrick did go on to waterski professionally at Florida’s “Cypress Gardens”, so you never know).
I’m glad I had a chance to grow up with a river, but I still pretty much resented the Broward. While it nominally qualified as a river twice a day, it certainly wasn’t the clear, fresh and sandy-bottomed rivers or lakes of much of the rest of north-central Florida.
I had a recurring dream that I’d walk down to Pat’s house and find our Broward River filled with nice clear, fresh lake water; we’d swim around Pat’s dock with that nice sandy bottom that we could actually stand on.
But alas, I’d wake up only to realize it was still the same old brackish, muddy tidal backwater.
Now, many years later, I sit back in my Adirondack chair, remembering the brackish Broward River while staring at the Sangamon; making new memories. These two rivers – utterly different – are both a part of me now.
As much as – like all water everywhere – they are a part of each other.
And I take another sip of luke-warm Irish Breakfast tea in my stoneware mug.
Next up: The Okefenokee Swamp
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, November 5, 2015, by Scott Hays