A Journey on the St. Johns River:
Final leg of the upper basin

This is part three in a series about the St. Johns River. This chapter wraps up our tour of the headwaters, known as the upper basin.

In parts one and two of our journey down the St. Johns River, we explored its sawgrass marshes and famous fishing holes, and learned about the St. Johns River Water Management District’s restoration of the river’s vast headwaters. Today, we pass through several lakes formed by the river as we continue north.

Entering the “River of Lakes”

Before European involvement in North America, the St. Johns River was called Welaka  or “river of lakes,” a name of Seminole-Creek origin. It is a fitting moniker. Throughout its 310-mile-long journey, the river seems to be in no rush to reach the Atlantic Ocean. As it flows north, the St. Johns River occasionally widens to form a lake and then, as if remembering its purpose, narrows to become a river once again.

Pete Henn, Land Management Program Manager with the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Bureau of Land Resources, will guide us through several of the dozen lakes formed within the river itself. Along the way, we’ll visit many of those lakes, where a large part of the District’s work in previous decades has included buying property along the river and its lakes to protect those waters. These properties offer a wealth of recreational opportunities for the public and protect plants and wildlife. We begin this leg of the journey at an area known as Three Forks.

Three Forks

Just west of Palm Bay’s city limits, the St. Johns River’s open marshes transform into a recognizable river channel. The area is called Three Forks, but the forks aren’t readily apparent; a century of human manipulation — primarily the construction of old agricultural levees and drainage canals — has all but obscured two of the three natural river channels. At the northern end of the C-40 canal, just west of the District’s Three Forks Conservation Area, one of the river channels cuts a snake-like path northwest through willow and cattail, and makes its way to the legendary Lake Hell ‘n Blazes.

Lake Hell ‘n Blazes is a haunting and remote place, its edge protected by a marshy floodplain. According to folklore, the name “Hell ‘n Blazes” has been attributed to frustrated fishermen trying to navigate through floating islands of vegetation. Google Earth labels the lake with the traditional spelling and the more puritanical “Lake Hellen Blazes.” Twelve miles east but a world away, an establishment in downtown Melbourne, Hell ‘n Blazes Brewing, pays tribute to this quiet corner of the upper basin.

The river meanders lazily north through the vegetation until it widens to form Little Sawgrass Lake, as remote and haunting as Hell ‘n Blazes. At first, the lake seems like a closed body of water, but a break in the vegetation reveals a watery link to the much larger sibling called Big Sawgrass Lake. On this morning, Sawgrass Lake’s glassy surface reflects feathery cumulus clouds and a flock of birds in chevron formation overhead. For the first time since our journey began, signs of civilization appear on the horizon: the U.S. 192 bridge — the link between east coast beaches and central Florida’s theme parks — and Camp Holly, a fish camp established in 1923 where airboat guides thrill eager tourists with sightings of alligators and a sampling of a river seemingly untouched by time.

Click the map below to see images of the Upper St. Johns River Basin.

Map if the St. Johns River Upper bank

Lake Washington

As the river flows lazily north, it morphs into Lake Washington, the largest lake yet on our odyssey. Aside from its size, Lake Washington’s significance lies in its ability to quench the thirst of a large chunk of Brevard County.

To the west, Lake Washington’s shoreline is wilderness, a glimpse of untamed Florida. To the east, however, a public boat ramp and the city of Melbourne’s drinking water production facility break the tree line.

Virtually all potable water within the St. Johns River Water Management District’s 18 counties comes from Florida’s underground aquifer system. Only two surface water bodies supplement underground drinking water supplies. One is Taylor Creek Reservoir in Orange County, a source for the city of Cocoa. The other is here at Lake Washington, where the city of Melbourne blends up to 18 million gallons per day of lake water with well water and treats it to drinking water standards before distributing it to a population of roughly 182,000. In addition to Melbourne, the 100-square-mile water service area includes Melbourne Beach, Indialantic, Indian Harbour Beach, Satellite Beach, Palm Shores, Melbourne Village and some parts of unincorporated Brevard County.

The weir also marks the St. Johns River’s final structure as it flows north to Mayport. From here, the river flows free.

From Lake Washington, the St. Johns River snakes its way northwest through floodplain wetlands for about 12 miles, widens to become Lake Winder and returns to its river form until reaching Lake Poinsett. During this part of the journey, the low, marshy land surrounding this trio of lakes is contained within the District’s River Lakes Conservation Area, which encompasses more than 39,000 acres.

North of Lake Poinsett, the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp comes into view. The rustic retreat is perched on the shoreline at the State Road 520 bridge on the Brevard-Orange county line, an “old Florida” attraction offers airboat rides and serves up a menu that includes gator tail, turtle and catfish.

For the next 25 or so miles, Henn pilots the airboat through winding channels and endless scenic open marsh. It’s hard to believe that during this entire journey north, there are hundreds of thousands of people living roughly four miles to our east along the eastern seaboard. The entire region is unscathed by development on either side, thanks to the District’s purchase and protection of tens of thousands of acres of land to protect water resources, Henn says.

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To our east lies the District’s 12,000-acre Canaveral Marshes Conservation Area, offering views of open, nearly treeless marsh. The Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area takes up the entire western horizon. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages more than 28,000 acres of pine canopies and open marsh here.

We continue north as the scenery transforms into vast wet prairies dotted with sabal palm hammocks under cobalt skies. Henn sweeps his arm to the west. Everything we see is part of Seminole Ranch Conservation Area. Spread out across more than 29,000 acres, Seminole Ranch is a vast property straddling portions of four counties that protects 12 miles of the St. Johns River’s floodplain.

“The District bought vast tracts, such as Canaveral Marshes and Seminole Ranch, to provide non-structural support to the upper basin project,” says Henn, a 27-year District veteran who knows the area well. “The properties have broad floodplains and are primarily wetlands. They function as natural water storage areas that provide flood protection and water quality enhancement.”

Our airboat roars north, entering fabled Puzzle Lake. Here, the St. Johns River morphs into a maze of blind alleys that branch out into a hundred different directions. It is here where Pulitzer prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and a friend got lost during a 10-day boat trip on the St. Johns River in 1933; the experience highlighted in her nonfiction book, “Cross Creek.”

“Puzzle Lake is a puzzle to boaters because navigational conditions change with the seasons,” Henn says. “When the river is high, the sandy flats become submerged making the river channels less obvious, causing boats with propellors to run aground.”

The tang of coastal marsh fills the air, another puzzle of Puzzle Lake. The scent comes from prehistoric saltwater deep beneath the marshes, bubbling up as salt springs. Due to this salinity, saltwater plants and fish can live in this portion of the St. Johns River. Henn says he’s even seen stingrays in these parts.

Eventually, the intricacies of Puzzle Lake fan out into a broader sweep of river as we approach what is considered the boundary between the upper and middle basins of the St. Johns River: its confluence with the Econlockhatchee River flowing in from the west. In the distance, the State Road 46 bridge rises above the northern horizon like an odd sculpture, the crossing vehicles glinting in the midday sunshine.

In part four we’ll explore the Middle St. Johns River Basin, which includes lakes Harney, Jesup, Monroe and George.