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Story One
Beginning at the End
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Jacksonville -- Gale-force gusts have thwarted our plans today to go boating through downtown Jacksonville, into  the gaping mouth of the St. Johns River. Jim Maher, a scientist with the state Department of Environmental   Protection, suggests an alternate itinerary, one more suited to the weather. He wants to investigate a   foul-smelling municipal creek where hairy white strings of bacteria blanket the bottom. Like all waterways in   these parts, its contents ultimately end up in the St. Johns.

We're in this city because it sits at the terminus of the 310-mile journey made by the river before spilling into   the Atlantic. It marks the beginning of our search for the source of the St. Johns and, at the same time, a hunt   for something even more elusive: hope for this ailing waterway, and perhaps others.

The St. Johns contends with the same laundry list of threats that plague rivers everywhere: rampant development;  nutrient overload, excess sedimentation, and invasive plants and animals.

This river was Florida's first highway, facilitating the export of fish and citrus, and later, the import of   tourists. These days, few give it more than a passing glance as they sit in Jacksonville traffic.

Our expedition team consists of scientists and documentary film producers, all sharing a compulsive desire to   find out what's around the next bend of Florida's greatest river. Some bends will be gentle oxbows as the St.   Johns meanders on a path of least resistance to the sea. And some will be breath-defying vertical jags; cracks   in the earth from which subterranean water blasts into the river with the force of a fire hydrant.

Pillars of clouds stretch clear to the stratosphere in these parts, spilling five feet of rain a year into the   river and across its flat floodplain. The river also is fed from below by countless springs. Ancient seawater   gushes from some; rare crayfish scuttle about in others. These otherworldly innards of the river remain   pristine, virtually unexplored. This underworld is inaccessible except for an intrepid few.

Leading this modern-day up-river expedition are Wes Skiles and Jill Heinerth cave-diving filmmakers whose   penchant for exploration lands them in lonely and often perilous places; under the world's largest iceberg in  Antarctic, most recently. This treasure is in their own backyard, in the heart of Wes' native Florida.

If it wants for reputation, the St. Johns lacks neither intrigue nor enigma. Like the Nile, it thumbs its nose   at convention, and flows north.

This river was Florida's first highway, facilitating the export of fish and citrus, and later, the import of   tourists. These days, few give it more than a passing glance as they sit in Jacksonville traffic. Even fewer   realize that they now play a part in this river's story, affecting its health in more ways than they can imagine.  

Who can blame these oblivious newcomers for their nonchalance? Not the natives.

(A few days into this expedition, over a lunch of grouper sandwiches, we found ourselves chit-chatting with   a waitress, a born-and-raised Floridian living and working practically within spittin' distance of the St.   Johns. When she heard some of us were from "up North," she remarked that she had never seen snow.
Me: "Have you seen much of the St. Johns River?"
She: "No, I've never been out of Florida . . . ")

If it wants for reputation, the St. Johns lacks neither intrigue nor enigma. Like the Nile, it thumbs its   nose at convention, and flows north. Like the Amazon, it's a haven for exotic and enchanting creatures;   stingrays and manatees among them. And, just as the Mississippi defines an impressive hunk of national   history, so does the St. Johns, explored in 1765 by naturalist William Bartram and now distinguished as an   American Heritage River.

Rivers, by nature, defy easy description; the St. Johns more than most. Sometimes it's salty, sometimes   fresh. The water often runs black and languid -- except for those springs and tributaries where it runs   clear, with a clipped current. Its ill-defined headwaters are swampy and its middle is a chain of lakes.   Here and there and in between, it's a bona-fide Southern river: curvy and lazy. Downstream, it's a toilet   for a teeming biomass of humanity; upstream, a tangled and pure wilderness where it's easy to imagine   oneself the lone inhabitant.

We want to be on airboats marveling at restored marshland that extends as far as the eye can see. We long   to be paddling up into Blue Spring, losing count of the manatees seeking refuge there. We can hardly wait to   be in the middle of Lake George landing trophy lunkers. We want to be on the river, in it, above it and under it.  

"Our abilities to counter the threats," Jim says, "need to grow as the threats continue to increase."

We're still stuck in a DEP office in Jacksonville, however. Jim Maher, in a flannel shirt and jeans, is   getting hot under the collar, trapped on the phone with a tenacious Tallahassee attorney representing a   well-connected developer who plans to build a 259-slip marina. Jim's office has declared it will deny   the permit. He cites concerns about the hydrology and manatees.  

"My strong recommendation is going to remain that we do a withdrawal (of the application)," Jim concludes after   a half hour of wrangling.

I'm cheering silently for the victorious underdogs: for Jim, an engineer with the DEP since 1988; for the   East coast's declining manatee population, already mangled by powerboats; and for the river itself. There's   evidence that it is returning -- albeit slowly, and only in certain sections -- to its former magnificence.

Jim hangs up, gumption intact, and scrawls his signature on a few papers before closing a folder.

This is no time to rest on one's laurels. The lawyer will be back with another permit; indeed, countless   developers with countless permits to accommodate a burgeoning population. Upwards of 17 million reside   in Florida, a number that's expected to double in a decade. Daily, 700 new residents stream in to the Sunshine   state, many of them crossing bridges that span the St. Johns.

"Our abilities to counter the threats," Jim says, "need to grow as the threats continue to increase.


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