The sun rises over Palatka, revealing a skyline of communications towers, smokestacks, and something far more
unsightly: Piles of stuff litter the Crystal Cove dock: veritable skyscrapers of cases, duffels, coolers and
crates; mountains of camera equipment and dive gear.
Grits and coffee and chili beans make their way aboard the Miss Mary, a houseboat massive enough to hold ten-days'
worth of provisions for a couple dozen multi-tasking people whose purpose here is to produce a documentary
entitled "River Returns."
The real necessities go next door onto her sister boat, the equally behemoth Miss Jane: tripods, lights, lenses,
and quarter-million-dollar cameras.
We are living our story; all rules apply that we're trying to teach people in this film. From here on out, we're to
take navy showers -- or bathe in the river with biodegradable soap.
"We should have a third boat just to carry the equipment," quips Jeff Kerr, the Kiwi captain of the Miss Mary,
whose concern now is to weigh and balance her. Film producer Wes Skiles offers a more practical solution:
jettison all extraneous stuff from the Miss Jane. Tom Morris is among those who oblige him by heaving aloft the
living room sofa and toting it off the boat, looking more like a roguish frat brother than a 57-year-old
scientist whose encyclopedic knowledge of the ecology of his native Florida has earned him star billing in Wes'
"So much for the casting couch," calls a playful voice from inside the boat. It's probably Jill Heinerth,
co-producer of The River Returns. She, Wes and Tom -- all renowned cave divers -- go way back; way back in years
and way back in subterranean spaces much tighter than the crammed quarters of a filled-to-the-brim houseboat.
There's a splash. Not loud, but unnerving. It was bound to happen with this many people loading this much stuff:
a piece of gear has gone overboard.
"It's only the key to the entire project," deadpans Simon, a member of the film crew.
Actually, it's just a washer that affixes to the base of a tripod. Tom, always itching for an excuse to dive,
extracts a tank from where he just stowed several in a hatch under the floor and pulls on a mask and flippers.
He plunges under the tannic water, darkened by organic decay. Sixty-three seconds later, he emerges smiling,
a diamond-shaped piece of aluminum in hand: "Am I good, or what?"
Two otters, sleek and playful, appear curious. A kingfisher chatters.
All shooting on this trip will be done in high-definition. Only the wanton massacre of mosquitoes is permitted as
well as the sacrifice of occasional baitfish.
A local reporter mills about the dock, aiming his point-and-shoot at Jim Maher who's been given a leave from the
state Department of Environmental Protection to join this journey. Maher scrambles nimbly to the upper deck of
the Miss Mary to pull aboard canoes and kayaks. The Palatka Daily news has been covering the scene here ever since
the 1800s, noting the comings and goings of people, businesses and, evidently, wildlife. (The paper's editor back
during the steamship era was known as "Alligator Pratt" for all the gator stories he covered.)
With eight first-class hotels in its heyday, Palatka once was a hub for shipbuilding and transportation.
By 1885, seven steamboat lines operated out of this thriving city; it was the southernmost point where large,
oceangoing vessels could travel on the St. Johns. Here, passengers boarded smaller steamboats to travel further
upriver, into its main tributary, the Ocklawaha.
I'm reminded this morning of a turn-of-the-century photo that I saw of the steamboat "Okeehumkee" docked here,
in Palatka. Like the Jane and Mary, that proud paddle wheeler was heavy with the cargo of adventure seekers:
trunks and musical instruments as well as stacks of wood for fuel. Intrepid women stood on the top deck, babies
on their hips and hats on their heads. The men brandished dummy rifles -- props distributed for the purpose of
the photo. Not that people didn't pack real guns. Florida was a frontier; travelers in those days took it upon
themselves -- out of duty and for amusement -- to shoot anything that moved: otters, ibis, and, of course, gators.
Egrets were hunted almost out of existence for their plumage; feathers were the final word in fashion.
All shooting on this trip will be done in high-definition. Only the wanton massacre of mosquitoes is
permitted (indeed, encouraged) as well as the sacrifice of occasional baitfish. (Wes, for one has packed his
fishing rod.) Jill emphasizes during a topside meeting that we're an environmental expedition on a mission of
conservation education: "We are living our story; all rules apply that we're trying to teach people in this film."
From here on out, we're to take navy showers -- or bathe in the river with biodegradable soap. As far as using
the marine head, nothing goes in it that hasn't gone into our mouths.
Finally, we're underway. At 12:32, our curious flotilla of vessels takes off: two houseboats and two johnboats
as well as a pair of Flying Inflatable Boats. For all their James-Bondish high-techness, an image from
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
springs to mind. They are whimsical two-man rafts-cum-flying-machines. Powered by
engines and held aloft by kite-like wings, the open-air crafts are Wes' answer to getting above the river as
unobtrusively as possible in order to scout for manatees, storm-water runoff, algae blooms, and encroaching
development. The fact that they offer an adrenaline-boosting blast to rival any amusement park ride no doubt
factors heavily into the equation.
A mere hour into the trip, as we approach Seven Sisters Islands, Wes can wait no longer. He wants up.
He straps on a helmet and perches himself in the aft seat of the flying boat, sitting head and shoulders
above pilot Ron Thorstad. Wes tucks in his legs as best he can; holds his camera in a double-white-knuckle grip.
Ron cautions him not to point: "Everything behind you is hot, sharp and pointy."
For all their James-Bondish high-techness, an image from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang springs to mind. They are
whimsical two-man rafts-cum-flying-machines.
Ron taxis away from the houseboats and hammers the throttle. They skid impressively along but don't get off the water.
He repeats the takeoff maneuver. Thwarted again; still no air.
The pair taxis toward us: "We're exceeding gross tonnage," Ron says.
Unlike the great blue heron, a five-pound featherweight, Wes' imposing appearance is not deceiving: He's a
big guy toting 32-pounds of camera. He'd no doubt fare better in the other flying boat which, flown by Bob
Tilman, has a larger wingspan.
As Wes trades flying boats, a snakelike figure pops up out of the middle of the river. "An anhinga," Tom
announces. Anhingas are fishing birds whose feathers don't repel water; they can swim, but not float -- analogous,
in an upside-down backwards way, to a flying boat that can float but not fly.
The anhinga takes off, shedding the river and soaring flat-winged. Bob follows suit, firing up the flying
boat and lifting effortlessly at a startling angle. He buzzes up and down the channel and then disappears over
land. When they slide safely back onto the St. Johns, Wes is exhilarated about the dramatic footage he just
took: "Down here in the boats, you feel like you're in a lost world, but as soon as you lift off, you see
encroachment. You can see our impact. Just on the other side of what looks like deep woods along the banks."
Just off this main stem, he says, there's clear-cutting for development. And farming; lots of farming.