Local Weather Conditions
MarshBunny Notes
The St. Johns River The Intracoastal and Beyond
Smoke on the Water

This winter we had a lot of rain and water levels got quite high on the river. Wet winter turned into warm spring and plants burst into life at a tremendous rate. Then it got hot. Real hot, and dry. Record high temperatures were broken during all of June - with no rain. Lush vegetation died of the heat and became kindling.

What little rain fell brought lightning - which struck the dry underbrush. Once started, the wind whipped the fire into life, and with miles and miles of fuel available, shifting winds, and no rain, there was nothing to stop the spread of flames.

Huge sections of Interstate 95, US-1 and numerous cross roads are shut down. Thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes, often with only minutes notice. One entire county is under mandatory evacuation orders.

Smoke Haze
Looking across Big Sawgrass in the smoke.

The biggest fires are to the north of me, with a smaller fire to the west, and a few even smaller fires locally. So far there haven't been any fires in the marsh or the area around camp, but the danger is not past.

Everything has been in a haze of smoke, and it's been so miserably hot that Judy and I hadn't gone down river in a month. We wanted to see how the river looked in the smoke, so we took a ride south.

Don't expect to get a close-up of a gator from me until I get a really good zoom lens!

When we got to camp, we saw that my boat sat on one inch of water in a deep, sticky muckhole. Normally there is several feet of water over the muck in this spot, but this was our first indication of how low the water had gotten.

OspreyAn Osprey looks
over Lake Sawgrass

Intrepid MarshBunnies that we are, we freed ourselves of the muckhole, and headed south in a hot smoky haze.

As we passed over the deep hole by the old bridge, the water was churned by mudfish rolling and breaking the surface like they were gasping for air. We saw a large alligator right away, and even though he did swim away from us, he didn't bother to hide himself under the water.

With the water down, many creatures that lived deep in the marsh have had to come to the river for water and food. The fires have no doubt displaced many, as well.

Birds seemed to be crowded into trees and along the shoreline. An Osprey, a Hawk, and a Cormorant were all sharing one prime location overlooking Lake Sawgrass.

RootballA Rootball

Signs of low water were everywhere. Old dead tree stumps that had been underwater now stick up into the air. Rootballs dot the shoreline where the taller Maples had grown.

Maple trees grow here and there in the marsh, but their roots are shallow and when the water drops and the earth dries out they become top-heavy. A strong wind will blow them over, roots and all. The "soil" they grow in is mostly made up of other plants and roots, and when they topple they can peel up a big layer of sod.

Lake Sawgrass was hazy with all the smoke hanging in the air. Not even a breeze to stir the air and help us breath. Little Sawgrass was badly grassed up and we thought we might have to paddle through the last part, but managed to keep the motor going until we hit the sandbar on the other side of the trestle. Since the current flows strong here, the bottom is hard sand, but the water is only about two foot deep.

Another Alligator
This gator wasn't at all worried about being stalked by MarshBunnies.

Another large 'gator was at the railway trestle. Once again, he swam slowly away from us, but did not disappear underwater for quite a while. Usually as soon as a 'gator sees you (or notices that you see him) he will just sink out of sight so slowly that you won't even believe he was there to start with. If they are sunbathing they will slither into the water with a huge thrashing of their tails, but they are just trying to scare you away long enough to make their escape into the river. It looks quite ferocious in a Tarzan movie.

<<< SideNote: What really looks cool is when the 'gator is sunning on top of the grass in the lake - the grass is Bottom of Boatholding it up, so it can't just sink out of sight, and it is too far from the edge to just crawl into deeper water. What they have to do then is to leap straight up and dive headfirst through the thick grass to get underneath it. We saw one do that on our return trip across Big Sawgrass.

I'm here to tell you that it's a thrilling sight to see a 7 or 8 foot reptile that is mostly teeth launch itself into the air just feet away from you. And, no, I didn't get a picture of him. (That may have been when I snapped the photo of the bottom of the boat, though.) >>>

Birds on Grass
Birds of a variety of species find plenty of food to share in the drying grass.

In still areas the water has receded leaving mounds of hydrilla and other water plants to steam in the dry, hot air. Birds are feeding well on all the stranded minnows, shrimp, bugs, frogs, snails, mussels.....some compensation for the heat, I guess.

These grass mounds will rot and ferment and produce a really bad smell unless rain comes to break it up and wash it downriver.

We only went a short way beyond the trestle. It was just too
hot and smoky, and Judy kept telling me that if I let us run out of gas I had to do all the paddling back to camp. Too hot.

Railroad Trestles
A few months ago the water was over the top of the trestle.

Firestorms don't happen too often - in 1985 the Palm Bay area had a big firestorm, but it wasn't the size of these recent fires. Wildfires clear out the underbrush occasionally, and that is a healthy, natural happening in the marsh. It clears out old, dead growth, enriches the earth and allows for new growth.

Usually in the marsh burning areas are confined by water barriers and will not spread too far. Intense firestorms leap boundaries of water, buildings, or roads with great ease. The heat from the flames dries out further plantlife, adding it to the fuel supply. A lot of the underbrush is Scrub Palmetto - a type of palm with large fan-like fronds that is highly combustible and burns hot and fast.

Dried up muckholes can catch fire and smolder for a long time below the surface before erupting into surface flames again. Gas pockets that form and are trapped deep within the decomposed muck add to the flammability.

The men and women who fought the firestorm of 1998 had quite a challenge before them and they did a heroic job.

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