Traces of overnight fog rolled off the river like steam rising from a cup of coffee. An osprey, the early-morning sun highlighting its hooked beak, swooped silently through the cove and with deadly talons plucked a fish from the water, barely making a ripple.
I maneuvered the boxy orange houseboat from the protected cove, where we had spent the night anchored under a full moon, to the main channel of the St. Johns River. Just as we set our course and stripped to bathing suits, I sounded the first alarm.
"Grab the camera!" I shouted to my wife. "Get the binoculars!" I ordered my daughter, Jennifer. "Alligators! Right over there, swimming through the cypress knees."
My eyes weren't deceiving me, as they often would during our five-day trip on the St. Johns River in northeastern Florida. This was a big ol' gator, by my own calculations, a good eight feet in length.
I threw the twin 50-horsepower outboards into reverse, then glided the houseboat toward the bank of cypress trees. He let us get within 15 yards before slipping into the dark shadows of the cypress woods.
The alligator sighting did two things for us: It put to rest any notions we had of swimming in the St. Johns, and it set the tone for the trip. The dawning of every day promised another adventure.
In "Cross Creek," Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' memoirs of her beloved Florida home, the author wrote: "We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion ... "
Cross Creek provided that haven for Rawlings, and so did the St. Johns River, as she learned during a memorable trip with a friend. A half-century later, we discovered the balm for minds and bodies weary from the grind of everyday job and family responsibilities.
If it's peace and quiet you seek, a natural setting beyond compare and, above all, a remoteness from civilization, five days aboard a houseboat on the St. Johns River is the closest thing to a magic carpet ride.
The soothing ointments of the St. Johns began to work on us the first night as a full moon rose above a wooded swamp. Hundreds of unseen birds screeched and hooted. Alligators barked in the darkness. To steal a line from Rawlings: "We lay on our cots a long time wakeful because of the beauty."
If it's possible to step back in history, say, 40 or 50 years, the St. Johns is the place and a houseboat is your time machine. In one day you'll be acclimated to the new environment: no telephones to answer, no television to disrupt thoughts, no newspapers that have to be read.
Only two rules must be followed daily: You are up at sunrise, the first stirring of birds providing a symphony of sounds; and you are tucked into bed shortly after amorous alligators begin their nightly serenade, which sounds like the belches of bellows. Shooting stars signal the end of another day on the St. Johns. That's exactly how Terry Adolph, a French Canadian, envisioned it when he opened Three Buoys Houseboat Charters seven years ago in De Land, about an hour's drive north of Orlando.
So many Americans don't know how to spend their vacation time. They rush to the airport, rush to the car rental, rush to see relatives, rush to return in time for work on Monday morning. Adolph offers an alternative. His 40 houseboats -- and those of a few other operators -- move about as fast as an inflatable raft in a pool. They force you to slow the pace of your life.
"People want to get away from it all," says Adolph. "They want to go back to nature, get out of the reach of daily hassles."
Adolph did that for years as he sailed the Mediterranean and navigated the canals and rivers of Europe. That's where he got his idea for renting the life of Riley. He and a partner opened one of the first boat rental businesses in Europe and became a huge success in the south of France and England.
Eventually, Adolph convinced himself that the same life style he was selling in Europe would sell in Florida. He searched for the ideal spot and settled on the St. Johns River.
"You can hear alligators barking at night, frogs croaking, cicadas chirping in the woods," Adolph says. "The next morning, you can be fishing off the houseboat for breakfast. There's nothing magic or gold-plated about it. This is a means to get away from it all. I'm selling dreams."
The St. Johns, one of the few major rivers in North America that flows north, runs from its headwaters -- near Melbourne on the state's east coast -- to Jacksonville, perhaps 100 miles north of De Land in the state's far northeast corner. From De Land you can travel either north or south on the river. The northern stretches may be most beautiful, particularly where the St. Johns forms the eastern boundary of the Ocala National Forest. But it takes a good day's cruising from De Land to reach many points of interest. We decided to head south, where we would need to spend no more than two or three hours a day cruising to reach our destination. "Adolph's Law," slow down, was foremost in our minds. (Lake Monroe near Sanford is as far south as Three Buoys boats are allowed to travel -- 140 miles of navigable waters safe even for inexperienced boaters.)
Each day we were anchored or tied up at a dock by noon, leaving the remainder of the day for leisurely lunches and dinners aboard (usually prepared on the grill attached to a bow railing), sunbathing, reading and blending into the routine of life on the river.
Wherever we spent the night -- anchored in a wooded swamp, docked at a marina or tied up at a state island park -- we never tired of the free entertainment provided by the alligators and birds, particularly the osprey or fish hawk, anhingas and the dignified heron, the river's aristocrat.
Alligators are the first creatures to stir in the morning. Their raw power is ominous in this natural setting: no walled pits or Indians prying open the gator's jaws as tourists ooh and ahh. They cruise the still river with just their eyes and ridged backs breaking the surface, acting as though they own the place -- which, I suppose, they do.
Birds perched in moss-draped trees along the river are more amusing. Powerful fish hawks swoop down to pluck unsuspecting prey from the water. A great blue heron will sit on the same log for hours, waiting for you to lose patience and put away the camera. The heron usually wins, then flies off in triumph, his great wings flapping in what seems like slow motion.
The anhinga is the silliest bird: After diving into the river for its dinner, it finds a place to perch, then raises its wings like a priest in vestments lifting his arms to the heavens. The anhinga lacks oil glands, so it needs to dry its feathers before another flight.
One night we tied up at the Monroe Harbour Marina on Lake Monroe in Sanford. We made use of shower facilities (there is an adequate though tiny shower on board), stocked up on ice and goodies and spent the afternoon playing in the lake-side park. That night, Lake Monroe was bathed in yellow moonlight.
Heading back north the next morning at a slow, lazy pace, we steered our 36-foot Manatee 12 between white pelicans floating like buoys on a still-hazy Lake Monroe.
At the entrance to the lake, we encountered the railroad and highway bridges at the Port of Sanford. We blasted our horn three times and the highway bridge swung open like a gate. Three more blasts and the rusty railroad bridge on just the other side was raised part way.
Would our top deck clear? We were caught between the two bridges. Our first crisis. We waited for the railroad bridge to be raised higher. But it wasn't budging, and the highway bridge was swinging closed on our stern. I slammed the throttles forward and with a rush we cleared the railroad bridge with room to spare. Up above us the bridgetender chuckled.
Later, we laughed at the experience as we walked through the calm of Blue Springs State Park, winter home of the manatee. The natural spring pumps 104 million gallons of water a day through a hole in the ground. The clear, clean water remains a constant 72 degrees year-round, making the sheltered lagoon an attractive winter haven for manatees seeking warm waters. But we didn't see any of the endangered sea cows. We were enjoying ideal weather in mid-April: 58 to 60 degrees at night and 78 to 80 degrees during the day. The manatees apparently had sensed the arrival of spring and had already lumbered north.
Leaving Blue Springs, we found ideal anchorage behind a small island just north of the park. We enjoyed the spot all day, and that night prepared for total isolation, not even the light of another boat in sight. Unfortunately, we failed to let out enough anchor line when we dropped anchor. It held all day, but before midnight the current shifted, a wind kicked up and the anchor slipped and so did we, right into the trees. It took just a few minutes to reset the anchor, with the deafening screech of nightlife scolding us.
Off the main channel of the St. Johns are creeks and hideaways that demand to be explored. We chose to do that the last two days of our trip, using Hontoon Island State Park as a base. The park is just around the bend from Three Buoys in De Land. We spent a day exploring the Hontoon Dead River, which borders the 1,650-acre state park near Lake Beresford. The park is accessible only by boat or the park ranger's ferry.
At various times in its history, Hontoon Island has been home to the Timucuan Indians, a pioneer homestead, a commercial fishing center and a cattle ranch. It became a state park in 1967. The island is popular with bass fishermen, as is the entire length of the river. From the island's 80-foot observation tower you can see the river, Lake Beresford and the countryside for miles.
On the St. Johns River, your rediscovery of nature and the extent of your adventures are limited only by the time. Five days proved ideal. But it's important to be prepared for one thing: total relaxation.
At times, you cruise along pristine stretches of river, the birds squawking and diving for fish, alligators and huge turtles sunning themselves on logs. You feel like Allie Fox, the disillusioned father who's out to re-create civilization in Paul Theroux's "The Mosquito Coast."
Then one day, you nestle the boat in the lap of nature. As the setting sun paints the sky with streaks of orange and magenta and pink, you sip strawberry daiquiris on the forward deck and listen to vintage Jimmy Buffet, realizing that a million miles away from that other world, you've finally found Margaritaville.
Dave Wieczorek is a free-lance writer in Fort Lauderdale.