Kayaking the Ortega River through the Republic of East Florida toward Confederate Point

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Moving so slowly through the waters offered her a new way to see the city, and the new way was the old way to see the city. The waters were the original highways. Timucua moved about on these waters 1500 years and more before any European or African did. Gently floating, the kayak became a part of the Ortega River, bobbing beneath the short concrete Ortega Bridge by the cable warnings and the signs admonishing, “Do No Dredging” in stern Old Testament form.

It was dark out and the spirit moved upon the face of the waters. Having turned in at Big Fishweir Creek, the dim lights in random condominium windows acknowledged her before the sun rose. But the junction of Big Fishweir Creek and the Ortega River bore many old posts and dockings, perhaps even an old boat or two, just under the water, and the floor from which they rose had piled high from silt from the movement of one body of water into that of the other. An old post upturned her and the silt pulled up to her knees in the shallows. She held onto the kayak and pulled herself upward. When she pushed against the creekbed with her feet, the creekbed pulled her further down. She had turned turtle in the accumulation of creekbed that had been moving into riverbed over uncountable periods of time.

She felt other presences on the river and could easily associate them with spirits. She knew them to be pelicans, cranes, all the living things beneath her in their natural medium and she so out of hers, the fish, the turtles, the snakes, not impossibly an alligator, and along the edges of shore and bank and riprap and bush the raccoons, the possums, the bobcats, the owls. Many living things saw her, while she saw no living thing. Their cumulative presence, their cumulative awareness, and her cumulative lack of awareness of anything more than the idea of them coalesced into one presence. The dark morning river was alive with that presence. The way the earth can be called a living planet, the Ortega River was an entity that watched her and let her stay afloat just by momentary whim.

She paddled past the skylines of the boatyards. She paddled, sitting in the waves, and the hulls and masts and riggings stood high above her. The masts were the skyscrapers of the river world. Slowly, wave by wave, she bobbed by Sadler’s Point Marina. She saw faces looking at her from decks in the dark. She didn’t think anyone was really there at all, but they were looking at her all the same. On a post straight above her, a pelican perched and in the moonlight and the lights from the pier, it might have been a pterodactyl. It looked down on her, out of the ancient past, out of deep-time, out of geological time. What was she doing down in the river so old? By whose right? And what ancient things had transpired where this boatyard floated? And how much had happened that led to her being here? The boatyard too was ancient, but not on the same scale. The two timescales occupied the same space, but shared no point of intersection. The boatyard was barnacled, shabby but clean, clean but seedy, both aged and preserved in its brine.

The city existed on all sides of these rivers, but she wasn’t sure how or what the city was on the rivers themselves. Perhaps the rivers could abide no city, though the city would never have been born without the rivers. Despite that irony, perhaps out here on these waters, nothing but flow could obtain, and as flow is the truest state of the world, any possibility of city out in the flow of the natural would be inadmissible. Or perhaps since the true state of all things was flow, and that included the illusion of city or of the stasis of city, then the city was most itself out here on the rivers. On the rivers before sunrise, she was starkly alone. On the rivers before sunrise, she was less alone than she had ever been before.

Also she was accompanied by the idea of the vulnerability of being a woman in a world where most crimes, especially violent crimes, were committed by men, and where there was no cap on the heinousness and perverseness of crimes. Maybe in a world without men, a woman could feel safe enough kayaking the Ortega River by herself in the dark. That would be some kind of freedom. Then as she came beneath the huge concrete stanchions upholding the soaring bridge that connected Roosevelt Boulevard over the Ortega River, she saw how each stanchion that reached down into the river bore about it a small island of concrete. She saw how on a far stanchion island, the one nearest the further bank of the river, something sparked and popped and went out. She saw how on that far stanchion island of concrete, it looked like a bare light bulb hanging down into that dim world had suddenly blown. She knew that could not be. It was her mind playing tricks on her. There was no electricity down where the bridge stanchions entered the river. There were no light bulbs down here, no light bulbs to go out in the dark.

It was near here that John Houstoun McIntosh owned the plantation of Ortega, from where he planned the insurrection of a little band of “patriots” against the reigning Spanish in 1811, in order to found a new nation. If the rebellion had succeeded, that new nation would be called the Republic of East Florida. She was conscious now, leery, aware, and not a little frightened that she had left the waters of the United States of America. She had paddled through the Ortega River toward the high bridge and through the Confederate States of America, from which she had paddled through the river waters of New Spain, and back into the waters of a nation that, like the CSA, had entered the world stillborn, but that, unlike the CSA, almost no one had ever heard of—the Republic of East Florida.

Then she saw lights and realized it was no light bulb inexplicably depending down into the darkness on a far bridge stanchion. The lights flickered and wavered, wide, glowing, and she could see in their illuminations the barnacles adhering to the stanchions and the crabs massed and scuttling with giant claws at the waterline. The illumination came from the far bank, but the manner of flickering told her it was a fire, a campfire. She could see them, perched on chairs and huddled in filthy blankets on the dirt bank against the incline above which the bridge came down to meet the roadway on the other side. They were awake, but in stupors. They wore baseball caps. The riverbank around them was littered with beer cans. There were four or five of them. She could see them in their campfire light. In her darkness (and their sleepy intoxication) they could not see her.

She had decided to paddle beneath the railroad bridge as quickly and quietly as possible and leave the camp of drunks in the distance, but as soon as she made up her mind, the train whistle sounded close by. She wondered how it came to be so close so fast, since she hadn’t noticed it further away and now it was nearly upon her. The railroad bridge immediately followed the highway bridge, but came much, much closer to the water and appeared much older, more dilapidated and sinister, even threatening.

The city knew not of this underworld, but this underworld knew of the city. Isn’t that how it works? she thought. She thought it peculiar that this underworld was the basement, or one of the hundred thousand basements of the city, but the city didn’t know where to find it.

She floated, no, she bobbed in the waves, paddling only enough to keep her in place against the current, because she had no choice but to wait down here in this world beneath the world. The hobo campfire was several stanchions to the southwest, and the railroad bridge had begun to shake and tremble immediately before her. Attached to the bridge was a small bridge house with a single night-shift worker within, lonely as a lighthouse keeper, and at the sound of the approaching train, the man’s worn-out head appeared in a grimy window. The rusted red iron bridge had pointed straight up in the air, accordioned upward to let tall boats pass through its gap. Now the railroad came down out of the air to connect with the stationary track on land at the side of the river. She paddled in the river, low, down in the water, beneath the level of the stanchions on which you could stand, and watched the railroad come down out of the air. Everything shook. Everything trembled. The boorish railroad seemed to shake loose parts of itself into the Timucuan waters. The railroad bridge was a beautiful dope. The Timucuans didn’t know what to think, but they didn’t have to, because the river was so much older than the railroad bridge. The bridge house balanced in a riproaring shambles. A sound called, a metallic sound, a horn, but a sound like the best melody an unnamed metal could make by scraping against an unnamed metal. It might have been an apocalyptic angel’s horn. The river trembled, the horn sounded, and red lights blinked in the darkness—blink—blink—blink—red lights issuing a clarion call—blink. When the railroad came down out of the air, it reached straight out across the river. She waited. She watched it. Ton after ton after ton of rusted boxcar pounded over the river in the morning before the sun came up. The boxcars ground. The boxcars cranked. The boxcars clanked. Boom-boom-BOOM, boom-boom-BOOM, she thought, the boxcars carried across the river like great powerful dumb things, really like the words in a picture-book for one year-olds, and the apocalypse was over. The railroad bridge was clear, the railroad raised back up in the air, and beer cans from the hobo camp set out on the waves to oxidize into the Ortega.

Now she quickly moved beneath the railroad bridge and its wicked old Soviet-looking cables hanging down in the water. Something somewhere in the sky was getting lighter. The man with the worn-out head in the bridge house didn’t know she was beneath him, beneath his house and his bridge, beneath his world that was itself beneath the world. She came out the other side.

Slowly, gently, with the waters, she paddled past Lamb’s Yachts’ travel lift, boats stored up high off the water, and Lakeshore Dry Storage Marina, and the water was dark blue and the water was dark blue, and the trees were green in the dark and the trees were green in the dark, and the herons were dirty gray white like all old, old things should be. How the water was so blue in the dark and how the trees were so green in the dark, she could not be sure. So she didn’t trust them. She trusted the heron more than she trusted the river, though she knew the heron was only part, only a particularized manifestation of the overall spirit of the river. Then, for one second, she stopped wondering about the past in such a place, and she wondered about the future. She wondered if anybody in the future wonders if she were here. She wondered if they care that she was here. She wondered if they can feel her presence here, she in their past and they in her future. She wondered if they want to know her. She wondered who they are.

She paddled down into the great wide movement of the Ortega River wending one way and the Cedar River exiting / entering into itself another way, and she felt tiny out in the rising-sun darkness of all this water, as though this were the crossroads of the world, not Times Square at all, nothing so temporary, and she thought maybe she’s the Ancient Mariner or maybe she’s Erika Copley, University of North Florida college senior, a young woman seriously thinking about joining the Peace Corps, confident but wondering of what stuff she might be made. The sun was coming, and Erika was out in the middle of the buoys. The Ortega River curved one way, toward Timuquana Road, but she moved out into the middle and drifted and paddled first toward Cedar River crossed by Blanding Boulevard in its flight from Riverside Avondale through the city’s Westside to suburban Orange Park and far suburban Middleburg. She didn’t move with the Ortega, however, and she didn’t move with the Cedar. Instead, she moved straight across.

Erika moved straight across the no-woman’s-water between rivers and saw a small landscape of old cypress trees, slow-growing, standing in the swamp and a land (or a water) so entirely self-determining that no one could camp there and no one could fish there, and only the swamp itself could abide in this place. Only the swamp itself could abide in this swamp. The cypress trees reached into the early-morning gloaming and wore heavy nests in their crests. Ospreys hatched young there, but maybe a bald eagle hatched its young there too. She’s sure of it. A bald eagle nested at the top of one old bald cypress. Bald eagle in bald cypress. Finally, after DDT was outlawed, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring proved the pen was mightier than the pesticide, and the national bird began its comeback from the verge of extinction, bald eagles nested in this particular bald cypress.

But Erika had paddled into Fishing Creek, a tributary of the Ortega River that with Butcher Pen Creek made a peninsula of Confederate Point. On one side of Fishing Creek were the eagles who knew nothing of Jacksonville, or of yesterday’s suburbs, or of the Civil War, but on the other side of Fishing Creek the Confederate Point Apartments opened their doors and windows and mouths and spat at the waters. She paddled from the cypress side of Fishing Creek to the Confederate Point Apartments side, and the first thing Erika saw was all the bullet holes in the doors. The doors bore the perforations of bullets. Bullet holes filled the doors. At this early hour, apartments were loud with inane television shows and mothers screaming at prepubescent daughters and daughters screaming at mothers and TV, loud. The TV’s were loud. The television sets had been turned up so loud. Trash bags floated in the water, just out from apartments. Erika paddled around the bend into the mouth of the Cedar River and saw six sodden mattresses piled half on land and half in the river.

“This gotta be the worse property i ever live at. the management staff are a bunch of druggies. the white lady they call the property manager doenst do anything for the community. there is trash everywhere and the garbage overflows on many occasion. careful where you step cause your gonna step in poop. they have a couple of maintenance people on property. one of them is an old guy who drive drunk on golf carts with another employee. he sell crack to other employees. one day they closed the office and were seen going in and out of an apartment drinkin and carrying on and they were seen doing drug with the manager and that ghetto. do not move into this apt complex.”

“I moved into a one bedroom first just to have my roof leak constantly when it rain.”

“This is the worst place my family and I have ever lived. If your a murderer, drug dealer, rapist, or ghetto, then you already live here I would think. My thoughts are to tear this place down, and start from scratch, and screen all of our would be tenants.”

“Rhonda Hillis had everything to live for. She loved her work, her family and the countless friends whose lives she touched with her kindness and giving spirit. But ten days before Christmas, a stray bullet ended her life as she slept in her bed in an apartment on Confederate Point Road. Rhonda Hillis was struck by one of several bullets fired at the Preserve at Cedar River about 3 a.m. Dec. 15. If you have any information about who fired random shots on Confederate Point on December 15th, you’re urged to call First Coast Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS.”

“Don’t move here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

She paddled back into the middle. The sun was coming up. On one quarter of her psychological topographical map, she saw eagles in cypresses. On another quarter, she saw a young girl dead in her bed where young illiterate men had fired stray bullets out of their crotches. On another quarter of water, she saw large houses whose inhabitants ignored and thus knew little about most of the world they lived in. On another quarter, she saw pelicans on tall posts over boats in dry storage, pelicans looking at her with something with which she could not look at them.

In the water in the upcoming sun, she bobbed in a yellow kayak, and from here, could not tell if the world were a good place or a bad place. She knew that if a bad thing happened, it would more likely convince her of the world as bad than a good thing would convince her of the world’s goodness. Still, she wasn’t convinced by the weight of such balances. She wanted the world to be a good place, but the people on the river did less to convince her of that than did the birds of prey. She found that distinction ironic. She thought she had two favorite places on the water. One was waiting beneath the railroad bridge for the train to pass, but far surpassing that waiting was her floating between buoys in the no-woman’s-water amid the Ortega River and the Cedar River and Fishing Creek. Somehow the lesson was more ancient than these heinous particulars, though a beer can oxidized in the water beside her kayak. Really, she thought, for all that, the beer can might as well be a decapitated head. But whence these ugly thoughts? Had ugly thoughts made her an ugly person? Were any other kinds of thoughts available? Was any other kind of person one that one might be? Goddammit, yes, goddammit, yes, for the river this morning was the river this morning, and if it wasn’t the river of a confident woman in a kayak, it was the river Erika Copley saw and loved and marveled upon and mourned, knowing who and what could have been her—Rhonda Hillis—and who and what could not have been—pelicans and eagles. Then again, maybe she could have been pelicans and eagles. She could have been Fishing Creek, Butcher Pen Creek, Cedar River, Ortega River, Big Fishweir Creek. Or she could have been Erika Copley, the sun could have risen, the crows could have cawed, the man with the worn-out head could have slept in the bridge house, and thousands of drivers in thousands of cars could have driven unknowingly and distractedly across Roosevelt Boulevard high above the Ortega River and the Republic of East Florida. Things happened. All of these possibilities happened.