Celebrating the Places and People of the St. Johns River
A monthly feature of the many local businesses, artists, educators, conservationists, volunteers, and everyday citizens who work to make a difference for our river.
St. Johns River Voices: The River is Home
The St. Johns River is home to Jennifer Coen and her family. It’s their backyard – a place where they enjoy the beautiful morning light and the many animals who come out at night. In the early morning hours, they’ve even seen a black bear or two swim across the river off of their neighbor’s dock to get back to Hontoon Island State Park. So, when asked what her inspiration was to make sure her home is protected, she was quick to reply.
“I’ve always been passionate about saving the planet, but the wildlife here inspires me even more to protect the river for them. As a single individual I can only do so much, so it’s important to support groups that have the same mission as I do. Together, we can accomplish a whole lot more than we can apart. St Johns Riverkeeper is our voice for the river.”
Today, you can find Jen boating her favorite spot on the river – the mainstem leading to Blue Spring State Park, where she takes her family tubing and manatee observing. She’s busy protecting and enjoying her wild slice of the St. Johns. Her love for the St. Johns began with one of her first memories on the water: “It was my husband’s 40th birthday. We rented a pontoon boat and had a birthday celebration for him. Prior to us moving onto the river, we did not realize that we had rented the pontoon boat on Lake Beresford right across from our house where we now live. When I scroll back through photos from this day, I only realized many years later, the very first picture we took from the boat had the dock of our new home in the background.”
A full circle. The river was always meant to be her home. Join Jen and others by giving the gift of the river and helping us protect this special natural resource for generations to come.
St. Johns River Voices: Protecting Wild Florida
Protecting the natural and wild places of Florida are so important to Alvin Hamlin. As a lifelong Florida resident, the St. Johns River has always played an important role in Al’s life. Flowing for 300 miles through many different ecosystems, the St. Johns has provided some of the best fishing opportunities he’s experienced in the world. For these and countless other reasons, Al believes it’s critical for us to protect the wild places still remaining.
“I want the river to look the way it does now for my kids and future grandkids. I want my grandkids to experience the kind of fishing that I have experienced. To be able to take a cruise on the river and see the diverse species of birds, reptiles and mammals that still live in the river and along its banks.”
In an effort to protect the river’s future for the future of his own family Al has been a supporter and friend to our mission to be an advocate for the river. To him, without a watchdog organization like St. Johns Riverkeeper, it would be a nearly impossible task for individuals to look out for the nearly 9,000 square-mile watershed of the river. Our work gives a voice to Al and all who live, play, and work in or around the river. Al also finds meaning in giving back his time by taking action. Whenever he’s on the river with his kids, he makes sure to pick up a few pieces of trash along the way – being his own advocate and watchdog for the St. Johns.
Growing up in Florida, Al had always spent time on the St. Johns, so when asked what his favorite memory on the river was, he was quick to share a surprising and unique story:
“One day about 25 years ago, while a student at the University of Central Florida, I decided to take my new girlfriend out on the river to show her a little of “real Florida.” One of my favorite things to do is to go out on the river at night and experience what Florida might have been like a hundred years ago. Most people would guess that the river would be quiet and serene at night. However, that’s usually not the case. It is much more likely that the darkness of night on the river overwhelms your senses … the incredible sound of a roaring bull gator, the screech of a blue heron, the cacophony of frogs so loud it’s hard to believe it’s a natural sound. Glowing eyes of red, green, and white looking back from the water and dense swamp along the banks. My girlfriend had never experienced wild Florida like this. Using a powerful spotlight, we looked for critters as we slowly moved through the lily pads.
Catching us by surprise, the water literally erupted in the dark. The boat rocked precariously. A wave of tannic stained water came gushing into the boat and soaked us. I wasn’t sure what was happening and was concerned we might capsize or that a gator was coming in the boat. I yelled at my new girlfriend to “get down in the bottom of the boat!” The violent thrashing continued and then just stopped as we saw something very large moving from the shallow water toward the deeper part of the river. To this day we don’t know for sure what it was. Probably a large gator or a manatee. My new girlfriend was pretty upset with me, but all ended well as we have been married now for 24 years.”
You never know what you’ll see (or not) on the St. Johns. Today, Al lives in Longwood, Florida. He spends his free time fishing and boating the St. Johns with his family and dog, Dixie, creating more memories and stories about the St. Johns. Hopefully, without featuring mysterious river critters…
ST. JOHNS RIVER VOICES: #RIVERUPRISING
Alex Sawyer’s family has lived on the same plot of land in Jacksonville since before Hurricane Dora. His mother, Duncan, wearily remembers Dora and collects historic memorabilia including the iconic Hurricane Dora front-page story in the Jacksonville Journal. “Hurricane Dora, ironically, happened on September 11, 1964. I remember my brother, Logan, was 10 years old, and we were lying on the living room floor watching television when all the lights went out.”
Irma felt all too familiar. When the river started rising and the lights went out, Alex immediately started responding to his neighbors’ calls from his canoe all day long. The wake of Irma left unprecedented damages and started making people really understand the power of the St. Johns River. Alex knows it’s not if, but when the water will rise again. When asked if they’d ever leave for higher ground, Alex quickly replied,
“I’m not leaving. I’m a Floridian, and my family has been here for a long time. I live on the water … visiting springs, motor boating, kayaking, fishing, you name it. The water is my identity.”
To him, our leaders and decision-makers have the opportunity to put our city, not our river, on the rise. If we don’t act now, what will be left? After attending our River Rising Town Halls, Alex was inspired to take action so that our leaders would hear his and others’ river rising stories and start making some changes. Now, Alex is a Captain on our River Patrol and a leader in our Steering Committee.
ST. JOHNS RIVER VOICES: GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
If we want to protect ourselves, we must protect our natural resources in return. Robert Field recognizes the importance of resilient sectors of the St. Johns River watershed to protect us from the dangers of flooding now more than ever. These green spaces also give us places to retreat from our day-to-day busy lives. “Being able to escape on a kayak or walk a winding riverbank trail after a long week at work enriches my life immensely. We have to preserve our natural space, leave no trace, and assist in repairing damaged ecosystems so the river can protect us while we protect it from future damage.”
The mighty St. Johns has been a part of Robert’s entire life. As a kid, he would escape away to the banks of the river and the creeks that wound their way through his neighborhood. His father’s work refinishing yachts allowed him to hang out in marinas on the weekends. Seeing this fragile ecosystem from different viewpoints gave him a respect for the river, and he knew even as a child that it needed to be protected. Robert’s favorite memory on the St. Johns River was a moment of tranquility on the water:
“Paddling around Hontoon Island during a spur of the moment trip to the Middle Basin. I felt truly lost in old Florida, alone with the river and its wildlife. It was amazing to just sit in the silence.”
As a leader in our Rising Tides young professional group, Robert understands the importance of activating others in environmental advocacy efforts to be a part of the river as much as he is: “Educating future stewards of our natural places is important; the more people we can get involved, the stronger our voices will become. Getting people involved early is vital to a sustained effort of protecting our watershed for generations.” And he’s seen the difference a group of dedicated volunteers can make. Every month for the past six years, our Rising Tides young professionals have worked on the ground with local communities to clean up McCoys Creek and its neighboring greenspaces. Their good works did not go unrecognized – the City awarded the Rising Tides the Starr Bishop Award for being passionate stewards of Jacksonville’s waterways.
Today, you can find Robert in Hawkers Asian Street Fare as their Assistant General Manager – a local Jacksonville favorite eatery. Outside of work, he’s busy giving back his time to the community and the river through Rising Tides events – always inspiring new advocates to band their voices together.