National Geographic : 1955 Jan
Cruising Florida's Western Waterways Four Men in a Houseboat Explore a Labyrinth of Jungle-girt, Spring-fed Streams Emptying into the Gulf of Mexico BY RUBE ALLYN Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Bates Littlehales T was a glorious morning on Tampa Bay. An hour-old sun gilded the wave tips and bathed St. Petersburg's sky line in a golden glow. A northeast breeze raised roll ing swells as we rounded Point Pinellas, passed the tall supports of the 15-mile overwater Sun shine Skyway, and headed north. White pelicans, flying in formation, wheeled from near-by Summer Resort Key. In the mangrove tangle of Indian Key, brown peli cans sat unafraid as we passed. We were sailing on a cruise of Florida west coast waterways in one of the most unorthodox craft the Sunshine State has ever seen. Water Wagon is a 26-foot, square-hulled houseboat designed specifically for shoal-draft navigation - and for comfort. Our ultimate goal was the middle reaches of the storied Suwannee River; from its prin cipal source in Georgia's Okefinokee Swamp, the stream follows a serpentine 240-mile course to the Gulf of Mexico. En route to the Su wannee we were to explore other beautiful streams emptying into the Gulf (map, page 55).* Where Rivers Gush from the Earth This coastal labyrinth is among the wonders of the United States. Many of its rivers seem to emerge full blown from the earth. Actually, some are born in swampy areas, but all are fed in part from subterranean reservoirs filled by infiltration through the limestone core underlying Florida's upland watersheds. Rock formations under the riverbeds serve as filters; the water bubbles up crystal clear. The largest of these rivers, the Withlacoo chee, carries water enough to supply a city of 3,000,000 people; each of the next three pours out enough for a population of half a million. Most of the rivers bear musical Indian names and course through dense jungle growth, a green barrier that has resisted shore-line de velopment since De Soto's day. Off for a holiday in this fabulous region, we were what west-coast newspapermen de scribed as an "intrepid crew": Channing Cope, Atlanta journalist and radio commentator; Dorsey Newson, world traveler and resident of St. Petersburg; Bates Littlehales, a staff photographer for the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, and I, Rube Allyn, outdoor editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Four happier and more expectant mariners would be hard to find. Craft Conceived on Midway Islands Our unusual craft was the fruit of day dreams that had filled my head during long months of wartime duty in the Pacific. When I finally got back to Florida, plans I had traced on Midway Islands' sands were trans ferred to a naval architect's blueprints. Water Wagon's flat bottom is reinforced by nine stout keels that act as guards and run ners, permitting passage over rocks and fallen trees. Two 25-horsepower outboard motors move the boat at a lively clip. Another feature is the vessel's sharply up swept bow. With block and tackle for pulling, motors for pushing, and the keels for slid ing, we hoped to bull our way over such obstacles as tree trunks projecting above the water level. Barriers like these would defeat any other kind of boat. Internally our craft is as efficient as a modern house trailer; comforts include bot tled gas for cooking, a 110-volt electric sys tem for lights and refrigeration, and hot and cold showers. The four of us slept on beds with innerspring mattresses; these converted into comfortable chairs for daytime hours. At the start of our cruise friendly escort vessels from St. Pete and Clearwater accom panied Water Wagon as far as St. Joseph Sound and then turned back. We set a course for Anclote Keys Light, which was sighted at sunset. Beyond its flashing white lamp we dropped anchor in a cove off Anclote Keys (page 54). At daybreak Water Wagon's crew was up to * See "Florida-The Fountain of Youth," by John Oliver La Gorce, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1930.