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Our paddling guide includes the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and associated creeks and wetlands from its intersection with the St. Johns River south to the Duval County line. Easily accessible for half-day or longer trips by paddlers of all skills and ages, this distinctive waterway is primarily bordered by expanses of pristine, protected salt marsh, pine islands, swamp, and hammock communities. Four nature preserves are found along its path: Atlantic Beach’s Dutton Island Preserve and Tideview Preserve, Jacksonville’s Castaway Island Preserve, and Jacksonville Beach’s Cradle Creek Preserve.

Saving Special Places-Jacksonville Preservation Project

These preserves are part of Jacksonville’s Preservation Project – the brainchild of former Mayor John Delaney. In 1998, Mayor Delaney was fishing on the ICW just a little north of the River. As he and some friends cast their lines, he realized he had never been in that area. The beauty of the place overwhelmed him. He stopped fishing and just sat in the boat, thinking how critical it was for his community not to lose the special places that still represented “Old Florida.” He could not, as mayor, allow these areas to be taken over by strip malls and condos.
The Preservation Project began as a land acquisition program designed to direct growth away from environmentally sensitive lands and waters. The Preservation Project also sought, by taking sensitive land out of risk of development, to improve water quality and create public access to the natural and historically significant areas of our community. Due to unprecedented partnering with other governmental entities, environmental organizations and private landowners, Jacksonville was able to acquire over 82 square miles of “Old Florida,” forever saving this pristine land from development. Jacksonville now has the largest urban park system – 84,000 acres – in the country.

Querencia – “a deep, quiet sense of inner well-being that comes from knowing a particular place of the earth, its diurnal and seasonal patterns, its fruits and scents, its history and its part in your history, where, whenever you return to it, your soul releases an inner sigh of recognition in your history, where, whenever you return to it, your soul releases an inner sigh of recognition and relaxation,” author Kirkpatrick Sale.

History of the Intracoastal Waterway

Spencer Midden and Timucuans

Europeans arrived in Florida in 1562. For over 10,000 years before Jean Ribault first sailed down the St. Johns River, people lived right here, in what would later be called Timucuan territory. Hundreds of archaeological sites dot the landscape in our area, helping scientists and historians reconstruct the culture of the Timucua.
The oldest known coastal village site on the American eastern seaboard is Spencer’s Midden, just north of Dutton Island. Radiocarbon dating indicates the site was occupied 5500 years ago. The village harvested oyster, coquina, small estuarine fish, and deer. The site was permanent or multi-seasonal and most likely inhabited by a number of related families.
Archaeologists are discovering these people had a much more sophisticated cross-continental trading network and spiritual culture than was reported in the past. The Timucuans collected oysters out of the same waters we do, they picked blackberries out of the same fields we do, and they looked at the same night sky in wonderment, just like we do.

Pablo Creek and the Construction of the ICW

Up until the late 1800's Pablo Creek meandered south from the St. Johns River before veering west back into the cypress trees of what is now the Dee Dot Ranch in St. Johns County. In 1881 four St. Augustine entrepreneurs formed the Florida Coast Line Canal and Transportation Company in order to design and construct a canal connecting Pablo Creek and all the natural lagoons and rivers between Jacksonville and Miami. The Florida legislature encouraged the construction of the commercial blueway and gave one million acres of public land to the company to facilitate the effort. The legislature required the waterway to be at least 50 feet wide and not less than five feet deep at mean low tide.  The work began in 1883 and was finally completed in 1912.

This original canal-connected waterway charged users a toll and was the primary transportation system in eastern Florida, moving agriculture and lumber. Nevertheless, the canal made a profit in only one year – 1925 – the height of the Florida land boom.

The Canal and Transportation Company, like many corporations established to exploit the land boom in the early 1920s, went bankrupt.   Meanwhile, Floridians had been encouraging the U.S. government to take over responsibility. Since the feds would take on this massive project only if the state would provide the land, the Florida legislature purchased the canal in 1927.   That year the legislature created FIND, the Florida Inland Navigation District, a special taxing district covering the east coast counties. FIND's function was, and is, to ensure the maintenance and improvement of the ICW. A state and federal partnership was formed, and FIND has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Congress to determine appropriate widths and depths of the ICW, which measures 374 miles from Nassau County to Miami-Dade.   The ICW as we know it today – a minimum of 125 feet wide and 12 feet deep at low tide – was completed in 1965.

The ICW must be periodically maintained through dredging because it is subject to shoaling (sediments moving into the channel).   The sediments originate from currents causing upstream soil erosion, and the movement of offshore sands coming through ocean inlets.  Maintenance dredging of the ICW is projected to cost almost $8 million annually for the next 50 years.
The Florida Land Boom in the early 1920s prompted private entrepreneurs to seek fortune in developments.   Our area was the site of a grandiose vision of European influence.

Mythic Illanda

As you paddle north under the Atlantic Blvd. Bridge, look to the east and scan the shore of Atlantic Beach for about as far as the eye can see.   This is the mythic land of Illanda.
Once a Florida Boom dreamer's eye envisioned a modern Venice to be constructed here.  In the early 1920's his advertisements spoke of "an exquisite suburb of islands" with a hotel, yacht club and land set aside for schools and churches.   The Venetian element was to be the network of canal waterways traversed by the residents in paddle boats and gondolas.  The land which is now Dutton Island would be "Plaza Illanda," modeled after the magnificent Plaza San Marco in Venice, Italy.
The dreamer/developer advertised "public baths like imperial Rome" where "leisured conversation is mingled with the latest chit-chat about books and sports." The apartment homes were to be "tropically-tiled roofs and subdued Spanish structures which rise above their mirrored reflections on the dark smooth waters before them. Over all, rising like the vaulted dome in a great cathedral, will be the liquid blue of a Florida sky."
In 1929 the Great Depression came. The idea for the Venetian development was abandoned and the vision of Illanda was scattered to the four corners of memory. Fortunately, we still have our cathedral – the liquid blue Florida sky.