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A Case of Primal Stream Therapy

A voyage of relaxation and discovery on the Intracoastal Waterway.


ON THE INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY, Ga. — "One of the surest ways to value any place is to connect with it, even if only a little bit."

From "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River," by Bill Belleville


The stern of the American Eagle left its churning, bubbling signature on the still morning water as the 165-foot coastal cruiser glided south toward Jacksonville, Fla. Mounds of water pushed from the ship's path began a rolling march to the tidal marshes along shore. Sea gulls and terns followed in the ship's wake, diving into the frothy water in hopes of finding fish brought to the surface by the propellers.

As the gulls laughed and soared, I stretched out in a lounge chair, went limp and let the engine's rhythmic throb relax me. This cruise, though, offered far more than relaxation and luxuriating in time well spent. We, the 26 passengers of the American Eagle, were on a voyage of discovery-of self, nature and historic places.

For seven days we plied coastal and inland waterways, starting in Savannah, Ga., and ending at Fernandina Beach, Fla., stopping in such historic places as St. Simons Island and St. Marys in Georgia and St. Augustine in north Florida. Along the way, we explored the water and the land around it and wove new friendships.

With no megaship Broadway-style musicals to entertain us, we embraced life's most basic pleasures. Some of us searched for solitude in the ship's small aft library, which is stocked with historical novels and guidebooks pertinent to the ship's route. Others gathered in the comfortable Nantucket Lounge on the bow, where passengers chatted and watched the ship's lumbering progress through the water. Some, preferring the wind in their faces, climbed the stairs to the topmost deck for a panoramic view. Or they rested with books on a small deck at the stern, where the American Eagle's bulk sheltered them from the chilly March wind.

After-dinner programs were simple and educational. Barbara Halpern, a fellow passenger and medical anthropologist, gave a fascinating talk on Gullah, the culture and language of the slaves who worked coastal cotton and rice fields in Georgia and South Carolina. An actress in heavy, binding Victorian garb came aboard at St. Simons Island to talk about ills suffered by women of the mid-and late 1800s, some of which have been attributed to their constrictive clothing.

And in St. Augustine, actors depicting Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flagler told us a little about the millionaire couple's influence on the historic city at the turn of the last century.

Bill Belleville, author of "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River" (University of Georgia Press, $24.95), boarded the ship in St. Marys to shepherd us the next day up the St. Johns River to Palatka, about 50 miles south of Jacksonville. On the evening before our two-day river run, he showed us scenes of the 310-mile waterway and talked about its history and tribulations.

Belleville's chat ignited our curiosity and passion, and we peppered him with questions about the river's health and fate. We learned that the fight to protect the waterway was a struggle against insufficient laws and ills brought on by the destruction of water-filtering wetlands.

The next morning, Belleville climbed to the top deck with a few of us, weathering the cold wind that whipped the ship but warming us with his deep appreciation for the river and its ways. He unfolded a map that showed the intricacies of the waterway, and we quickly learned to judge water depth and to find our location using the numbered red and green channel markers that glided past.

We asked more questions about the nature of the river and its inhabitants. Satisfied at last, we hunkered down in chairs at the rail and watched the scenery change from rural marshlands to great inland lakes. Huge homes, diminutive fish camps, rusted tankers and smoke-spewing factories rolled by, all stamps of the encroachment of civilization. But still, nature perseveres, as evidenced by the wildlife we saw: ospreys, cormorants, white pelicans and great blue herons.

As the week slipped by, we passengers offered swatches of our lives with which we began a quilt of friendship. Frank and Marie St. Clair, a 40ish couple from Seabrook, N.H., are avid bird-watchers who lounged at the stern of the ship or on the upper deck with binoculars, spying birds and brimming with infectious excitement. Mary Oppenheim, a cheerful woman from Guilderland, N.Y., once coached swim teams and owned an antique boat. Joel and Barbara Halpern of Amherst, Mass., are anthropologists who have lived and traveled all over the world. Frances Baker, a lively octogenarian who lives on Hilton Head Island, S.C., was on her fourth cruise aboard the ship. She is an avid grower of orchids, a prolific reader and a fount of poignant stories.

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