You wouldn't know it from this photo, but not so long ago, this was a busy little river.
When I first moved to Summer Haven, a lovely little river meandered along behind the protective dunes. It was the home of dozens of species of birds and critters and men had fished it for centuries. When this island was first inhabited in 1885, there were no bridges and folk had to sail down here from St Augustine on the Matanzas River, into which our little Summer Haven River flowed. In the beginning the people who lived and summered here centered their little community on the river where new arrivals first came ashore. A hotel squatted on that welcoming shore and it boasted wonderful views of the busy little river as well as the ocean beyond the dunes. There was a store, a clubhouse with a room big enough for dancing, and more than one boarding house to accommodate all the summer “campers.” For a tiny barrier island, Summer Haven has a very interesting history and connections to some very influential folk over the years, but that’s another story.
A bridge over sand - no water Standing in the middle of what was the river
In 1964, I’m told, a hurricane ravaged this little island and took out a chunk of Route A1A, the road that runs along this chain of barrier islands on the east coast of Florida. What was left of the road on Summer Island became Old A1A and a new road a few hundred yards to the west took its place while a sea wall was built to protect what was left of the shore. But in 2008 another series of storms forged a new breakthrough at the point where the road and the seawall ended and the dunes began. Talk immediately began on how to “fix” this breakthrough before sand infiltrated the river and became a problem. Needless to say every alphabet agency with even the most tenuous connection to such issues jumped into the discussion. And there everything stalled. Sand pushed in on every higher than average tide and began to fill the river, swallowing docks and oyster beds, choking off the natural flushing system for the Matanzas inlet, obliterating the habitat of creatures as diverse as manatees, loggerhead turtles, snowy egrets and others who once used the river to forage and nest. Access to boat launching ramps and the Helen Mellon Schmidt Public Park was lost.
Docks swamped and surrounded by sand. All the boats have been hauled out and access to the Matanzas river lost.
Since then the sea has finally healed the breach it created, but not before the entire protective dune system fringed with lush Australian Fir was destroyed. The river is only a memory now. I don’t know where the fish have gone, but the state just finished repairing a bridge that no longer spans any water. A brave and tenacious neighbor has spearheaded the effort to restore the Summer Haven River, but you would not believe the nonsense she has had to swallow. I’d have punched a few noses by now for sure. The most vociferous are the tern people. You would think, to hear them argue their case that these migratory birds had been nesting here for a millennium. But that is so not the case – they nested less than a ¼ mile away on the north side of the Matanzas Inlet before. And far from becoming inhospitable due to human encroachment, this area has been declared off limits to vehicles by the National Park Service. Then a very expensive study had to be done to determine if it would be appropriate to put the sand currently choking the Summer Haven River back onto the beach! Are you kidding? Where did they think that sand came from in the first place? It is suggested that rebuilding the protective dune would put a barrier between the nesting turns and the sea where they forage for their food. WHAT? When did terns cease to fly? They aren’t emus, for Pete’s sake! As I said, the arguments get pretty ridiculous. And those of us who love this place, we still miss our river. We’d like to look out and see herons and egrets wading around at the edge of a restored and healthy river. We’d like to be able to kayak and fish in its waters and see manatees cruising by again. I’m sure the folk who own the oyster licenses would like to have their livelihoods back and boaters would like access to the Matanzas River and the Atlantic Ocean once again. It’s past time to bring this little river back to health and preserve this historic Summer Haven community.