Blazing Trails for Florida’s Heritage
January 20th, 2018 by Pamela A. Keene

Sam Carr shows off a bass he caught on the St. Johns River next to his backyard in San Mateo.
Photo courtesy of Sam Carr

A fishing trip with his father forever changed the focus of Sam Carr’s life

As a kid, Sam Carr and his father often drove from Alabama to Kinard’s Fishing Camp on the St. Johns River in Putnam County, exploring the tannin-colored waters for the biggest bass and bream.

“One day in 1958, he saw this property on the river south of Palatka and eventually purchased it,” Sam says. “We moved here six years later when I was in seventh grade, and together we built the house I still live in today.”

Sam’s father died when Sam was 16, but he never escaped the memories and the draw of the river.

“There’s always been that pull of the St. Johns, something that’s such a big part of my life,” Sam says.

When he retired after more than 30 years with the Ford Motor Co. as district manager, he moved back to his childhood home in San Mateo on the river beneath towering moss-draped live oaks.

Always a fisherman and advocate for the river, Sam reconnected with childhood friends, including Palatka native Dean Campbell, who at the time was a scientist with the St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka.

For 30 years, Dean’s job was to study and protect the river. His starting point was “The Travels of William Bartram” and the journal of William’s father, John.

A naturalist, William traveled the Southeast extensively between 1773 and 1777, spending much time on the St. Johns River exploring the flora, fauna and life of the people along the river.

In 2003 and 2004, Dean and Sam recreated Bartram’s St. Johns River journey from its headwaters in South Florida to its connection with the Atlantic Ocean north of Jacksonville.

They kayaked 310 miles during three years of paddling on weekends. When they completed their journey, they came home and set their next goal.

Dean suggested they retrace Bartram’s trip up the St. Johns.
“We needed to bring people back to the river,” Sam says. “It would be good for the St. Johns and for the community.”

Florida was one of eight Southeastern states included in the Bartram Trail Conference, formed in 1976 to designate Bartram’s travels. While his land trail in Florida featured 25 markers erected by members of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, no sites along the St. Johns accessible by boat were officially marked.

The two launched their work to recognize the Bartram Trail in Putnam County, filling out forms, circulating petitions and exploring possible sites to mark. They lobbied for and received local and state-funded grants.

By 2014, they had placed dozens of markers with QR codes linked to websites with history, facts, figures and selected descriptions written by Bartram himself. The trail has 32 sites. Each is detailed on the group’s website at http://bartram.putnam-fl.com.

“The real accomplishment was bringing the Bartram Trail Conference to Palatka and Putnam County for the first time,” Sam says. “We had international speakers and authors for three days, and more than 200 people attended. We also introduced and hosted the first Bartram Frolic on the riverfront—a festival that celebrates living history, riverboat tours, an art show, kayaking, biking and educational activities.”

A month before the 2015 conference, Putnam organizers submitted paperwork to become designated as a National Recreation Trail.

“About nine months later, I got an email from the secretary of the interior that we had been named Florida’s only National Recreation Trail designated in 2016 and one of only six nationally recognized that year,” Sam says. “This gave us even more to celebrate. All of a sudden we were on the national radar.”

The Frolic, held each fall, has grown the past three years. It will be the weekend of September 29.

To say Sam has become immersed in the St. Johns River is an understatement.

Along with his work on the Bartram Trail, he has helped form several groups to support the St. Johns River, including Friends of Dunn’s Creek State Park, www.friendsofdunnscreek.org, and the Putnam Blueways and Trails, www.putnambluewaysandtrails.org, which sponsors regular paddles, bike rides and activities for all ages.

Sam serves on Florida Greenways and Trails Council, and is vice president of the National Bartram Conference, www.bartramtrail.org.

He works with groups of youth to introduce them to the river.

“I just turned 66 and I really enjoy what I’m doing,” Sam says. “This is where I belong. The river, its heritage and I have a great history here.”