A Brief History of the Loop

Submitted by Herb Hiller on Wed, 08/10/2016 - 14:19

A brief history of SJR2C, the St Johns River-to-Sea Loop
by Herb Hiller

I lived for 15 escapist years on an unbridged island, where the St. Johns River spreads for miles across big Lake George. That’s on a loop off the St Johns River-to-Sea Loop. It’s so quiet back there that you can hear the wing-beat of eagles on their glide path to the lake.

“There” was at the Indigo Inn, where one morning in 2008 I noticed a map of two rail-trails. One to the north ran between East Palatka and St. Augustine. The other, to the south, ran between Orange City and an eastern fork that extended south to Titusville and north to New Smyrna. Trail was already in place almost all the way through coastal Flagler County, while to the west, Volusia was building` a trail north toward the Putnam County line, where Drayton Island sat in the big lake.

Top, bottom, and along the sides a loop was forming -- a loop, that most desirable of all long-distance trails because you can finish where you start. No need for a car. And this loop would be 260 miles, easily good for a week or two. Tires might fly while you immersed in never-been-there, never-done-that-before Florida.

As the Loop formed

The Loop isn’t merely Old Florida. It’s Florida today, where much of the way life still gets lived at human pace and scale. That’s not just on Drayton Island in far southeast Putnam. The Loop connects ghost towns and college towns, party towns and piddling places, springs and wilderness, and not least of all America’s oldest city and the southernmost reach of the grandly conceived National Heritage Area known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Amen! A-women! Away!

Hope Howland-Cook dubbed the Loop SJR2C. The Trust for Public Land contributed its logo. England-Thims & Miller of Jacksonville contributed its first maps. The Florida Wildflower Foundation and Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation sponsored its first tour led by then-Bike Florida director Linda Crider. Roy and Sandy Walters hosted the cyclists at their Stone Island home on Lake Monroe. There’s a photo portfolio of that first tour shot pro bono by John Moran. There’s video taped pro bono by Robert Seidler.

When in 2014, four cyclists rode Sun-Rail from Orlando to the Loop in DeBary, Laurilee Thompson hosted dinner at Dixie Crossroads, Toni and Mark Treworgy hosted their overnight in Inn by the Sea in Flagler Beach. Thanks to Renee Tallevast, the West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority was fiscal agent for funds donated by Florida Hospital Fish Memorial. Tara McCue at the East-Central Florida Regional Planning Council and Ted Wendler prepared new maps.

Then in 2016, DEP followed by FDOT named the Loop one of the first two regional Florida trails for funding all the way through to completion. Astonishing vindication of the passion that has driven the Loop! Former Volusia County Council Member Pat Northey was an early backer, and eight years later she still had the fire to lead the drive for new SUN Trails funding. The East Coast Greenway Alliance eight years before had adopted the Loop in its entirety as part of the 3,000-mile-long multi-use path it champions between Calais, Maine and Key West.

Always grassroots driven

The Loop has always been a grassroots affair. For years now, little Armstrong, an African-American hamlet that’s part of the SEA Community (Spuds, Elkton, Armstrong) in southwestern St. Johns has welcomed touring cyclists along the Palatka-to-St. Augustine State Trail. The North Florida Bicycle Club and Velo Fest Community Initiative of St. Augustine regularly start and finish rides here.

Now Maggie Ardito of Bold Visions steps up to launch the Friends of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group to complement the work of FDOT and the Transportation Planning Organizations at work building the trail to completion by 2025. A team of correspondents from around the Loop will keep readers of the website current: Dylan Hansen in Brevard, Jason Aufdenberg in east Volusia, Susi Wilde in Flagler, Deb Chapin in east St. Johns, venerable Kraig McLane in west St. Johns and Putnam, and Cheri Tyre-Roberts in the Crescent City area, Ted Wendler in West Volusia.

As for trail on the ground, Daytona Beach just cut the ribbon on the first phase of its “Sweetheart Trail” along the Halifax River. Trail is reaching east from East Palatka to Hastings to connect almost to St. Augustine. Trail is dropping south from East Palatka through San Mateo as part of Hwy. 17 widening to Dunns Creek. Bottlenecks are getting uncorked, gaps closing.

SJR2C is setting a new loop standard for Florida trails. You can join any of three Bike Florida tours of the Loop between November this year and next March. You can bike the route anytime on your own. You can still overnight at the Indigo Inn.