Becoming Enchanted by the Springs

Ichetucknee paddling gang

I find it difficult to explain the magic of our springs. You just have to see them or, better yet, swim in their crystal clear waters. Sometimes I tell people that it feels like flying, floating with nothing supporting me from above or below. And I tell them about spring-hopping down the Santa Fe and the Suwannee rivers and paddling down spring runs like the Ichetucknee.  They nod politely and ask if Gainesville is close to the beach. (No, it isn’t.)

Finally, someone bit. I just spent five glorious days introducing two friends to our own spring-shed in north central Florida and witnessed the springs work their enchantment on my friends, as they have on so many visitors before them. And this is important as those of who care about the springs know–people won’t protect what they don’t know about and love.

After a long winter in Michigan, Carol and Kiran arrived, ready to paddle and ready for spring. We had been emailing back and forth about options—I sent pictures and links about the Rainbow, the Ichetucknee, and the Ocklawaha, among others. An embarrassment of riches. “Everything”, they said, “we want to do it all.”CE2A224B-FFE9-44CF-B9B7-3A23A1AFE43C

We started with the Santa Fe. With two kayaks, one paddle board, and a car full of gear and snacks, we arrived at Rum 138 in Fort White, just 45 minutes or so north of Gainesville. While I pumped up my board, Carol and Kiran learned about the springs and features that we would see on our trip. We launched boats and board at Rum Springs and immediately paddled upstream to circumnavigate the appropriately named Rum Island. Rum Island lies between two county jurisdictions and, according to rumor, was home to moonshine and boot-leg operations.P1000916

Paddling over Blue springs

Soon after, on the left side, we spotted the clear outflow that marked the entrance to Gilchrist Blue Springs. Leaving the tannic waters of the Santa Fe behind, we paddled upstream to the headwaters where we donned our masks and swam over the vent that releases the spring flow. The flow is strong so you need to hold on to get a good look.

Blue spring vent
Swimming in Blue

Diving down and looking back up toward the water’s surface gives a funhouse mirror-like distortion of the trees and clouds above.

Springs impressions

We had some company — others were jumping off the platform into the spring below, probably students blowing off tension from final exam preparations.

Next we swam our boats to the entrance of Naked Springs and walked up to the headspring.

Naked spring run

If Blue Spring had not enchanted my friends, Naked Spring worked its magic. The spring run was empty of people, and woods in-between silenced the noise, yelps, and music of Blue Springs . We swam around the two vents of Naked Springs, watching fish who also seemed curious about us. Swimming through the clear water transports me to another world — the quiet disorients me, and when I pop my head up out of the water, it takes a moment to resituate myself in time and place.

We floated down to Devil’s Ear, Ginnie, and Dogwood Springs, but after such a long time in Blue and Naked Springs, we were too cold to swim. Our perpetually cool springs even chilled my visitors from the cold north, and we made a note to pack neoprene for the next day. As we floated towards the Highway 47 bridge, the sky grew darker, and we quickened our pace, partly to keep warm and partly to avoid the rain that was sure to come. We heard one rumble of thunder just as the bridge came into sight—perfect timing.

Just one day in the springs, and my friends were hooked and ready for more. The next day Mary Jane and Janice joined us on the Ichetucknee, one of our premiere spring runs. We launched at the south entrance, which had been closed for renovation, and headed upstream, against the spring’s flow. The lower portion of the river gives a swampy feel — the river twists and turns under a tree canopy. Although the road is nearby, the trees and vegetation make the river feel far more remote than it is. We waved to the tubers and paddlers floating downstream, with the flow, and some wondered why we bothered paddling upstream.


Lone manatee

When we passed the mid-point entrance, we looked for the lone manatee that I had seen several days before. The river opens up at this point, and I have often seen manatees chomping away at the vegetation. No manatees, but the turtles and egrets put on their own show as we made our way towards the headspring.

Row of sunning turtles

Heading downstream, we immersed ourselves in an underwater theater. Donning mask, snorkel, and fins, we swam, pulling boats and board behind us. We met mullet, gar, and turtles face to face. For the hour or so of the swim to the take-out, each of us was immersed in our own thoughts and our own world, completely unplugged. A rare opportunity to just be and let my thoughts drift.Nonetheless, while I love this freedom, by the end of this swim, my thoughts have usually drifted towards the possibility of alligators as I reach the warmer waters where the Ichetucknee feeds into the Santa Fe. The take-out is a welcome site.

img_3072Swimming and paddling in our springs feels like a gift, but seeing them through the eyes of new visitors makes me fall in love all over again. My friend Flo Turcotte, UF archivist for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ papers, detailed how Rawlings became enchanted by north central Florida’s primeval landscape in her article “For This is an Enchanted Land“. I saw the process of enchantment begin anew, and I know that my friends will come back for more.

Devil’s Eye

When Vacation Becomes an Adventure

Blue skies on the Suwannee River.jpgOn Saturday morning, April 2, 90+ kayakers and one paddle boarder (me) launched from Spirit of the Suwannee to paddle 20 miles downstream back to our campsite at the Suwannee River State Park. We were all part of Paddle Florida’s annual Suwannee River Paddling Festival, scheduled each year for the first weekend in April. Paddle Florida‘s motto is “Inspiring. Meaningful. Adventure.”And while our performers and the river itself fulfilled the first two promises, Mother Nature served us a full plate of adventure with Friday night’s storms and flooded rivers.

Participants arrived Friday afternoon, under foreboding skies, and we all knew that storms would roll through Live Oak at some point that night. We set up our tents on the bluff overlooking the river, staking out lines with care to make them as rain-proof as possible.

The rain held off for our evening entertainment– Thomas Hawkins from Florida Defenders of the Environment, told about work to restore the Ocklawaha River, and Matt Keene’s River Be Damned documentary narrated the Ocklawaha’s contested history and portrayed river’s beauty in its free-flowing state. Many in the group had paddled on the Ocklawaha River during the recent drawdown and seen springs like Cannon that are visible only when the Rodman Reservoir is lowered. Currently, there is much dialogue and debate among those who wish to restore the Ocklawaha River to its natural flow and those who have grown attached to the lake-like ecosystem of the Rodman Reservoir. I recently wrote “Requiem for a River” about those of us grieving the loss of these springs. Thomas Hawkins brought up the point that many supporters of the Rodman Reservoir have already mourned the loss of the free-flowing Ocklawaha and cannot bear the loss of this new ecosystem they have come to love. Most everyone agrees that we never should have damned the river in the first place, but now, whatever we do will make someone unhappy.

We stayed dry for another hour while Scott Jantz led his ghost tour around the ruins of Drew Mansion and Ellaville across the river. By the time the group returned from their ghostly walk, around 10 pm, the raindrops started, and thunder grew louder. Time to hunker down in our tents. Over the next eight hours, storms rolled through the Panhandle, along the I-10 corridor, pelting us with rain and lighting up the sky. When we emerged from our tents for breakfast, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. Some tents had fared better than others, and few campers had slept well. My tent and tarp combo–described as looking like a child’s sheet fort–kept me dry, but others spent a very wet night. Everyone, it seemed, was grateful for coffee that morning.

2015-16 is an El Niño year, and Paddle Florida trips has felt the impact of that this season, from the Nor’easter on the Bartram trip in December to another overnight soaker on the Great Calusa Blueway trip in February. Someone commented that “extreme weather conditions transform a vacation into an adventure,” and rising to meet these challenges is satisfying and also gives us much better stories. I wonder how our weather apps change our experience? I camped for years without access to weather warnings, but now my iPhone alerts me when I am in the red tornado watch zone. Do I really want that information when there is little I can do about it?

The skies were gray but clear when we launched at the Spirit of the Suwannee beach Saturday morning. We floated past the limestone bluffs that line the river until we reached our lunch spot at 12 miles, Gibson Park boat ramp. The paddling was difficult- we paddled against a headwind, and while we assumed that the rains would make the flow faster, we were wrong. Many people were grateful for Paddle Florida’s signature PBJ lunch spread and perhaps even more grateful for the opportunity to take the shuttle back to the campsite. The paddle both before and after lunch was beautiful and serene, especially as the skies cleared just as most of us arrived in camp. The sunny afternoon skies allowed tired paddlers to nap, dry their tents, and, for the slightly more energetic, place bids at the silent auction. The auction which raised money for the Florida Defenders of the Environment was followed by a sunset serenade by singers Frank Lindamood and Lon and Lis Williamson.

Saturday night’s clear skies and cool temperatures let us all get a good night’s sleep for Sunday’s paddle down the Withlacoochee River. The rains in western Florida had been filling the Withlacoochee over the past week, and we heard that the river would be fast. Madison Blue Spring, our launch point, was totally flooded out, and the river moved swiftly past the spring. One by one, we walked our boats down the flooded wooden ramp, launched, and quickly entered the river’s flow. Unlike last year, we did not stop and swim in springs in either the Suwannee or the Withlacoochee. As predicted, the day’s 12 mile paddle was fast as we floated down the river, steering through the swirls and boils caused by the high water levels. In only a couple hours, we reached the confluence with the Suwannee, just downstream of our campsite. After a short paddle upstream, we were home again.Spanish moss and trees lining the Withlacoochee.jpg

The scent of our BBQ lunch wafted over the campsite as we took down our tents and packed up. It was time to say goodbye to new and old friends. Laughing around the campfire. Scott’s ghost tour. Desperately waiting for early morning coffee. Floating down two beautiful rivers. And not to forget the crazy weather. These things bring us together and make us eager to get back on the water.

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