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