Cooler waters and slower speeds in Florida's 'Spring Runs'

Cooler waters and slower speeds in Florida’s ‘Spring Runs’

“That sounds like a baby gator. Did you hear?” We stopped paddling and listened. The leaves rustled, there was the splash of a turtle sliding through the water, then “pew, pew,” the sweet call of a baby alligator that sounded like a laser from a video game. We saw the mother of a hatchling being dragged through the muddy ground. She watched us pass. To pay our respects we set off. , we are quietly happy to meet.

We were paddling at Silver Glen Run, in Central Florida, an hour and 15 minutes’ drive north of Orlando. Here, water from an underground aquifer, flowing up through caves and rock tunnels, forms “fountains,” short, clear streams and rivers that flow into a large river or lake.

In Florida, navigable waterways are reserved for the public, even if the surrounding land is privately owned. Clear water and rights of way are invitations to explore these riparian trails, and paddle boards, which combine portability and quietness, are the ideal vessels to go fast on them, a way to enjoy wildlife – otters, cormorants, garfish and snapping turtles.

While the waterways are public, access to them is by boating on private or public land. Some state parks, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, have limited launch sites, in order to control the number of visitors and secure a place to stay, which must be booked in advance online. Others, such as Silver Glen Spring, are popular and have limited parking, which must be booked in advance to ensure entry. Living in aquatic habitats is another way to ensure access. Paddling upriver and back to your parking spot eliminates the need for a ride back to your vehicle.

Myles, my boyfriend, and I have explored Florida springs for many years. This year his 19-year-old daughter, Lili, had some free time between studies and training, so we brought her to our favorites. We had our inflatable, lightweight, easy to launch and pack down boards to check out the size of the plane. In the circuit, starting and ending in Orlando, during the week we stayed in three places and rowed in six spring runs. Our trip takes place in the spring, but the peak season for paddling runs through October, although it is possible to do it all year round.

We started our week with two nights in the town of Homosassa, at the Hotel Chassahowitzka, an en-suite bed and breakfast perfect for families or friends staying as a group. It provided the convenience of providing breakfast, while allowing us to cook dinner on the grill outside, and it’s close enough to the Chassahowitzka River that we could carry our paddle boards back and forth. At the nearby campground you can rent kayaks and paddle boards. Just upstream, on the north side of the Chassahowitzka River, is the Seven Sisters Spring.

Soon we joined a group of people who tied their kayaks and boards to trees while splashing and diving. Another man floated through a rock tunnel with my GoPro. In the video you can see pockets of air like liquid mercury pressed into the roof of the tunnel, and a forest formed by the opening as it reaches the surface.

Swimming in underwater tunnels carries the risk of being trapped underwater, and I was too scared to try. After receiving advice and a demonstration from a local swimmer, Lili swam through a short tunnel. He disappeared under the rock for four seconds, then appeared a few feet away to high-five his impromptu coach.

To paddle the Weeki Wachee River, we drove half an hour south to Rogers Park, where we could park and launch our boards without a reservation. Here we saw our first manatee, its tail defeated by the encounter with the boatman. Yet it was spared, with the wounds of the armor. We watched it graze, driving to avoid being swept over it. Kim Kulch, who invited us to the Chassahowitzka Hotel, told us, “If manatees are startled, they will turn their tails, and they are strong. Once, a fellow rower told me that he had been betrayed by another person, but it was a lot of fun.”

Heading north the next day, we stopped to spend the afternoon on the Rainbow River, which begins in Rainbow Springs and flows 3.7 miles to its confluence with the Andlacoochee River in the city of Dunnellon. We parked at KP Hole Park, 1.5 miles downstream from Rainbow Springs where, if you have a paddle, you can start in the afternoon and return in the evening, avoiding the flotillas of tubers.

The river is carpeted with strap-leaf sagittaria, its leaf blades interlaced with white flowers that open underwater. Looking down from our boards the view was green, punctuated by passing fish and darting cormorants.

Far ahead, we saw bodies of water submerge and resurface: a pair of otters catching fish. Unperturbed by our presence, they ate their fish, and disappeared up the stream into the forest.

On our way back down from Rainbow Springs State Park, we pulled in to swim about half a mile upstream from KP Hole Park, our starting point. A cormorant appeared next to me. I went into the water and saw this bird swimming nearby with silver bubbles sliding from its feathers.

Our next stop was a stilt house we rented on Vrbo for three nights near the valley of two rivers, a 10-minute drive from the town of Fort White. As we crossed the grass we put our boards on the Santa Fe river, a river with dark water coated with tannins from decaying vegetation. After 350 yards we turned into the Ichetucknee River, where the water beneath our boards turned turquoise. We paddled up the river, past houses set back from the river with raised wooden walkways on wet land and bald knees to their river docks.

Two boys were dragging the snake, picking up small black shells and sifting through them. The man they were traveling with said they were looking for the teeth of a dead shark. The sandy clay of the river banks and the walls of the banks are washed away to release an abundance of fossils. The Florida Museum in Gainesville is over 11,000 feet from the Ichetucknee River.

Overcome by the strong current where the Ichetucknee flows in the culvert below Highway 27, we let ourselves float down. When we were near the crossing of the Santa Fe River we could hear music; A number of boats were parked next to the forest. People gave us friendly waves and we were even offered beer.

The next day we drove 10 minutes to Ichetucknee Springs State Parks south entrance, and started our paddle from Dampiers Landing, a canoe and tube launch. We went up the river, on the opposite side of the tubers that float down to the South Takeout, the last exit inside the park.

Above the tubing section the Ichetucknee is expanding and the current is expanding. Near Grassy Hole Spring, where the river cuts through the green islands, we saw a row of canoes, each with a crew of fishermen. I accidentally pushed someone who was stumbling across the river. My peace was interrupted by his exclamation, “I didn’t detect it!” He explained that the group was capturing turtles in an annual survey conducted by the Santa Fe River Turtle Project.

About two miles after starting, we passed the outlet of Blue Hole Spring, the largest spring in the group that feeds the Ichetucknee, and paddling became very difficult. We came to the North End of the launch, where the river begins with water from its head. It was easy to drift back to our rental house, bask in the views of the gera, exit the culvert under Highway 27 and wander around to watch the manatee feeding.

The next day, on our way to the Ocala National Forest where we would stay for two nights, we stopped at Silver River. After days spent in spring rivers, I thought my surprise would be dry. But the wide water panoramas surrounded by red cardinal flowers and green spikes of pickerel weed flowers were a heady combination.

Another passerby reported seeing a group of manatees. On a branch of a submerged tree were three adults and a calf resting at the bottom. One of the old men slowly let out a breath and we listened to his breathing.

Reaching the hanging island with monkeys – rhesus macaques deliberately released in the 1930s – I heard familiar voices. In the middle of the Ocala National Forest, there is a cabin built by the Cilian Conservation Corps called the Sweetwater Cabin. Due to its popularity, you have to enter the lottery months in advance to get permission to rent it. My friends Cassy and Marco made it through and we planned our trip to coincide with the week they would be at the cabin and arranged to meet at Silver River.

Due to a lack of coordination, Cassy and Marco had booked a kayak rental from Silver River Kayak Rentals an hour before we set up our spot at Silver Springs State Park. They deliberately got up from their journey and we found them at Silver River. Marco excels at spotting snakes, pointing out water moccasins hidden among tree roots at the water’s edge. We left at Ray Wayside Park, about six miles downstream from Silver Springs State Park at the boat launch and were returned to our cars by shuttle service, booked with launch sites.

As dusk fell, we sat by Sweetwater Spring with cocktails and listened to the barred owl, which Cassy and Marco said was there every evening. In the Sweetwater cabin, with its plain decor and without TV or Wi-Fi, the creation of entertainment and decoration; watching fish in a bright turquoise fountain, seeing an Eastern striped coral snake cross the road, listening to the songs of invisible birds.

After a morning at Silver Glen Spring, we returned to the cabin and used its metal canoes to explore Juniper Creek, the spring run from Juniper Spring to Lake George. Sweetwater Spring is short and shallow, just enough to lead a canoe into Juniper Creek. It would be difficult to navigate tree branches across the river with paddle boards.

Cassy and Marco thought there was a hiking trail near the cabin as they heard people talking to passersby. Over at Juniper Creek, they realized it was the paddlers they were hearing. Meeting other people while out on the water is as much a part of the Florida river experience as wildlife viewing.

At Silver Glen Run I saw eelgrass cages planted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to restore aquatic vegetation after Hurricane Irma. The next time I’m there it may have spread outside of its protective enclosures. If you live in these rivers in the fall, the leaves on the bald cypress trees will be a contrast to the blue water. With each visit to Florida’s spring-fed rivers, there’s something new to see.

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