“That seems like a child gator. Did you hear it?” We stopped paddling and listened. Leaves rustled, there was the splash of a turtle sliding into water, after which “pew, pew,” the dainty name of a child alligator sounding like a online game laser. We noticed the hatchling’s mom hauled out on muddy floor. She watched us move. Giving due deference we moved away, quietly thrilled by the encounter.
We have been standup paddle boarding on Silver Glen Run, in Central Florida, an hour and quarter-hour’ drive north of Orlando. Right here, water from the underlying aquifer, flowing to the floor via caves and rock tunnels, creates “spring runs,” brief, clear creeks and rivers that move into a bigger river or lake.
In Florida, navigable waterways are held in public belief, even when the encircling land is privately owned. Clear water and navigation rights are invites to discover these riparian pathways, and paddle boards, which mix portability and a quiet method, are the right vessels for sluggish journey on them, a approach to get pleasure from wildlife — otters, cormorants, garfish and snapping turtles.
Whereas the waterways are public, entry to them is by way of boat launches on non-public or state-owned land. Some state parks, equivalent to Weeki Wachee Springs, have restricted launching slots, so as to management the variety of guests and shield the habitat, that should be booked prematurely on-line. Others, like Silver Glen Spring, are common and have restricted parking, which needs to be booked prematurely to ensure entry. Staying in waterfront lodging is one other means to make sure entry. Paddling upstream and drifting again to your parking spot removes the necessity for a shuttle trip again to your automobile.
Myles, my boyfriend, and I’ve explored Florida’s springs over a few years. This yr his 19-year-old daughter, Lili, had free time between research and internships, so we introduced her to our favorites. We had our inflatable boards, that are light-weight, simple to launch and pack right down to check-in measurement for flights. In a round route, beginning and ending at Orlando, over the course of every week we stayed in three locations and paddled on six spring runs. Our journey came about within the spring, however peak paddle-boarding season runs via October, although it’s doable to do year-round.
Braving a tunnel
We began our week with two nights within the city of Homosassa, on the Chassahowitzka Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast with shared bogs that fits households or mates staying as a bunch. It supplied the comfort of providing breakfast, whereas letting us cook dinner dinner on the grill open air, and being shut sufficient to the Chassahowitzka River that we may carry our boards to and from the launch. At a close-by campground you possibly can lease kayaks and paddle boards. Simply upstream , on the north aspect of the Chassahowitzka River, is Seven Sisters Spring.
We quickly joined a gaggle of people that had tethered their kayaks and boards to bushes whereas they splashed and dived. One man swam via a tunnel within the rock with my GoPro. On the video you possibly can see air pockets like liquid mercury pressed towards the tunnel roof, and forest framed by the opening as he reaches the floor.
Swimming via submerged tunnels carries the chance of getting trapped underwater, and I used to be too timid to strive. After getting ideas and an indication from an area swimmer, Lili swam into a brief tunnel. She disappeared beneath the rock for 4 seconds, after which emerged a couple of yards away to a excessive 5 from her impromptu coach.
To paddle on the Weeki Wachee River, we drove half an hour south to Rogers Park, the place we may park and launch our boards with out advance reserving. Right here we noticed our first manatee, its tail frayed by an encounter with a ship propeller. But it had survived, with wounds healed into scar tissue. We watched it grazing, steering to keep away from drifting above it. Kim Kulch, our host on the Chassahowitzka Lodge, advised us, “if manatees get spooked, they’ll flip their tails, and they’re highly effective. As soon as, somebody who had been out paddling advised me they’d been tipped over by a manatee, but it surely was fantastic.”
Avoiding the tubers
Heading north the following day, we stopped to spend a day on the Rainbow River, which begins at Rainbow Springs and flows for five.7 miles till it merges with the Withlacoochee River on the metropolis of Dunnellon. We parked at KP Gap Park, 1.5 miles downstream from Rainbow Springs the place, you probably have your individual paddle craft, you possibly can launch within the afternoon and return within the night, avoiding flotillas of tubers.
This river is closely carpeted with strap-leaf sagittaria, its linear leaf blades interspersed with white flowers that open underwater. Trying down from our boards the view was rippling inexperienced, punctuated by passing fish and cormorants chasing them.
A little bit additional on, we noticed fluid our bodies diving and resurfacing: a pair of otters catching fish. Unbothered by our presence they ate their fish, after which vanished up a creek into the forest.
On our return downstream from Rainbow Springs State Park, we pulled over for a swim about half a mile upstream from KP Gap Park, our start line. A cormorant surfaced subsequent to me. I ducked underwater and bought a close-up view of the chicken swimming with silver bubbles slipping off its feathers.
From black water to turquoise
Our subsequent cease was a home on stilts we’d rented on Vrbo for 3 nights close to the junction of two rivers, a 10-minute drive from the city of Fort White. Strolling throughout the garden we put our boards into the Santa Fe, a black-water river tinted by tannins from decaying vegetation. After 350 yards we changed into the Ichetucknee River, the place the water below our boards shifted to turquoise. We paddled upstream, previous homes set again from the river with raised wood walkways over waterlogged floor and bald cypress tree knees resulting in their riverside docks.
Two boys have been snorkeling, citing handfuls of small black shells and sifting via them. The person with them stated they have been in search of fossilized shark tooth. Sandy clay on the riverbed and banks erodes to launch an abundance of fossils. The Florida Museum in Gainesville has greater than 11,000 from the Ichetucknee River.
Defeated by robust present the place the Ichetucknee flows via a culvert below Freeway 27, we let ourselves float downstream. Nearing the junction with the Santa Fe River we may hear music; a crowd of boats was anchored alongside the forest edge. Folks gave us pleasant waves and we have been supplied beer.
The subsequent day we drove 10 minutes to Ichetucknee Springs State Parks south entrance, and began our paddle from Dampiers Touchdown, a canoe and tube launch. We went upstream, the wrong way of tubers floating right down to South Takeout, the final exit inside the park.
Above the tubing part the Ichetucknee widens and its present steadily will increase. Round Grassy Gap Spring, the place the river threads via islands of vegetation, we noticed scattered canoes, every with a band of snorkelers. I unintentionally nudged one who had been zigzagging throughout the river. My apology was overridden by his exclamation, “I didn’t catch it!” He defined that the group was catching turtles for the annual survey carried out by the Santa Fe River Turtle Undertaking.
Shut to 2 miles after beginning, we handed the outflow from Blue Gap Spring, the most important spring within the group that feeds the Ichetucknee, and paddling grew to become much less strenuous. We reached North Finish launch, the place the river begins with water from its headspring. It was a simple drift again to our rented home, lingering over views of gar, popping via the culvert below Freeway 27 and loitering to look at a grazing manatee.
Be careful for the manatees
The subsequent day, on our approach to Ocala Nationwide Forest the place we might be staying for 2 nights, we stopped at Silver River. After days spent on spring-fed rivers, I assumed that my sense of marvel would have run dry. However extensive aquatic panoramas bordered by purple cardinal flowers and blue spikes of pickerel weed flowers have been a heady mixture.
Somebody passing in the wrong way described the place to see a bunch of manatees. Within the lee of a submerged tree have been three adults and a calf resting on the underside. One of many grownup manatees slowly surfaced to breathe and we listened to its exhalation.
Reaching an island swinging with monkeys — rhesus macaques intentionally launched within the Thirties — I heard acquainted voices. Within the coronary heart of the Ocala Nationwide Forest, there’s a cabin constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps known as Sweetwater Cabin. Due to its reputation, it’s a must to enter a lottery months prematurely to get a allow to lease it. My mates Cassy and Marco gained and we’d deliberate our journey to overlap with the week they’d be on the cabin and organized to fulfill at Silver River.
Due to lack of coordination, Cassy and Marco had booked kayak leases with Silver River Kayak Leases an hour earlier than our launch slot at Silver Springs State Park. They intentionally dawdled on their journey and we caught up with them on Silver River. Marco excelled at snake recognizing, stating water moccasins camouflaged amongst tree roots on the water’s edge. We bought out at Ray Wayside Park, roughly six miles downstream from the Silver Springs State Park’s canoe launch and have been taken again to our vehicles by shuttle service, booked with our launch slots.
As nightfall fell, we sat subsequent to Sweetwater Spring with cocktails and listened to a barred owl, which Cassy and Marco stated had been there each night. At Sweetwater cabin, with its plain décor and with out TV or Wi-Fi, nature is leisure and ornamentation; watching fish within the vibrant turquoise spring, seeing a stripy Jap coral snake crossing the trail, listening to the songs of unseen birds.
After a morning at Silver Glen Spring, we returned to the cabin and used its steel canoes to discover Juniper Creek, a spring run that flows from Juniper Spring to Lake George. Sweetwater Spring has a brief and shallow run, simply sufficient to guide a canoe into Juniper Creek. It might have been troublesome to navigate the tree branches that cross the creek on paddle boards.
Cassy and Marco thought there was a mountain climbing path close to the cabin as they heard individuals speaking and passing by. Out on Juniper Creek, they realized it was paddlers that they had been listening to. Assembly different individuals whereas out on the water is as a lot part of the expertise of Florida’s spring fed rivers as seeing wildlife.
In Silver Glen Run I noticed cages of eelgrass planted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fee to revive aquatic vegetation after Hurricane Irma. Subsequent time I’m there it may need unfold outdoors of its protecting enclosures. Should you’re on these rivers in fall, leaves on the bald cypress bushes can be a tawny distinction to the blue spring water. With every go to to Florida’s spring-fed rivers, there’s something new to see.
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