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Cool is just around the corner

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 2002

My T-shirt is soaked with sweat and I've walked just 100 feet from my office to the parking lot. I open the door to my truck and can feel the interior baking.

My T-shirt is soaked with sweat and I've walked just 100 feet from my office to the parking lot. I open the door to my truck and can feel the interior baking.

Something smells bad, real bad. I look under the seat expecting to find a dead rodent or some old running shoes, then I see it: a day-old sippy cup, still half-full of something that looks like cottage cheese.

So I roll down the windows and blast the air conditioner. The stench lingers. I feel like throwing up, but decide it would take too much energy.

Then I glance at the thermometer: 106 degrees.

"God, I hate summers in Florida," I mumble.

Wait a minute ... it could be worse. I am healthy, gainfully employed and the owner of a dependable motor vehicle, which allows me to travel anywhere I want.

The possibilities are numerous. All you need is a road map. Hmmmmmmm ... where to start?

How about Ichetucknee Springs State Park? This cool-water gem, about 35 miles northwest of Gainesville, is one of the state's most popular summer escapes.

This short, spring-fed river gets hit pretty hard, but remains crystal clear because park operators allow only a limited number of people to use it each day. On a weekend, there will be a waiting line at the gate. So go early, and if possible, go on a weekday.

No food or drink are allowed on the river, and there are no camping facilities. Call (386) 497-2511.

Head south and follow the shaded roads that slice through Ocala National Forest. Salt Springs recreation area is one of three swimming holes you'll find in the forest. About 25 miles northeast of Ocala, Salt Springs is a fine place to picnic, canoe, hike and swim. Call (352) 685-2048.

Alexander Springs recreation area, 30 miles southeast of Ocala, is another great swimming spot. You also can scuba dive. Call (352) 669-3522.

Juniper Springs recreation area, one of the oldest and better known recreation areas in the forest, is about 25 miles east of Ocala. It is another popular destination for swimmers and snorkelers, and can get crowded. Call (352) 625-3147.

Rainbow Springs State Park is home to Florida's third-largest spring and the headwaters of the Rainbow River. This pristine river system, about two hours north of Tampa, has 6 miles of crystal-clear water irresistible to swimmers, snorkelers and inner-tube riders looking to cool off.

The headwaters are a semicircular spring with four main boils. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the river features public swimming access at the state park in Dunnellon. Activities also include camping and picnicking. You can rent canoes at the campground and float down river.

Tubing always has been another of the river's most popular pastimes. At the height of summer, as many as 1,000 tubers might hit the river a day. But there is no public shuttle service; you will need to take two cars or arrange for someone to do pickup and drop-off duties.

The water remains 74 degrees, so it can get a little chilly after a while. Snorkelers and scuba divers who drift with the gentle current might find fossils and stone tools left by the area's first inhabitants. These items are part of the preserve and protected by law.

It also is against the law to carry any food or beverage unless it is in a "nondisposable" container.

Call Rainbow Springs Campground at (352) 489-5201; Rainbow Springs State Park (352) 489-8503.

But if you decide to head east, keep driving past the urban sprawl of Disney World, and stop when you get to Blue Spring State Park. This little treasure spews 104-million gallons of pure, fresh water every day, and you will cool off just looking at it.

Swimming is allowed in a designated area separated by buoys from the manatee refuge zone. If you are feeling adventurous, scuba diving also is allowed in the spring. Blue Spring State Park is roughly a 2 1/2-hour drive from the Tampa Bay area. Call (386) 775-3663.

The only decision left is where to go. ... Then I remember that sippy cup. ... But it doesn't matter. It is only July, halfway through what surely will be a long, hot summer.

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