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Outdoors

Slow float to tranquillity

Get carried away on the spring-fed Ichetucknee.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 4, 2007


photo
Autumn Thompson, 24, left, and Aimee Gayaut, 27, both of Gainesville, lounge last week in one of the cool-water springs at the Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
[Times photo: Douglas J. Clifford]
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photo
[Times photo: Douglas J. Clifford]
The Ichetucknee River flows for about 6 miles, so some adventurers may want to explore the waterway using the faster pace of a kayak.

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When the temperature is heading for triple digits and the humidity is on the rise, there's no better way to cool off than going north to the chilly waters of the Ichetucknee river and springs. Just walk down the path to this waterway and the air suddenly feels 10 degrees cooler. Bring a mask and snorkel, and explore the world beneath the surface during a leisurely tube ride down this river.

Canoeing and kayaking

It is possible to canoe or kayak from either end of the park. The current is moderate about 1 mph, which makes it possible to paddle up or down the river from one starting point.

The state park does not rent canoes or kayaks (or tubes, rafts or snorkeling gear), so you must bring your own. During the summer season, when the river is most crowded, it is possible to float downriver, then take the shuttle back to your starting point.

If you plan to paddle the river, go on a weekday. You will find it less crowded. When tubers are present, paddlers must yield the right of way.

The past

People have lived along the banks of the Ichetucknee (the Seminole Indian word for "Pond of the Beaver") springs and river for more than 10,000 years. In the 1600s, when the Spanish flag flew over the peninsula, Catholic priests built a mission near one of the river's many springs. Later, during the early days of American rule, travelers along Florida's first federal highway, the Bellamy Road, would stop by the spring for a refreshing drink of cool, clear water.

The springs

Nine springs pump 233-million gallons of crystal-clear water into the Ichetucknee River, which then flows south into the Sante Fe and Suwannee rivers.

Right off the main parking lot at the north entrance to the state park you will find Ichetucknee Spring, also called the Head Spring. The spring has a bluish hue that makes it particularly appealing, especially on a warm summer day.

The average depth is 8 feet, but experienced snorkelers with strong legs and good lungs can drop down to 25 feet if they so desire. The numerous shallow areas make this an ideal place for families with small children.

From the Head Spring, a half-mile hiking trail leads to Blue Hole, a first-magnitude spring (one that discharges at least 100 cubic feet of water per second) that measures about 75 feet by 120 feet. The water is exceptionally clear and deep (about 35 feet) with a strong current, which can be intimidating to inexperienced swimmers. This spring is not recommended for families with small children.

During the offseason (October through March) scuba diving is allowed, but divers must have cave diving certification.

Otters and beavers

If you start your trip early, you stand a good chance of seeing one of the river's more entertaining residents, the North American River Otter. These playful creatures can weigh up to 45 pounds and can measure up to 4 feet long. Highly intelligent animals, some species of otters have even been known to use tools as they feed upon everything from mollusks to birds.

But tubers should keep their distance from these pint-sized carnivores. In the mid 1990s, a newspaper carried reports that a church group tubing down the Ichetucknee was "attacked" by a rampaging otter. Initial reports indicated that the otter may have been rabid. But rangers now believe that the tubers simply floated too close to a nest and the otter was simply defending her young.

Otters aren't the only furry critters you may see along the Ichetucknee. Beavers, Florida's largest rodent, have also been known to build their lodges along this waterway.

The animals, once common throughout the Florida peninsula, had all but disappeared by 1900 thanks to unchecked hunting and development. Today, beaver populations are on the rebound, and the animals have been spotted as far south as the Suwannee River.

The summer season

During peak season (Memorial Day through Labor Day), tubers who want to complete the entire 3 1/2-hour trip must start at the north entrance to the state park, off Country Road 238. Rangers limit the number of tubers from this entrance to 750 a day, so arrive early. Admission is $5. A tram is available at the south end to bring you back to your car.

Another option is to launch at the midpoint, which closes at 4 p.m. or when carrying capacity reaches 2,250 tubers a day. There are several private tube vendors near both the north and south entrances to the park.

The offseason

After Labor Day, things quiet down a bit. Visit the river and springs on a weekday and you might have the water all to yourself. During the fall and winter months, tubing is only available at the south entrance to the state park, off U.S. Highway 27.

Park in the main lot, then follow the midpoint trail or tram road to the stairs that lead to the launch area. You can float for a half hour down to Dampier's Landing and take a short walk back to your car or keep going another hour and exit the river at the last tube takeout.

Threatened by pollution

In recent years, state officials have investigated reports by swimmers of allergic reactions from the Ichetucknee and other springs around the state. Officials fear swimmers are getting sick because nutrient-rich runoff has triggered algae blooms in the formerly pristine waterways.

If you encounter a problem after swimming or tubing down the river or springs, contact the park office.

In 2000, the Ichetucknee made headlines when Gov. Jeb Bush and State Department of Environmental Protection head David Struhs canoed the river to see firsthand what effect a proposed cement plan would have on the waterway.

The state eventually approved a tire-burning plant, a move that Bush would later say clouded the public's view of his environmental record.

No cans or bottles

To keep the Ichetucknee wild and clean, tubers may not bring food, drink, tobacco or any other disposable items on the river. The rangers will make exceptions for pregnant women, small children or people with medical conditions. Check in at the park office before beginning your float.

Times Outdoors Editor can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8808.

Getting there

Ichetucknee Springs State Park

12087 SW U.S. Highway 27, Fort White; (386) 497-2511 or visit www.floridastateparks.org.

Directions: From the south, take Interstate 75 north to exit 399. Take U.S. Highway 441 north to the city of High Springs. Take U.S. 27 north to Fort White, stay on U.S. 27 north approximately 4 miles to the south park entrance.

Hours of operation: Florida state parks are open from 8 a.m. until sundown 365 days a year.

Prices: Admission fee (no river use): $5 per vehicle (limit 8 people per vehicle). Single car occupant: $3. Canoeing fee: $5 per person year-round. Tubing fee (summer): $5; children 5 and under free.

On the Web: To see an expanded gallery of Douglas R. Clifford's photos from the Ichetucknee, visit outdoors.tampabay.com.

[Last modified May 4, 2007, 14:56:18]


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