tampabay.com

Search offshoots to find treasures

By TERRY TOMALIN, Outdoors Editor
Published September 28, 2007


Florida is a water state. We have the ocean, gulf, hundreds of lakes and rivers, and dozens of gin-clear springs, every one its own Fountain of Youth. Just an hour and a half drive north of downtown St. Petersburg, an intrepid adventurer can still find an unspoiled swimming hole of his or her own. The trick is, you've got to paddle. 

The Hanging Pumpkin

When the Seminoles came to the west coast of Florida in the early 1700s, they encountered a type of squash that had been cultivated by the area's first inhabitants. Unlike other gourds, however, this one climbed up the trunks of trees instead of along the ground. So the Seminoles named the place, Chassahowitzka or "hanging pumpkin."

The springs

A stone's throw upstream from the boat ramp at the Chassahowitzka River Campground, you'll find the first of many springs. The water is clear and cold 72 degrees, coming from deep within the Florida aquifer. Due to the heavy boat traffic, swimming and diving are prohibited here. Keep paddling upstream (east) until you find the first of many swimming springs.

The sisters

The water gets shallow upstream - only 1 or 2 feet deep, depending on the tide - so you can pull over and explore one of the eight vents that feed the river. Locals call this family of springs "the sisters." The rocks are slippery, so wear water shoes. If you are a strong swimmer or experienced snorkeler, try the "swim through" at the deepest hole.

Blue Springs

Turn around for a leisurely 20-minute paddle downriver. It is easy to miss the entrance to Baird Creek, but look for a tiny island with palm trees straight out of a pirate movie and turn left. As the creek snakes through walls of saw grass, you'll want to turn back. Keep going. Soon you'll hit Blue Springs, a favorite swimming hole of locals. Take a dip, then continue up the creek. Greater treasures await you.

The Crack

Eventually, the creek will become too shallow to paddle. Tie your canoe or kayak to a tree and continue on foot. A 200-foot trek through ankle-deep water will bring you to "The Crack," a 30-foot-long crevice for swimming. During the warmer months, the mosquitoes will prevent you from having too much fun.

The secret spring

Back on the main river, paddle past Salt Creek and head up Potter Creek on the right. This wild stretch of waterway hasn't changed since the Seminoles found pumpkins hanging from the trees. After three-quarters of a mile, you'll find the main spring. Off to the right, a tiny run leads to Ruth's Spring. Note to the squeamish: if you want to meet a water moccasin up close, this is the place. We had to wade through chest-deep water at several spots, but the prize is worth it. Seldom do you get to visit a place few humans have ever seen.

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1941, this 31,000-acre wilderness at the mouth of the river is home to more than 250 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 25 species of mammals, including the West Indian manatee and the state's largest land mammal, the Florida black bear.

'Gentle Ben'

While the star of this late 1960s TV show lived in the Everglades, his cousins can be found roaming the nearby cypress swamps in search of acorns, saw palmetto and honey. Florida black bears are smaller than their northern brethren, but they can still reach a weight of about 450 pounds. Secretive animals, black bears seldom go near humans, but occasionally they get in the way of automobiles, the No. 1 threat to their survival.

For the birds

Avian enthusiasts can add to their "life lists" in this bird-watchers wonderland. The Chassahowitzka River is Site 51 on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Count on seeing a variety of wading birds, raptors, even the occasional swallow-tailed kite. For information, go towww.floridabirdingtrail.com.

Supplies

The Chassahowitzka River Campground, a Citrus County park (www.citruscountyfl.org), has a small general store that sells ice, soft drinks and snacks. The selection is limited, so it is a good idea to stock up on supplies before you come.

Cost

Canoe rentals cost $20 for a half day (four hours) or $30 for a full day (eight hours). Camping spots with a full hookup is $20 per night; $15 a night for a primitive (tent) campsite. Paddlers must also pay a $2 parking fee.

Degree of difficulty

A two on a scale of one to five. Check the tide before leaving the boat ramp and plan accordingly. If you have the tide with you, plan on a longer, harder paddle on your return trip.

The threats to water quality

While the Chassahowitzka may look crystal clear, nitrates from lawn fertilizers and leaky septic tanks have increased the growth of exotic plants, which have crowded out native species.

A warning for powerboaters

While powerboats are allowed on the river, the "Chas" is shallow, and it is easy to run aground. Stay in marked channels, avoid the grass beds and post a lookout for manatees.

Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Directions

The Chassahowitzka is south of Homosassa Springs and north of the Weeki Wachee River, about 65 miles north of St. Petersburg. Take U.S. Highway 19 north to County Road 480 (Miss Maggie Drive). The canoe launch is at the end of this road.

For more information

Chassahowitzka River Campground, (352) 382-2200.

Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, 1502 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River, (352) 563-2088, www.fws.gov/chassahowitzka