My Blue Springs

Like a skier soaring down a favorite mountain, euphoric, so it is for me when I swim in my favorite places. Lately, the waters of Blue Springs in Gilchrist County, Florida have been exactly where I want to go. When I snap on my fins, adjust my mask and underwater snorkel and set off through the headspring and down the spring run, I am wild and free.

I am swimming in nature: taken by gentle current through aquatic springs life. The water’s not too deep along the run and it’s teeming with plants: some, streamer-like, undulating as the water moves across, others bushier. The spring run has a sort of path that’s clear to its sandy bottom; in parts it’s more profuse with vegetation so I swim overtop. I swim past fish of various types; they like plant life. The springs run is deeper in some spots, quite shallow in others. I can stand up and look around…and see that I really am in the middle of the woods. I don’t think about things like alligators or snakes. Why let fear creep in? The water is always moving, in a gentle current toward the point where Blue Springs run meets the Santa Fe River.

Blue Springs beckons me in a place that I feel more than hear. “Come,” it whispers, “My waters are for people like you. I am your natural resource, and I have nourished the earth for hundreds of years. I am yours to delight in, to swim, or kayak or canoe…come.”

When I am near special waters I feel this call. I can indulge it at Blue Springs. I can swim all the way to the Sante Fe, or I can go part way and swim back to the large headspring and park.

The return is like swimming upstream, and even with my fins and two strong arms it’s an invigorating experience. Unlike other springs I’ve visited recently, Blue Springs doesn’t cordon off its swimming area, leaving me hanging by the rope, only to gaze at the very river or stream that I long to explore. The entire park is maintained as naturally as possible, and I love it all the more for its natural state.

There are two smaller springs within walking distance, and a quarter-mile wooden walkway that’s set above and alongside the spring run that ends at the Santa Fe River. Many people enjoy the walk and love to fish the river. Tent campers stoke aromatic fires whose wood smoke wafts through the park all day long. It’s a low-key, rustic environment that truly evokes a yesteryear mood.

After a lifetime of being a girl without a sport, that’s all changed. I can be a snorkeler without living in a tropical locale! I can be a springs snorkeler and enjoy the visceral, and spiritual exhilaration of good, clean, clear and chilly water, bubbling up from its very source in the aquifer. With an underwater snorkel, I can dive down without it taking on water making for a deeper experience than merely floating along the surface. I yearn to be one with the water. As completely schmaltzy as that sounds it’s really how I’ve always felt when I’ve been in good waters: certain lakes, parts of the ocean, and now, the springs. I suppose this is how it feels when one has a favorite sport. And now, after all these years, I can finally claim my sport too. See? It’s never too late to grow into your true nature.

Romancing the Springs

Blue Springs, Gilchrist County, Florida
I’ve been trying to think of a clever and amusing way to write about my summer romance, but the weeks go by and the words don’t come. So I decided I’d just give it to you straight, because I do want to post while I’m still in the throes of my newfound crush: the Florida springs.
I’d been to the Ichetucknee River several times. Everyone knows of Ichetucknee and a summer tube run down the Ichetucknee River is on many people’s summer agenda. We went twice, this summer, actually. Not everyone, however, visits the headspring at Ichetucknee but for us, no Ichetucknee trip is complete without a swim in the headspring. Cold, clear and marvelously refreshing, I’ve got to dive right in and keep swimming, but once I do it’s near euphoria.
Our first trip to the Ichetucknee River and springs this summer prompted another visit to a nearby springs, and then another. Soon, I was Googling Florida springs and obsessing over which springs would be best for swimming and snorkeling. I was like a girl in love. I talked springs springs springs, driving my water-neutral husband a bit batty.
I’d been happy as can be to enjoy my little corner of world, and while I do go into the ocean…it just doesn’t affect the part of my spirit that craves a freshwater frolic on a hot summer day.
I’ve missed swimming in those freshwater lakes so rife in Michigan. I’ve missed the biggest and best of them all: my Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan, July 2009
stated temperature: 58 degrees
There’s nothing more euphoric, for me, than plunging underwater in clear, cool Lake Michigan on a hot summer day.

Lake Michigan, cool and clear.
But during annual summer visits to Michigan my opportunities to grab a block of time to just be, at the beach, swimming, have been frustratingly limited. However, this past July afforded me not one but two perfect summer afternoons on the Lake Michigan shore.
What a girl wants for a day on the beach.
So, when I discovered the other Florida this summer, the luscious springs, I fell hard for them. In this water, I can swim. In this water, I can snorkel, see fish and plant life. It’s crystal clear. It’s utterly refreshing. The springs bubble at their point of origin. The water is generally blue-green, like tropical waters. It is 72 degrees year round. And when you come from the north where summer lake temps range from the mid-50s to about ‘springs temps’ on a good day…you can handle springs water temperature just fine. It’s an invigorating change from late summer ocean temps of well into the mid 80s.
Manatee Springs
I’ll leave you with a few more pictures, and more to come about springs. I’m in love, I tell you!
Silver Glen Springs
Blue Springs

Rainbow Springs (below)

Ichetucknee Springs

Tubing on the Ichetucknee River. A fun day or overnight trip that’s close to home for beachlifers, and something anyone who calls herself a Floridian needs to do at least once in her life. Me, I’ve done it three times now, so I consider myself a pro.

I’m not the camping sort of girl, so this little trip is enough of an outdoorsy excursion that gives me a taste of the deep woods, crystal clear water and, if your fellow tubers are in it for the visceral experience, it can be a peaceful and relaxing way to pass a few hours. A rowdier bunch could change all that but I’ve found that being there in mid-week is probably your best bet in avoiding the louder tubers and all their yuks. Sure, I know they’re just having a good time, but since I don’t get to enjoy a pristine river deep in the woods very often, I  prefer when it’s quiet; when most of the others on the river are just happy campers both literally, or figuratively. Like, people who smile without yelping as they float pass. People who want to just soak in the experience of draping one’s self over an inner tube and letting the slow current carry them while they gaze at the flora and fauna both beneath the water and lining the river banks.

When it comes to renting tubes, just pick from any of the rental places that dot the approach to the park. Every one I’ve rented from has always retrieved their tubes from the park, where you leave them when you’re done. They tie the tubes or rafts to the top of your car. And if you’re like me and you don’t like to walk barefoot in the woods, you’ll want to hang on to a good-sized length of that twine so you can tie your flip flops to the handle of your tube during your float. The shuttle will take you from the park’s main area out to the river launch site…but I’m not a barefoot girl; I prefer to wear shoes or flip-flops on the trudge through the woods to the river’s edge. Yes, I know, plenty of people have no problem going barefoot but it’s just not for me. Those “water shoes” would work, I suppose; you could wear them through the woods and into the water, but really, they look so geeky that I couldn’t bring myself to wear them. Besides, I don’t wear flats, anyway. I prefer my own flip-flops, (which I do want to kick off once I’m in the water) so lesson learned: keep the twine! You can also use it to tie your waterproof camera to the other handle, because as someone who takes pictures of just about everything, you’re going to want to photograph the beauty of the river. The conflict therein, though, is that you’re working with the limitations of a disposable camera (well, I was, anyway, as I cannot afford a waterproof enclosure for the D-SLR) and truthfully, I think, I had to make a choice: was I going to photograph the experience, or just enjoy it? In the end I decided to just enjoy it, which was a great relief because I’m one of those who feels compelled to photograph everything.  In my situation, the camera was nothing but a hassle but with the proper planning (and a second length of twine) you can have your flip-flops and camera too.

A word about tubes. When you’re out at Buffalo Joe’s (or wherever) choosing your tube, may I suggest you strongly consider the “two-man” tube as a viable option if you’ve got elementary-aged kids. It’s probably true that these kids will want “my own tube” but you have to remember that once they actually get to the river and there’s no turning back, at least half of them will be a little freaked out by the idea of floating alone and will be grasping at yours for security anyway, so you may as well get the double tube just to see how they like the river if it’s their first time. We’d always gotten a raft in the past which meant they stayed dry, but part of the fun, I think, is to get as close to the water, if not in it, as you can. One could actually snorkel their way down the river if one wanted to.

Once you arrive at the park and get yourselves ready – bathing suits and sunscreen and everyone uses the bathroom, now you have to decide what to do about your car keys because the park’s lockers are broken. You see the Sharpie-scrawled sign at the concession stand offering to HOLD CARS KEYS FOR $1. You wonder: should you really hand over your keys to a guy behind the concession counter at a remote state park? You debate this with yourself for a while. You know you can’t risk losing the keys in the river or getting the electronic keys wet. You also know that you cannot risk losing your credit cards, cash, camera equipment whatever else is jammed into your car, not to mention the car itself. You doubt the car would actually be stolen, rather, you worry that given a two-hour window of opportunity, a concession guy would have plenty of time to paw through your things. But you seem to remember that you did this the last time – – and finally you decide to do it again, take the risk, what the hell. You can’t help but tell that guy to keep outta your car at which point he laughs at you, having heard it all before. When you return later to retrieve your keys he laughs again, tells you the car handled really well and that he thinks he parked it in the same spot you had it in and ha, ha, ha. You are reassured to see everything as it was and no strange charges have posted to your credit card account…yet.

So finally: the river. You’re taken by shuttle to the drop off point deep in the woods. You walk down that dirt path, carrying your tubes, to the river’s edge. Here you launch and away people float, some in clusters of two or three tubes, some in pairs, a few, alone. It’s a quiet day on the river. There is the usual uneasiness about getting into unfamiliar waters but we’ve done it before and everyone there was all smiles. As you float along you realize your middle child, who happily chose her own tube back at Buffalo Joe’s, is now in fact clutching the handle of your tube, and won’t let go. Suddenly she’s not so sure she wants to be in her own tube, not so sure she even wants her feet to touch the water, which is not such a good thing considering you’ve just begun and there’s a ninety minute float ahead of you. Otherwise level headed middle school girls have been known to become a little high strung out there on the river, freaked out by the lovely, undulating ribbon-like plants that will sometimes tickle your feet as you pass overtop them. Or by the fish they see as clearly as if they were gazing into a well-maintained aquarium. The water is clear and the bottom isn’t mucky (not that you’d ever have to touch the bottom) but you’re certainly out in the middle of the woods, with mangroves growing on the riverbank, and turtles sunning themselves on exposed fallen trees…it’s a different environment altogether for a girl who’s growing up in a beach town and doesn’t have parents who like camping and therefore has had minimal exposure to venues like rivers to tube upon. Whatever it was, this girl was not going to let go of my tube, nor would she be convinced to dangle her legs in the water which was a great change of pace from riding with your backside over the opening.

And so for those next ninety minutes, you enjoy the heck out of the experience, your middle girl is latched on to your double tube and is enjoying herself, tentatively, and the three of you float on down the Ichetucknee River. Your son’s ahead of you all, floating peacefully and enjoying the time to himself. Note to self, you think, bring more of the twine next time, so any anxious tuber can rope herself to someone else’s tube if necessary.

(Following photos are all of the headsprings)

Our favorite park of the Ichetucknee day is swimming in the headspring of the Ichetucknee River after tubing. This cold, clear swimming hole was such a lovely shade of green/blue and perfect for snorkeling.  The water in the headspring is cold, but you tell them all to take the plunge, and if you keep moving your body acclimates quickly (becomes numb!). It’s totally refreshing on a 96 degree Florida afternoon.

The middle child had no problem swimming like a little dolphin here. You watch through your mask as this person who only an hour earlier was so skittish about her feet touching the water is now diving clear to the bottom of the spring and touching it (with her bare hands). You are glad that your kids love to swim and snorkel and you all drove home at the end of the day in the dark – hoping you can get another visit to the Springs in before the summer ends.

Getting Ready for This Week’s Daycation

A majestic hardwood, uprooted in a long-past storm, continues growing ever upward among the lush ferns in a floodplain next to the Blue Hole Trail.

Tomorrow some of the neighborhood beachlifers are taking a day trip to Ichetucknee River.

Sounds like a real southern thang, doesn’t it?

It’s a float down the Ichetucknee River on rafts or tubes – your choice.  It’s a real, spring fed, lazy river rife with fauna and mangroves and your float can take anywhere from one and a half hours, to half a day, depending on where you put in.  It will take us about two hours to drive there; it’s located in North Central Florida.

Afterward it’s always fun to drive around to the head spring, a very chilly, clear large pond that’s fun to swim in.  Those of us who can handle cold water, that is.  Those of us who are (wo)man enough for it.  We’re bringing our snorkel gear.  It’s no coral reef, to be sure, but there are plenty of fish darting about to look at.  I’ll take my snorkeling where I can get it, this summer.

(this is the head spring-fun!)

The cold head spring’s got nothing on Lake Michigan, though.  I grew up swimming her cold waters in the summer, a treat I’m looking forward to later this summer.  I love swimming in the ocean but I do prefer a freshwater lake with a nice sandy bottom and no scary creatures lurking beneath the surface…

Whenever I’ve been there, the head spring has never been as crowded as is shown in the picture.  But it sure feels cold; it maintains a constant temperature of 72 degrees year round.

I’ll be back on Wednesday with a report on this week’s daycation.  The real reason I’m writing so late is to leave you with this delectable picture of the treats we’ll we sharing with our friends:  luscious Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese frosting, created from scratch by my very own pastry chef, Lily, age 11.

I found a good recipe online and printed it for her.  I watched her whip these up from behind my laptop.  I tested only one cupcake but I could have devoured them all.  Then, I photographed them.

Aren’t they pretty?