Paddle boarding Florida’s ‘Spring Runs’

“That sounds like a baby gator. Did you hear it?” We stopped paddling and listened. Leaves rustled, there was the splash of a turtle sliding into water, and then “pew, pew,” the dainty call of a baby alligator sounding like a video game laser. We saw the hatchling’s mother hauled out on muddy ground. She watched us pass. Giving due deference we moved away, quietly thrilled by the encounter.

We were standup paddle boarding on Silver Glen Run, in Central Florida, an hour and 15 minutes’ drive north of Orlando. Here, water from the underlying aquifer, flowing to the surface through caves and rock tunnels, creates “spring runs,” short, clear creeks and rivers that flow into a larger river or lake.

In Florida, navigable waterways are held in public trust, even if the surrounding land is privately owned. Clear water and navigation rights are invitations to explore these riparian pathways, and paddle boards, which combine portability and a quiet approach, are the perfect vessels for slow travel on them, a way to enjoy wildlife — otters, cormorants, garfish and snapping turtles.

While the waterways are public, access to them is via boat launches on private or state-owned land. Some state parks, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, have limited launching slots, in order to control the number of visitors and protect the habitat, that need to be booked in advance online. Others, like Silver Glen Spring, are popular and have limited parking, which should be booked in advance to guarantee entry. Staying in waterfront accommodations is another way to ensure access. Paddling upstream and drifting back to your parking spot removes the need for a shuttle ride back to your vehicle.

Myles, my boyfriend, and I have explored Florida’s springs over many years. This year his 19-year-old daughter, Lili, had free time between studies and internships, so we brought her to our favorites. We had our inflatable boards, which are lightweight, easy to launch and pack down to check-in size for flights. In a circular route, starting and ending at Orlando, over the course of a week we stayed in three places and paddled on six spring runs. Our trip took place in the spring, but peak paddle-boarding season runs through October, though it’s possible to do year-round.

We started our week with two nights in the town of Homosassa, at the Chassahowitzka Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast with shared bathrooms that suits families or friends staying as a group. It provided the convenience of offering breakfast, while letting us cook dinner on the grill outdoors, and being close enough to the Chassahowitzka River that we could carry our boards to and from the launch. At a nearby campground you can rent kayaks and paddle boards. Just upstream , on the north side of the Chassahowitzka River, is Seven Sisters Spring.

We soon joined a gaggle of people who had tethered their kayaks and boards to trees while they splashed and dived. One man swam through a tunnel in the rock with my GoPro. On the video you can see air pockets like liquid mercury pressed against the tunnel roof, and forest framed by the opening as he reaches the surface.

Swimming through submerged tunnels carries the risk of getting trapped underwater, and I was too timid to try. After getting tips and a demonstration from a local swimmer, Lili swam into a short tunnel. She disappeared beneath the rock for four seconds, and then emerged a few yards away to a high five from her impromptu coach.

To paddle on the Weeki Wachee River, we drove half an hour south to Rogers Park, where we could park and launch our boards without advance booking. Here we saw our first manatee, its tail frayed by an encounter with a boat propeller. Yet it had survived, with wounds healed into scar tissue. We watched it grazing, steering to avoid drifting above it. Kim Kulch, our host at the Chassahowitzka Hotel, told us, “if manatees get spooked, they’ll flip their tails, and they are powerful. Once, someone who had been out paddling told me they’d been tipped over by a manatee, but it was wonderful.”

Heading north the next day, we stopped to spend an afternoon on the Rainbow River, which begins at Rainbow Springs and flows for 5.7 miles until it merges with the Withlacoochee River at the city of Dunnellon. We parked at KP Hole Park, 1.5 miles downstream from Rainbow Springs where, if you have your own paddle craft, you can launch in the afternoon and return in the evening, avoiding flotillas of tubers.

This river is heavily carpeted with strap-leaf sagittaria, its linear leaf blades interspersed with white flowers that open underwater. Looking down from our boards the view was rippling green, punctuated by passing fish and cormorants chasing them.

A little further on, we saw fluid bodies diving and resurfacing: a pair of otters catching fish. Unbothered by our presence they ate their fish, and then 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 Hole Park, our starting point. A cormorant surfaced next to me. I ducked underwater and got a close-up view of the bird swimming with silver bubbles slipping off its feathers.

Our next stop was a house on stilts we’d rented on Vrbo for three nights near the junction of two rivers, a 10-minute drive from the town of Fort White. Walking across the lawn we put our boards into the Santa Fe, a black-water river tinted by tannins from decaying vegetation. After 350 yards we turned into the Ichetucknee River, where the water under our boards shifted to turquoise. We paddled upstream, past houses set back from the river with raised wooden walkways over waterlogged ground and bald cypress tree knees leading to their riverside docks.

Two boys were snorkeling, bringing up handfuls of small black shells and sifting through them. The man with them said they were looking for fossilized shark teeth. Sandy clay on the riverbed and banks erodes to release an abundance of fossils. The Florida Museum in Gainesville has more than 11,000 from the Ichetucknee River.

Defeated by strong current where the Ichetucknee flows through a culvert under Highway 27, we let ourselves float downstream. Nearing the junction with the Santa Fe River we could hear music; a crowd of boats was anchored along the forest edge. People gave us friendly waves and we were offered beer.

The next day we drove 10 minutes to Ichetucknee Springs State Parks south entrance, and started our paddle from Dampiers Landing, a canoe and tube launch. We went upstream, the opposite direction of tubers floating down to South Takeout, the last exit within the park.

Above the tubing section the Ichetucknee widens and its current steadily increases. Around Grassy Hole Spring, where the river threads through islands of vegetation, we saw scattered canoes, each with a band of snorkelers. I accidentally nudged one who had been zigzagging across the river. My apology was overridden by his exclamation, “I didn’t catch it!” He explained that the group was catching turtles for the annual survey carried out by the Santa Fe River Turtle Project.

Close to two miles after starting, we passed the outflow from Blue Hole Spring, the largest spring in the group that feeds the Ichetucknee, and paddling became less strenuous. We reached North End launch, where the river begins with water from its headspring. It was an easy drift back to our rented house, lingering over views of gar, popping through the culvert under Highway 27 and loitering to watch a grazing manatee.

The next day, on our way to Ocala National Forest where we would be staying for two nights, we stopped at Silver River. After days spent on spring-fed rivers, I thought that my sense of wonder would have run dry. But wide aquatic panoramas bordered by red cardinal flowers and blue spikes of pickerel weed flowers were a heady combination.

Someone passing in the opposite direction described where to see a group of manatees. In the lee of a submerged tree were three adults and a calf resting on the bottom. One of the adult manatees slowly surfaced to breathe and we listened to its exhalation.

Reaching an island swinging with monkeys — rhesus macaques deliberately released in the 1930s — I heard familiar voices. In the heart of the Ocala National Forest, there is a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps called Sweetwater Cabin. Because of its popularity, you have to enter a lottery months in advance to get a permit to rent it. My friends Cassy and Marco won and we’d planned our trip to overlap with the week they would be at the cabin and arranged to meet at Silver River.

Because of lack of coordination, Cassy and Marco had booked kayak rentals with Silver River Kayak Rentals an hour before our launch slot at Silver Springs State Park. They deliberately dawdled on their journey and we caught up with them on Silver River. Marco excelled at snake spotting, pointing out water moccasins camouflaged among tree roots on the water’s edge. We got out at Ray Wayside Park, approximately six miles downstream from the Silver Springs State Park’s canoe launch and were taken back to our cars by shuttle service, booked with our launch slots.

As dusk fell, we sat next to Sweetwater Spring with cocktails and listened to a barred owl, which Cassy and Marco said had been there every evening. At Sweetwater cabin, with its plain décor and without TV or Wi-Fi, nature is entertainment and ornamentation; watching fish in the bright turquoise spring, seeing a stripy Eastern coral snake crossing the path, listening to the songs of unseen birds.

After a morning at Silver Glen Spring, we returned to the cabin and used its metal canoes to explore Juniper Creek, a spring run that flows from Juniper Spring to Lake George. Sweetwater Spring has a short and shallow run, just enough to lead a canoe into Juniper Creek. It would have been difficult to navigate the tree branches that cross the creek on paddle boards.

Cassy and Marco thought there was a hiking trail near the cabin as they heard people talking and passing by. Out on Juniper Creek, they realized it was paddlers they had been hearing. Meeting other people while out on the water is as much a part of the experience of Florida’s spring fed rivers as seeing wildlife.

In Silver Glen Run I saw cages of eelgrass planted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to restore aquatic vegetation after Hurricane Irma. Next time I’m there it might have spread outside of its protective enclosures. If you’re on these rivers in fall, leaves on the bald cypress trees will be a tawny contrast to the blue spring water. With each visit to Florida’s spring-fed rivers, there is something new to see.

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