Sports

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.

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.

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.



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