"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Kayaking the Ichetucknee River

Well, my fantasy Florida experience finally became a reality. I've been looking for the perfect clear, spring fed river to kayak on, and after many close calls we finally found THE ONE. (I'm sure there are others, but this is ours, for now.)  

We are camped at Ellie Ray's RV Resort on the Santa Fe River near Branford, FL, in the heart of spring country. While we were setting up, the park owner "Sturge" dropped by to see if we were doing OK or needed anything. While chatting we mentioned that we were planning on putting the kayak in the river, and he said, "You've got to do the Ichetucknee." 

We did some research and discovered that it was very close and very accessible. Ichetucknee Springs State Park protects the headspring and upper Ichetucknee River and regulates its use. In the summer the "Ich" is wildly popular with the tubers, and is often maxed out, with lines of people waiting to get in the water. In the winter, much of it is closed to tubers to give the river a chance to recover, but remains open to canoes and kayaks. Yeah!!! In the summer they also have trams that take tubers back to the parking lots from the last take out point. We just parked Ms. Subaru at the North launch and intended to paddle all the way back to our campground, about 6-8 miles downstream, then come back with the truck to get her. Below is the map from the State Park website.

The night before, we drove up to the North Entrance of the park to scope out the situation, and were advised by the park ranger as to how to proceed the following day. She let us drive down to see the launch and take a peak at the Head Spring and the Blue Hole. Unfortunately we didn't have our cameras with us. There was about a half mile hike to the Blue Hole, which is over a spring vent that comes up through a series of deep caves popular with divers. Swimming is allowed there, and a few intrepid youngsters were jumping in and looking down into the hole with their snorkel gear.  We both agreed that these two spring swimming holes were the best we'd seen so far.

After exploring around the park a little, and locating the launch area, we went home to prepare for a big next day. Little did we know how big it was going to be!

The launch area has this neat platform a couple of feet wide to assist putting in your boat. I'm standing in the ankle deep water here, getting ready to put in. The water was gloriously clear and a comfortable temperature.  We got our kayaks in with only one of us, who will remain nameless, getting dumped into the springs. 

Here's Rick in the river, in his kayak.

As you can see, the water is just dreamy. This is what I've been looking for.  It's so clear that you can see all the fish and turtles swimming along with the white sand or pale green water grasses behind them.

In some places the upper river is very narrow and winding, and you have to be alert so as not to end up in the cypress knees or grasses that line the river. In other places it opens up. It was in places like this that Rick spotted otters a couple of times. 

We passed the Midpoint Dock and then got out for a little break at Dampier Landing. It was a bit of a hike to the restrooms, but it felt good to stretch our legs.

Along the Ich we also saw lots of turtles and birds (a couple of swallow tail kites!), maybe a manatee, but no snakes or anything else that felt dangerous. It was very peaceful.

The Ich leaves the State Park and passes through a residential area, where the homes have these boardwalks and wooden decks quite a ways from the house, to accomodate the fluctuating water level. The water was very high and most of the docks were flooded.  We didn't see a single person on the river until we were almost to the Santa Fe River, the next leg of our journey.

Now, I had assumed that this would trip would be pretty easy becasue it was all downstream, and we would be protected from any breezes by the trees that line the whole river. But once the Ich meets the Santa Fe, it is much wider, and unfortunately, the wind picked up and seemed to be blowing right up the river.  Because the water level was so high, there was almost no current (1 mph the website said).  So, we were paddling against a head wind, with almost no current to help us along. Needless to say, I stopped taking pictures and just focused on paddling, paddling, paddling. Sometimes I got into a rhythm and it wasn't too bad. Other times I was feeling pretty whiney and wishing a knight on a jet ski would come rescue me.  But I tried to keep up and not be too grumpy.  

Six hours later we pulled into our campground. Knowing what we know now, we both agreed we would have been happy to just do the Ich from the North Entrance to the last downstream take out landing in the park, and skip the Santa Fe completely. The part of the Santa Fe we paddled was not all that special anyway. 

Despite minor travails, I do feel grateful that we didn't get rained on, and that the Ichetucknee was the most beautiful paddle of my life. Now I can leave Florida feeling happily satisfied, if we ever get out of here.  More on that soon.

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