Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Paddling at Blue Spring State Park

Our second day in Florida dawned clear and calm (this will start to sound like a broken record). We packed a lunch, hooked up the trailer with the kayaks, and drove north to Blue Spring State Park.

The spring at Blue Spring "is a first magnitude spring that discharges 104 million gallons of water daily into the St. John's River" according to the park brochure. The water comes out of the ground at a constant 72 degrees, so in the deep of winter West Indian manatees gather here, sometimes in the hundreds, to keep warm.

I have been to this park several time over the past 15 years, have hiked and swum in the spring. But I had never taken a boat out onto the St. John's River, so was very excited to have the opportunity to explore other parts of the park.

The park has two boat launches and they rent canoes and kayaks, and have space available for day use folks to pull their boats up. They also offer guided tours of the waters and have several large pontoon boats for the purpose. This shot looks down the run that is generated by the spring. As there were still manatee about, we were not allowed to take the boats down there.

So we pushed off towards the St. John's River, with a bit of trepidation. This was some seriously jungley-looking habitat! The river was nearly deserted as it was early on a Monday morning. That was just fine with us. While much of the area is no-wake there are still motor boats allowed, and nothing ruins a kayak outing quicker than being surrounded by a bunch of puttering engines.

We worried about 'gators, or a manatee flipping one of us over. But the day was peaceful and oh so still.

The nice park ranger at the boat rental gave us a crude map of the river and canals. He suggested that, since we were in kayaks, that we make a loop and take this very narrow canal through some dense growth. He said, eying our 'yaks, that we "should" be able to get through. I was not terribly reassured, but we were up for an adventure. So we kept an eye out for the narrow canal as we paddled the river.

As we approached what seemed like the place, we paused. He had said it would look at first like we wouldn't be able to make it through. He was right. In the middle of the photo below is the canal.

We floated for a few minutes, considering. What was the worst that could happen? Well, actually, we decided that the worst that could happen was worse than we wanted to think about, but in the end we rolled up our sleeves and headed for the canal. Just then there was this tremendous splash about 50 feet behind us, from the low bank of the river. We all spun around in our 'yaks.

A fairly large alligator floated just off the far shore, which was totally not far enough at this point. We wondered if this was a female, guarding a nest--it just stayed there, watching us.

And then moments after that, as we were all contemplating the 'gator, something else dove into the water to our right, at the mouth of the canal. Lori suggested it was just a turtle. I thought it sounded an awful lot bigger than that, but I wasn't going to argue. We had to go down there, after all. So, putting the patrolling alligator behind us, we paddled into the canal.

It was no easy go. The canal was choked with water pennywort, water celery and water hyacinth, which formed viney masses on the surface that were difficult to paddle through. There were also a fair number of downed trees crisscrossing the water, which we had to push over and squeeze under. Large duckweed clung to our paddles and the sides of the 'yaks.

After 10 or 15 minutes we finally settled down and got the banjo music out of our heads. The place was gorgeous. We saw lots and lots of birds and turtles who generally fled our approach. We stopped near the end of the canal before it met up with one of the larger channels and had lunch. It was an absolutely perfect day, warm but not hot, the faintest breeze, and birds all around.

We were blessed.

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