3-05-2014 Manatee Morning and Snake Creek Afternoon

Blue Springs State Park Currently 56 degrees F High today 76

Blue Spring SP_023I have been thinking about what to write about yesterday for hours.  The day all just blends together in my mind and words seem useless. Yesterday was a experiential visual delight, so much so that my senses are almost overwhelmed with the magic of it all and I am at a complete loss for words.  I may just give up and resort to a string of photos to try to catch the magic.

We are at Blue Springs State Park, arrived Monday afternoon to sunny skies and a nice campsite.  Of course, the big surprise of the day was that we were right next to Sherry and David, with no clue that they were even still here, much less in the site next to us.  What a delight, especially since Sherry has so much knowledge to share about the local treats, including manatees, secret kayak places, and ice cream.

Blue Spring SP_037I was surprised as we arrived in Orange City at how big the area seemed to be, how developed.  I somehow imagined Blue Springs to be as remote and quiet as Alexander Springs was, tucked away in the Ocala National Forest.  Instead, Blue Springs is an oasis of state land in the midst of a well developed urban zone. Today I saw a sequence of aerial photographs that depicted the change in urbanism around the island of protected state land since the 70’s.  Such a gift that  this place was saved.

Blue Spring SP_029After settling in, we took Abby for a walk down to the boardwalk where dogs are allowed, a nice benefit at this park.  Although Abby can’t go on the upper boardwalk to the main spring, we can take here all the way out to the St John River where most of the manatees seems to hang out anyway. On our first walk that afternoon we saw several manatees hanging out, resting and moving quietly.

Yesterday morning, however, I walked through the early dawn light to the boardwalk again, and to my delight found 8 manatees playing near the spring.  As I watched they began moving slowly back toward the river, and I had the moments all to myself, with no sound but the gentle “whuff” of manatee breath now and then. As the morning progressed, a few more people showed up to visit the manatees, including Sherry, and we laughed at the serendipity of our chance camping choices and talked about manatees and kayaking.Blue Spring SP_046Blue Spring SP_056

Blue Spring SP_064Kayaking was a priority for us for the two days we had to spend here and Mo and I were on the river by 11, heading south into the St John toward the oxbow and then into the narrow channel of Snake Creek.  kayak snake creek

This is the point where words just completely fail.  Mo and I decided that this paddle was probably our premier paddle of all time, just beyond perfect.paddling into Snake Creek

The weather was perfect, the skies were perfect, a bit of cloudiness to dress things up and then brilliant sunshine to illuminate everything. paddling into Snake Creekpaddling into Snake CreekBlue Spring SP_046_01Blue Spring SP_032_01

Can you imagine being led into a wilderness by four great egrets, lifting in front of us, flying a bit farther into the channel, and landing.  Waiting till we got close, lifting again to fly further down the river.  They did this all the way to Dead Hontoon River, and then did the same thing all the way back to the St John River on our return trip.Blue Spring SP_047_01

We saw baby alligators and big daddy alligators, more turtles than I could possibly count, saw red shouldered hawks, and heard barred owls and saw wild turkeys on the shore.Blue Spring SP_058

Big Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, green heron? night heron? cormorants, anhingas, cardinals, and what Carol Herr called “little brown birds”.  Blue Spring SP_073_01

The water was so still, just barely moving, and the forest so silent except for bird calls.  Not a single boat marred the perfection of our 3 hour paddle into that primordial place.Blue Spring SP_106

It felt exactly as if we were in some kind of prehistoric jungle place, a world only imagined and not even in the vocabulary of our gorgeous Pacific Northwest sojourns.  I feel as though I am in a foreign land here in Florida, a magic place full of green and warmth and water and birds. Blue Spring SP_112_01

I am simply out of words.

Blue Spring SP_111

3-02-2014 Alexander Springs with Alison

Current Location: Blue Springs State Park Overcast and 58 F High today 76F

DSCN6739When I managed the soil survey project in Sonora, California, I had a delightful young woman from Illinois “detail” into my project for two seasons.  With an emphasis on completing millions of unmapped acres out west, my agency would send folks from other parts of the country to help out with soil survey where they were needed most.  I was lucky enough to get Alison.  I don’t think I have ever known a more vibrant, strong, hard-working, constantly positive, cheery person ever, and that girl could dig a pit faster than any guy on the crew!  We all called her “Scoopy” for the way she handled those shovels

Soil sampling with my crew in Tuolumne County, Alison in the cowboy hat

DSCN0684We had great times together in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and have remained good friends.  Alison took a promotion to Florida, and I have visited her a few times since that move.  Last year I came to her lovely new home just after her baby boy was born. On this trip I planned specifically to be somewhere near Eustis on a weekend so that we could get together again this year.  Alison’s parents are in Eustis for the winter, so they all decided to drive out to Alexander Springs for an afternoon.

Alison visits_016With warm sunny skies, after some snacks and drinks and visiting, we decided a walk to the springs and a swim was in order.  I wasn’t so sure I was warm enough to swim, even in the 72 degree water, but after watching that little baby laughing and playing in the gorgeous crystal clear pool I decided to join in as well.

I just wish there was some way to show in a photo what it felt like to swim out over the roiling water of the spring.  The pool is very deep, more than 30 feet or so, and deeper into the depths of the cave where I couldn’t see.  It is cobalt blue in the deepest part, and various shades of turquoise and pale blue along the edges where the underwater grasses don’t grow.

Alison visits_040Alison visits_047While Mo visited with Alison’s parents who watched the baby, Alison and I put on snorkel masks and swam across the white sands and dark green grasses to the spring. Then the breathtaking blues opened up below us.  I had no idea, just looking at the spring from the shoreline that it held all this complex rocky reef of blues and crystal water. Of course, since I was swimming, I have no photos to document what for me was an incredibly magic moment.

Floating over a spring emitting 70 million gallons a day of crystalline water is a surprise.  Alison and I both laughed afterward about how hard we were swimming and not getting anywhere.  It was a magnificent moment, and a thrilling end to our last day at Alexander Springs. It was also great that after sharing so many good memories of working together in California, Alison and I had a chance to experience this little bit of magic.

Alison visits_044There are 27 first magnitude fresh water springs in Florida, each of them completely unique, and I have only seen a few.  There are rivers and spring runs to keep a kayaker happy for a very long time, so many that we can’t begin to see them all this time around.  In spite of giving ourselves a month in Florida, we have only scratched the surface of the amazing network of Florida’s fresh water wonders.  Still, many of them are either dark and spooky, or the manatee are there so there is no swimming allowed, or they are completely commercialized and artificial. 

Alexander Springs was an afterthought, a piece of the travel puzzle that wasn’t planned.  I am so grateful for the serendipity that brought us to this beautiful gem of the Ocala National Forest.  Alison visits_030

Up next: Blue Springs State Park, Manatees, and Magic Kayaks, and Sherry and David are our neighbors.