A Paddle on the Crystal Clear Ichetucknee River
Buried in the heart of central Florida's unsuspecting countryside lay little known aquatic gems that push out thousands if not millions of crystal clear 72 degree water day after day - year after year - it's history marked only by the fossils found buried in their ever-changing soils.
And it's here, where the mysterious Ichetucknee Headwater springs gush out of the earth, commencing the start of one of the most enchanting waterways I've ever set sight on. From above I observed the water flow down the narrow river, with silent plants whose limbs swayed tautly downstream. It was like seeing kelp being pushed around by an ocean's tide, but there was nothing salty about this place.
It was late February when we visited. The depth of winter. And the day was spitting rain not a downpour but enough to keep most away from this destination. We were told in the summer months people flock by the 100's to tube and float the river, but today we had it to ourselves. Fortunately the canoe rental was open and the gentlemen behind the counter loaded us into a sturdy fiberglass Old Town canoe and with our wetsuits, snorkels, kids and adventure bags packed, we floated out of sight.
No sooner did we round the first bend did the wildlife show - turtle after turtle and schools of fish - all just beneath our paddles. A group of Quebecois in full neoprene and snorkel gear came upon us like navy seals searching for the legendary Blue Hole, a spring approximately 40 ft deep off the main course of the river. And while I deeply desired to join that expedition, traveling with a one- and four-year-old curb the ability to participate in some but not all side-bar adventures.
We paddled on, letting the river unfold before us - widening its girth before we pulled into one of the 8 major springs that feed the river for our first stop. With our youngest asleep at the bow, Sofi felt bold enough to suit up and float the river adjacent to the canoe. We set off again past a turquoise blue spring and back into the central flow and hadn't traveled 50 meters before we came upon a manatee munching on the underwater vegetation. He was not surprised with our passing at all and just went about his lunch, where we reeled around and around capturing a handful of moments with the gentle beast. Our photo op wrapped as he set off downstream and quickly changed course leaving us to float on.
And on we did. The river's edge evolved with the flooded cypress forest pressing upon the narrow river's opening. They say there aren't many gators in these waters if any at all, but this sure felt like a place they'd wait for lunch. And while we didn't see any, we did grab some underwater footage of a school of 100+ alligator gar, a terrifying Floridian fish whose 6-inch snout resembles a gator. Needless to say, I'm pleased I didn't jump in to swim with the other manatee we saw just before the school of gar.
By the time we arrived at the take out we had managed to spend four hours on the river and hardly paddled at all. It was perhaps the perfect afternoon retreat for us and with a shuttle service built into the $32 canoe rental we were back at our rig in no time having experienced what was certainly one of the most memorable paddles in our lifetimes.