|I had just completed a three day trip on the Suwannee River and my three companions left the day before to return to Maryland. I stayed overnight in the Stephen Foster campground at White Springs, Florida. It was unseasonably and atypically cold, reaching a low of 18 degrees. I was happy that I brought my heavier sleeping bag for the cot in the back of my van. Today was originally scheduled as a fourth day on the river, but the cold weather and quicker passage than allowed for had given me an extra day. I decided to make use of it by driving south to Ocala National Forest and kayaking on the Juniper Springs outflow, just off the St. Johns River north of De Land Florida. It took about 2 1/2 hours of driving on the Interstate to get there.
I pulled into the state park facility at the head of Juniper Springs in order to see the springs and check out the kayak launch there. However, even thoughI I had purchased a National Park Golden Eagle card at the Okefenokee swamp 2 weeks prior, I learned that this facility had a "use fee" of $4.00 as well as an entrance fee. Since I intended to start from the end of the stream and paddle back I just turned the car around and headed for the launch ramp I knew existed on the Juniper Springs outlet near the St. Johns River.
Leaving the spring, I continued up the run and entered a wide area with mats of thick grasses covering the bottom. As I quietly entered the open area, I could see an otter swimming along one edge. He submerged into the grass and quickly reappeared, rolling over onto his back. He held a 4 inch fish between his front paws. With one bite he chomped off the head of the fish and the rest soon followed. He rolled over and disappeared under the water for no more than 10 seconds and came up with another small fish. Clearly the hunting here was very good. The otter made his way across the pond and onto the opposite shore as I paddled up through the deepest of the many channels.
In a half mile or so from the start I pulled into a small run off and within a 100 feet of the main river, my kayak was floating in a large spring some 50 feet across. The white sand on the bottom was tinged a aqua blue by the warm water issuing from a vent on one side of the spring. This spring is part of a youth camp and there are several cabins located above the spring area. At this time in the morning on this January day there was no one present, even though it was a Saturday. It was very nice to be able to tour the spring without company.
As I continued up the run, I encountered the park canoe concession on their daily afternoon paddle. Besides the opportunity to serenely observe the birds and animals, starting at the bottom of the run and paddling against the current means that the 25-30 canoes of this group pass by quickly and you are soon left alone once again. A warning - even though I tried to give the inexperienced canoe tourists a wide birth, one of them still managed to spear my kayak with the bow of their canoe as I hugged the right bank, leaving a green streak of canoe paint on my foredeck.
The vegetation on the bottom varied from the beginning of the run where the water was probably in the low 60 degree range, to the top of the run near the main spring where the water was in the mid 70s. In the colder water, long strings of thin grass stems with small leaflets (southern naiads, Naja guadalupensis, I think) covered the bottom. In the warmer water, the grasses were blade like (Awlleaf, Sagitarria subulata). Some of the shallow sand bars were covered with a fuzzy black plans, somewhat like moss. On the surface there were many floating lettuce shaped plants (water lettuce, Pistia stratiotes). In one section, a dam created by these plants completely blocked the waterway and I had to force my boat through them.
I also recommend starting this trip early in the morning. There are many more birds and animals to be observed before this noisy and large crowd goes by.
Soon I could hear a repetitive thumping sound which I could not identify. At the last corner, I could see that there was a water wheel on the outflow of the spring that was generating the noise. I pulled up to the dock from which the concession canoes were launched and got out onto the low lying boards. This launching area is a very long way from the parking lot and would not make a convenient starting point compared to the launch at the other end. I walked the 100 feet to the main spring. The spring was completely developed for swimming. There was concrete completely lining the spring and a large bath house. There were only two swimmers there.
Closer to the main spring at the top of the run, the water became warmer and warmer. The vegetation thinned and then disappeared as the shifting loose sand of the bottom kept any permanent plants from obtaining a foothold. The water became so clear and the bottom so bright that the kayak seemed to be floating on air. Smaller springs with tiny run off channels joined the main channel from both sides. One spring even came up in the middle of the channel with an active sand volcano.
Some of the kids announced that they had gone over several times when their canoes were swept into the submerged tree limbs. I had noticed a few shoes, hats and shirts on the bottom of the run as I had come back down with the current. They were too deep to reach in order to clean them up. I was able to reach a few empty soda cans that were caught in some of the shallow areas. That anyone could be so thoughtless as to desecrate the beauty of this place with the remnants of their commercial comforts was both amazing and depressing. If they were not moved by this place, how could any other place be respected.
Juniper Springs is a great introduction to the flora and fauna of central Florida and makes for a fantastic 6 hour, 14 mile day trip. I think it was the best day of my entire Florida trip.