I turned through a sharp blind turn in a narrow place in the run. There on a small bank on the right hand side was the biggest alligator I had yet seen. I guess he was maybe 12 feet long. It is unusual to see an alligator hauled out this early in the day and also unusual to see one on a bank in the shade. Yet none the less there he was. And he was close to the water in this portion of the creek which was only 5 meters wide. And he wasn't moving. I did a crash stop back paddle to keep from coming right up on him. At least his mouth wasn't open, an alligator threat gesture. He just sat there. Well, OK, I just sat there. Then I thought "What the heck." and reached for my camera. Well, the thought of being captured in a picture was just too much for him and with a suddenness and speed that one would never think something that big could manage, he came off the bank and slipped into the water, turned downstream and jetted past my kayak. I sat there with the ripples of his entry splash bobbing the bow of the kayak and thinking that the volume of his body and the volume of my kayak weren't all the different. Feeling weak puny and defenseless, I paddled on upstream.
The narrow twisty multichannel passage soon merged into a single shallow channel and the banks withdrew enough to let the ever increasing sun angle to penetrate to the water. The feel of the place went from a brooding semi malevolent place filled with dangerous creatures to an open sunny happy world full of small birds feeding among the rushes. Rafts of lilies lined the shores and cat o nine tails backed them up.
As the passage became wider, the water became shallower. Now not just lilies but various grasses and rushes were growing in the channel. Although the solid banks and the trees were far apart here, the actual portion deep enough to paddle through was getting smaller and smaller. ( Windows Movie of paddling through the grasses ) But it certainly was beautiful. The warm sun on my back felt good as I stopped for a drink and a snack.
The banks pinched in again and the water became deep once more. Live oaks arched over the stream, closing the top of the passage. I was in a 15 meter high tunnel of foliage. The mood had changed once again. I was really enjoying the contrast of mood, light, foliage and birds that this little paddle was providing.
As I paddled upstream closer and closer to the spring, the volume of water seemed to be increasing. I have noticed this in a number of other spring runs. I think the a noticeable portion of the spring flow sinks back into the very porous soil or is taken up by trees and plants. However, unlike most rivers, it seems rather common for the width and depth of the spring to decrease as you paddle away from the spring.
In addition to the things growing up from the bottom, there were also things floating in dense rafts blocking my forward progress. Looking like little tea cups or floating candle holders set out for some type of celebration, the plants collected at every restriction in the current, whether caused by a log, tree branch or stems of the cat tails. They filter nutrients from the water with a triangular array of fine white roots hanging down from the thick spongy leaves that provide the floatation. Every once in a while a new members of the plant scrum floats down stream to fetch up in the upstream edge of the pile. At other times a group will make a break from the downstream edge looking for the next pile up around the bend.
I stopped at the little launch area near CR445 and got out to stretch my legs. Two groups were preparing their plastic boats for a paddle up to the spring. I departed before they got down to the ramp.
The water now was quite clear. Green grasses ( Windows Movie of grasses as I paddle over ) that looked much like long salt water turtle grass cover much of the bottom, the thick mats of it but inches below my keel. It swayed rhythmically as the now strengthened current flowed over its leaves. I could see the bottom quite distinctly.
I finally reached the spring. Again like all the others no boats are allowed actually in the area of the spring, so it was a little disappointing. The water was very warm at least 70 degrees F. I paddled back around the corner from the developed spring facility where I decided it was a good time for a couple of rolls. Looking about for any alligators I rolled over and took the picture of my kayak upside down in the clear water. A piece of bottom grass floated up along the deck and the floating paddle and air bubbles are really the only way to tell I am upside down in the water.
Up ahead I began to notice something that really began to concern me. A big column of smoke was rising on the southern bank of the stream. It was still several miles off but it was clearly a fire of some considerable size. It was close to the river where I had launched.
I started back down the river to return to the launch site just over 6 miles down stream. Now the current was with me and the bank seemed to fly past. With the afternoon sun out, there were many more turtles and alligators sunning on the logs and in the cattails along the banks. Inattentively I paddled a little too close to one fully hidden alligator on the bank and he came rushing out to get in the water. It gave me quite a fright.
As I continued to paddle back down the river, the smoke which was blowing over the river seemed to be getting much closer. After about another 30 minutes, there was a helicopter buzzing around the large cloud. I figured it probably was either unloading fire jumpers or actually fighting the fire. The smoke from the fire tinged the sun a bright orange like a sunset even though it ws still high in the sky. I felt I was probably reasonably safe in the water, but I worried about my car should the fire jump the water and sweep on through where I was parked. Even though there was nothing that would burn on the parking lot sand and grass parking lot where it was parked, it was surrounded by trees and shrubs. Who knows what would happen with the heat and hot ashes raining down on it. I was getting more worried and pressed on hoping to arrive and get out before the fire. Then I would think about whether I should just wait and see what happens. Losing the car wouldn't be good but better than burning up. After another 20 minutes of alternating opinions on what was the best course, the smoke cloud seemed to stop growing. In another ten minutes it was definitely getting smaller. Then large pieces of ash began floating down from the sky as the smoke had now made it back down to where I was paddling. The ash was cold and the smoke was not thick so I pressed on to the launch site. I quickly loaded up the kayak. One never knows when a fire can regain its strength, change direction and be on you. Much of interior Florida is frequently subject to fires.
I drove out to the main road and headed back to DeLand. It was a great day on a spring fed run, although Juniper Springs remains my favorite. The birding list today was extensive: black vultures, turkey vultures, ibis, egrets, white herons, night herons, blue herons, osprey, a wood stork, kingfishers, flicka, red headed wood pecker and I heard an owl. Not to mention the thousands of LBBs (little black birds and little brown birds) that I saw flitting about and I am sure that bird watching fans would have been able to easily identify.