Nine o'clock, the morning of my 16th birthday, the doorbell rang. "Jenny, your friends are here," my mom yelled. "Wake up!"
I stumbled out of the room, confused and disoriented. Carrie and Jessica stood in the living room dressed in bathing suits. "Get ready, Jen," said Carrie. "We're taking you somewhere special for your big day."
Ten minutes later we were on our way to Crystal River for a day of tubing. The water was swift and cold. Turtles and snakebirds poked their heads through the surface. Manatees nuzzled against our bodies.
It was a perfect getaway, a reminder that in this state of natural wonders, it doesn't take much money to enjoy. Twelve years later, our lives have changed, some dramatically. But that first perfect adventure has started a tradition.
Carrie, always the group leader, sent a Facebook message a few weeks ago to Jessica, our friend Kendra and me. "My favorite New Port Richey girls!" she wrote. "It's time for a reunion. And what better than to plan a trip down the river!"
She chose Rainbow River – a system of clear springs and caves in Dunnellon – an hour and a half drive for Kendra in Orlando, an hour drive from Jessica and me in New Port Richey, and a 30-minute commute for Carrie in Ocala. We agreed to meet at Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak at 10 a.m. and reserved two tandem kayaks. "Everything is all set," typed Carrie. "Just make sure to be on time, bring a cooler with sandwiches and snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, a change of clothes, towels and a positive attitude. This is gonna be a great day!''
We all arrived around the same time, coffees in hand. While the company employees loaded the shuttle bus with canoes and kayaks, we had the "What have you been up to?" conversations. Careers, husbands, kids. Like I said, so much had changed. Did we still have anything in common?
But over the course of the day, embarrassing high school stories came up, we shared updates on former classmates and reminisced about our times on the river. Minutes after climbing in the kayaks, we were laughing and squealing like teenagers.
We spotted otters, baby snapping turtles and those same snakebirds we saw a decade ago. We raced our kayaks through narrow tree-lined canals and tried to do handstands in the shallow parts of springs.
After four or five hours of kayaking, swimming and baking in the sun, we found ourselves back at the Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak company. "I'm not ready to leave you girls just yet," said Carrie. "Let's go for ice cream."
Over sundaes and sherbet at the local Baskin Robbins, we found ourselves laughing about pregnancy woes, listening to marriage advice and sharing our thoughts on the ideal wedding location.
And which Florida natural gem to try next.
If You Go
History buffs might find it interesting that archaeologists have determined people have been using this spring for 10,000 years, or that it was designated a registered natural landmark in 1972. My friends and I liked it because of the clear water, abundance of nature and the central location. But if you want to learn more, here are some useful links:
Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak: www.rainbowrivercanoeandkayak.com or 352-489-7852. Canoes and tandem kayaks are $46.64. Single kayaks are $34.98. You can get a 10 percent discount by making a reservation 24 hours in advance. Shuttles run daily from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Entrance to the park is $3 per person.
Scuba diving and snorkeling tours can be arranged through American Pro Diving Center at 352-563-0041. Visit www.americanprodive.com for more information. For camping information, visit www.floridastateparks.org or call 800-326-3521 to make reservations.
Jennifer Stevens works as a freelance writer and food blogger. Her writing has appeared in various Florida-based magazines and the St. Petersburg Times. After spending the past two years traveling around Asia, Jennifer has returned to her hometown of New Port Richey – satisfying her travel bug by taking road trips with her friends.