Biking the Sante Fe, Ichetucknee and Suwannee River region in Florida gives you an intense appreciation of the Sunshine State's natural landscapes.
Outdoor recreation relieves tension, but it's bad for sleep, at least if trekking in rural places leaves you charged up about protecting the natural world.
The first couple nights of a particular four-day trip affected me like a cup of after-dinner espresso. Or was it the bare platform above the river and how the night played out? I was in the open under the stars in a sleeping bag with some pillows, but I might as well have been on the fulcrum of a seesaw.
"Up or down"? I kept asking myself about Florida's future. If change remains inevitable, how do we preserve the good?
Even if Florida conservation doesn't stir your coffee, a few days and nights in the bush will have their effect. Whether you sleep or not, the region still beckons: The Other Florida.
I had the Suwannee to myself. A full moon shone like a spotlight, the skies drizzled and my head buzzed with thoughts like the mosquitoes the rain had set loose that warm, winter night. Sleep suffered. No complaint.
Songbirds woke me in the morning. I was no Stephen Foster who wrote about a place he never saw. More an explorer on an adventure trail. That feeling stayed with me.
The secret is visiting off-season and preferably mid-week. In summer you run into crowds. On the Ichetucknee River, 5,000 a day will tube or paddle at least a portion of the three miles through Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Locals call the action 'Itchy World.'
Instead, I saw egrets, hawks, kingfishers, sunning turtles. Lush grasses waved in the clear stream. It was The Garden of Eden before the fall.
If any Florida stream connects to Eden, it's the Suwannee River. Foster's ode about it has been the official state song since 1935.
The Suwannee has a hundred faces. Its Georgia source trickles out of Okefenokee Swamp. On the opposite end, its wide mouth empties into the Gulf past a namesake village it threatens to flood. Somewhere in the middle, around White Springs, the river can be calm as well as frenzied.
Paddle from one bridge to the next as the river lazes around town and it's as relaxing as a soak in a tub. It takes only a minute before cars give way to crows. In low water, the river moves unruly like a creek, swirling around limestone outcroppings.
The Suwannee can run so clear, its surface so mirror-like, that you find yourself paddling in its reflection, surreally upside down.
I pass a rope hanging from an oak, the kind of knotted Tarzan device that drives insurance companies nuts. As I take out, I relish the idea that a trip of five minutes by car can take an hour by canoe.
Next morning up State Road 135, the Woodpecker Route, I start a hike from the Big Shoals State Park through woods north of White Springs. It's a bit more than a mile from the parking area to the Big Shoals rapids. I quickly slip beyond the picnic grounds to the trail alongside the river, upstream of where I had paddled.
You can see the river from the woods. Red and green lichens decorate tree trunks. Tree roots along the path form rudimentary ladders that can trip you up or help you secure a foothold.
Like any falls, Big Shoals announces itself. On land, the sound pulls you like the quickening water pulls a paddler on the river. I walk faster.
The river's swirls intensify. The water that's tranquil upstream frenzies. I drop down a bank faster than safe.
Even in a low-water season, water sweeps you up. Many places I heard falling water I couldn't get to. I did reach another falls walking in woods north of Lake City. That was bowl-shaped Falling Creek, a knick-knack version of Niagara.
I heard about dozens of springs that spill into the Suwannee. I paddled into one, straining against the outflow to float over the boil at Poe Springs. Here, depths shimmered in aquamarine and surrounding land rose and fell like the manicured lawns of Georgian gentry.
Days pass like this, a succession of put-ins and take-outs, each stream accessed along some country road.
The Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers
Motorboats don't trouble the Santa Fe in summer or winter. The river is normally shallow, its bottom rocky and thick with weeds. Canoes skim the surface as if oiled. The river stays quiet, clear, ruffled only by the breeze.
When the Suwannee floods, it pushes its tributary Santa Fe way back up. Meanwhile the Ichetucknee, the Santa Fe's own tributary, pours the excess down. The Santa Fe bulges and lifts. No surprise that development remains sparse for long sections.
The 'Itch' effects awe. Once an Indian hunting and fishing corridor, later site of a Spanish mission and grist mill, its waters and banks were badly damaged by phosphate mining and logging. Generations of university students loaded the channel with cans and bottles, a sort of river rite of passage.
Yet Herculean cleaning and restoration in the 34 years since the Park Service acquired the upper three-and-a-half miles of the six-mile stream have re-established its original look. The result today is a stream of languid beauty, an icon of Florida.
"You have to have your jaw drop if you're going to be won over to conservation," said Ichetucknee Springs State Park Ranger Ron Preston. "Standing at a spring is one of the few ways in Florida you can see intense natural beauty that gives that feeling."
On the Ichetucknee, oak leaves drop in golden sunlight, settling on the slow-moving surface. Broad tape grass and blade grass go with the flow, as do bream, catfish, redbellies, striped bass and stumpknockers. Wild rice, once a staple of native populations, still grows at the river's edge. Elsewhere, there are graceful flowering spider lilies, bromeliads on overhanging roots, beaver scrapings on trunks. Above, kingfishers fly, goldfinches trill.
Preston, the ranger, said the best way to experience the river is snorkeling, but even paddling a kayak you can look into water as clearly seen as from a glass-bottom boat. The river is kept natural. Snags and stumps aren't pulled out, so though the flow is a mere mile an hour, you need to pay attention.
For cyclists, the region is heaven. Bridges span the Suwannee River, connecting places rural as a spit of tobacco juice.
Best are roads un-funded for a few fiscal cycles, where the bush comes close alongside and moss from canopy oaks hangs in solemn bunches. Stop, and the only sounds are birds and breeze.
Good loops extend 25 miles and more around White Springs. A short trip would be cycling down and back to Wellborn, a wisp of a place to either side of the tracks that link Jacksonville to New Orleans. You can hang out on a falling-down porch with a bottle of Yoo-hoo from the convenience store and tally a 100-car passing freight.
Though farms struggle, the slow regional economy is a boon for cyclists: hardly any billboards or roadside litter.
Past the entrance to Big Shoals, the Woodpecker Route starts the back way from White Springs to Jasper. In winter, early morning fog hangs damp as rain as you wheel your way through. Once-white fence boards have weathered gray. Rust corrodes tailgates of passing pickups. A hundred miles of off-road trails lie back in the woods.
Across Bee Haven Bay toward Jasper, I'm startled by the moonscape of phosphate mining. Gargantuan rigs swivel in the gray winter light. Beside the road, ditches fill with gloomy water. Ah, but where the road turns quiet again, a black bear crosses. Nearby, deer graze.
By mid-morning the sun shines in Jasper. The old brick buildings glow friendly red.
The broad loop back to White Springs swings west of town. Here, hills challenge. After a slow-but-steady morning there's a humongous downhill. Down I fly, 20, 25, 26, 27 miles an hour.
I pass a country cemetery where wilting flowers at a fresh grave flash their still-bright ribbons and tempt humming bees.
After a 60-mile workout I know I'll sleep well. This time not on a platform.
For this and other Florida outdoor travel ideas, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official outdoors guide.
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