By Diane Daniel
Hopping on an inner tube and floating down the cool, sparkling, spring-fed Ichetucknee River is a summertime rite of passage in North Florida.
That's so true that attendance is capped at 3,000 tubers a day at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, where the meandering journey begins.
But visit during the cooler months, when the 72-degree water isn’t quite as enticing, and you’ll discover nearly-empty walking trails and, from a canoe or kayak, a peaceful river more populated with birds and turtles than people.
The Ichetucknee River, which flows downstream gently for six miles through hammocks, forests and cypress floodplains before it joins the Santa Fe River, is perfect for easy paddling. You could even just float and steer.
The upper 3.5-mile stretch of the Ichetucknee River is protected in the state park and is fed by a series of natural springs, many of which you can witness boiling to the surface. While you can easily navigate the trip on your own, you’ll learn more about the area by taking a guided tour. We signed up with longtime local guide Lars Andersen, who operates Adventure Outpost out of nearby High Springs, the perfect location to refuel after the journey’s end.
Before getting into kayaks, our group stopped at the headspring to see where the action started. By the end of the run, a couple miles beyond our ending point, the Ichetucknee's springs will have combined to form a substantial river that adds nearly 233 million gallons of water to the Santa Fe River every day.
“We’re going to pass woodlands, open canopies, cypress swamps, and even wild rice, all the time with spring water underneath us,” Andersen said. “The springs are fed by an ancient system of caves that carry groundwater to the springs.”
As we paddled from the launch, Andersen pointed out clumps of what he identified as water hemlock – poisonous when ingested, he warned. From there, we passed limestone rock formations leading into an area lush with plant life and could easily see glistening aqua water and green grasses dancing with the current beneath our kayaks.
As we neared the wild rice marsh, we were fascinated to learn that not only had the Timucua Indians called this area home, in the 1600s the land once housed a Spanish mission along the river banks. The spring here is now called Mission Springs.
“Franciscan priests from the Mission San Martin used to baptize the Indian converts in these waters” Andersen said, prompting us to imagine a 17th-century baptism around the next corner.
A population that has stuck around is the rare Ichetucknee silt snail, also known as the sand grain snail (we couldn’t actually see it), which lives in a 10-square-yard roped off area of mosses and cypress roots in Coffee Spring. Because the snail's habitat is threatened by pollution and groundwater pumping, federal officials are considering putting it on the endangered species list.
Another species present but invisible except for its telltale signs of tree-trunk gnawing was beaver. After being heavily trapped for fur in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mostly nocturnal rodents are back, and this area is their southernmost range. The name “Ichetucknee” serves as evidence they were plentiful in earlier times – it’s an Indian name meaning “place of the beavers.”
The animals we could easily see included many birds, especially egrets, herons, woodpeckers, ibis and cormorants. But the most amusing sights along our entire run were the many large turtles sunning themselves on logs, lined up like reptilian daisy chains and unstartled by kayaks and smiling, camera-snapping paddlers.
When you go…
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
North entrance: 8294 SW Elim Church Road, Fort White
South entrance: 12087 US 27, Fort White
You can float or paddle down the Ichetucknee River from the park, which also offers hiking, snorkeling and wildlife viewing.
30 NW 1st Ave., High Springs
Rentals and guided tours are available, as well as paddling equipment and supplies
The area’s top stops for lodging, dining and shopping are in High Springs, a quiet town of 3,000 about 25 miles northwest of Gainesville and a former railroad hub, thanks to active phosphate mines in the late 1800s. Historic homes and buildings line Main Street and side streets in the center of the easily walkable town.
Where to stay
Grady House Bed & Breakfast
420 NW 1st Ave., High Springs
This bungalow-style building was built in 1917 and has served as a bakery, boarding house and apartment building, and was converted into a lovely inn in the 1990s.
Where to eat
The Great Outdoors Restaurant
65 N. Main St.
This casual eatery, set in the town’s former opera house, is a popular stop for outdoors folks, thanks to its menu of burgers and more and its sprawling outdoor bar and patio with fireplace.
What to do
Stroll historic downtown after picking up a map with a walking tour at the High Springs Chamber of Commerce. Visit the High Springs Historical Society Museum (where you can find carriage rides through town on weekend afternoons), and gift and antique shops, including Heartstrings and Wisteria Cottage. In the evening, check out the Priest Theatre, Florida’s oldest continuously operating movie house, open since 1910.
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