Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Floating into Fall

Up North, as summer faded to fall, chilly nights, fresh-picked apples, and changing leaves used to remind me that September was beginning. One by one, sailboats in the harbor would begin to disappear to their winter boatyard hideouts and flip-flops were suddenly out of season. But in the South, I continue to lose track of time as the endless summer carries on. Temperatures are definitely noticeably cooler than the mid July-to-August heat wave that leaves the caves and springs the only places to take refuge from the unrelenting heat. But now it feels like a comfortably hot New England summer day, weather lending itself perfectly to paddling, swimming, and snorkeling.
Work has kept me busy out of the water - we have been pitching a few new and exciting ideas over the past couple of weeks and I recently finished the online training portion of my introductory cave diver course. Now it's a week or more of in-water training and hours and hours of bottom time... I am counting down the minutes until it starts!! So after what I now realize has been over a month without a post, there are a few weekend adventures to catch up on...

Santa Fe Kayaking

The weekend before Labor Day craziness struck the springs, Kate and I headed up to Adventure Outpost in High Springs to rent kayaks for a paddle down the Santa Fe River. Plentiful rain over the preceding weeks left the once dry and low river flowing swiftly. High water levels also meant that the crystal clear springs that dot the Santa Fe and allow for swimming breaks along the way were totally covered with the tannic coffee-colored water. We spent much of our journey down-river attempting to find these invisible springs, looking for the slightest hint of a boil and paddling up little tributaries resembling spring runs along the banks of the river.

We started up at the green pin on the top right of the map and went all the way to the red pin on the bottom left. The river was flowing so quickly that we did a 4-hour paddle in 3 hours, even though we were taking our time to explore. We passed many springs along the way - Poe Spring, Allen Spring, Lily Spring, and ended our trip at Rum Island, which was also extremely high and flooded.

Other adventures included helping a tandem kayak rescue their other capsized tandem kayak... which ended in 2 capsized tandem kayaks and 4 people up the creek without a paddle. But when all was said and done, the 2 parents, grandmother, and grandson were all drenched but back in one piece. Certainly a river adventure... can't wait to do it again when the springs are clear :)

The Great Suwannee River Cleanup

After a break for Labor Day weekend to avoid the inevitable zoo of spring-goers and river rafters, a day on the river was definitely in order. So, Greg and I loaded up the canoe and headed out to where the 47 bridge intersects the Santa Fe River to join the "Current Problems" Great Suwannee River Cleanup kickoff. At the little park/boat ramp, we were greeted by a whole bunch of enthusiastic volunteers, all prepared with almost a dozen canoes, kayaks, and motorboats, not to mention endless supplies for picking up trash. So after loading up with trash bags, buckets, and poles, and grabbing our hats and paddles, we were ready for a morning of river cleaning.

A few sprinkles while launching gave way to a beautiful sunny day. We were surprised when everyone else besides a single kayak launched and was towed upriver by the motorboats. Instead, we opted to paddle upstream along the shore - a feat much more easily accomplished this weekend in a canoe with two people than the weekend before in a single kayak after a big rain storm. We spent almost two hours paddling and scouring the banks and fallen trees for trash. There wasn't nearly as much trash as I expected. The majority of our findings included empty and full beer cans (no surprises there), fishing lines wrapped in trees, and some random pieces of metal and bottles. Other boats we passed didn't have too much trash either, but we did find one super dedicated volunteer in the tannic river in a wetsuit grabbing trash and saw one kayaker pull a massive wooden block out of the river, almost to her own demise... But over the course of two hours with many volunteers, it definitely made a difference. All together, we removed 251 pounds of trash from the river!!

Back at the boat ramp after a nice float downstream, we were happy to be greeted by the Santa Fe River Park Task Force that was hosting a big cookout. About 75 people gathered under the newly-constructed pavilion and picnic tables to eat and listen to some speeches about the recently completed park renovations and further river cleanups. There was also a scary taxidermy truck full of stuffed local animals that immediately gave me the creeps... so we wandered over to the cave diving table instead. The NACD had a table set up with two nice cave divers who I ended up chatting with for a while, adding to my already growing excitement for getting in the caves. Perfect ending to a great morning!

Silver Glen Springs

The next day's adventures took me a bit further south to the Ocala National Forest - and also a few years back in time. Ignoring the threat of storms and torrential buckets of rain pouring down for the hour and a half drive, I headed to my favorite spring to meet Stephanie for a first-time-since-high-school reunion. And the timing couldn't have been more perfect - the rain let up and a bit of sun tried to peek from behind the clouds as we suited up and headed for a chilly snorkel, camera in hand.

A 1/2 and 1/2 view of the main basin. Cloudy skies above, crystal clear water below. 
I was so excited to share Stephanie's first swim in a spring! Here, she is "free-falling" at the top of the basin. We were lucky to be the only people in the water for a while, and we spent a long time taking pictures and diving down into the basin to check out the cave entrance and be pushed to the surface by the strong flow. There was quite an impressive boil at the surface! 
Mullet that are common to most of the springs these days seemed even more abundant than usual. They are found swimming around using a flapping/flying motion and voraciously foraging on the plentiful algae. 
The whole spring around the basin is completely overgrown with algae. While overwhelming and not welcome, it does create beautiful twirls as it flows in the current coming out of the natural well. The pole here has a sign on it telling you to  keep out of the natural well... which was very difficult as you could see dozens of striped bass circling a beautiful sunlit column that heads straight to the bottom. To dive in with the Silver Glen Cave Diving Team and check it out, click here.
The rest of the basin is very shallow but teeming with life. Stephanie and I spent over an hour swimming around and checking out the sunfish, sucker fish, and striped bass and playing in the crystal clear pool until the spring water got the best of us (and I filled up the memory card in my camera...). It felt nice to actually be cold after months of sweltering summer heat, and it was a perfect excuse to catch up and take a walk through the woods down the Spring Boils trail.
Can't wait for a diving adventure in Alexander Spring with Stephanie this coming weekend... and more pictures are in my "Floating" album on Facebook :)