Sunday, January 27, 2013

Two for One!

Two First Magnitude springs, one weekend of camping! 
1. Florida Caverns State Park (#13 Bozell Springs) 
2. Ecofina Creek (#14 Gainer Springs Group)

Camping at Florida Caverns State Park – #13 Bozell Springs

A little over a year ago, Kate, Angela, and I went on a little tour of the Panhandle led by Harry – we went diving in beautiful caverns at dive sites that were otherwise inaccessible and unknown to us. We got a great first taste of springs diving up in northwest Florida as we explored Vortex Spring, Morrison Spring, and Jackson Blue Spring. And this past Martin Luther King Day weekend, I found myself back in the quaint town of Marianna, FL near Jackson Blue Spring – but this time for a 3-day camping trip to Florida Caverns State Park.

On Friday, Greg, Adrienne, Ben, and I loaded up the Prius and Adrienne’s big truck for the 3.5-hour drive out to the park. After about an hour of driving north on I-75, we turned west onto I-10 and not much changed for about 150 miles. Forests, grasslands, and pastures of cows or horses here and there flew by at 80 miles an hour as the miles went by. The whole drive reminded me what natural Florida really looks like – a big theme for the weekend spent entirely outdoors. It was a very contrary view of Florida as compared to how many sunshine state vacationers may envision their typical Disney or Miami Beach excursions.

We gained an hour as we crossed the Apalachicola River and passed into the Central time zone, arriving in time to have enough light to set up our little campsite and build a fire to prepare for the 30-something degree temperatures that night. 

John Moran had been nice enough to give me some detailed insider tips about the park and I couldn’t be more happy and thankful that he did -  we ended up seeing things that we would have otherwise totally missed  - all within steps of our campsite. After a chilly night, we started our first morning by exploring the karst window and little cave behind our campsite as well as the Blue Hole...

Blue Hole, a swimming hole by our campsite at Florida Caverns State Park. We didn't actually swim in this one because it was murky/cloudy turquoise colored.

Above (left): Exploring a dry cave near our campsite during the day (top photo) then at night, playing with long exposures and lights (second 2 photos). Above (right): tree roots growing down into a limestone chimney. This area behind our campsite was full of chimneys and karst windows (one pictured below).

We first came across this karst window during the daytime (first photo) then went back at night to paint it with lights and take more photos (second 2 photos).
After trekking around behind our campsite, we took a cave tour – the park’s main attraction. Walking down into the cave was pretty bizarre, as most caves I’ve been exposed to so far are underwater. I kept feeling naked without my tank, BC, regulator, and dive light/backup light. It was tempting to bring, but walking in flippers may have proved fatal in this situation. Although there were puddles of water throughout the cave and apparently it has completely flooded in the past. I asked our nice guide if people were allowed to dive in it when it flooded, but she said that all of the lights/electricity in the cave don’t mix well with divers aka it’s not a good idea. I’m thinking if they turned off all of the electricity it would be fine… But anyway, for the time being, an air-filled underground cave tour was perfect and absolutely breathtaking – the cave formations were amazing and the colorful lights they added in some of the rooms created a brilliant effect.

Stalagtites and stalagmites under natural lighting, versus...
...with colorful lighting in another part of the cave.
Two more colored parts of the cave... almost looks like fire & ice.
Greg in the big colorful room of the cave. He's excited we're not in an underwater cave :)
After about a 45 minute cave tour, we rented a canoe from the state park and launched it into the Chipola River - I had been looking forward to this for weeks. In my continued quest to swim in every first magnitude spring in Florida, I searched out those in the area and found that the Bozel Spring group (also called Baltzell or Bosel) is just 1.5 miles up the Chipola River from the state park canoe launch – aka way too close to pass up while staying at the park! Some sources say Bozel is not a first magnitude spring because they look at only Bozel #2, but many regard the whole Bozel Springs Group (4 springs together) as a magnitude 1 group... so I’m going with that explanation. #2 is the largest and is probably a second magnitude spring. We launched 2 canoes for the 4 of us (plus Tigger!) and paddled upstream for about 30 minutes. The flow wasn’t bad because the water level was so low – no rain for a while left the river banks exposed and the spring runs shallow. 

This is the main spring pool of Bozel #2. This spring was featured in a March 1999 issue of National Geographic on p. 47... I still need to look it up to compare the photos. The pool here is about 35 feet in diameter and 12 feet underwater, there is a limestone fissure about 18 feet long that leads to a cave system.
I anxiously anticipated the sight of the spring run the whole way there – I didn’t know exactly what to look for except that the run was on the right bank of the river a few minutes after the sign for the boundary of the state park and that there were some “no trespassing” signs at the end of one of the spring runs. Of the 4 different springs that make up the Bozel Spring group, #2 is the easiest to find, and it ends up that’s the one we came across first. And to my surprise, another motor boat was going up the run at the same time as us, at first making me mad that their engine was messing up the beautiful vegetation when I thought they were fishermen. This agitation later gave way to excitement when they started chatting with us and pulling cave diving gear out of their boat. Apparently this little-known spring has a beautiful cave system attached to it (! Some day I hope to come back and explore that too J

The first thing that struck me about Bozel was the different vegetation. There were a couple types that I  had never seen before - some that was red and pink-ish and others that looked like big lettuce leaves. There were also a surprising number of snails all over the fallen trees and on the leaves of submerged vegetation throughout the spring. They were doing a pretty good job of keeping the algae grazed as compared to many of the springs around Gainesville. The water was fairly clear when we got in but we quickly stirred up the bottom with the four of us plus Tigger swimming around.
We spent a long time free-diving and taking pictures in the spring. Tigger took it upon himself to remove sticks/trees from the spring and was quite successful – after of course being almost successful at eating my fins. Apparently he was attracted to my fast-moving tennis-ball colored fins…

We spent a long time free-diving and taking pictures in the main basin. Tigger took it upon himself to remove sticks/trees from the spring and was quite successful - after of course being almost successful at eating my flippers. Apparently he was attracted to my fast-moving tennis-ball colored fins...
The spring run is clear and shallow (1-3 feet deep)
and about 800 feet long. Colorful vegetation is
plentiful around the edge of the spring pool.
An isolated spring pool was visible nearby, but we were told to stay off the land (by the state park rangers in addition to a million signs), so we figured out in the back woods it wasn’t worth the risk of touching the private land around the open spring. It probably would have been fine but we didn’t want to push our luck and were frozen anyway, so we headed out the long spring run back to the river. We were unsuccessful at making it up any of the other runs as they were all dried up, too shallow, or blocked by trees, but we were happy to that we found Bozel #2 and I was more than excited to swim in another magnitude 1! 

Ecofina Creek - #14 Gainer Springs Group
We launched near Strickland Springs on this map... we'll
have to go back and explore the springs just north. This map
represents about 2 miles of river... our takeout point was
about 6.5 miles downstream of Gainer Springs.
The next morning after the excitement of my 13th magnitude 1 swim, we had plans to rent canoes from the nearby Bear Paw shop. But unfortunately they were not answering the phone and seemed to be closed during the off-season. Determined to spend another day on the water, we called the Ecofina Creek Canoe Livery, located about an hour southwest of the park near Panama City. They weren’t exactly open either, but the owner said they would open by reservation, so by 11am, Greg and I were at Ecofina Creek with 2 kayaks, wetsuits, masks, fins, and 8 miles of river and about a half dozen springs ahead of us.

There are 11 springs or spring groups with 36 separate vents in the Ecofina Creek Basin. We were in the middle section of Ecofina Creek near the 20 bridge. In the grand scheme of Ecofina Creek (encompassing almost 200,000 acres), all of the springs are within a .75 mile section, which corresponds to the intersection of Ecofina Creek and the Floridan Aquifer.

Other than the first magnitude Gainer Springs group, 4 springs in the Ecofina Creek basin are classified as second magnitude, 6 are third magnitude, and 2 are fourth magnitude. The magnitude denotes how much flow comes out of the spring vent... the largest (>100cfs) are first magnitude springs. Ecofina Creek flows into Deerpoint Lake, which is the public water supply for Panama City.
Since I didn’t realize we were going to end up at Ecofina Creek, I hadn’t really done my research and didn’t know what was in store for us except that John said it is absolutely amazing. Thankfully there was a little map at the canoe livery place, but I forgot to take a picture of it, so since returning to Gainesville, I have been reading everything I can find about Ecofina Creek - I discovered that we actually swam in another magnitude 1 spring group called the Gainer Springs Group!! The Gainer Spring complex is made up of 5 springs, creatively named Gainer #1-5. Gainer #1 has 9 different vents, so it is actually Gainer #1a-i. So confusing. A few of the larger springs actually have other names too. The spring in this complex that was the most brilliant was the privately-owned Emerald Spring – also known as Gainer #2. It is the most noticeable and the largest because the owners actually dug it out so that there is a big artificial island in the middle. Since water is public property, we could explore the spring but not the surrounding land.

This is a collage of some pictures I took throughout the day. The full album of photos is on Facebook in my Panhandle Exploring album. The middle picture of this collage is Greg kayaking next to Gainer #3 and the others are a compilation from Strickland, Williford, Bluff, Sylvan, Pitt, Fenceline, Gainer #1, and Gainer #2 springs. So many springs, so little time!! Think that's a new record for the number of springs I've ever explored in one day. Best day ever!
We found a little spring up a tiny spring run that was
hidden under a fence and through the woods.
I think it was Gainer #1(aka McCormick Springs).
At first the natural pool surrounded by cyprus
and mixed hardwoods didn't look too impressive
until we saw what looked like black bubbles
at the surface in the corner. They turned out to
be bull frog tadpoles!! This is a closeup of the bullfrog
tadpoles... apparently they are bigger as tadpoles
than they are when they first turn into frogs!
All of the springs were basically in the first 1.5 miles of our trip and we spent so long exploring each one that this took us until 3pm… leaving us with an hour to get the kayaks another 6.5 miles downstream. Oops. We covered this last 6.5 miles in a little over an hour and by the end I could barely hold the paddle up. Ouch! Thankfully the guy from the canoe livery wasn't mad that we were 30 minutes late - we must have looked sore, tired, and happy to see him! He cheerily drove us home and told us stories as we recounted our adventures from the day and picked his brain about local knowledge and some crazy things we came across (like the tadpoles in the picture to the left!).

Here is a Google Earth screenshot of the 8 mile section of Ecofina Creek that we kayaked.  I rotated it sideways on Google Earth so that I could zoom in farther to get a more closeup view of how winding the river is... sometimes you actually go north to get south because it's so curly! Basically all of the springs are upstream or somewhere near the 20 bridge (wayy at the top of the map... the rest was the 1.5 hours of hard core fast paddling to make it to the take-out point semi-on time).
Overall, it was an exciting weekend of springs exploring, but I have since realized that this area of the Panhandle is as spring-rich as the areas around Gainesville (if not more so), so I have become obsessed with returning and exploring some of the others. The Chipola Diver's website is a great resource for getting more information on diveable springs in the area. Between this trip and the last, I have been to many of them but could certainly use a few more weekends to check out the rest... hopefully in the near future. I think Wakulla (near Tallahassee) is the next first magnitude to be checked off my list... and then some other smaller springs in Mill Pond, Holmes Creek, Leon Sinks State Park. So many springs to see, so little time.