Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Jump in Johnson

Reflections in Johnson Spring immediately as we tiptoed into its quiet waters. There are 2 main spring vents just below the frame of this photo; there are also a few smaller boils throughout the spring.
If this is the start of the busy springs season, how is this peaceful serenity possible? Read on to find out...
The heat bugs are buzzing and the craziness of Memorial Day weekend has just passed – this can mean only one thing: the official start of summer and the return of the masses to the springs. The water is 72 degrees during every season, so we (just like the manatees) especially love the off-season when the steaming 72-degree water is actually a thermal refuge from the chilly mid-winter temperatures. The warmth of the springs in the winter time reminds us that north Florida does in fact have seasons – and it also serves as a stark contrast to the full-body shock of diving in to what feels like an icy cold spring on a 100+ degree summer day. 

There are two strategies for steering clear of the crazy crowds – you can’t completely avoid them, but you can either arrive just as the park opens and run directly into the water or you can find springs off the beaten path that take a little more exploring and off-roading to find. Most recently, we used the latter strategy and were rewarded with a fun little adventure.

Johnson Spring is actually only a few hundred yards away from our most-traveled-to spring. We’ve been to Blue Springs park 20+ times and have swam for hours and hours in the magical main spring basin during all times of the year – last year, we watched the sky-high hydrilla be mowed down to sand by 500 turtles, snorkeled out the entire run a dozen times counting turtles, did some mermaiding and snail-observing in Naked Springs, and jumped into the tiny 'Lil Blue spring during the rainy season.
Hundreds of turtles in the main Blue Spring basin, just a few hundred yards from Johnson Spring.
When the water is high, 'Lil Blue is crystal clear and enticing. During the dry season, the water is a few feet lower and the water is the color of strong coffee - not ideal for swimming!
Before this trip, I had only made the quick walk over to Johnson Spring once to dip my toes in its mysterious waters. At the time, it was February 2014 and the water level was too low for swimming. The run was a trickle and I played with my above-water camera among the tall cypress knees and fallen tree that formed a bridge over the spring run. Having missed out on swimming in February, I knew the flood-stage Santa Fe meant only one thing: my window of opportunity for a dip in Johnson was small and certainly at the top of my list of places to swim.

Johnson Spring in February 2014. The water now (mid-May) is over a foot higher - all of the emergent water lilies are completely underwater and the spring pool is significantly larger in area with 2 visible spring boils!

Johnson Spring in February 2014. The spring run was only a few inches deep... much too shallow for swimming -the Santa Fe River has been in flood stage since late April, so the spring has been swimmable since then.
Greg and I headed out to count the turtles at Blue Spring early one Saturday morning, walking out the ¼ mile boardwalk to the end of the spring run just like we’ve done every week for about a month. Wrapped in sweatshirts with our hoods up and clouds over head, we shivered but secretly savored the feeling of what turned out to be the last crisp and chilly spring morning. Looking for an excuse to warm up a bit more before jumping in, we made the trek along the low-lying, muddy floodplain trail over to Johnson Spring, leaving the screams of weekend campers and morning swimmers what felt like miles behind…
The view just as I entered the water.
Sunlight penetrates the otherwise shady but crystal clear water in the back corner of the basin, just above the main spring boil. Bright green water lilies and red ludwigia are reflected in the sky.
Greg and I explored the secluded spring for a while. Here, Greg is getting some GoPro footage in the main part of Johnson Spring. We swam around very carefully because the bottom was super silty and easy to disturb, especially where we entered the water. 
We carefully swam out the shallow spring run, and I had fun taking bright blue reflection photos as we gently kicked our way through the silty run.
The dark and gloomy sections of the unexplored run lay in stark contrast to the brightly illuminated vegetation, suspended motionlessly in the calm water. Even though there were two visible boils in the spring, there wasn't really any noticeable current in the spring run, and silt from the fragile bottom stayed easily suspended in solution.
Here are two more photos that visually demonstrate the incredible difference between low water in February (top photo) and high water in May (bottom photo). It was much too shallow to swim in February but absolutely breathtaking when we were able to jump in recently:

Top: Johnson Spring run in February 2014.
Bottom: Johnson Spring run in May 2014. The water lilies that were in only a few inches of water in February are now totally submerged and reflected in the sky of the crystal clear spring run. We surprised a Suwannee cooter hiding just on the other side of the fallen tree in the bottom photo.
So make sure to look just off the beaten path as the springs start to get crowded and crazy this summer - any spring is a treat, but a secret, secluded spring will leave you feeling happy and wonderful for days as you daydream about being submerged in a peaceful and calm underwater paradise - worlds away from the summer heat just above the water's surface.

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