Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Adventures in a Flooded Forest

As river levels rose, so did our excitement. The flood curtains at Ginnie Springs have been up for a while, holding back the tannic river and allowing divers access to the winding underworld via Devil’s Eye while most of the other caves in the area have been closed. But the heavy rains that have caused many springs to be tannic and off-limits to divers have also transformed the Ichetucknee River into a flooded forest that was begging to be explored.
(Top) A hydrograph showing days (x-axis) and corresponding river levels (y-axis) at the Ichetucknee Headspring (April 28-May 27, 2014). The river crested on May 3, but it was still in flood stage on May 9 when we paddled from the headspring to the southernmost takeout point. (Bottom) A real-world visual representation of the flood data presented in the hydrograph - the water was at least a foot above the top of the dock railings at the last take-out spot at the state park when we paddled on May 9!
But it wouldn’t be a full-on adventure without explorations en route. April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, and Florida is no exception to this age-old rhyme. Fields of wild flowers in full bloom are of course impossible to resist, so we pulled over to run through endless fields of blooming Coreopsis.
Somewhere along the side of the road in High Springs, FL.
Wildflower-frolicking behind us, we made a quick stop at the Ichetucknee Campground to get our boats and began our paddle on what appeared to be an entirely new river.

Trip essentials: GoPro, GoPole, mermaid friends, and Greg, who singlehandedly paddled our canoe down the entire Ichetucknee River to save my broken shoulder. He definitely deserves half of the photo credit for all of my photos... none of them would have been possible without his paddling and expert canoe skills!
Top: Testing Greg's new birthday GoPole just after launching. This is by far the widest I've ever seen the usually-skinny northern section of the river. Bottom: Danielle and Jenna enjoying the first few minutes of our peaceful paddle.
Just a few extra feet of water transformed the entire river, and the low-lying flood plane, once dominated by tall cypress knees and emergent macrophytes, became a flooded forest. The water drowned palmettos, roots, grasses, and everything else in its path, allowing us to paddle where feet once tread. But the high water was also disorienting - places once familiar to me were suddenly unrecognizable. We were able to see places through an entirely new light - due to both the beautiful sunlit reflections of the recently-sprouted green leaves and the newly-flooded places to paddle.
Recognize this place? I barely did! Usually, the water is much too low to allow canoe or kayak access to Jug Hole due to the large grate in the spring run, but the high water meant everybody could easily access the spring via canoe or kayak.
Jug Hole from an entirely new angle...
I've snorkeled here about a dozen times, each time endlessly enamored while hovering at the water's surface, but never have I stood directly over the spring vent! We were able to canoe into the spring and peer down into the green-tinged abyss.
So much action! GoPole/GoPro shot by Greg as we all explore the spring and are joined by Nate. (Look closely... I spy two happy mermaids underwater!)
Of course we couldn't resist taking a dip in the sunny spring water before continuing our journey downstream. I took the GoPole for its maiden underwater voyage. Using the stairs in the background as a benchmark, note that at least 2 steps are usually above water!

Top: Greg swimming in the sky above Jug Hole as I dive below.
Bottom: Hovering above, about to dive down (Photo by Greg).
After a quick dip, we continued our journey downstream, at times taken aback by how wide open and Suwannee River-like the river appeared to be, and at other times weaving our way through trees, over mats of floating vegetation, and through newly-created river channels.

The Ichetucknee looked more like the lower Suwannee in some places! The navigable river is usually about half this size and is lined with emergent grasses and dense beds of floating macrophytes.

A rare and special sight on the flooded Ichetucknee, just downstream of the wide open river in the previous photo. The islands of macrophytes floated downstream and clogged the river channel where you can normally paddle - but it also served as the perfect feeding grounds for manatees... what a treat!!
The huge beds of floating vegetation blocking the main channel forced us to paddle through magical forests. In the distance, amidst the vegetation, manatees surfacing for air let out loud breaths that sprayed water skyward, sending echoing noises throughout the woods. 

Just when I though I had completely lost my bearings, I caught a glimpse of some familiar treetops. Pushing our way through floating islands of dense vegetation, we found a barely-recognizable spring amidst the flood.

This tree was made popular and familiar by John Moran's "Fireflies on the Ichetucknee" photograph. This view is a little different - I'm looking at the tree head-on instead of from the side. Its branches look like arms actively reaching out to embrace rivergoers who can find their way to its hidden spring.
Submerged palmettos, sunlit patches, and twisted tree reflections in the spring.
September 14, 2013 - A view of the spring from a previous trip. I'm standing a bit higher than I stood while taking the next photo, but it still gives you a comparison in terms of how much more area is underwater in May versus September!
May 9, 2014 - 8 months later, flood stage
Shortly after our spring stop, we entered the lower part of the river where tubers usually abound. The extremely high water meant the river was closed to tubing, which also totally changed the feel of the lower section. In the heat of the summer when river levels are low and the park is crowded, you can basically hop from tube to tube - without touching the water - all the way from the northern launch to the southern launch! 
Peaceful views on the lower part of the river near where the tubers usually launch and begin their takeover.
GoPole view of the lower section of the rivers where rambunctious tubers usually block any views of the water's surface.  Instead, a quiet, flooded forest stood still as we quietly explored, suspended in water where snakes once slithered, turtles once crawled, and feet once walked.
For more photos of our adventure, check out my "Adventures in a Flooded Forest" album on Facebook - or head out to the river next time it floods to experience something unforgettable! And remember, just because the river is flooded does not mean that we have an abundance of water!! Check out Ron Cunningham's op-ed in the Gainesville Sun "If you think the springs are back to normal, you're not paying attention" (May 25, 2014).

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