The Santa Fe River is one of those rivers that once you paddle this one river, you’ll have a different outlook for the normally bustling, somewhat overcrowded State of Florida. Most think of Florida and instantly think of crowded beaches, Orlando and it’s Mouse which includes too much traffic to contend with, or the wild nightlife of Miami, Tampa and the Palm Beach areas.
Drive up into Northern Central Florida and drop your paddle in the rich, tannic water flowing down the Santa Fe, and you’ll forget you’re in the Sunshine State at all. There is very little to almost zero development along this river, no noise to speak of from traffic, industry or towns, yet an abundance of springs that flow into it that will keep you in awe each time you paddle into a new one. The rivers slow speed, combined with the abundant leaf-drop from nearby trees, especially Bald Cypress, leads to a very dark-brown river that limits your visibility in the water. When paddling, if you dip your paddle under the surface of the water, within 8-10″ of depth, you lose sight of the paddle. 180 Degree opposite of the Rainbow River where you can see the bottom the entire length of the river.
Trev, Anne, Cindy and I all loaded up our floats and headed out of Cedar Key to try our hand at floating down this scenic byway a few days ago. Cindy and I have done it once before when we rented a Canoe from Santa Fe Canoe Outpost a few summers ago (Link to that Blog Entry Here). But that last time we paddled it, the river was very low and barely flowing at all. This time we had called in advance and due to how much rain we’ve been getting in Florida, I don’t think we’d be worrying about stagnant water on this trip.
The 75 mile long Santa Fe River is unusual in that it completely disappears underground and then reappears 3 miles downstream. The river drops into a large sinkhole in O’Leno State Park and reappears in the adjacent River Rise Preserve State Park. A map of the watershed clearly shows the gap in the river where it flows underground. Springs like Gilchrist Blue, Ginnie, Hornsby, Lily, Poe, and Rum Island springs are located at the banks of the river, mostly downstream of the river’s reappearance above ground level. This was where we’d be paddling today.
This image is from the Sana Fe River Turtle Project Page – Please visit their page and learn some interesting facts about the turtles that inhabit this river
We dropped the girls off with all our gear at the US-27 Boat Ramp which would give us about 5 miles of paddling to get down to Deer Springs, which is in the Ginnie Springs Park area of springs. We were going to have the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost shuttle us, but when we called them this morning, they said that we’d have to pay them to shuttle us, and still have to pay to get into Ginnie Springs area. So we just drove two trucks and spotted them ourselves. This is easily done if you have a group going, but if it was just Cindy and I, we’d have paid the double entrance fee’s and just drove one vehicle.
The river was flowing with enough current all you really had to do was steer to keep you pointing in a direction you wanted to float. Cindy was in her Kayak, which is much faster than our Stand Up Paddle Boards, so we still had to paddle somewhat to keep up with her, but by no means would this be an exhausting day of paddling. I was actually hoping this paddling would work up a good sweat, as I was looking forward to getting into the springs which are a year-round 72 degrees, so that would cool us off good. How awesome is it that it’s mid-October and we’re paddling in 80 degree weather!!! When we’re doing things like this, I realize I’m very lucky to live in Florida with this year-round summer and constant flow of attractions to visit.
Our first spring we paddled into was Poe Spring. This is an Emerald Spring, which has somewhat of a green tint to it, but still crystal clear. We lucked out as the spring was closed to the public on Wednesdays or at least it was closed this Wednesday. There was a woman sitting on the steps leading down to the spring who said she was cheating and had parked out on the road, climbed the fence and wanted the spring all to herself (She had her clothes on when we arrived 🙁 ) We told her we wouldn’t be long as we paddled around and cooled off in the water. I swam around, but apparently I’m the only one in the group that enjoys swimming. The rest of the gang simply stood in the chilly water while I snapped photos with my underwater camera.
Rather than bore you with each spring, I’ll just let the photos do the talking. Let’s just say the rest of the day was as close as you can get to floating on air while hovering over the springs.
I swam in each one we paddled into, but I was the only one who swam. Some worried about alligators, others just said it was too cold? We only saw one alligator on this river this time and when I yelled for everyone to look, Anne just looked at me and said “I’ll just look to the other side of the river and pretend you just did NOT point that out!” as she calmly kept paddling down the river. For those of you who keep asking about Alligators, do a Google search for the last time someone was attacked by an alligator on a Florida River. 99.999% of alligator attacks are by people who instigate them to begin with.
We paddled into Naked Ed’s domain only to find him wearing clothes!?!? If you don’t know about Naked Ed, he’s a legend in these parts who is caretaker of the springs and dislikes wearing clothes. He even has a beer named after him by one of the local breweries. Last time Cindy and I visited, he was in all his birthday suit glory, but Cindy was too shy to get her photo taken with him. This time we had talked about it and Anne and Cindy planned on getting their photos taken with Naked Ed, but in clothing, he said he’d rather not get his photo taken. Another quick Google Search for Naked Ed Lily Springs should give you plenty of photos if you would like to see the legend sans clothing.
My favorite of the springs we paddle into is Blue Springs. This spring is big, its crystal clear and has a nice wooden platform to jump off of. You might remember this spring from awhile back when we came up here to camp with Jeff & Jen, playing in these springs for a few days while camping in their campground.
I’m not sure what it is, but my body and mind feels at home while in the water. If I could have a way to stay under for longer periods, I’m sure I’d live in the water. I’d love to get one of those Third Lung Kits so you can just stay down without having to wear the dive tanks on your back. Just a weight belt and the regulator in your mouth and you can stay under for very long periods of time with the tanks staying in the kayak or on the boat. Might have to be my next purchase.
The day was amazing. I never tire of paddling and seeing these springs. Although I’ll admit by the time we reached the truck, my shoulders were tight and my mid-section was sore. The next morning, my legs would be aching even though they never bothered me the entire time we paddled. Stand Up Paddle Boarding, you end up using a lot of muscles you don’t even realize you’re using, but you’ll be gently reminded of them the next day each time you move.
By the time we had everything loaded up, we were all starving. This seems to be a recurring chain of events with our group. Wake up, EAT, do some sort of exercise, EAT, drink a bunch of beers mixed in during those events, EAT, go back to the camper sitting up watching the stars over the Gulf of Mexico, EAT…..repeat the next day.
So once loaded up, we headed to a local restaurant in High Springs, The Great Outdoors. This place is awesome and almost seems out of place in this small town. The town if literally one, maybe two blocks long, yet The Great Outdoors is the type of restaurant with the type of service you’d expect in a big city. The food is always amazing, the service 5 Star and the atmosphere is top notch. It would be a place I could see driving to High Springs just to visit.
Once we were all fed up, Cindy was asleep within minutes of hitting the passenger seat. I cranked the radio up to keep myself awake and drove the hour back to Cedar Key with Trev and Anne close behind.
Pulling back into Sunset Isle RV Campground, even though I was amazingly tired, I put my camera on the tripod and snapped a few photos of the Milky Way just because it was beyond amazing. Perfect ending to an amazing day