Whether you're a newcomer or a native, your Northeast Florida experience is incomplete without a trip to Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
I can't remember the first time I dipped my toe in those crystal-clear, 72-degree waters, because my family went nearly every summer for most of my childhood.
We made the two-hour drive in a convoy with neighbors down the street, a family with two boys, the younger of whom was a good friend. He and I always brought goggles and masks to investigate the head spring at the north entrance while we waited for our fathers to drop off a car at the south entrance. When they returned, we'd all head down the river for a three-hour trip of cold water, carefree fun and conversation.
At the end, we'd pile in the car and head back to the north entrance for a picnic of cold cuts and brownies. After an appropriate post-meal waiting period — remember those? — my friend and I would race back to the head spring for more swimming until our parents tore us away for the drive back home.
I'm sad to say that, until recently, the last time I made the trip was at least 20 years ago.
I realized that although I'm a native, my husband and daughter are essentially newcomers to Northeast Florida. And they had never been to the Ichetucknee until July Fourth weekend. We joined a convoy with my sister, my nephews, her boyfriend, his son and his friend. The addition of smartphones — we didn't have those on previous trips — helped us navigate and stay in touch during the drive, until the service dropped out.
All the old tube rental places are still there, but the original black inner tubes have been replaced by colorful, high-tech versions that include solid or net bottoms and pockets to store valuables. Some Cadillac versions seat two people.
We just missed the cutoff for entry at the north entrance, where there's a limit of 750 tubers a day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The north section of the river is shallow and sensitive and needs time to recover from the heavy summer traffic during the off-season.
We drove to the south entrance where we took a tram up to the mid-point launch and started our journey. We passed Dampier's Landing and floated down to the last tube take-out.
We saw several turtles sunning themselves on logs poking out of the river. I peered down into the water with goggles and caught fish hunting for algae in the lush eelgrass. Occasionally, one would break the surface and fly through the air, creating quite a show. We saw a magnificent white egret slowly wing past, skimming the water line until it disappeared around the bend. The park website says white-tailed deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, wood ducks and great blue herons can be seen from the river. My husband caught a peek of a deer crossing the tram path during one shuttle ride.
Visitors packed the river for the holiday weekend. Dozens of friends tied their tubes together to create giant flotillas. Daredevils, including my nephews and their friends, climbed fallen trees to dive into the river. My sister observed that tubing is the great equalizer: parents, children, grandparents, teens, young couples, college students — everyone can enjoy it together.
At some point in the past, park officials wisely banned food and drinks from the river to combat the litter problem that was harming the habitat. We were disappointed to smell one man who decided that smoking was appropriate on a pristine spring river. He had no answer when I asked him what he was doing with the cigarette butts.
We took the tram back to the south entrance and feasted on fried chicken, watermelon and chocolate cake before floating down the river twice more.
It's an experience no Northeast Floridian should miss: the perfect combination of family fun and an enjoyable environmental lesson.
In addition to tubing, visitors can swim, canoe, kayak or hike in the state park all
Once the site of phosphate mining, Ichetucknee Springs drew droves of nearby Gainesville college students for the popular summer ritual. The high volume of visitors overwhelmed the Loncala Phosphate Company and the area's natural resources. In 1970, the company sold the property to the state of Florida for development as a state park. The state cleaned up the river, and in 1972, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared Ichetucknee Springs a National Natural Landmark.
Springs like Ichetucknee are what give Florida its character. So many of these natural wonders are threatened by industries that want to extract even larger amounts of water and companies and consumers that pollute them.
Visit the Ichetucknee, Ginnie, Juniper or any of Florida's many springs and see why they're worth preserving.