Get Outdoors

Kayaking the Ichetucknee River in North Florida

I am the queen of the mini vacation. When I get a chance to take a quick getaway, especially if I have a free place to stay, I take it! That’s how I ended up in Newberry, Florida last weekend. My friend’s brother lives in Newberry, outside of Gainesville and near some of Florida’s most beautiful springs. We loaded up the kids and the kayaks and headed down to the Sunshine State for a kayaking adventure.

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Organizing gear.

When most people think Florida, they think huge beach resorts and Disneyland. There is so much more to Florida! Most people don’t think of it as an outdoor recreation destination, but it is. Between the hiking and biking trails, the natural springs, the rivers and the less famous beaches, there are a million cool trips you could take in the state.

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At the boat launch about to start our adventure.

 

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Rinsing off the kayaks at the boat launch.

We decided to kayak the Ichetucknee River, leaving from Ichetucknee Springs State Park. My grandad even drove up from Tampa to kayak with us! We were hauling 4 kayaks in a trailer and we didn’t have a second vehicle to park at a take out point, so we put in at the boat ramp in the state park and did an out and back trip. It costs $6 per vehicle to park, and it’s the deal of the century. Most people go to Florida for the big resorts, but they’re missing out on some of the most incredible outdoor scenery by skipping the state parks. The tagline for the state park system is “The Real Florida.” I have to agree. From the minute I paddled my first stroke, I was having a blast on the river.

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From the boat ramp, you take a right in your kayak to head down the river. The river moves at a slow but steady current. You don’t need to paddle except to steer. The river carries you at a pleasant pace for sightseeing. I can’t overstate how beautiful this trip was. Coming from north Georgia, it was a totally different landscape than I’m used to paddling in and the scenery did not disappoint.

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One thing that sets the Ichetucknee River apart is that it is kept as natural as possible. Green grass grows on the riverbed. Some privately owned springs will clear out the grass to reveal the white rock beneath, but it affects the ecosystem and the animals that hide out in and hunt for food within the grass. The state park doesn’t clear out any grass, so you’re traveling through an intact ecosystem. There are breaks in the grass where the white limestone bottom is visible. The water is exceptionally clear and the green grass and bright white bottom make a beautiful contrast.

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What makes the Ichetucknee so cool is that as you travel down the river, you pass multiple springs that pump millions of gallons of water into the river each day. We stopped and swam at Devil’s Eye spring.

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Looking down into the spring from my kayak.

We tied the kayaks to a downed tree and got out and swam and sat on the tree to eat our lunch. One thing to know about the Ichetucknee is that the riverbank is not conducive to pulling out your kayak and getting back on solid ground. There are very, very few places with a solid bank that would allow you to exit your kayak and explore. Once you’re on the river, you’re on the river to stay.

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The water is about 72 degrees, so not all that warm, but very refreshing when it’s in the 90’s! We brought snorkels and we swam over the spring and looked down into the deep hole where the water bubbles up. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Devil’s Eye area is, ringed with bright green foliage with a bright turquoise spring in the center.

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After playing around at Devil’s Eye, we continued down the river and saw some incredible wildlife. Huge alligator gar and other smaller fish swam beneath us, easily visible through the clear water. Turtles were a dime a dozen, some as small as a silver dollar, others the size of a small tire.

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Just past Devil’s Eye we spotted a BIG snake who had wound himself around a tree and was having a nap in the sun. We saw cranes and a hawk as well. My friend spotted a raccoon eating snails at the river bank, but I missed it. We also saw several dozen ducklings with their mamas.

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We could have stayed on the river all day, just floating lazily and taking in the views. If you have the option of a second vehicle to park at a take out point farther down the river, I’d recommend it. We really wanted to continue, but we knew we had to paddle home against the current so we turned and headed for the dock. The current isn’t strong enough to give you any real problems, just a good workout.

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On the way home, I had tied my daughter’s kayak to mine so that if she got tired of paddling, I could tow her. I stopped paddling for a moment to let her catch up to me and I drifted into a little tree at the edge of the river. Unfortunately for me, the tree was home to a hornet’s nest and I got stung three times on my face before I bailed overboard into the water to escape them. I pushed my daughter’s kayak away to try and prevent her from getting stung and then hauled myself back into mine.

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My face before getting stung.
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My face after getting stung.

Turns out I can add hornets to the list of things I’m allergic to. I paddled back just fine, but by the time I got to the launch point, my eye was almost swollen shut and I was itching so badly that I was making myself bleed with the scratching. I’ve been stung before and didn’t have a reaction, but this time I most definitely did. My lips swelled up and I had hives all over my body. We loaded up quickly and looked for a drug store to get me some Benadryl. Luckily we came across a pharmacy and I was able to get some Benadryl into my system. I will be getting an Epi pen and, from now on, Benadryl will be in my daypack whenever I’m outside.

On the way down, we were joking in the car about how Florida is the Australia of America. Lots of dangerous animals live there, everything from alligators to poisonous snakes and spiders, to panthers and giant boa constrictors. I ended up having a literal face to face encounter with the Florida wildlife when I got stung.

Even though my face swelled up like a balloon and I looked horrible for the last 2 days of my mini vacation, I had an absolute blast on the river and I’d do it again. It was a glimpse of the real Florida, the wild, beautiful Florida so far removed from famous cartoon mice and overpriced hotels.

If you’re kayaking the Ichetucknee, here are my tips:

  1. Stay away from the bank. That’s where the snakes and apparently hornets hang out.
  2. Make sure that you can get back into your kayak from the water if you choose to get out and go swimming. There are some shallow spots, but most of the river is deep enough so that you can’t hop back in easily.
  3. The water is so clear that it looks deceptively shallow. Stick your paddle in and touch the bottom and you might be surprised by how deep the water is. Check it before jumping in, especially if you don’t want to have to haul yourself back into your kayak from water you can’t touch bottom in.
  4. Bring rope so that you can tie your kayak to a tree while you swim. We used bungee cords but rope would have been easier.
  5. You don’t any special equipment other than a kayak or paddle board to do this trip. We have cheap kayaks from Wal-Mart, one Lifetime and one Sun Dolphin brand, and they’ve been GREAT. I spent hundreds less than other people and still have two awesome kayaks that we use all the time. You don’t need fancy, expensive equipment to go outside! Buy what you can afford and get out there!

 

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