Paddling the Santa Fe River

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More than 75 springs feed the Lower Santa Fe River in southern Suwannee County in northern Florida. Depending on the rainfall, visitors frolicking in the river may find it clear to the bottom or tannic, a brown tea color.

Jill Zima Borski

On Saturday, August 22, when the Florida Outdoor Writers Association kayaked the river with vessels provided by Rum 138 Outfitters, the water was dark; we couldn’t see two inches below the surface. However, there were multiple options for paddling into spring-fed pools where you could see through the spring-green water to the shallow bottom and where families played and picnicked.

The Floridan aquifer supplies the clear spring water that is filtered through limestone. According to scientists, when there is little rainfall, flow from the Upper Santa Fe River decreases and the springs, which supply hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day, make the Lower River clear. On our particular morning, tannin-stained water from the Sante Fe swamp and bottomlands made it brown. Still, surrounded by nature, majestic trees and a variety of birds and reptiles, a morning on the river was sweet respite from day-to-day cares.

The Santa Fe River derives its name from a Franciscan mission named Santa Fé de Toloca formerly located near the river.

We departed from Rum 138 headquarters on County Road 138 in Fort White, which also serves as a hair salon and art gallery. Owned and operated by Doug and Merrillee Jipson, Doug was our shuttle driver and told us a little about the river and our route for the day. The Rum 138 passenger van dropped off our group and kayaks at Alligator Rise, near U.S. Highway 27.

Whether in kayaks or canoes, we drifted and paddled four miles downriver to Rum Island, which is owned and maintained by the Columbia County Parks and Wildlife.

Some of us fished from our kayaks and canoes, some of us paddled for the first time, and others among us met new friends on the river. One couple from Jacksonville, Fla., with their three kids in a canoe said they had canoed the river when they were dating, and now that they have kids, they frequently load everybody up, pack a cooler, take turns paddling and just enjoy the time together on the river.

Among the scenery along the way were delicate cypress canopies and the trees’ knobby knees marching into the river, Spanish moss sharing its romantic appeal and Southern glamor, river cooters which are turtles that can grow to a foot long, and various riverfront homes ranging from rustic cabins to comfortable homes with landscaped yards. There was one spot with river ripples that we jokingly called “rapids,” which made our new kayaker nervous. But, other than giving our vessels a brief, swift push along, it was just a fun joy ride and nothing to worry about.

We stopped at Poe Springs to explore. The clear water gave paddlers the chance to swim in approximately 72-degree water and visit with the locals who were picnicking, grilling, swimming and playing. It is a 202-acre county park with nature trails and a playground. Its website says it is open Thursdays through Sundays. (See my story link below).

Another possible spring to visit was Lily Springs -- if we wanted to chat with Naked Ed, a character who has lived in the nude for decade. Ed used to work and live a normal life, but he has brittle bone disease, which runs in his family, and thus he lives off disability in the forest. He is naked because he is comfortable that way, but he is not an exhibitionist. He posts funny sayings near his humble abode and apparently is running for president in the “Grin and Bare It Party,” so his recent flyer attests.

We soon passed Rum Island for a quick visit at Blue Springs, a tremendously popular and crowded park with a boardwalk and jumping platform. Some snorkeled, some tubed, some observed nature from the boardwalk and everyone, it seemed, was having a good time. The writers’ time on the river ended as we made our way back against the slow-moving current to Rum Island, a free park that welcomes swimmers, fishermen, boaters, and picnickers. Feeling relaxed and happy, it was great way to spend a day. For more information, visit www.suwanneevalley.org or www.rum138.com.