Before I got heavily into kayaking my main outdoor activity was backpacking. Yes, there are some fantastic backpacking opportunities in Florida! Even if we don’t have mountains we have forests, streams and even some swamps to tromp through. As a former long-distance hiker I still have many friends in the hiking community and one group, started by one of these friends, is Trail Dames – a hiking group for “curvy” women. I.e., women who don’t look like the models that appear in the equipment catalogs and online gear retailers. Too short, too tall, too skinny, too weak, too fat, too old, … In other words, ordinary women rather than the lovely young things that grace the media and make people believe that that is how you must look in order to try backpacking.
In April the local chapter of Trail Dames asked me to lead a beginner kayak day trip for them in June. So I was faced with finding a place in north-central Florida that could 1) accommodate up to 16 beginning paddlers, 2) offered nearby camping and motels for those who were coming from a distance, 3) offered opportunities for swimming, or a least cooling off, 4) was serviced by a rental company that shuttled, 5) was suitable for people who had never kayaked before, and 6) was short enough but also fun enough that we could meet up around 10 am and be done by around 3 pm.
After a lot of thought the area I chose was what I call the “Springs Section” of the Santa Fe River – from the River Rise boat ramp on US 27 near High Springs, FL to Rum Island County Park. I contacted RUM138 and arranged for a discount for the group and they agreed to handle both the rentals and the shuttle at both ends. I also talked a friend who was a good paddler and whom I could count on from a safety aspect to paddle sweep for the group.
The “Springs Section” of the Santa Fe River
I met my friend Cassie at the River Rise boat ramp at 9 am, we unloaded our boats off to the side. (We did this because there are very few outfitters I trust to haul my personal boat.) While she stayed to watch the boats I drove to RUM 138 to meet the participants. By 10:15 am most of them had dribbled in. Their leader gave a 1/2 hour talk about Trail Dames and hot weather safety then RUM138 was ready to load them on the shuttle bus. But first, and this is one thing I really like about RUM138, everyone was helped in picking out a kayak. Some had preferences (SOT or sit-inside), some wanted to trip out a specific model, some didn’t know what kind of boat they wanted, and RUM138 helped each of them make the decision then loaded their boats on the trailer.
Due to all this it was after 11:00 before we arrived at the boat ramp, so I was really glad I had picked a very short paddle! We unloaded all the boats, got everyone’s gear loaded up, then I gave a short overview of what they would see on the river, how to hold a paddle, how to get in and out of a kayak, and some safety precautions – just enough to get them started safely. As it turned out, about 1/2 of them had not only paddled before but had paddled the Santa Fe many times, so there were only 4 real newbies in the group. The newbies clustered around me in the front and Cassie in the back and we kept a sharp eye on them for the first 2 miles down to Poe Springs County Park.
Setting off at the US 27 bridge
Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) circling overhead
At Poe Springs County Park we got out on the limestone shelf at the entrance and walked up the run into the park for lunch. After lunch and a bathroom break, some swimming and playing in the run we took off again for Lily Springs, only another mile down stream. We had some fun going through the shoals just below Poe, but the water was high enough it only caused some bumps going through, so long as they followed my line to avoid the shallow water.
Kush seems to be enjoying the bumpy shoals as much as we are.
Common Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) – an exotic invasive we hate to see on our rivers
Immature Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) with fish
Since my last trip earlier in the month at extreme low water we had had over 7 inches of rain, so we were able to paddle up the run to the springs area and the springs had been flushed of all the algae that had clogged it. We had a wonderful break there playing in the springs.
Having fun at Lily Springs
Florida Cooters (Pseudemys floridana) basking in the sun to get rid of the algae
American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) in bright red breeding integument
Setting off again we paddled to Jonathan Spring which was about waist deep and gorgeously clear – one of my absolutely favorite springs. By this time it was almost 3:00 pm, but we were only a few minutes from our take out at Rum Island. I offered the group to continue on down to Gilchrist Blue Spring, but the consensus was to stop at Rum.
Crystal clear Jonathan Spring
Enjoying Jonathan Spring
RUM 138 was at Rum with a trailer so we were able to load up quickly. Rum 138 offered to come back later to pick up the people if we wanted to see the spring there and take a last swim, but again everyone decided they were done for the day and we returned to our cars at RUM138. After picking up our personal boats at Rum Island and hauling Cassie back to US 27 boat ramp, Cassie and I met up with most of the rest of the group at The Springs Diner in High Springs for an early supper together.
Sharing supper at the Springs Diner in High Springs
So – it was a rather logistically complicated trip which led to almost more time spent getting going as actually on the river, but the newbies learned that kayaking is not all that complicated and everyone had a good time. If I ever do this again with the group I will make sure we go someplace where the outfitter is right on the river so we can get on the water faster as well as insist that we start much earlier in the morning. Lesson learned.