Current Location: Pelican Roost RV Park, Mayport Naval Station, Jacksonville Florida
Cloudy and 64 degrees F at 11 AM
We spent a week at Oleno State Park, but the highlight of our week was actually a few miles away at Ichetucknee Springs State park. There is no state park campground at Ichetucknee Springs, and when planning this trip I decided that Oleno State Park would be a good place for us to explore the area and plan for a day on the Ichetucknee River.
One afternoon we made the drive from Oleno to Ichetucknee to check out the area and go for a swim in the famous Ichetucknee Spring. It was hot and sunny, but with Mo’s knee still giving her trouble we decided to save our kayak day for later in the week. An interesting feature we noticed was a wonderful paved bike trail that passed Oleno State Park, through the tiny town of Fort White, and continued all the way to Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Made us wish we had brought the bikes on this trip after all.
We found the headwaters of the spring, which was in a bit of turmoil due to construction and upgrades to the park infrastructure. It was just a short walk from parking to the spring area and the cool waters of the spring were a perfect antidote to a hot, somewhat muggy day. I managed to get over the first shock of the 72 degree water and within minutes was enjoying the rushing feel of swimming directly over the “boil”, the place where the crystal clear water emerges from the limestone cave below.
After I had my fill of swimming, Mo relaxed by the spring while I hiked the half mile along the river to another famous spot on the Ichetucknee, The Blue Hole. This underwater cave is especially popular with divers, and sure enough, there were divers at the hole coming and going.
The Blue Hole is much smaller than the main spring, and darker. I could barely see where the water emerged among all the dark green river grass.
The Ichetucknee is a spring-fed, pristine river. Most of its 6 mile length are within the state park, but couple of miles are south of Highway 27 and there are houses on that portion of the river as is flows into the Santa Fe River. The water in the river is crystal-clear and is 72 °F (22 °C) year-round. There are nine named springs within the Ichetucknee Springs group with an average total flow of 212 million gallons per day. The group includes: Ichetucknee Springs, Cedar Head Spring, Blue Hole Spring, Roaring Springs, Singing Springs, Boiling Spring, Grassy Hole Springs, Mill Pond Spring, and Coffee Spring. The Ichetucknee is a tributary of the Santa Fe River, which in turn flows into the Suwannee River before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
By Saturday Mo was ready to tackle sitting in the kayak for the length of the river. She wasn’t about to miss this beautiful water, and what we knew would be one of the best rivers in Florida. We followed the directions given to us by Laurel and Eric who say this is one of their most favorite rivers.
Parking on the south side of the park, just east of the Highway 27 bridge costs just $6.00. There is a loading zone, and a short walk down to an incredibly easy launch site, with railings, a non slippery board walk and steps leading directly into the river. The water was fairly high, so much of the launch boardwalk was inundated.
We knew we had approximated 4 hours of kayaking ahead of us, and both agreed if Mo’s leg started acting up too much we could simply turn around. Happy to say that wasn’t needed and we kayaked as far as we could go to the headwaters and the official upriver launching site. We chose not to try to get in and out of the boats at that point, and simply turned around for the easy glide downstream.
By leaving early in the morning, paddling upstream from the lower launch site, we had the river almost entirely to ourselves. Most people chose to launch at the headwaters and paddle downstream, and there are companies that will do a shuttle for a fee.
The current was strong and the river was high according to some folks we talked to, but paddling upstream wasn’t difficult in the least. The warm day brought out the tubers and the paddleboarders as well, and even though tubing isn’t technically allowed on the river until after Memorial Day, we passed many folks lounging on tubes going downriver.
The closer we got to the headspring, the more people we encountered, and when we turned around, we were among all those folks just idly sliding downstream thoroughly enjoying the crystal clear water, and the beautiful cypress forest.
The best part of the paddle happened just a short time after we launched. In a calm wide spot on the river, only a few hundred yards from the launch site Mo saw three manatees swimming beneath her boat. It was a thrilling moment, and the big gentle creatures swam slowly around us and below us, ever so gently, rising every few minutes to take a breath of air.
That soft whoosh of their breathing is such a sweet sound, and then watching them sink back gently to the river bottom to graze is somehow calming. I loved floating around with them, but we still had the entire river to kayak, so we left them to the grassy meal and continued on our way.
The river flows almost entirely through cypress swampland, and when we started everything was a bit gray and dingy. As the sun filtered through the morning fog and clouds it illuminated the tiny cypress and maple leaves that were just starting to pop with spring color.
It was a beautiful morning on the river, and took us just about 4 hours to paddle upstream and back down. Mo managed to get in and out of the boat without incident, and her knee was no worse for wear after the paddle than it would have been anyway. Which isn’t exactly good, but the river trip didn’t make it any worse, and we had a wonderful day.