Spring Fever

Get your feet wet with a guide to four of Florida's freshwater springs.

Florida's incredible system of natural springs is part of the state's cultural ecology. They range from park to wilderness, kitsch to sublime, forming a diverse landscape, where beauty lies not only in the springs themselves but also in the ways we respond to them.

The state has 27 first-magnitude springs. That's a flow exceeding 65-million gallons per day, or 1.3-million bathtubs. Geologists suspect that the concentration of freshwater springs in Florida is the world's largest.

The springs are formed by water seeping into a recharge area roughly from north Florida to Georgia and Alabama. It percolates into the aquifer, sifts through a maze of underground channels and caverns, then reemerges at a year-round temperature of 72 degrees through crevices and holes in the ground.

Nearly 600 springs have been mapped throughout the state, and countless smaller ones remain undiscovered. They cluster along the coast of Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco counties and bubble to the surface in forests and hammocks near Ocala. They bunch along the Suwannee and its tributaries, northwest of Gainesville.

Floridians have built zoos around springs and stocked them with mermaids to lure travelers. Natives and transplants alike dive the caverns, gaze into the blue depths through glass-bottom boats, and float down spring-fed rivers in inner tubes, plastic rafts and $2,000 kayaks. They wall the boils into swimming holes — or sometimes, just let nature be.

Different springs have different cultures, yet each possesses an otherworldly, sometimes terrifying, beauty.

You could spend a long time touring Florida's springs. To get your feet wet, here's a short guide to four of the more prominent springs.

Where the Manatees Roam

Homosassa Springs is the easiest place to experience what's loosely called the "real Florida." You enter the park from U.S. 19, trading strip-malls for the tranquil Pepper Creek, and journey by boat to the visitors center. The boat ride alone is worth the price of admission. I saw a gator, several kinds of turtles and a nesting osprey, and got my first clean look at the natty wood duck.

The main attraction once you're in the park is manatees. Homosassa Springs provides a recovery center, and they are year-round residents. A fishbowl observatory sunk into the spring lets visitors go below the surface and have a look without getting wet.

The park has just opened an expanded section of the Wildlife Walk, a shady boardwalk that winds along the animal exhibits. Great for people in wheelchairs, toddlers or the elderly (a rest area is never far off), the walk offers close-up views of endangered, threatened, or just cool species, such as flamingos, a whooping crane, and the only key deer in captivity.

Nature adapts itself to the park at Homosassa. Early morning rattles with the squawks of flamingoes and the fluttering cluck of turkeys and sandhill cranes. Of the eight sandhills at the park, six are residents; the other two are migratory and stuck around.

Two Texas cougars, Sheena and Maygar, are stand-ins for the Florida panther. They stalk squirrels from behind a log — their haunches raised, necks low to the ground. Occasionally one of the cats catches her prey and carries it to the Plexiglas, leaving the carcass for guests to admire.

Some visitors get upset. The rangers don't mind. This is nature, they explain.

Crowding on the River

The state parks service bills Ichetucknee Springs as Florida's most pristine spring-fed river. And every summer, visitors by the thousands flock here to tube these crystalline waters.

For good reason.

A series of springs feeds into a 3.5-mile run, where turtle, bream, bass, mullet and carp put on a show. Phosphorescent banners of eel grass wave in the lazy current; pools of sand take on a brilliant blue that one local artist described to me as "alien glow." At midpoint, the river widens into a forest of majestic cypress.

When my partner and I paddled the Ichetucknee in March, the spider lilies had begun to bloom. We pulled aside for a closer look — from a white star-shaped cup, six thin petals curve out and around six long stamens, crowned by a rich yellow anther. Both gaudy and delicate.

In summer, it will be a different river. Rangers allow only 750 people at the upper entrance and they close the south gate when admission reaches 3,000 — which it does frequently. Doing the Ichetucknee will require some strategy. Avoid weekends, get a very early start, and call the park for instructions.

But Huck Finn had a point: "Life is pretty free and easy on a raft."

Spring Hopping

For $25, Ocala National Forest offers a "Spring Hopper" pass (good for two days and a carload up to four people) to five swimming holes. My favorite of the five is Juniper Springs.

The Civilian Conservation Corps walled in the springhead in the 1930s, creating a natural swimming pool. Moss has grown over the masonry work, and the structure remains solid. I can only wish that my tax dollars funded projects like this today.

At the concession stand, a canoe outfitter offers journeys into the forest primeval. Be forewarned: Most of the 7-mile run passes through wilderness, and while my partner and I are an experienced canoe team, we hit our share of snags.

But, oh, the beauty. At first glance, the river appeared sandy — until I realized that I was looking straight to the bottom. Deeper pools have that alien glow, somewhere between turquoise and cornflower. We passed through savanna and a forest of centuries-old cypress, live oak and palm.

Breathtaking.

After a hard paddle and a dip in the pool, check out Fern Hammock, the second (and more naturally preserved) springhead at the end of a nature trail. The spring is fringed with ferns, palm, and live oaks billowing with Spanish moss. Sand bubbles ominously from the bottom. Turtles and fish glide through what seems to be surface without depth. Call it sublime — a beauty that induces terror.

Another Roadside Attraction

At Weeki Wachee, the stage-worn curtain rises for another show, and I am struck once more by the liquid light of a Florida spring. Since 1947, mermaids have performed underwater ballets here. James Garner came in his Maverick days; so did Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Don Knotts and Elvis. But center stage is still the spring — 100 feet across, depth probed to 400 feet but never measured, pumping out 170-million gallons per day.

Today's performance (the same as my last visit) is The Little Mermaid. A pair of brunettes, in blue bikinis and velvet tails, swims toward the audience. Their long hair waves seductively in the current as they lip-synch a catchy opening, "We've Got the World by the Tail." They smile between breaths filched from a tube of compressed air. A jack crevalle wanders in and out.

Weeki Wachee Springs hearkens back to a pre-Interstate era of attractions that showcased Florida's natural beauty. Today it casts itself as a nature park but it has struggled recently. The main attraction (besides mermaids) is Buccaneer Bay, where four water slides plop into the spring. On a riverboat cruise, the pilot tosses off patter to the tourists (and fish to the pelicans); a grab bag animal show displays "misunderstood creatures."

When Walt Disney World and I-75 began siphoning tourists toward Orlando in the 1970s, Weeki Wachee started its decline. The previous owners neglected the grounds, then donated the park to the city of Weeki Wachee. Present management, while passionate about the park, has mired itself in silly legal controversies.

The upshot: Weeki Wachee is one of the few springs that I would visit on a weekend. I long for the days of Elvis and Don Knotts, for hourly performances in the mermaid theater, new shows every year. But as I finished the boat ride and waited for "misunderstood creatures" on my last visit (granted, a Monday), I bought a Popsicle — because there was nothing else to do.

Mermaid Jessica is 19, a local, and proud of Weeki Wachee's rich tradition. I met her in a staff lounge between the 11 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. shows; performers wandered in and out, wearing terrycloth robes and heating their lunch in a microwave.

The tourism industry has changed, but the park has not. Tourist meccas in Orlando suck up dollars that once went to roadside attractions — to the water skiers at Cypress Gardens, the mermaids, and the 'Gator Jumparoo. A different kind of nature draws crowds today: tourists want the rat in Orlando or the "real Florida," manatees and plastic rafts through wilderness. Mermaid Jessica summed up the shift with glum clarity: "We used to be world renowned."

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, U.S. 19, Homosassa, 352-628-2311, www.hsswp.com. Admission: $9 adults, $5 ages 3-12.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park, State Road 38, Fort White, 386-497-2511, www.FloridaStateParks.org. Admission: $5 (not including tubes, available from vendors outside the park).

Juniper Springs Recreation Area, off of U.S. 40, Ocala National Forest, canoe vendor: 352-625-2808. Day use fee: $4. Canoe rental: $26.

Weeki Wachee Springs, corner of U.S. 19 and State Road 50, 352-596-2062, www.weekiwachee.com. One-day ticket: $19.95 ages 11 and up, $15.95 ages 3-10.

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