Springs eternal

Florida's freshwater springs stay in your heart, even if they don't always live up to your memories.

click to enlarge LITHIA, I MITH YA: Lithia Springs's swimming hole was once the author's summer playground. - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
LITHIA, I MITH YA: Lithia Springs's swimming hole was once the author's summer playground.

We are only at its outskirts, but I can already hear the clamor of people at play in Lithia Springs Park's spring-fed swimming hole. Once, I summered on its man-made beach with my daycare crew, splashing in the shallows, daring each other to float over the deep end and its shadowy vents, playing hide and seek in the surrounding park. I don't remember hearing the bands of screaming children, probably because I was one of them. I also don't remember "No Swimming, Water Polluted" signs by the Alafia River — and I'm positive that back then it wasn't such an oily shade of brown.

My husband and I steer clear of the swimming hole and head down to the riverbank, staking a quiet spot where the clear spring meets the murky, contaminated river. To our right, a couple of boys fish from a small stretch of sand; to our left, the river curves into the woods, where a far-off commotion quickly grows into the shrieks and calls and rowdy chitter-chatter of a dozen or so children boiling out from the trees. They dash down a path that runs along the fenced-off river and swarm around us, some caught up in frenzied games of tag, others asking breathless questions about my husband's camera. They hang around long enough to rattle our nerves, but not long enough to give us a headache. We enjoy the ensuing peace and quiet for about one minute.

"You don't trust me? You don't trust me? Hey, now, hey — get away from there! Leave that kid alone, leave him alone, can't you see he's fishing?" A woman with a generous potbelly swinging below her stretched-out bikini top ambles toward us, alternately hollering into her cellphone at her missing honey and at the herd of children scampering ahead of her. "I love you. I love you! Aren't you gonna tell me you love me back? Hey, hey, get over here! "

I groan to myself. Is there no quiet contemplation of nature to be had at this place? I know it's been more than two decades since I've been here, and my impression is different because I'm not 6 years old anymore. But does it have to be like this?

Maybe I'm feeling pissy about the humdrum quality of Lithia because, for me, past visits to Florida springs have been anything but humdrum, serving as backdrop to many of my life's most unforgettable moments.

At 12, my best friend and I went on a camping trip to Manatee Springs with my aunt, cousins and a small group of family friends, including two boys around our same age. When we weren't swimming and diving or taunting each other with "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" chants from Friday the 13th, we were chasing the boys around and soulfully serenading them with "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" much to their mortification and our hilarity. I learned the finer points of flirting that weekend. I also learned the importance of lending a hand around camp; I didn't, and received such a royal reaming from my aunt afterward that I remember it to this day.

When I was 20, my boyfriend and I took a short road trip to his old Ocala stomping grounds, where we joined a few of his friends for an illegal camping excursion on Silver River. Robert, a wiry outdoorsman who spoke very little and wore all of his 42 years on his weathered face, took the lead; his sidekick, Chris, was a charismatic 20something country boy who made up for Robert's reserve by chattering away about anything and everything, but mostly about hunting for alligators. Chris brought his buxom blonde girlfriend, who clung to him timidly, smiled a lot and was all of 14 years old.

Our Silver River ride was nerve-wracking. We arrived at the launch after midnight, our small boat was barely big enough to hold all of our weight, and the leaky, gear-heavy canoe tied to its side didn't help. But Robert deftly steered us through the calm waters, Chris shining a huge beam of light ahead and (much to my dismay) pointing out the reflective eyes of gators that dotted the river's surface. By the time we found a site to stop, all our gear was wet, and I was jumping in fright at every splash. We set up camp and waited for our stuff to dry. Robert started a fire, Chris cooked up some gator meat, and I ate it and thought about the irony: A few moments before, I'd imagined the gators eating me. The next morning I staggered from the tent grumpy and tired from trying and failing to fall asleep on still-damp bedding. My mood lifted as soon as I glimpsed the crystalline beauty of the Silver River in the bright morning sunlight; I felt even better after I took a serene boat ride down the river and watched the colony of wild rhesus monkeys swinging in the trees, and I was fully rejuvenated and ready to face the day after taking a swim in the cool clear waters. That morning, for the first time ever, I fully realized he positive effect of nature on the soul.

Several years later, my then-boyfriend, now-husband Phil and I took our first canoe trip together ever on the lovely Weeki Wachee River. We went with two other couples and rode with the current, but it was stronger in some spots than others, and soon enough, Phil and I were bickering and at times, downright shouting at each other about steering and slowing down and stopping. We crashed into shrubby, buggy riverbanks too many times to count, but ultimately, we learned how to work together. The second time we canoed the Weeki Wachee, even though it was upriver and we were paddling against the current, we were prepared for the struggle and faced it rather calmly. We even exchanged knowing smiles when Phil's brother and sister started to scream at each other about steering and slowing down and stopping in the canoe behind us.

The last time I enjoyed some quality spring time was a camping trip to Ginnie Springs on Memorial Day weekend. 'Course, every local yokel in the area had the same bright idea as I did, and we found ourselves the sole group of cityfolk amid a huge throng of fun-loving, truck-driving rednecks. I must have heard "Sweet Home Alabama" blasting nearly a dozen times that weekend, no joke.

Phil picked out the inner tubes for our excursion. We didn't really realize they were good for a car tire, but not so good for floating, until we took the dinky little things out of their boxes at the campground's pump and, with hope and doubt in our hearts, filled them up to their full size, which turned out to be about as big as a hemorrhoid pillow.

When my husband leapt from the launch onto his tiny inner tube, he sunk straight to the muddy bottom with a lot of splash and little grace. I will never forget his expression when he burst to the surface, his glasses askew and a shit-eating grin plastered on his face.

I stare out at the swimming hole of my childhood. It looks the same, but it's smaller and crowded with bodies, some floating on the water in inner tubes, others lounging in the shallows with their youngsters playing in the muddy sand. Tweens and teens are huddled in groups of twos and threes, gossiping and giggling, sending text messages, waiting in line to buy hot dogs and Hawaiian ices from a concession truck that's pulled up near the spring's outer fence.

What did I expect at 3 o'clock on a warm Saturday afternoon — a fortress of solitude? Why would East Tampa and Brandon-area folks want to go anywhere else? Lithia Springs Park is an ideal place to bring the fam — it's closer than the beach and undoubtedly safer with lifeguards on duty at all times. There's an abundance of picnic tables with grills, a playground, a smattering of nature. It's a place to create fond memories for your kids, not necessarily a place you go to connect with nature. It's for the young to enjoy, not a cynical adult who's seen some of the most magnificent springs that Florida has to offer.

As we make our way out, a man not much younger than me seems to echo my thoughts. "My dad used to take me here all the time when I was kid," he tells his friends as they pack their car. "I don't remember it sucking so much."

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