I recently turned 16-years-old - apparently one of the most significant birthdays up there with 18, 21, and the over the hill 40 - and I was pestered constantly (by my older sister mainly) about what I wanted to do on that special day. Being the simple person I am, I told her "The family and a cake." And, due to the fact that I am one of the few people in the modern world who prefers peacefulness and solitude over large social gatherings, I tend to shy away from big parties.
I woke up Saturday the 26th, a couple days before my birthday, expecting a simple kayak trip down Juniper Creek that I had planned with my dad. This honestly would have been enough of a birthday "party" for me...especially considering how much of an experience it turned out to be.......
Driving down to the Ocala National Forest and to the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, we were both looking forward to what we thought would be a nice enjoyable paddle down Juniper Creek. The creek starts at Juniper Springs and snakes through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, an area largely untouched by man. It is a perfect place to spot many different kinds of subtropical flora and fauna, and to "get in touch" with much of it. We had thought that since this is a fairly large tourist attraction that the trip should be a simple drift for us without any significant obstacles. We were the first ones in the park, and looked forward to a day of relaxation........
We set off from the very nice canoe/kayak launch just a little downstream of the main spring. The water is only a few inches deep, scarcely deep enough to float a boat. The white sandy bottom is speckled by little boiling circles of sand, from which water bubbles up from the Floridian Aquifer. We ducked under some palm fronds and into a vast subtropical jungle, floating down a clear stream so narrow that the kayak would not be able to turn around if necessary......
This is the very nice launch at Juniper Springs Recreational Area. You can see how shallow and narrow the creek is when it enters the jungle toward the left of the picture.
Our kayak and soaked gear after pulling out. Notice the palm tree in the background to the left. This is the only place I've seen palm trees grow in such a wet place, and I actually saw one growing in the MIDDLE of the creek farther downstream. Palms usually like high, dry land areas. It's unusual seeing them right against the water like this.
This is a water hyacinth. Though non-native to the area, it is still a nice looking flower nonetheless.
This is Cardinal Flower. This stuff can grow in big clumps in swamps and I have heard that it can grow up to 5 feet in height. Notice how thick the jungle is in the background...There was a constant sound of wild animals moving about back there. One quite loud and powerful we assumed to be a black bear.
Let me tell you that every single part of this creek is worth a picture. If I took a picture of everything I thought was outstandingly beautiful I would have to upload 1000 pictures onto here. However, the trip was not a easy as we had expected...3 things on the way downstream combined to make our day quite a challenge:
- The stream for the first mile or so if only about 10-20 feet wide. Our kayak is 13 feet long. It's hard to maneuver with that little room.
- The current is quite strong (I'd say around 3 knots), and it wants to push you into obstacles and overhanging branches.
- The branches and brush. We are used to dealing with branches and brush because of our extensive experience with swamp kayaking. However, the current and the fact that there were palm fronds EVERYWHERE did not help us much. We really got up close and personal with the trees and the wildlife that lives in them (i.e. spiders, ticks, and maybe even some snakes)
I regret the fact that I did not take more pictues, but I was so focused on not ramming into the next log that I did not have enough time to pull out the camera and snap pictures for you. However, I did manage to get these:
After heading downstream about 4 miles, we came to a screeching halt. A log, freshly fallen, blocked the ENTIRE stream, and a plethora of brush and trees blocked off any portage route. We had 3 options:
- Get out of the kayak onto the log and pull it over while sitting on the log, and get back into the kayak and continue downstream.
- Get out of the kayaking into the fast-flowing waist-deep water and attempt the pull the kayak over.
- Turn around and go back against the current, and make it all the way back or make friends with a man who happened to have a chainsaw.
While trying option 1, we got rammed into the brush that was piled against the log and turned sideways to the current. Spiders crawled all over us and the current began to spill water into the kayak...a very bad situation. After what seemed like an eternity of maneuvering, untangling branches, and swatting huge spiders, we paddled upstream about 20 or 30 feet and held onto a branch as we considered the next 2 options. The fear of losing our footing in the swift water and getting sucked under the log eliminated option 2. And for all we knew there could be another obstacle like this one farther downsteam. We opted to turn back.
On the way back, we had a few more worries on our hands:
- Paddling against the current was not an easy task.
- Breaking the bad news to all the other paddlers.
- Having no way of contacting my mother, she would be worried sick about us returning a couple hours late from the wildnerness.
- I knew t-storms would develop later in the afternoon.
The first problem was un-avoidable; we just did what we had to do. The second was the same as the first; we just told them plain out that we could not pass and that we recommended them turn around unless they had a chainsaw. Some of these people were families who had never experienced this before. God bless them. We were lucky in the 3rd regard in that, somehow, we managed to get a cell phone signal in a wilderness area where there was no cell phone tower to be seen. We called my mom and told her "uh...we're gonna be a couple hours late" just before I lost signal. And as for the 4th problem.....It rained on us once....and absolutely POURED on us twice...buy you know what? Not a single rumble of thunder could be heard. And we were very lucky.....And a good thing happened on the way back: We passed by a good 7-8 foot alligator who was nice enough to allow us to get close enough for a couple good pictures before slipping into the water and swimming by us. I'll upload those later.
We arrived back at the canoe launch cold, wet, tired, carrying a few ticks, and ready to go home. On the drive home I looked forward to getting a nice warm shower and taking a nap. We pulled into a driveway full of cars. I walked into the house to a call of "surprise" by my family and friends. My response: "Ugh, it's so nice to see you all...but...I need a shower." The rest of my night consisted of food, friends, and laughs. Wow, what a day. I loved it.I would like you to meet my friend Chris: