“There’s one!” I call out to Eric. An enormous grey blob rises slowly to the surface of the crystal clear river, exhales loudly, and sinks again to the sandy bottom. It’s a West Indian manatee, a roly-poly aquatic mammal that seeks the warmth of Florida springs in the winter.
We’re kayaking the Ichetucknee River in northwest Florida. It’s one of our favorite spring-fed river kayak trips, in part because we usually have the opportunity to commune with a manatee or two. And in the winter or early spring, there are few other people around. We wait patiently, and the gentle giant decides to investigate our presence. It floats to the surface, exhales again, and swims lazily toward us.
With an overstuffed sausage of a body, a flat paddle-shaped tail for propulsion and small front flippers for steering, the manatee is an engagingly awkward creature. The wrinkly face and the wide, whiskered snout merely add to its appeal.
Closely related to elephants (the family resemblance is easy to see), manatees are enormous creatures—the average Florida manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs around 1200 pounds. One could flip our kayak in a heartbeat. But these docile herbivores seem incapable of doing harm. By nature, they’re curious—even friendly. The manatee sidles up to our kayak and floats beside us for a bit. It swims beneath our kayak a couple of times, and then moves back to its shallow turquoise pool, where it proceeds to perform a series of leisurely rollovers before sinking back to the bottom and resting.
Even if we didn’t see manatees, we would still love kayaking the Ichetucknee River. It’s a beautiful three-mile paddle from the headspring to the southernmost takeout point. Our favorite way to kayak the river is a six-mile round trip paddle—if you do this, put in at the south end, so that you have the current helping you on the way back downstream. (If you don’t have your own kayak, there are several good outfitters in the area.)
About the campground:
Because Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a day-use park only, we stay at nearby O’Leno State Park, just 15 miles down the road. Situated on the banks of the picturesque Santa Fe River, the park offers thirteen miles of hiking and biking trails that we put to good use. There’s always something fun going on at the park—while we were there this time, we enjoyed a wonderful presentation on owls given by volunteers from a local wildlife rehab facility and a free afternoon bluegrass concert given by musicians visiting from New England.
There are two loops in the campground; we much prefer the Magnolia Loop. The sites are more spacious and level, the road has fewer potholes, and it’s walking distance to the river and the start of the hiking trails. Water and electric hookups and decent Verizon coverage for a very reasonable $18.00 per night (gotta love the awesome Florida State Parks).
Next Up: Treasures Of The Forgotten Coast