Clear as a spring day

Time is right to kayak or ca­noe 4 great rivers from a base in Ocala

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Bon­nie Gross FloridaRambler.com

Florida beaches get all the tourist at­ten­tion, but some of the state’s most re­mark­able as­sets are the aquar­ium clear fresh­wa­ter springs in Cen­tral and North Florida.

There’s no bet­ter way to ap­pre­ci­ate their splen­did beauty than by kayak or ca­noe, and win­ter and spring are the best times to do it.

A great place to base your­self for a get­away de­voted to pad­dling the springs and the rivers they form is Ocala.

In the Ocala area, you can pad­dle four rivers in four days, and all are well-served by out­fit­ters that rent gear and liv­ery ser­vice. At all four, you can launch your own kayaks, too.

Beyond the beau­ti­ful wa­ter and veg­e­ta­tion, on these rivers you have a good chance to see wildlife — from man­a­tees to Amer­i­can ea­gles to al­li­ga­tors and even mon­keys.

Here’s a guide to help you make your travel plans.

Sil­ver Spring and the Sil­ver River

If I had to pick a fa­vorite of these four, it would be the Sil­ver River.

How can you beat this tri­fecta of wildlife ex­pe­ri­ences, all from a De­cem­ber trip? Rh­e­sus mon­keys scam­per­ing over­head in the tree tops, man­a­tees lolling around in wa­ter so clear you can see ev­ery scar on their broad backs, and hun­dreds of ibises, white wings flap­ping against bril­liant blue sky?

You be­gin your kayak trip at Sil­ver Spring State Park in Ocala, where the out­fit­ter rents clear-bot­tom kayaks as well as other kayaks and ca­noes. You can see the best of the river in two

hours of out-and-back pad­dling. (It’s not hard to pad­dle up­stream.) But, un­less it is an off sea­son week­day (as it was for us in early De­cem­ber), the out­fit­ter will pick you up five miles down­stream and liv­ery you back to the state park. If liv­ery ser­vice is avail­able, I rec­om­mend the down­stream trip.

Tip: This is a great river for begin­ners: Pad­dling is easy with the cur­rent and lit­tle skill in turn­ing is re­quired.

De­tails: flori­das­tate parks.org/sil­ver­springs

Ju­niper Springs in Ocala Na­tional For­est

Ju­niper is a Florida spring with a distinc­tion: It’s the health­i­est, most nat­u­ral spring in the state, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent as­sess­ment. The wa­ter at the spring­head is so clear and shal­low that boats ap­pear to float above white sand. Be­cause the spring-shed is largely within Ocala Na­tional For­est, the Ju­niper isn’t af­fected by fer­til­izer and sep­tic tanks, as are most Florida springs and rivers.

Ju­niper Run is also among the nar­row­est, with twists and turns that cre­ate in­ti­mate spa­ces where the cy­press trees and fo­liage sur­round you.

And therein lies the con­tro­versy about pad­dling Ju­niper Run. If you read on­line re­views at sites like TripAd­vi­sor.com, a num­ber of peo­ple call pad­dling here the “worst day ever.” There were enough com­ments about how dif­fi­cult this run is and how mis­er­able the ex­pe­ri­ence, we were pre­pared for some­thing very chal­leng­ing. We had pad­dled it a few years ago, but we fig­ured the trail must have de­te­ri­o­rated.

To our sur­prise, this run was as de­light­ful as we re­mem­bered. It does re­quire a pad­dler to be able to make some tight turns and in­ex­pe­ri­enced kayak­ers and ca­noers might find it frus­trat­ing. I say: Just bounce off the edges and laugh.

Tip: Get an early start, as no boats are al­lowed down the run in the af­ter­noon, in order to en­sure ev­ery­one fin­ishes by clos­ing time. Also: This is not a good “first river” if you’ve never pad­dled be­fore.

De­tails: bit.ly/2EmgZbq

Alexan­der Springs in Ocala Na­tional For­est

If you want a re­lax­ing, easy pad­dle with lots of birds and wildlife, Alexan­der Springs is a good choice.

If you only have an hour or two but want to ex­pe­ri­ence a river with crys­tal clear wa­ter, Alexan­der is for you.

If you want to see how two spring-fed rivers 20 min­utes apart can look and feel quite dif­fer­ent — then pad­dle Ju­niper and Alexan­der back-to-back.

We hadn’t planned to pad­dle Alexan­der, but when Ju­niper was closed due to a black bear fam­ily hang­ing out at the ca­noe launch, it was an easy sub­sti­tute. And we’re glad we got to ex­pe­ri­ence Alexan­der.

There are no mo­tor boats on this river and it is less in­ten­sively used than Ju­niper, so it was a quiet, bird­filled

trip whose high­light for us was see­ing an Amer­i­can eagle.

Tip: If you want to swim in a spring, Ju­niper is the best choice in Ocala Na­tional For­est. The spring basin is broad with a sandy bot­tom. Snorkel­ers and scuba divers en­joy ex­plor­ing the lime­stone rocks and boul­ders in the spring boil. De­tails: bit.ly/2T5dP3F

Ock­lawaha River along Ocala Na­tional For­est

The Ock­lawaha is prob­a­bly the least fa­mil­iar of the four rivers. Al­though it re­ceives all the wa­ter from the clear Sil­ver River, only the lower por­tion is clear spring wa­ter, as the Ock­lawaha be­gins to darken as tan­nins seep into the wa­ter from veg­e­ta­tion.

The Ock­lawaha forms the western bor­der of Ocala Na­tional For­est and thus it passed through wild and nat­u­ral scenery with an abun­dance of birds and wildlife.

The best part? Fewer peo­ple pad­dle the Ock­lawaha and the space seems vast. There are no tell­tale high­way sounds or power lines to bring you back to daily life.

Tip: If you want to do kayak-camp­ing in a wild place, the Ock­lawaha lends it­self to a multi-day out­ing with prim­i­tive camp­ing.

De­tails from an Ock­lawaha out­fit­ter, where you also can rent cab­ins: out­postre­sort.com/

Plan­ning your kayak or ca­noe trip to Ocala

If you’re a camper, your op­tions are many, from Sil­ver Springs State Park to the camp­grounds in Ocala Na­tional For­est.

We al­ways try to stay in the ex­cel­lent cab­ins in Sil­ver Springs State Park. Re­serve cab­ins via re­serveam­er­ica.com.

Other cab­ins are avail­able on the Ock­lawaha from Ock­lawaha Ca­noe Out­post. Info at out­post re­sort.com

FLORIDARAMBLER.COM

Ju­niper Springs near Ocala is the health­i­est, most nat­u­ral spring in Florida.

FLORIDARAMBLER.COM PHO­TOS

A manatee is easy to spot in the clear wa­ter of Sil­ver River near Ocala.

The Ock­lawaha River runs through Ocala Na­tional For­est.

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