Spot ot­ters on Florida clear-kayak ad­ven­ture

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Sarah Sekula JUSTIN BUZZI

APOPKA, Fla. — It’s a warm Thurs­day morning in June as ci­cadas belt out their sum­mer an­them, wood­peck­ers tat­too the trees and frogs join forces in what can only be con­sid­ered a wel­come cho­rus.

The ca­coph­ony of sounds sur­round­ing us com­bined with the swiftly mov­ing 70-de­gree wa­ter – which, in some spots, looks quite turquoise – trig­gers an in­stant calm­ing ef­fect. As our pad­dles slice through the wa­ter, I have high hopes of spot­ting ot­ters to­day.

Kayak­ing down a nar­row canal, we set out for Emer­ald Cut, Bon­sai Bend and a place that one of the guides has dubbed Juras­sic Park. As the names in­di­cate, th­ese are all scenic spots worth ex­plor­ing at Rock Springs Run State Re­serve. Leave the crowds be­hind by re­treat­ing to Florida’s Rock Springs Run State Re­serve.

As I drag my fin­gers over the sur­face of the wa­ter, it hits me: this is the ex­act op­po­site of my pre­vi­ous day spent rid­ing roller coast­ers at a lo­cal theme park. Lo­cated about 40 min­utes from Or­lando, th­ese nat­u­ral, free-flow­ing springs are a wel­come respite for the the­mepark weary.

And be­cause the wa­ter is so stun­ning, a clear kayak is one of the best ways to ex­plore. It acts as a gi­gan­tic mag­ni­fy­ing glass and makes for a fun way to catch a glimpse of ot­ters and fish as they swim by.

But don’t for­get to glance at the sur­round­ing for­est where it’s not un­com­mon to spot deer, herons and egrets and the oc­ca­sional black bear.

“If you’re lucky, you’ll see three or four ot­ters swim­ming to­gether along­side or even un­der the kayak,” says Justin Buzzi, owner of Get up and Go Kayak­ing and one of my guides for the day. “One time I was out here, and I ac­tu­ally had a fam­ily of ot­ters fol­low me the en­tire tour which was about two hours. And they swam about 5 to 10 feet be­hind me the whole time, just en­joy­ing the wake I was putting off be­hind.”

In the sum­mer­time, it’s also com­mon to see deer through­out the day.

“When the tem­per­a­tures rise, they like to get a re­fresh­ing drink or swim in the cool springs,” Buzzi says.

By now, we’re at the en­try point to Rock Springs Run, where a rope swing hangs from a mas­sive oak tree and the wa­ter be­comes a lot more clear.

As we pad­dle along, Buzzi and side­kick Austin Stoner fill me in on the nat­u­ral sur­round­ings and give me tips on pad­dling. It’s all up­stream at first, so it makes for a great work­out.

It’s not too long be­fore we find a kayaker who is quite giddy; he’s just spot­ted ot­ters up ahead, “right past the 90-de­gree bend.”

We’re all on high alert, even though there are lots of 90-de­gree bends out here. Since I’m in the front seat of the kayak with Buzzi, I dub my­self the chief ot­ter spot­ter.

And soon we do, in­deed, come across a splish-splash to the right near some lily pads that could very well be ot­ter-gen­er­ated. We qui­etly inch a bit closer, but no dice. Said ot­ter has left the premises.

In lieu of ot­ters, we snap pho­tos of Bon­sai Bend, where a ma­jes­tic oak curves just above the wa­ter. Stoner amuses him­self by climb­ing to a plat­form at Ja­cob’s Is­land and can­non ball into the wa­ter be­low – twice.

“We do see a few gators on our tour out here,” Buzzi says. “I think a lot of peo­ple have a mis­con­cep­tion that gators are just go­ing to ap­proach them and that’s not the case out here. Of­ten, when we do see them, they are on the shore­line try­ing to get some sun.”

As the rain clouds roll in, we quickly pad­dle back to our start­ing point. The breeze picks up and the sky dark­ens, mak­ing the tree canopy over­head and sur­round­ing for­est look rather fore­bod­ing. But it’s eerily ma­jes­tic and I love it.

A day at the springs is proof that the cen­tral Florida area is much more than just roller coast­ers and Dis­ney princesses. (The best part: This isn’t the only nat­u­ral spring in Florida. There are many scat­tered through­out the Sun­shine State.)

“When I’m done pad­dling out here or swim­ming in the wa­ter­way, I feel re­ju­ve­nated,” Buzzi says.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit getup and­gokayak­ing.com or call (407)-2127306.

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