Spot otters on Florida clear-kayak adventure

- 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 andgokayak­ or call (407)-2127306.

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