The Ichetucknee: Tubing the lazy river
The tube run can last for three hours on the Ichetucknee River. (FLORIDA STATE PARKS)
It's hard to think of one, however, when the gentle current is nudging you along, your legs and backside dipped in the crystal-clear, 72-degree river as sunlight filters through a canopy of oaks and pine trees and bakes the skin enough to make the chilly water seem heavenly.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah: It's the ultimate lazy river.
About an hour northwest of Gainesville on U.S. Highway 27, just outside of tiny Fort White, the tubing at Ichetucknee Springs State Park has been a rite-of-passage for University of Florida students for decades. In the old days, they used to dangle six-packs into the cold water on ropes attached to industrial black inner tubes. (Park rules now prohibit any food, drink, tobacco or disposable items on the river.)
Now, tubing has become a more highly evolved attraction, with an array of businesses renting brightly colored tubes, as well as canoes and kayaks. In the busy summer season, when the full 6-mile length of the river is open for tubing, weekend days can be crowded enough that access is closed for capacity. It's best to arrive early.
Even so, an Ichetucknee excursion is a bargain for a $6 park admission and about as much for a tube.
And even on the busiest days, the unspoiled scenery on the river is like stepping into a time capsule to the earliest days of the area's settlement in the 17th century. About a mile downstream from the headspring of the river, a Spanish mission site, San Martin de Timucua, has been identified as one of the major interior missions once serving the settlement of St. Augustine.
Blissfully, most of the pleasures on the river aren't so academic. Look down through the mirror-like surface of the water and you can clearly see the soft-sand bottom (an average depth of 8-feet) or the gently swaying vegetation, as well as tiny (and not so tiny) fish darting below.
Although it's possible to see white-tailed deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, wood ducks and great blue herons from the river, it's much more likely to encounter turtles sunning themselves quietly on one of the tree trunks extended over the water. On a recent visit, I stopped counting them when I reached two dozen.
(Worried about gators? Don't be. The water is way too cold for them.)
In the summer season, there are several tubing options.
For the most time on the river, arrive early to embark on a 3-hour float from the park's north entrance. The arrival time is particularly important on weekends, because the park has a limit of 750 tubers per day to protect the ecology of the river.
Someone in your party will need to drop off the tubes and tubers at the north entrance and take your vehicle to the take-out point at the south parking lot, where a shuttle van will return the driver to the starting point. While waiting at the north end, there is swimming available at the head spring and nearby Blue Hole Spring, a favorite of scuba divers for its 32-foot underwater entrance to a series of caves that stretches 12 miles north to Lake City.
Tubers can float for two-and-a-half hours to Dampier's Landing or continue another 30 minutes to the final pick-up point. You also can start at the river's mid-way point for a 90-minute trip.
There are no tube rentals in the park, but the rates are reasonable at the rental companies that dot the rural roads outside the park. A word of warning: Don't get the small one.
On my first visit, I opted for the smallest tube available, the better to fit into the trunk of my Mustang. While it was fine to straddle belly-down, it wasn't until I encountered others on the river that I realized I had bought a child's tube. "Are you stuck in there?" the guy with the tube company asked me as he watched me try to wriggle it around my waist at the end of my first run. He kindly upgraded me for my next one.
At Lowe's Tubeland, single tubes rent for $5, with 2- or 3-person rafts available for $10 or $15. Tubeland's Gary Ehrhardt, who has lived in the area for most of his 61 years, recommends visiting the park on weekdays to avoid the crowds. That's the strategy of Wayne Bennett, 60, who lives about a mile away, and visits usually once a day for a dip in the spring-head swimming area.
"It won't be quiet like this for long," he said on a recent lazy afternoon. "When the kids get out of school, it really gets busy. I come down here right when they open the gates in the summer and get my hour in. It's so rejuvenating."