Friday, November 18, 2016

Ichetucknee: All-star of the Springs Heartland

Ichetucknee River is spectacular in all seasons, but autumn is one of the best. This Sunday and again next weekend, we'll be doing an easy paddle down the upper 4 miles of the "Ich" (the entire portion within the bounds of Ichetucknee State Park).  When you see it you'll understand why Ichetucknee is considered an all-star of Florida's "Springs Heartland.". While its crystal clarity and lush growth of submerged vegetation is typical of Florida's 900+ artesian springs, the fact that it maintains this clarity for its entire six-mile run to the Santa Fe (compliments of nine named springs and a number of unnamed ones), is exceptional. But there's more to this river's celebrity than just clear water.

Ask a  hydrologist and he'll tell you Ichetucknee's story begins long before its emergence from its namesake spring in a namesake park. He'll tell you about its spring-shed--the underground equivalent of those above-ground watersheds so nicely diagrammed in our grade-school texts that show rain water running down hills and valleys into rivers. If he's feeling brave, he might begin at the beginning, describing a time when Florida was under a shallow sea and animal remains settled on the bottom. This accumulated and compacted for millions of years to form a layer of limestone 1,000 - 2,000 feet thick in places. He'll tell you about the vast network of hollow channels that formed in this rock and now carry underground streams and reservoirs of water called the Floridan Aquifer. It is water from this aquifer that makes up the bulk of water gushing from the springs of Ichetucknee.

By this point, our impassioned hydrologist will likely be alone--maybe with one or two sympathetic companions. If you happen to be one of them and foolishly feign a remnant of interest, he's likely to continue with a description of some creeks in Lake City that disappear into sink holes and join the underground channels of the aquifer as they course towards their eventual reemergence at the Ichetucknee springs. He'll watch your eyes as he makes this last statement to make sure you understand the implications. "Everything that washes into those creeks goes into the aquifer--our drinking water!" he'll say. "And some of it will emerge at these springs, where it will pass through the gills, wash the leaves and quench the thirst of every living thing it passes between here and the Gulf of Mexico." These springs aren't the beginning or the end of Ichetucknee's story, they are the middle--a brief interlude while the Big Girl does a set change.

As it gushes from the head springs to begin its six mile journey toward Santa Fe river, Ichetucknee begins as a narrow stream threading between 15 foot high walls of limestone. Sculpted by quick flowing water for thousands of years, the rock formations along this stretch are a wonderful contrast to the scenery we typically see on other Florida rivers. Soon, the high banks move further apart and become obscured by a fantastic variety of aquatic plant life and trees. Another mile and several springs bring us into a nice cypress forest which lines the river for the rest of the way.

By the end of the six mile run (a couple of miles beyond where we'll end this trip), the Ichetucknee's springs have combined to form a substantial river which adds nearly 233 million gallons of water to the Santa Fe river every day.

Great egret
Ask a Naturalist (ideally a Florida Master Naturalist--shameless plug) and she'll explain that, on its relatively short run of six miles, Ichetucknee passes through a surprising diversity of habitats. In the first quarter mile, it wends narrowly under a high canopy of bald cypress, ash, red maples, hickory and basswood. The lower shroud of redbud, Virginia willow, swamp dogwood and salt bush is crowded, in many places by a tangle of climbing hemp, ground nut and dodder vines. Phoebes, vireos and prothonotary warblers love this area, when they are here.

Fifteen minutes into the trip, we enter a broad wild rice marsh, where a nice mix of submerged and emergent vegetation supports a birders dreamscape of ibis, cormorants, anhingas, wood ducks, wood storks, great egrets and limpkins. Some summers we spot an occasional roseate spoonbill. When the river is running at above average levels, manatees ascend the river and are usually spotted in this marsh section.

An hour into the trip, you'll enter a more mature, high-canopied river forest of bald cypress, ash, red maples, tupelo, water oaks and hickory. Pileated woodpeckers, as well as a few smaller members of the woodpecker clan, like this area. Watch for barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, prothonotary and parula warblers and listen for yellow-billed cuckoos, tanagers, and red-eyed vireos.

Shhh! don't tell this beaver we can see him behind that blade of grass.
River otters are commonly seen in all sections of the river. Equally common, though less commonly seen, are beavers. After being trapped out of Florida in the 19th and early 20th centuries, beavers have re-expanded their range. The southern extent of their range is now the Suwannee and Santa Fe River basins (of which Ichetucknee is a part). The fact that they were here before the trappers arrived is confirmed in the river's name. "Ichetucknee" is a Seminole name meaning, "place of the beavers."

For many paddlers, the highlight of paddling Ichetucknee are its turtles. Suwannee cooters, yellow bellied turtles and others crowd nearly every large log along the river. Watch the river bottom for dark, fist-sized loggerhead musk turtles. Conversely, alligators are scarce. We haven't seen a gator on one of our Ichetucknee tours in over two years.


But your understanding of Ichetucknee's importance will be incomplete until you hear from a historian. Over the past 14,000 years, these waters have quenched the thirst of an amazing cast of characters beginning with the Paleo-Indians who left traces of their passing in the river bed and surrounding countryside. For several hundred years, right up to the arrival of Europeans, Timucua Indians lived near the head sporing in a village called Aquacaleyquen. They enjoyed the convenience of having a ready source clean, clear water to quench their thirst after a hard days work. So, too, did Hernando De Soto and his army--the first Europeans to sully this corner of the Springs Heartland. After storming the village and camping on the banks of Ichetucknee for a couple of autumn weeks in 1539 (during which time he held the chief and his daughter as human shields against the angry villagers), the Spaniards moved on to inflict their unique misery on native people throughout the southeast.

In the 1600's, Franciscan priests from the mission San Martin, which sat alongside the river a short distance below the head spring, baptized Timucuan converts in these waters. In 1704, this same water was used by Georgian soldiers to wash the blood from their hands after raiding and burning San Martin. Seventy years later, we can safely assume that Daniel Boone filled his canteen with Ichetucknee spring water as he traveled the ancient trail that passed near the headspring on his search for a Florida homestead.

But, that was the past. All we know of the future is that a small band of nature lovers is going to paddle down these same clear waters this weekend. Wanna be one of them? Call us for a reservation - (386) 454-0611. Otherwise, watch out website calendar for future dates -