Of course I do, but so as not to seem impolite, my partner Alison and I make small talk with the bearded, bespectacled nudist descending full frontal to the perch on his deck. It’s not like spotting him was a complete surprise. He was among the exotic wildlife we’d hoped to see on this paddle down the Sante Fe River in central Florida, not far from Gainesville. He’s even listed as an attraction on the map of the river supplied by the unkempt guide who rented us the canoe. Still, the face-to… um… face meeting is disconcerting to all four of us, my 11-year-old son included. We ask Ed how long he’s been greeting visitors to Lily Springs, this clear pool a short paddle off the main river.
“Thirty-six years,” he answers. Alison observes how peaceful it is here. I develop a theory about why as I busy my eyes with the hand-painted signs tacked to the trees along the banks, one of which seems to explain Ed’s naturalist tendencies. “I can’t afford to go see the world, so I let the world come to see me.” My daughter rolls her averted eyes. She’s seen quite enough of Naked Ed. We let the crystal current from Lily Springs carry us back to the Santa Fe.
From beneath Florida’s flat landscape, eight billion gallons of water bubble from the state’s aquifers every day, the limestone substrate shot through with holes enough to give Florida one of the highest concentrations of springs in the world. The Wakulla Spring in Edward Ball Wakulla State Park near Tallahassee is a favourite among divers and paddlers. Wakulla is a giant rivalled only by Manatee and Silver springs, but these are just three of over 600 in central and northern Florida. Named for the gentle manatees or sea cows that winter in the relatively warmer waters there, Manatee Park is off limits to paddlers and even swimmers from December to March, although both are permitted in the Suwannee, that river of Florida’s famous state song, which is fed by a huge 75 foot wide spring.
Just on our short paddle we pass four of Santa Fe’s springs. One of them, Blue Springs, is privately owned. There are dozens of others, many preserved inside state parks. We drift in the shade of stately live oaks laden with Spanish moss in search of alligators – we’ve yet to see one on our March Break escape to Florida. But we soon realize that turtles and birds far outnumber alligators. Lined up on logs by the dozen as if stuck in a slow motion traffic jam, the turtles are easy to spot. By the time we arrive at our destination at Ginnie Springs a couple hours later, my son and I have counted 330 turtles, a couple dozen herons and some kites and ducks… but not a single alligator.
Families picnic on the riverbank next to Ginnie Springs where they’ve come to cool off in the 30 million gallons of water that gush up into the Santa Fe every day. A dependable 68 to 72 degrees, Florida’s springs are always perfect for a cooling dip. A set of steps leads to the water where a dozen people splash about. Most swimmers here can’t resist hovering over the limestone shelf visible beneath the clear waters. The lure of the dark mystery beneath – the entrance to dozens of other springs – has earned Ginnie Springs the reputation as one of the world’s best freshwater dives.
I can’t resist. Donning my mask and snorkel – a sight that draws guffaws from my family who are too intimidated to join me – I jump in and swim with small fish at the opening of the aquifer. But I dare not get too close – looking down the throat of a black, underwater cave undoes my courage. Anyway, it’s just about time for our guide to pick us up and return us and our rented canoe back to our car, so I take a last look around and swim to the surface.
From the canoe rental shack back in High Springs, we thank our kindly guide and head into town for some lunch. The kids lick ice creams while I survey the drink menu – an ice cold beer, that’s the thing… “Look at this!” I nearly shout, pointing to the only micro brewed beer on the list, one made exclusively for this restaurant, and in particular to the label featuring a bearded bespectacled nudist. We laugh together – my daughter rolling her averted eyes yet again – and I order a Naked Ed Pale Ale.
All photos by Darcy Rhyno
Family canoe trip in search of exotic wildlife on the Santa Fe River, Florida.
Turtle traffic jam on the Santa Fe River, Florida.
Spanish moss-laden live oak on the Santa Fe River, Florida.