Head north from Mount Dora, FL about 45 minutes and you'll find yourself in Ocala National Forest. A vast flatland with numerous springs and home to a ton of wildlife including black bears, alligators, bobcats, and manatees. When we were driving from St. Augustine to Mount Dora, we passed through the perimeter of Ocala NF and saw signs warning of black bears crossing. We thought they were a joke - apparently they are not. There are black bears in the backcountry of Florida and I was amazed and thrilled that my search for bears had not ended in the remote areas of New England. Sadly, my search for bears did not end in Florida... However, during our visits into the park, we did see many manatees and even one enormous gator. We'll start with the manatees, as those graceful creatures were in full migration mode during our trip up to Blue Spring State Park.
Blue Spring State Park covers 2,600 acres just southeast of Ocala NF and includes the largest spring of the St. John's River. The spring is warm, crystal-clear waters that serve as a winter refuge to hundreds of manatees. On any given day in the colder months of the year, you can visit the spring and be guaranteed a manatee sighting.
When we arrived at the entrance to the park, we were informed by the ranger that close to 65 manatees were currently in the spring. Excitedly, we got in line with the many other cars working their way towards the parking lot. The main parking and picnic area was packed. Hoards of families and couples congregated on the lawn in front of the historic Thursby House, while many others worked their way up and down the boardwalk along the spring. Like any other wildlife attraction, Blue Spring is not a tranquil place to commune with the peaceful manatees in their natural habitat. It is more like a zoo on Saturday morning. But the manatees are worth it, I promise.
Unlike other wild animal encounters, you are guaranteed to see a manatee in the clear waters of the springs on the right day. Along the boardwalk, there are numerous viewing platforms and when we arrived at the first one, we immediately saw one of the great sea animals meandering through the water. Also, these creatures are in no hurry, so photography is excellent and I took so many great shots from virtually every platform.
We opted to do the entire boardwalk, which is only a quarter mile. At one point along the walk, we noticed a few fellow tourists had stopped to intently watch something in the jungle. When we caught up with them, we joined in the observation of a family of wild pigs anxiously rooting in the ground beneath the wooden trail. After we completed the trail, we cut through a picnic area to get back to the main parking lot and joined another group of spectators when an armadillo was spotted. The unconcerned creature was too busy pushing around mounds of dirt to notice the crowd it was attracting only a few feet away.
In a very short amount time, we had ogled at three different types of animals, so we declared the trip a success and headed to the nearest town to celebrate.
The second trip to a spring, while similar in botanical features, couldn't have been more different in experience and mood. It also only consisted of myself and my sister, Courtney. Shaun was in Portland at the time and Maury (my sister's fiance) was at work. This was to be a sister bonding day and we opted to go canoeing down Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest. A seemingly enjoyable and wholesome activity. Nothing short of an imagined horror film plot ensued. Not that anything really happened in reality, but our imaginations got the better of us and left us basically traumatized from the hours spent on those waters.
First of all, we discovered that this leisurely canoe trip was 7 miles, for intermediate canoers only, and considered a technical route. Okay, we're both fairly athletic and how hard can canoeing be really? Turns out, much, much harder than you'd think. So, we set off with our paddles and life-jackets, toting our long boat on a little dolly, towards the trail that led down to the water. As we approach a trail that was blocked off with orange cones, a ranger trotted over and pulled them up.
"Ladies, you can go ahead and take this trail. It's a much faster route down to the spring and while there were some bears here earlier, we think they're gone now!" he informed us.
Lucky us... So, with some concern, we turned our dolly down the now theoretically bear-free path and eventually got our canoe down to the spring without incident.
Now, when I think of a spring, I think river. Wide enough to perhaps view the wildlife, but not really come into contact with it and where the water provides some sort of boundary protection. The spring was maybe four feet wide where we put in and rather than the water providing protection from the forest creep, it put you eye-to-eye with it. Dense foliage intruded on both sides of the bank and were strung thickly with spider webs. As my sister put it, we were about to be served up to the Florida jungle like sushi on one of those boat platters.
At this point, I don't think we were fully aware of what we were getting into, but about 10 minutes into our little canoe trip, our reality was becoming increasingly more terrifying. When they mean that a route is 'technical', that is referring to the number of tight turns you have to make to navigate the run. Turn after turn, we tried our best to steer our boat to avoid getting caught in the spider-webbed branches of the thick bushes on either side of the banks. We did not succeed. Too many times to count, we rammed our boat into the corner of a bend and frantically ducked the branches threatening to spill eight-legged terror into our hair. Hours and hours of screaming, and laughing when not screaming, punctuated by moments of silence. During these periods of quiet, we might actually comment on how nice the day was and how great it was to be out in nature, then some crashing sound would be heard in the forest nearby and we would resume our screaming and laughing fit.
Finally, we arrived at the end of our misadventure. But right before we pulled our boat into the launch dock and after seeing no more threatening wildlife than turtles, we took a wide bend in the spring and spotted a gigantic monster resting on the shore. By this time, we had accepted our fate of being eaten by something and were rather unmoved by the sight. So, we took our gator selfies and cheerfully approached the end of the line.
Also, did I mention the spring is 7 miles long and when we inquired about length of time to complete, we were told 4-5 hours depending on how often we stopped and if we picnicked along the banks. We finished in 3 and half hours and were expert canoers by the end.
While these two springs could not be more different in experiences, they were a wonderful way to experience Florida parks. You'll need courage for both and canoe skills for the second, but any of the natural springs will fill you with wonder.