Florida found: Clear river,
cloudy future

    Buoyed by the cool waters of the Ichetucknee River,
    Charlie Belk of Tallahassee drifts away.

 Text and photo by JAMIE FRANCIS

 © St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2000

  FORT WHITE -- Mert Thaden is so giddy about the adventure that she refuses to let her three friends eat breakfast. She rolls them out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and issues a fleet of bright yellow inner tubes.  By 6, everything is stuffed inside the big blue GMC van and they idle past sleeping campers at their North Florida campground. Then Thaden makes a dash for the north gate of Ichetucknee State Park.

It's Saturday on Memorial Day weekend, the traditional day when the north end of the Ichetucknee River opens to tubers, but only 750 spots a day are available at this end. Those who oversleep and arrive late must jostle for one of the 2,250 spots that begin their float from the south entrance of the park.

Thaden and the Ichetucknee are old friends. "Back before you had to pay to get inside, we'd drive in on the old dirt road," she says. That was in the '60s.

The Clearwater woman is sure that Florida's shortest river is also its most pristine. It is the only spring-fed river in the state without hydrilla, the stuff that chokes aquatic plants, so for the price of a snorkel and goggles a tuber can see all that the river has to offer.

A sly smile forms around the edge of Thaden's mouth as she stops the GMC within a whisker of the closed gate. First in line!

The onslaught begins. Boy scouts from St. Augustine, roofers from Gainesville, police officers from Pasco, a family from Venezuela. Soon the line of waiting vehicles stretches more than a quarter-mile, all the way back to the Ichetucknee Family Campground, where owner Vernis Wray is busy lashing tubes to cars with pieces of hemp string.

Wray is juggling a handful. Peanuts boiling, barbecue going, beans baking. He may rent 700 tubes today. It'll be like this until the north end shuts down on Labor Day. As he secures each float he gives one last piece of advice: "Hang on to those car keys, that's a sure way to ruin a river trip."

Someone mentions the cement plant that is supposed to be built 3 miles upwind from the Ichetucknee. Wray's mood sours, and the lion-spirited man seems resigned to a loss.

"We fought until we were blue in the face," he says, "but finally we realized that it was a back-room deal and it was finished before we had a chance to stop it."

The plant will burn coal and old tires around the clock, generating mercury, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. The thought of it repulses Wray, who spends days in the off-season combing the river for tiny pieces of litter. It drives him crazy that one branch of his government can be such a fierce protector of the river -- so much so that it is illegal to bring tobacco or food products onto the water -- while another branch will permit the cement plant.

"Do we have a cement shortage?" Wray asks no one in particular as he heads off to sharpen a friend's knife.

Everyone embraces the 72-degree spring water in their own way. Some tiptoe along and gradually let the water wash over them, others wrap a tube around their bottoms and attack the river with an arresting splash.

Charlie Belk drapes his large frame across an old black inner tube that molds instantly to his body. A straw hat from Wal-Mart shields his head from the sun and a tube of floating sun screen, to protect his lily-white legs, is tucked into his pocket.

"I never thought a river could look like this," he says. "If you take a chance with this and lose, how will you ever get it back?"

In the water below, Belk spots swaying river grass, darting fish and even a river otter. Egrets, great blue herons and kingfishers rule the banks.

Beneath the shadows of graceful oak and whispering pine the paradise flows for 6 glorious miles. The Ichetucknee has no secrets. Its transparent water is so pure and truthful that even dirt sparkles.

To contact Jamie Francis, call (727) 893-8319 or e-mail jfrancis@sptimes.com.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park: Information and Pictures

The crystalline Ichetucknee River flows six miles through shaded hammocks and wetlands before it joins the Santa Fe River. In 1972, the head spring of the river was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U. S. Department of the Interior. From the end of May until early September, tubing down the river is the premier activity in the area. In addition to tubing, visitors can enjoy picnicking, snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing, swimming, hiking, and wildlife viewing. White-tailed deer, raccoons, wild turkeys, wood ducks and great blue herons can be seen from the river. Picnic areas, equipped with tables and grills, are available throughout the park. A full-service concession offers food, refreshments, and outdoor products from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Tubes plus snorkeling and diving equipment can be rented from private vendors outside the park. Located four miles northwest of Fort White, off State Roads 47 and 238.

Humans have lived and toiled near these beautiful springs for over 10,000 years. The Ichetucknee River and the surrounding forest have been home to many. Prehistoric creatures once roamed its banks. Native Americans hunted and fished here. A Spanish mission was built next to one of the many springs. In the 1800's, a grist mill was in operation here. Travelers on the Bellamy Road often stopped at the main boil to quench their thirst. Early in the 20th century, phosphate was extracted from small surface mines which are still visible, although now heavily wooded. At the same time the turpentine and timber industries also flourished. From the prehistoric to the pioneer, Ichetucknee's history is as deep and varied as the springs themselves.

More info and history on the Park and springs -->