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Florida's Water Story Begins Underground

Visitors to The Florida Aquarium quickly learn the state’s water story “begins underground.” As the Wetlands Trail’s entrance explains,

“Water gushes to the surface through fissures in the rock, creating crystal clear pools of fresh spring waters... Florida’s limestone rock base is like a sponge, riddled with holes large and small. These porous, water-filled rocks are called aquifers.”

Florida’s underground aquifer system is remarkably efficient: Rainfall seeps through porous limestone or sand. The naturally filtered water collects in deep caverns - cool, clean and abundant enough to supply most of the state’s drinking water.

 

The aquifer water also gushes up to the surface in 700 springs, more than any other state.

 

Alas, despite recent enlightened efforts by state and local officials, this remarkable resource has been abused. Over-pumping, industrial and agricultural pollution, and the paving over natural lands have taken a heavy toll. Saltwater intrusion, algae blooms, reduced spring flow are just a few of the consequences of ill-considered growth.

 

Yet wonders remain, and on a recent anniversary trip to North Florida, my wife and I observed the beauty and eccentricities of this vast watery network. We also enjoyed the food and hospitality of two fantastic bed-and-breakfast resorts: the Grady House in High Springs and Herlong Mansion in Micanopy.

 

Our first stop was O’Leno State Park near High Springs, northwest of Gainesville.
The 6,000-acre park has no spring but furnishes extraordinary evidence of Florida’s hydrological idiosyncrasies.

 

The Santa Fe River snakes through the park’s heart – until it seemingly comes to an abrupt end at the appropriately named “River Sink.” However, the river continues flowing underground about three miles until it resurfaces at “River Rise.”

An overlook deck at the sink offers the rare sight: a disappearing river, though one would never suspect the Santa Fe, which has flowed 44 miles to this point, was plunging below. The sink is covered with duckweed and floating logs and reveals no discernible flow.

 

But, as signage explains, divers have mapped an aquatic cave system between River Sink and River Rise, where the river re-emerges and continues 35 miles onto the Suwannee River. Hikers continuing on the river trail can thus cross the Santa Fe on a “natural bridge.”

 

O’Leno offers some scenic trails through hardwood hammocks, sand hills, scrubs and sinkhole ponds, where deer, turkey, and other wildlife can be observed. There are picnic facilities and a swimming hole on the river, as well as a suspension bridge. The park was developed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a small museum gives a fascinating a history of the CCC and O’Leno.

 

The Santa Fe River itself is worth exploration, and we had a memorable paddle a few years ago with Santa Fe River Canoe Outpost of High Springs. There are a number of springs that flow into the river, including Lily Springs, where for years “Naked Ed” was an unadorned fixture. Naked Ed took up semi-residence at Lily Springs after brittle-bone disease made work impossible. He loved the outdoors and hated clothes so arranged with the landowner to patrol the springs, whose water waters he found therapeutic. He would pick up litter and prevent drinking, drug use, and other foolishness.

 

He was modest for a nudist and usually donned a loincloth when paddlers came up the run, where he had placed signs with such witticism as “If a man was half as smart as he thinks he is he would be twice as smart as he actually is.”

 

We had an amiable chat when we stopped by. Ed sat behind a wooden enclosure, where he could engage visitors without embarrassing them. We were told on our last High Springs visit that, sadly, ailments forced Ed to leave his beloved Lily Springs. (Legendary journalist-author Jeff Klinkenberg vividly depicts Ed in “Loincloth Man,” a chapter in his wonderful “Seasons of Real Florida.”) 


It was too cold for us to want to do any paddling on our last trip, but after hiking O’Leno, we drove to Gilchrist Blue Springs, which is on the Santa Fe downstream from Lily Springs. It is Florida’s newest state park, dedicated as a state park in 2017. We had canoed to it on our Santa Fe trip when it was a county park, and summer rainfall had clouded the water.


However, on this winter visit, the water was stunningly translucent. The 24-feet deep main cavern looked as if just below the surface. A jumping platform stands over the boil and, despite the frigid weather, a young couple took the plunge. Spring water is 72 degrees year-round, so they found the leap exhilarating. But getting out, they admitted, was a challenge.


Because of the cold, few others were at the park, but no doubt this classic swimming hole is packed during warm months.

 

One doesn’t have to swim to enjoy the park. A quarter-mile boardwalk provides a view of the impressive spring run that is alive with fish, turtles, birds and other wildlife.

 

The next morning, we drove south to the 21,000-acre Paynes Prairie Preserve. Motorists on I-75 cross a marshy section of the park south of Gainesville. This expanse of wild Florida possesses a rich history that includes Timucua Indians, Spanish explorers, Seminole Indians, and writer-explorer William Bartram.

 

Paynes Prairie also illustrates Florida’s quirky geology. It is a solution basin, and as the Florida State Parks literature explains, was formed “when a number of sinkholes close together eventually merged. The lush grasses, sedges and flowering plants that cover the basin act like a filter purifying water in the vast wetland. “The Alachua Sink works like a drain for a basin, recharging the aquifer. The system functioned reliably for eons until the late 1800s when something blocked the Alachua Sink. According to Lars Andersen’s comprehensive "Paynes Prairie: A History of a Great Savanna,” the likely culprit was visitors’ practice of throwing logs into the sink to watch them be sucked into the hinterlands.

 

With the sink plugged, the prairie became a lake and steamships, and barges transported people and goods across the Alachua Lake. After about a dozen years the blockage dislodged, and the lake swiftly drained, exposing thousands of acres.

 

Park officials say the preserve is comprised of more than 25 natural communities and includes more than 800 kinds of plants. Wildlife is abundant. We see deer, eagles, and turkeys. Indeed, it’s a bird watcher's paradise, particularly for waterfowl. Alligators are common in warm months. However, bison and horses are the animals most Payne’s Prairie visitors come to see.

Many residents don’t know that bison roamed much of the Eastern United States, including Florida, until being hunted to extinction long before the Western bison was nearly wiped out. Ten bisons from Oklahoma were released into the preserve in 1970, and the growing herd now numbers 80 or more.

 

The Paynes Prairie’s wild horses are descendants from a small breed brought to Florida by Spanish explorers and later adopted by Seminole Indians and Florida's cowmen.

 

On our visit, we see the bison and horses, plus all kinds of birds, from the 50-foot observation tower near the visitors’ center. On a hike, I get a closer look at the bison, maintaining the safe distance that park managers stress is essential with these massive, unpredictable animals.


Our brief trip reminded us how little time it takes to explore our state’s marvels. Furthermore, it revealed, as does The Florida Aquarium, the mysteries of nature to be found above and below the ground. 

 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

 

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