July 4th Weekend 2000
(My trip to the Ichetucknee River and O'Leno State Park of Hemorrhaging Parasitic Death)


After my first trip to Ichetucknee, I knew I'd have to return fairly often. So when a couple of friends suggested going over the 4-day July 4th weekend, I had little trouble deciding to do it.

The weekend started on Saturday morning as I drove to Plant City to see Ruchelle. Got there OK, and we went over to Tampa to see the Florida Aquarium. That's one of the neatest places I think I've ever been... it seems that sometimes people go and feel disappointed that it's not like Disney. But to me, getting up close to fish and birds and seeing them just do their thing is really more interesting than a lot of overpriced touristy stuff. The aquarium was fun. Highlights were the octopus... those things are amazing. I never saw one really close-up before, and it was simultaneously scary and fascinating to see how every tentacle operated indepentently as it searched every last nook and cranny of the rocks in its aquarium for food. They also change color instantly, which was just as fascinating. What a neat animal!!

When we got to the beach exhibit, Ruchelle and I made friends with the cow-nosed stingrays. At first we thought they were manta rays. They were really friendly, in fact, and almost seemed to enjoy being petted. They feel sort of rubbery and slippery, not rough like other members of the cartilaginous fish family. This was a big step for Ruchelle, she was once scared of a killer sea turtle, you know!

After the museum, we went to eat. This turned into an hour-loong adventure trying to find a restaurant that was no longer there. We ended up at an Applebee's. I teased Chel about asking the waiter for his phone number, and so when he came back I told him that she was too embarassed to ask him herself. He didn't quite know what to say. Chel of course was kicking me vigorously under the table! We were both laughing hysterically by that point. The guy got distracted by another customer and didn't give Chel his number so when we left I wrote her email address on the receipt, to her mild protests. We laughed about it for hours. So far, he hasn't emailed her though. Oh well.

After I left there, I drove up north. Jes and Ron were staying with Julie up in Gainesville, so I called when I got that far but they weren't home. So I left a message and kept going. I ended up driving around the vicinity of Ichetucknee / Ft. White. I passed O'Leno State Park and thought what the heck, I'll check it out.

Now, I kinda wish I hadn't done that.

Driving in was cool. A deer walked out and ambled across the road (she didn't run, didn't really walk, just ambled) about 50 feet in front of my car, between the front gate and the parking lot. That was really awesome. I parked, and then found the "You are here" map. (I had yet to figure out what the park was about.) It turns out that this is where the Santa Fe river goes underground for a few miles, it comes back out someplace else. OK, cool. There was this suspension bridge over the river, that was cool, on the other side was the sign that said "nature trail." OK, cool, I follow it (literally over the river and through the woods!) thru the woods. Neat stuff. I got some beautiful pics, hopefully.

After a while there was a trail that allegedly went to some kind of lakes or something. Figured why not, see what's there. That went fine, it went through some sandy pine barrens, real pretty. The problem came after I went about a half a mile or so and came to the "Ravine trail", a little subtrail off the main loop. It was said there was a ravine at the end. I made my fateful choice and went down the Ravine trail. I don't know how I missed noticing where it crossed the River Styx.

The trail went back into the woods, and was easy to follow. When I reached the end, though, probably a hundred yards in or more, it just sort of petered out. But it seemed there was a trail that went off to the left, kind of. So I followed the sorta-trail for about 50 feet.

Then I realized that I wasn't on any kind of trail at all.

I tried to go back, but in the midst of my confusion, I lost track of two very important pieces of information: what direction I had been going, and what direction I had come from. I didn't know whic direction the main trail ran. I knew the compass directions, as it was late in the day and the sun was definitely in the west. Knowing which way was north was happened to be utterly useless to me, for the fact I didn't know where I had come from. The map wasn't marked as to north, of course, and the ravine trail was shown on the hand-drawn map as a half-hearted afterthought of a trailing-off dotted line. I was way beyond the point it trailed off. Lot of help THAT bit of taxpayer-funded pink paper was.

So I went back the way I kind of thought the main trail was. I wasn't more than 50-80 feet from it, I was sure. I lost that "almost" trail, so I just kind of faked it and wandered in my "best guess" direction for a few feet.

Then I saw the ticks. Lots of ticks. All over around my socks. ACK! pick flick smush stamp feet up and down to shake them off UUUGGGHHH. Note to self, must stop brushing against leaves with my feet. I continued slowly through the brush AAAWOOOERRRRSPIDERWEBSPIDERWEBONFACEGETITOFFNOOOWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

Stop. Breathe. Laugh nervously at self and be glad nobody was around to see me do the little girly claw-at-your-face dance that can only be brought on my an unexpected spider web stuck to your face.

Now for the fun part. Repeat the last two paragraphs forty times.

Fairly early on, I decdied to yell out an occasional "HEELLLOOOOOOO!!!!" to see if I could get some kind of directional fix on the trail if someone answered. Nobody did.

By the eighth spider, which did in fact get on me, I was really rattled. Where the (*&*(^&@+*$^0* is that *(^)^%)*&^% trail??? Back this way. It's here somewhTICK!!!!!!!!!!! Dammmit!! let go of my leg you little shSSSSSSSPPPIDERRRRRRRRRRAWWOOOOOAAHHH

I'm not especially afraid of spiders. In fact I really like the things. They do all sorts of wonderful nice things for the world and they are generally fascinating creatures. But when you have a spider you think can hurt when it bites (I knew it wasn't fatal or anything, but banana spiders are very painful, and I wasn't sure if these were smaller versions of those or not) and you repeatedly walk into then cuz you can't see them too well while you're looking at the ground to avoid tick-filled bushes, it gets concerning real quick.

I resorted to picking up a stick and waving it up and down in front of me to knock out webs I couldn't see, much like a blind man but in a different direction. That helped slightly, until the web wrapped around the stick AND my hand and held the two together, with the spider trapped someplace inside.

By now there was a significant quantity of spider juice smeared on my t-shirt. I felt a little bad about it, but not nearly as bad as thinking there was a spider someplace on me about to chomp down.

So now I've been in the woods for about half an hour and I'm REALLLLY lost. It dawns on me that I have a very short time to get out before it's too dark to walk. I start to yell more. By now, I'm not yelling "hello" anymore. I'm yelling "HEEEELLLLPPPPP!!!" over and over at the top of my lungs. No response at all. More ticks.

Every minute that went by brought the thought of having to spend the night there that much closer. I wasn't worried about rats, possums, coons, deer, bears, squirrels, bats, escaped convicts, or anything like that. They have no desire to be near humans. It was the bugs. The ground was covered in ticks, and the trees held the spiders. The mosquitoes hadn't come out yet, but the annoying flies and gnats already were. I was yelling, doing the spider dance at every turn, picking off what ticks I could every other turn, asking God not to let me die out there, and just freaking out completely. I'm seeing nothing that looks like a trail of any sort, and it's getting harder to find places that are passable. Still can't hear any other people at all. Trees are great at dampening sounds.

Then I remembered The Blair Witch Project. Happy happy joy joy. I'm gonna die for sure.






Nothing answered but a distant woodpecker and hordes of crickets.

Finally I guess I prayed enough and God figured I'd learned my lesson, and I stumbled across the trail I came in on. I came out near where it started... I went a looong way through the woods to get to where I found the trail. I have never been so glad to see anything in my life. I wasn't going to have to stand in the middle of the woods until I got too exhausted to yell anymore. I wasn't going to be found dessicated from all the bugs that sucked me dry. I was going to get to go back to my car and sleep indoors tonight. Thank you God.

Roughly around this time, I stopped yelling for help. I also decided that a handheld GPS unit is very high on my list of things to acquire real soon, as was a cellphone.

So anyway, I tried to enjoy the hike back. I saw two deer in the field off the main trail, right near where that cursed ravine trail (pardon me, the Gateway to Hell) started. That was kind of neat. I followed a different trail back to the paarking area (but not straying too far off it this time!!!) I saw where the river disappeared into the ground, some wildlife, etc.

The rest of the day really sucked though, as I still was covered in ticks. I never realized that ticks could be so small. I've seen chiggers bigger than these things. My search for a drug store (or anything remotely close) took me all the way up to Lake City about 30 miles away. I finally found a Big-K, right across from a motel advertising $20 a night rooms. Great. I bought four bottles of rubbing alcohol... both the 70% normal kind, and the 91% industrial-strength variety... a mirror, some hand sanitizer, garbage bags to seal the infested clothes up into, unscented OFF!, and just cuz I was already at K-Mart, I threw in two disposable cameras, a pack of Juicy Fruit and some iboprofen to keep in the car. You shoulda seen the look the guy at the counter gave me. It crossed my mind that I should have bought some condoms, duct tape, rope, and a BB gun just to see the reaction, it woulda been worth it.

I checked into the motel and thought it wise not to mention my uninvited guests to the clerk. I sealed the clothes and my shoes up in bags with a bottle of the 91% alcohol and took a loooooong shower. The rest of the night was spent trying to get all the ticks off. Man, are those things icky. The good news is that the ones I found were all nearly microscopic, not the brain-suckers that are easy to see. The bad news is that they were all nearly microscopic, not the brain-suckers that are easy to see. Sunday morning, I woke up and here we go again. I hate ticks. Only found about 3 or 4 of the tiny ones then. Still, ugh. Sprayed my car down with bug repellent, and haven't found anything since. There's nothing quite like being infested.

I hate ticks.

Fortunately the story got better from there. Called and Jes was still asleep and sounded annoyed, so it was off to do my own thing. I went down the road to Branford to see my great grandma's old house. I had to drive around it like 4 times before I was sure I found the right one. Sure looks different now. The guys mowing the back lot must have thought I was insane. I went down the street to Branford Springs and waded in the river a little bit, took some underwater pics of some fish and a crayfish (which mysteriously died between the first picture and walking back past it.) I also drove across the bridge over the Suwanee river just so I could honk when I went over it. It's a silly family tradition that when you cross the Suwanee, you honk so the people below can hear you. I just had to do it, as long as I was there. I got to the other side and then thought what the heck, wonder what it looks like from above, so I walked out on the bridge. I looked at how wide it was and thought to myself, "You actually SWAM this thing once?? How stupid!!" That was when I was around 14, and my cousin Shane thought it was a good idea cuz Uncle Ferris said he did that when he was a kid. The river was a lot higher when I went across than it was today, though. I nearly drowned then, and had to walk back on the bridge. Something to tell the grandkids someday I suppose.

Next stop was Ichetucknee Springs State Park, what I came to see in the first place. I went in the north side instead of the south for a change. It's different. After yesterday's experiences, I figured things couldn't go too much more wrong for a while. I went down a couple of the nature trails and was pleasantly surprised to find them both easy to follow and despite being just a few miles from O'Leno Park, tick-free. There was this abandoned phosphate pit that was now overgrown and had become incredibly beautiful, I got some 3-D pics of that one. Eventually I checked out Ichetucknee Springs, it's the color of a swimming pool!! Light blue. Amazing. I actually went swimming in Blue Hole Springs, it was pretty cold. OK it was freakin' freezing. But it was really cool. I tried to dive into the hole but never got more than 10 feet down before my ears hurt too bad and I had to come up. Saw lots of fish and such, and I learned that turtles graze on river grass, just like cows. They just walk on the bottom and chow down. It was really funny. Only problem with Blue Hole is that it was pretty crowded, but it was still pretty cool. Literally cool, after an hour and a half, I was shivering uncontrollably and getting bad leg cramps! So that was enough for me. I wanted to swim more, it's so cool, but I just couldn't go any longer. I was happy though. I had accomplished my original mission for the trip. On to more adventures.

I took the scenic route back and went 441 instead of I-75. Stopped at the gliderport in Clermont... they were closed and someone said they probably weren't open tomorrow either. Dang. Never seen so many sailplanes though. Called but grandma still wasn't home, so I just came on home. Was an interesting time altogether, killer bugs and all.

That's it. :)



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