Memorial Day Weekend 99
(My trip to the Ichetucknee and Suwannee River and Troy Springs)

 




My great grandparents, Albert and Annie Jones, lived most of their lives in the tiny and semi-remote North Florida town of Branford, on the beautiful Suwannee River. In fact, I am a seventh-generation Florida native on both sides (OK, enough with the inbreeding jokes now...) That genealogical improbability is probably why I feel so attached to the state, I think that the awareness and concern for the nature in Florida has been genetically refined over many generations. My Aunt Deb and Uncle Ferris (one of Annie and Albert's sons) rent a house just a few miles down SR-27 from Branford, which gives us a way not only to get together and have fun but renew our attachment to this area. Even though I live on the Space Coast and love it here, the backwoods of North Florida in this area hold a distinct appeal to return to every now and then, both because that's where my roots are and because it remains one of the most beautiful places there is.

The house they rent is right on the beautiful Ichetucknee River, which is entirely spring-fed and a well-known destination to float down on an inner tube. The house is about a half-mile south of the SR-27 bridge, on the other side from Ichetucknee Springs State Park where we go to get into the river. The water is of course cold (72-74 degrees F, year-round) but it is incredibly clear and clean. The river is not too deep, perhaps 20 feet at the most and usually more like 5 to 8 feet. It's so clear that where it is six or seven feet deep, it looks to be about two feet when seen from the surface. The entire river runs through a cypress hammock full of wildlife and small springs feeding the river. This particular weekend, the water level in the area was very low, and the current was swift... faster than you could walk in most places. It's truly one of the most beautiful places in Florida to float down (or to do as I did, snorkel down it a little bit away from the rest of the group so you can look at all the underwater wildlife.) It's cold but if you are swimming, the exercise and breath-taking beauty will keep you warm.

Your webmaster, Mikey Cousteau
"Hi, y'all!"

The Ichetucknee River area is one of the remaining bastions of wild Florida. It is fun because you can see so much both beneath and above the water, yet the water's too cold for any dangerous species like alligators or snapping turtles. As we were about to get in the river in the state park we did see a snake swimming across the river a few feet upstream, but it is very unlikely you would have any encounters with any dangerous species of snakes or anything else there. The minute Aunt Deb got in her raft, it flipped over and so I hastily jumped in to try to save her and the stuff she was holding. She eventually made it to the side where it was shallow enough to regroup and get squared away, but I lost my sunglasses... I saw them drifting to the bottom and the current was too swift be able to go back for them. Dang, I'd had those for a year and a half and they were actually comfortable and didn't look too bad. Oh well, such is life. On the lighter side, by the end of the day's adventure I rescued two sets of perfectly good masks and snorkels from the bottom, lost by previous travellers. It was about an hour and 45 minutes to float from the park back down to the dock at the house.

I'm sowwy!
The punishment for falling out of your raft on the Ichetucknee can be severe.

Along the way, I saw so many fish it boggled the mind, ranging from tiny minnows to 14-inch Suwannee bass (like a largemouth bass, but it's silver with a black stripe.) There are also bluegills, red ears, perch, carp, some weird splotchy heavy-set carp-looking weirdo fish, several kinds of minnows, and I was extremely shocked to see a baby flounder!! I expected to see lots of catfish, since the Suwannee is full of them, but only saw one 6-inch specimen the next day in Troy Springs. That evening, my cousin Shane went fishing from the dock at the house while I watched (I didn't get my fishing license until the next day in Branford.) You can see every fish in the river for dozens of yards in each direction, and soon we spied something large on the other side. Shane threw his lure over and the fish took the bait. After a good fight he pulled up a two-foot bowfin (aka mudfish or blackfish.) That sucker had a LOT of teeth!! We released it unharmed, and were treated to an unusual show that apparently is common with this species. After release, they sometimes swim with the entire upper half of their body completely out of the water, as if they're fighting an angler, for a little while before returning back to the depths. We saw several Suwannee bass that were big enough to eat, but none were hungry so they didn't take the bait. Oh well. A bad day fishing is still better than... well, almost anything.

A new world record!!
Mom and Uncle Ferris show off their world-record bream, caught at the house a few weeks before my trip!

Other cool things I saw on and around the Ichetucknee and Suwannee Rivers included Suwannee Cooters (a type of turtle), some other small turtles, a river otter that swan right by the dock, a wascally woadside wiver wabbit, and a huge gopher tortoise. In addition, the Ichetucknee is full of millions of endangered sand grain snails. These little black aquatic snails are found nowhere else in the world, and there is hardly a square foot of river bottom or vegetation without several snails on it! At the boat ramp on the Suwannee, I found that any one handful of muck scooped from the bottom a couple of feet from shore would yield from two to eight mussels. Bird life in the area included a snowy egret, herons, some type of small fish-diving bird that wasn't a kingfisher, a red-cockaded woodpecker, large hawks, and lots of psycho crows... it looked like a Hitchcock movie for a while there. Nighttime brought out owls and whippoorwills, as well as a few bats (endlessly fun to watch!!) Amazingly, there weren't any skeeters, probably because of the bats. Shane had an owl call, and just happened to let 'er rip right as I walked out the back door, before I had a chance to realize that someone else was on the porch too. In that millisecond between hearing the most God-awful noise of impending unnatural death you can imagine and the sudden realization of what it was (remember I was stepping outside on a dark night in the woods), my entire body did that weird scare-the-tar-outta-you thing where it tries to uncontrollably go all directions at once and fails miserably to go anywhere at all. I dang near peed my pants!! Once I recovered and realized I'd just been had totally unintentionally, it was pretty funny for the both of us. Danged owls.

On Sunday, we launched two boats from Branford and went down the Suwannee to Troy Springs. Shane and I were in his boat and Amy, Deb, Ferris and Mom were in the other. On the way, we saw a HUGE splash in the river that Shane says could have only come from a large Gulf Sturgeon, a threatened species that makes its way from the Gulf of Mexico up into the river to spawn. The Suwannee is a beautiful place. It is spring-fed and the banks are still wild and largely just as they always were. There are numerous springs on the banks feeding it, from small sulfur springs just a few feet across (we stopped at one of these) up to large clear springs that are good for swimming. We stopped at one of these, Troy Springs, which is a few miles north of Branford and accessible only by boat. Troy Springs is known for having the outline of the Steamship Madison visible in the mouth. This floating general store was sunk there during the Civil War with the idea of reclaiming it after the war was over. It was scavenged during the conflict beyond the point of salvage, and the outline of the ship has been visible ever since. I actually didn't see this outline because I didn't climb up on the banks high enough to be able to look down on it from above. Will have to do that next time!

Headin' down the Suwannee
Mom, Aunt Deb, Uncle Ferris, and Amy, way down upon the the Suwannee River.

Troy Springs is absolutely one of the coolest places I've ever been in my entire life. It is big, and what really blew my mind at first was the depth. It is approximately 60 feet deep in the middle of the spring, and the water is so clear you have little trouble seeing the bottom! There is a large shallow area the springs flow to the Suwannee through, that's only a foot or two deep. Then it drops off into a giant hole. The lighting was a lot better when we got to Troy Springs than the evening float down the Ichetucknee, since it was midday and there were no trees over the middle. I'm glad that it was possible to get pictures, I saw so many amazing things there!

I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story. We spent several hours at Troy before deciding to return due to an approaching thunderstorm that never actually happened. I fully intend to go back as soon and as often as I can!

Troy Springs, Florida
This is a good overall shot of Troy Springs, showing its size and the clarity of the water. It's a pretty breathtaking view, even before you get your feet wet!

Dropping into Troy Springs
This is the dropoff on the side of the hole towards the Suwannee, where the depth drops off from 2 feet deep to over 60. It is so clear you have no trouble seeing the bottom. Snorkeling over this edge was like flying over the edge of a cliff, quite a remarkable experience!

Bottom of Troy Springs
Here is a picture of the bottom, about 60 feet below. The bubbles are from a couple of scuba divers that went down a few minutes before. Their bubbles came up for a long time after they got out, filtering up through all sorts of little cracks and holes in the sand around the main hole. You can see the shafts of sunlight reaching all the way down.

Underwater sandslide
Along one side of the hole, there was a place where the side formed a ledge. The steep sides above it caused the sand to slowly stream down off the edge in a sort of reverse waterfall. Really neat to watch, especially since the flow of water out of the hole made the sand fall fairly slowly! Another thing I noticed near here was that there were numerous tiny white translucent shrimp-like things swimming around, they were only about 3/16 inch long. I wish I could have gotten a picture of them (they were way too small for my little disposable camera), they were really neat to watch as all the legs paddled like crazy against the relentless current of the spring!

Water snake feeding
This was the best moment of the entire trip. On one side of the big hole, along the edge, there was a shallow area with a bit of silt stirred up so the water there was a little murky. (Not muddy, but clear with sand stirred up in it.) I found a very large Suwannee bass there (about a foot and a half long) that didn't seem to mind my sitting there about two feet away. I was about to take a picture, when suddenly I was surprised by a rather large serpentine shape emerging out of the murk behind the bass, and coming right at me!! I initially thought it was some type of eel. Then, I realized it had to be a snake of some sort. My first concern was that it could be a cottonmouth water moccasin, and a bite from one of these is quite dangerous and potentially fatal so I was a bit unnerved for a few moments. But that didn't make much sense, cottonmouths don't like clear water at all because it leaves them exposed to predators, and it's hard to surprise fish and frogs and such when they can see you coming. Moccasins also don't like areas with lots of people. This snake had a tiny head, unlike a cottonmouth which has a characteristic large diamond-shaped head as well as (usually) very dark markings. I realized it was a banded water snake, which is not dangerous to people. They aren't terribly friendly reptiles (as reptiles go anyway), and they really don't make great pets. But (like most snakes) it is not a particularly aggressive snake if it doesn't feel threatened, so I made a point not to scare it. I followed it through the two-foot water and kept enough distance (three feet or so) to keep it from feeling like I was attacking it. Even though almost all snakes try to avoid people and have no reason to attack unless you actually grab one, the fact that water snakes have to catch and eat fish without benefit of limbs means they generally have longer teeth than other snakes. They also tend to hold on and thrash if they do get cornered and bite, which causes gashes that bleed rather than the minor little pinpricks most snakes cause when they nip quickly to defend themselves. But as expected, this guy had no reason to worry and didn't even seem to notice me at all, or at least he didn't care enough to stop looking for lunch. He just kept rooting around in the plants on the bottom, and when he got to a clear area I took this picture. Then he just swam away, and I was left to contemplate that I saw something up close and personal that very few people will ever get to see in their whole lifetimes except on television.

The ironic part is that after I got home from this trip, I discovered that my pet corn snake (Snakebert) had escaped. I still haven't found him. *sigh*

Troy Springs turtle
Here's a little guy that didn't quite know what to think about all these strange people swimming around near his home. He was about six inches long, and spent a lot of time about 15 feet down going in and out of the rocky ledges on the side of the hole.

Cuzin Shane
Here's my cousin Shane, about 15 feet down. Hi!

Sister Aymis
Here's my sister Amy. Should I go for the obligatory, obvious air-headed blonde joke? J

Branford Springs boat ramp
Here's the view upriver from boat ramp back at Branford. The mouth of the springs is between the boat ramp and bridge, and the current flows from the bridge towards the ramp. Many years ago, Shane and I decided it would be cool to swim across the Suwannee. We set out from the mouth of the springs (not quite visible here, but it's between the ramp and the bridge.) I guess I was tired from all the swimming we had done in the spring, and I probably wasn't exactly that in shape anyway. Also at the time, the water was a bit higher and flowing a lot faster, so much of the trip was spent fighting the current to keep from getting swept downstream to who knows where. About halfway across, I was getting tired. Real tired. Then to make matters worse, I encountered the eddies from the bridge pylons, and started imagining all sorts of things about all the gigantic monstrous sea creatures that might be lurking underneath me in the murky water, just waiting to come and drag me down to my doom. I was getting more tired by the minute, and it seemed like I was getting nowhere! I was somewhat panicked except I was too busy trying to keep my head above water to have time to think too much about it. It was the first time in my life that I really thought I was going to die. I eventually made it across, happy to be alive and fairly well exhausted. I walked back on the bridge, but Shane swam back across! The adults were of course horrified to hear what we did, but by then it was too late. And now I can honestly say I've done it!

Well, that's about it for this trip. Hope you enjoyed it. If you can, you should go there and snorkle around the springs, there are many in the area that are just as amazing. Rest assured that it's worth it, even the shock of the cold water is nothing compared to the amazing world under the surface. If you go, just remember to leave nothing but your footprints! :)


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