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    After walking through the woods to the river, we enjoyed a floating experience at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, with comfortable inner tubes, cooling clear water, and wildlife watching us float by, above. Turtles haul out on logs just a few feet from the tubers, below. KATHY RUSSELL/SPECIAL

Tubing the Ichetucknee is good ‘Old Florida’ fun

All you newcomers to Florida, even some of you old hands, need to know about the delights of floating in inner tubes down a clear, cold spring-fed river – an “Old Florida” experience not to be missed. The place is Ichetucknee Springs State Park, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Fernandina Beach, but so well worth the trip. If you don’t want to drive, go tubing and drive back all in one day, Gainesville is close at hand and has many good places to spend the night.

I often went to Ichetucknee with my University of Florida friends, but it’s been decades since I lived in Gainesville. I’ve been back a few times since living on Amelia Island, but not recently. Over the years, the day trip became daunting and just too much to organize.

Here, we are lucky to have the experienced staff of the Fernandina Beach Parks & Recreation Department to organize various field trips for city and county residents. They conduct a tour to Ichetucknee each year in August. Mark your calendar for Wednesday, Aug. 7, when this trip will be offered again. For a reasonable fee, participants are driven in city vehicles to the park and back again, so you don’t have to drive, and inner tubes, admission and logistics are taken care of. Call Parks & Rec at 310-3350 or check their website for more details. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

The Rec Department trip that I was on was offered to the “water dancers” and our friends and family. We water aerobics pool people are mostly an older (sometimes much older) crowd, but sure enough, nine people signed up for
this exciting trip, regardless of age. So, at 7:30 a.m. one recent morning, we all piled into a Rec Department van with manager Kathy Russell at the wheel and headed off on our adventure.

Once you get into your inner tube, you are casually floating down a lazy river, sometimes gently bumping into cypress trees and limestone outcrops on the water’s edge, but no harm done as you generally just bounce off like slow bumper cars. Mostly though, it’s relaxing, calm, peaceful, and occasionally full of laughs when someone gets temporarily stuck, or even rarely, falls out of their tube (kind of hard to do, but it happens). You could fall asleep in your inner tube (some did) and still make it down the river just fine.

The wildlife along the way is accustomed to the passing parade of tubers and rafters and the occasional snorkeler. We floated within a couple of feet of turtles, snowy and great egrets, white ibis, and once were within touching distance (but hands off!) a raccoon foraging with its paws along a muddy bank, totally oblivious to us, or so it seemed.

The vegetation bordering the river is classic North Florida. Bald cypress trees and oaks form a hardwood canopy. Alligator lilies and other wildflowers here and there dot the banks. Close up, we could see the skinks and snail eggs on the tree trunks and other small natural sights. The clear water provides good views of the fish and other aquatic life below, and the more adventurous participants donned their masks and snorkels to brave the 72-degree spring water to get a better look. With the 90-plus degree air temperature, even those of us with only our bottoms touching the water, splashing as we tried to steer our unwieldly crafts, remained cool.

Our group had fun on the bus ride home, recounting some of our escapades and Googling some of the critters and plants we had seen for more information. Some dozed while Kathy, thankfully, drove us home. It was a long day but a fun day, and we all agreed that everyone living here should go tubing on the Ichetucknee at least once in their life, and the more often the better!

It was great to go with all the logistics taken care of by the Rec Department, but it’s easy to do on your own. Just Google “Ichetucknee Springs State Park” and you will know all you need to get on the river yourself. Have fun!

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