Juniper Springs is one of the oldest, best known national forest recreation areas in eastern United States. Last week we drove there so we could take the 7 mile canoe run down Juniper Creek which flows through Juniper Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest. The signs warn that anyone wishing to take this trip should be an experienced canoeist. “Not for beginners”, the sign states. As we have canoed for many summers at Star Lake we had no hesitations about taking this trip. Signs also warn against getting out of your canoe and wading in the waters. This restriction is necessary to protect the environment, (the grasses in the creek bed) as well as safety precautions in alligator territory.
We pushed the rented canoe on a dolly along the paved path out to the launch area. We have a Sea Eagle, an inflatable kayak but since alligators live here decided we would definitely feel more secure in an aluminum vessel. We noticed the canoes looked rather dented and were to find out why later in the run. The combined daily water flow from Juniper Springs and Fern Hammock Springs is about 13 million gallons of water daily and believe me you can feel the strength of the current immediately upon entering the creek. The creek started out very narrow and shallow and the water was crystal clear. We gently paddled amid semi-tropical vegetation that often draped across the creek. Every few minutes we would encounter a fallen tree branch or sometimes an entire tree would rest in our path. We had to duck numerous times to avoid being dragged from the canoe as we negotiated the current under a fallen tree. I would hang on to the tree to slow us down but then the back end would turn, leaving us wedged. At one point the canoe suddenly hit a submerged tree almost capsizing us. This meandering waterway with its twists and turns and obstacles is quite challenging and I couldn’t help but wonder about the skills of some of the people we had seen at the launch. We had passed two young women and a young child whose canoe had become jammed against a log and they didn’t appear capable of steering back into the current.
After paddling for an hour or more we settled comfortably in the canoe, and shaded by a gigantic tree we ate our picnic lunch just enjoying the stillness. The sound of yelling shattered the silence and as we paddled upstream we saw that two people had indeed capsized their canoe after losing control under a fallen tree. Here the water was quite a bit deeper. They had dragged the water-laden canoe to shore and were in the process of tipping it to dispose of the water, a difficult task as the shore was lined with palmettos and thick brush. Their friend jumped out of his canoe into the 72 degree water and swam over to assist them.
The further up the creek we paddled, the more obstacles we encountered. A canoe ahead of us was caught up on a palm tree that must have fallen recently as the park rangers routinely saw trees that don’t allow passage. The young ladies in the canoe got out and pushed the canoe off the tree. We decided that with our combined weight that wouldn’t be an option for us, so despite the warning signs we went ashore and maneuvered the canoe under the opposite end of the tree that was only about 18 inches above the water. The creek became wider and we paddled through a marshy area where we ran aground several time on sandbars. At one point the creek took a sharp turn and not six feet from the canoe was the biggest gator I have ever seen at such close range. He had to be at least 15 feet in length. Because I did not have my camera ready and the current flowed so swiftly I was unable to take his photo. I did focus the camera on him after we had passed but the sun was directly on the lens. We knew we might see alligators but it was the element of surprise, the proximity and the size of the gator that both shocked and thrilled me.
Fours hours after we launched we reached the pickup spot and since it was spring break there were many young people and a sprinkling of over-fifty folks. After talking to one of the older chaps I discovered that he and his wife, along with their friends in another canoe had all capsized……twice. The worst part of it was that both their digital cameras swam with them.
I have thought that maybe some people aren’t as experienced as they think or maybe they just lie about it but this canoe trip is a truly a challenge.